As we go about our life we may be too busy attending to certain tasks. It may happen that we forget to offer one of our obligatory prayers on time. The omission is not deliberate; it is entirely due to having forgotten it. No negligence is intended. A similar situation is sleep. Sometimes we may sleep through the time span allowed for Fajr prayer, or another daily prayer. Before going to sleep, we form the intention to wake up on time, but because our bodies are in need of sleep we fail to wake up on time. Yet prayer is the most important duty, and we must attend to all our obligatory prayers, five each day, in their respective times. Failure to do so is sinful. So what happens in the case of forgetting a prayer, or sleeping through its time span?
This occurred to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions as they returned from the Expedition of Tabuk. This was a very hard expedition, involving a travel of around 600 kilometers each way in desert roads in burning summer heat. Hence, they made most of their actual traveling during the night. One night, having traveled a long distance, they stopped for rest. They were all extremely tired. The Prophet asked: "Who volunteers to keep time so that we make sure to be up for Fajr prayer?" It was Bilal who volunteered. Everyone went to sleep, but Bilal decided to perform voluntary night worship. After a while, he sat down to rest, reclining against his camel. Since he was as tired as everyone else, he was soon fast asleep.
No one woke up for Fajr prayer, which should be offered between dawn and sunrise. In fact the Prophet was the first to wake up when the sun was high in the sky. They were all disturbed at missing their dawn prayer. Apologizing, Bilal said to the Prophet: "I was overtaken by sleep, and I was never so fast asleep in my life." Everyone was wondering or whispering: "How do we atone for missing this prayer?" The Prophet told them that sleep is a legitimate excuse and missing a prayer through sleep constitutes no sin. He reminded them of the Qur'anic verse that likens sleep to death, as a state of losing consciousness: "God takes away people's souls upon their death, and the souls of the living during their sleep. He keeps with Him the souls of those whose death He has ordained and sends back the others until their appointed time. In all this there are signs for people who reflect." (Quran 39:42)
On that occasion the Prophet ordered his companions to offer the missed prayer after a short while, leading them in congregation. More than once he made clear that when prayer is missed in this way, it should be offered as soon as possible. Anas ibn Malik quotes him as saying: "Whoever forgets an obligatory prayer must offer it when he has remembered it. No other atonement is required for it. God says: 'Worship Me alone, and establish regular prayer in remembrance of Me.'" (Quran 20:14)
Thus the same ruling applies in both cases of legitimate missing of one or more obligatory prayers. We should offer that prayer as soon as possible on being conscious of the fact that we have missed it. The Hadith also tells us that this is the only thing that we should do. There is no further atonement to offer. Some scholars have misread another Hadith giving a ruling that it should be offered again the following day when the same prayer falls due. This is wrong. The Prophet says: "God would not forbid you taking usury and then takes it Himself." What the Prophet meant is that if a delayed prayer is offered twice, then that would be akin to usury where a debtor is required to pay more for delaying payment.
Adil Salahi is the Executive Director of Al-Furqan Heritage Foundation. He teaches Islamic Studies at the Markfield Institute of Higher Education, Leicester, England. After working for the BBC Arabic Service for several years, he worked for the Arabic daily, al-Sharq al-Awsat. He continues to publish a column, "Islam in Perspective", in its sister publication, Arab News, an English daily published in Saudi Arabia. He has produced an English translation of several volumes of Sayyid Qutb's commentary, In the Shade of the Quran (Leicester, Islamic Foundation), as well as several other books on Islamic subjects.