Reserving Places in the Masjid
The male worshipper is commanded with attending the Masjid early and with standing near to the Imaam himself, and not reserving his place by the use of a stick, or a staff or a prayer mat. Those who reserve places in this manner do so with the intention of praying in the first row and attaining the reward for that. However by merely placing a stick, or a prayer mat in the front row and then leaving the masjid, a person opposes the Sunnah.
Though the Sunnah strongly encourages men to reach the first row since it is the most excellent for men, this excellence is not attained by placing an object such as a stick, a book or a prayer mat in the first row and then exiting the masjid to fulfill one’s wordly needs such as shopping or returning home, hoping that when they return they will find their reserved place vacant due to them leaving an object reserving their place. And whoever thinks they have reached the excellence of the first row even if they arrive late by virtue of the ‘reservation by stick or prayer mat’ is hugely mistaken in his thinking. Rather such a personin fact loses reward, and has prevented others from good as well as earning sin on the basis that he has contradicted the Sunnah.
People in the Masaajid are the same, no one has more right than another and virtue of the front row is achieved by getting to it first not by leaving an object there to reserve a place. And whoever reserves a place in this manner has compelled others and has prevented those who have more right by virtue of them being there earlier. So there is no doubt the one who comes early for each prayer has more right to the front row, and if one leaves his book or his prayer mat or his low reading table in the front row and then exits the masjid for his wordly needs and then returns to his place, he has opposed the Sunnah, wronged his brothers and is considered sinful. So the purpose and desire for which he has done all this, i.e. the pleasure of Allaah, is not attained. Indeed the one who comes early and finds the front row taken by these objects that have been placed there and reserved and therefore is forced to prayer in the back rows, then his reward is more excellent and greater. And this is because he did not come early except for the first row and its immense reward but he was prevented from it without due right, so he achieved its excellence by virtue of his intention and desire, and the one who unjustly reserved the place in opposition to the Sunnah lost his reward and Allaah knows best.
Shaikhul-Islaam Ibn Taymiyyah stated:
“It is not permitted for anyone that he reserve anything in the Masjid, not a mat that he has layed out before his actual presence in the masjid, nor a carpet and not other than that, and it is not allowed for anyone to pray on it without his permission either, rather it should be removed and one should pray in its place in that place in the most correct of the two sayings of the scholars, and Allaah knows best.” And he also stated: “It is not for anyone to put forward a rug for himself whilst he himself comes late. And there is no Islamic right binding due to what is laid down for him in advance. Rather it is removed and one prays in its place according to what is correct.”
[Majmoo’ al-Fatawa, (22/123), (23/410) and refer to al-Fatawa as-Sa’diyyah p. 184]
Some harmful effects of reserving places in this incorrect manner include: That some people are elevated over others without due right, and are seen as proud and arrogant. You may see them climbing over the heads and shoulders of people who are seated just to reach “their reserved place”. That these reserved places become a cause for dispute and hatred between the worshippers in the most excellent of places, i.e. the Houses of Allaah. That sometimes the rows are not completed even after the worshippers are standing and ready to pray because someone has “reserved” his place and a gap remains as the people are afraid to fill the gap as the “owner” may return and claim it, so then the one who filled that gap has nowhere to go except right to the back row!
As for the one who enters the masjid early and comes to the front row and places his stick or book down and then steps forward or slightly backward in search of a sutrah and prays and returns back to his place in the front row, then there is no harm in that. Or the one takes his place early in the front row and then places his rug or stick there and then sits back against a pillar whilst he reads the Book of Allaah for example, and waits for the next prayer, then there is no harm in that, with the condition that he does not climb over the heads of the people to reach his place, and nor does he harm them in anyway – and it is better that he does not do so if he can find an alternative. [Refer to al-Fatawa as-Sa’diyyah p. 186]
The one who comes to the masjid early with the intention of waiting for the prayer. Then he nullifies his wudoo, then there is no harm if he places a stick or something similar on the floor until he returns – and if he returns he has more right to it due to the hadeeth of Abu Hurairah (radhi Allaahu ‘anhu) that the Prophet (salallaahu ‘alaihi wassallam) said:
“If one of you gets up from his place, then he returns to it, he has more right to it.”
[Muslim (2179), Abu Dawood (4853).
Imaam an-Nawawee stated:
“Our companions have stated: This is the right of the one who sat in a place in the masjid or other than that, for the prayer, as an example – then he leaves with the intended purpose of returning to it, such as [leaving] with the intention of making wudoo, or for a small need and then he returns. His place is not nullified due to that. It is for him to make the one who opposed him stand and sit in that place himself. And it upon the seated person to obey him. And they differ: Is it obligatory upon him [to move]? From the two stances: The most correct of the two being that is an obligation.” He said: “And there is no difference between him standing from it, and leaving in the place a rug or similar to that or not, and Allaah knows best.” [Sharh an-Nawawee ‘ala Saheeh Muslim (14/412)]
Whoever comes first to a place in the masjid then he has greater right to it, and it is not permitted for someone to move him from the place which he was present at first, regardless of whether he is from the noble ones or from the weak, whether young or old, unless he fears from him harm, such as one who has eaten garlic or has been smoking a cigarette.
There occurs in the hadeeth of Ibn ‘Umar (radhi Allaahu ‘anhumaa) from the Prophet (salallaahu ‘alaihi wassallam) that he forbade a man to stand from his seated place and for another to sit there, rather they should spread out and make space. (Bukhaaree (5014), Muslim (2177)).
This hadeeth is specific for open gatherings and sittings and formost of these places are the Mosques. Ibn Hajr al-Asqalaanee stated: “The people with regard to the allowable affairs are the same as each other. So whoever reaches something first, then he has greater right to it, and whoever takes a right to something and someone else takes that from him without right, then he has compelled him, and compulsion is haraam.” (See Mahjatun-Nufoos of Ibn Abi Jamrah (4/194))
So the people should spread out and try and sit together and fill the rows and make room for one another, with the condition that one is not squeezed and thus loses his ability to be at ease in the prayer and gain Khushoo’ (tranquility and submissiveness).
And Allaah, the Majestic and Most High, knows best.