The following are states and positions of the Imam and his followers in congregational prayer:
The first state: Preceding the Imam
This means that the follower precedes the Imam in performing Takbeer (i.e., saying, ‘Allahu Akbar’) Rukoo‘ (bowing), prostration or ending the prayer and this is impermissible as the Prophet, , warned us against it, saying: “Is not the one who raises his head before the Imam afraid that Allah may transform his head into that of a donkey or his figure (face) into that of a donkey?”[Al-Jama‘ah]
The Imam is the leader, so it is impermissible to precede him. The Prophet, , said: “The Imam should perform Rukoo‘ before you and get up before you.” [Muslim] The Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, also said: “Do not precede me in Rukoo‘, prostration, getting up, sitting or leaving.” [Muslim and Ahmad]
It is agreed upon that preceding the Imam intentionally invalidates the prayer. Imam Ahmad quoted Ibn Mas‘ood as saying to the one who preceded his Imam, “You neither prayed alone nor followed your Imam.”Ibn ‘Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, narrated that Ibn Mas‘ood said to this man, “You have not prayed alone or with your Imam.”Then, he struck him and ordered him to repeat his prayer.
If preceding the Imaam was done unintentionally and in performing a Rukoo‘ or prostration before the Imaam, the follower should return and perform Rukoo‘ after his Imam performs it. If the follower did this intentionally, his prayer would be invalid, but if he forgot to do this or was ignorant regarding this, he would be excused according to the opinion of the majority of scholars who stated that the prayer would be correct as he is excused for his ignorance and forgetfulness, and they obliged him to follow his Imaam. However, Imaam Ahmad said that his prayer is invalid even if this was done out of forgetfulness because of the general indication of the Hadeeths.
The second state: Coincidence
This means that the movement of the Imam and the follower takes place at the same time when they are performing Rukoo‘, prostrating themselves and so forth. This is incorrect as the Imam should be followed. The Prophet, , said: “The Imam is to be followed, so when he performs Takbeer, you should perform Takbeer and when he performs Rukoo‘, you should perform Rukoo’ - and do not perform Rukoo‘ before he does…” [Ahmad and Abu Dawood]
If the follower performed Takbeerat Al-Ihram (the opening, ‘Allahu Akbar’) at the same time as the Imam or before the Imam finishes his Takbeer, his prayer would be invalid regardless of whether this was done intentionally of out of forgetfulness. If the follower did this in any other Takbeer, his prayer would be correct, but with an unfavorable act and an improper following of the Imam. Muslims should avoid any thing that makes their prayer incomplete or invalidates it.
The third state: Following
This is what the follower in prayer should do as it achieves the required following in prayer. This is achieved when the follower does all the movements immediately after the movement of the Imam as the Prophet, , ordered us to do this by saying: “When the Imam performs Takbeer, perform Takbeer; when the Imam performs Rukoo‘, perform Rukoo‘; when the Imam raises his head and says: ‘Sami‘a Allahu liman Hamidah’ (Allah hears he who praises him), raise your head and say: ‘Rabbana wa laka Al-Hamd’ (O Allah, praise be to you). When the Imam prostrates himself, prostrate yourselves.” [Muslim] This Hadeeth means that the followers should wait for the Imam until he performs the Takbeer and finishes it, then perform the Takbeer after him. The Imam should not prolong his Takbeer as the one who is praying after him may hasten and perform the Takbeer before him, thus invalidating his prayer.
Thus, the follower should keep standing until his Imam performs Rukoo‘ and finishes the Takbeer of Rukoo‘, then he should perform Rukoo‘ and keep in his Rukoo‘ until his Imam gets up and says, “Sami‘a Allahu liman Hamidah,” then he should get up and keep standing until the Imam says the Takbeer and puts his face on the ground, then prostrate himself after his Imam does. This applies to all the acts of prayer. Al-Baraa’ ibn ‘Aazib said, “When the Prophet would bend to perform prostration, none of us would bend his back until the Prophet would place his forehead on the ground.”[Muslim] This is the true following with which the prayer is perfected.
The fourth state: Lagging
This means that the follower lags behind his Imam. Scholars considered this state just like preceding the Imam as it also entails negligence in the required immediate following of the Imam. If the follower lags behind intentionally until the Imam performs Rukoo‘ and gets up, his prayer would be invalid, but if there is a reason such as drowsiness, forgetfulness or because of the quickness of the Imam, then he should perform Rukoo‘ after the Imam and his prayer will be valid. If the person lags behind on purpose until the Imam performs Rukoo‘, gets up and prostrates himself, then his prayer would be invalid. If this is done out of forgetfulness or ignorance, he should repeat this Rak‘ah during which he did not follow his Imam.
The follower should be alert and should concentrate on what he says and does so that he would achieve following his Imam - something which is required for the perfection of the prayer.