The Ramadan nightly prayer has a special merit over other nights. The Messenger of Allah said: "Whoever observes night prayer in Ramadan as an expression of his faith and to seek reward from Allah, his previous sins will be blotted out." (Muslim)
In this hadith, faith means faith in what Allah has promised the observers of night prayers. To seek reward mean, the observer's intent is not for eye service or seeking special recognition from someone.
Taraweeh is derived from the Arabic root word, raaha, which means to rest, relax and use as recreation. It is so called because the believers used to prolong it. After every four raka'ats they would stop for rest and relaxation and resume until taraweeh was complete.
Taraweeh In Jamaa`ah
The Messenger of Allah (saas) was the first to establish the Sunnah of congregational, jamaa`ah prayer of taraweeh in the Masjid. Then he did not continue with the Sunnah for fear that it might be made mandatory on the Ummah in Ramadan, and they might not be able to do it. In the books of Bukhari and Muslim, 'Aishah (raa) has been reported as saying:
"The Messenger of Allah (saas) observed Taraweeh prayer in the Masjid one night and people prayed with him. He repeated the following night and the number of participants grew. The companions congregated the third and fourth night, but the Messenger did not show up. In the morning he told them, "I saw what you did last night, but nothing prevented me from joining you except my fear that it might be made mandatory on you in Ramadan."
This hadith is a clear indication that the Taraweeh in congregation was not an innovation of 'Umar, the second Khalifah, despite his saying to the contrary. For it has been related that: "Umar bin Al-Khattab attended the Masjid at night in Ramadan and saw people praying individually in every corner of the Masjid with a few in groups. He did not like the sight a bit. 'Umar said, `I thought it would be better to gather these under one Imam'. So, he combined them under 'Obayi bin Ka'ab and Tamimu Ad-Dari to alternate and lead the believers in eleven raka'ats of night prayer. The next day `Umar was in the Masjid which was full with Taraweeh prayers. He was delighted. He said: `Well, this is the best Bid'ah (innovation).'"
`Umar's use of the word bid'ah in this report has been presented and unjustifiably cited as justification for concocting up various so called good innovations. In truth, the Khalifah 'Umar's act to gather the believers in Jama'ah is not bid'ah. For it was the Messenger of Allah himself who started jama'ah by praying in congregation the first and second day, then stopped only as he feared it would become mandatory. After his death, the fear of Taraweeh becoming mandatory (Fard) was not only remote, it was impossible. With the death of the Prophet Muhammad (saas), there will be no more revelation to change any law or rule by abrogation.
Number of Raka'ats in Taraweeh
As for the number of raka'ats in Taraweeh and Witr, the worthy ancestor, Salaf as-Saalih disagreed on the amount of Raka'ats. These numbers are mentioned for raka'ats: 39, 29, 23, 19, 13, and 11 raka'ats. Of all the numbers mentioned, none is sounder than 11 raka'ats. 'Aishah (raa) was asked how was the prayer of the Prophet (saas)? She replied: "He did not pray in Ramadan or some other times more than eleven raka'ats." (Muslim/Bukhari)
However, there is nothing wrong with praying more than 11 raka'ats. Perhaps that is why different numbers are observed. The Prophet himself was asked about night prayer and he said: "It may be done in two raka'ats, and if anyone fears the appearance of morning, he should pray one rak'ah as a Witr for what he has already prayed." (Bukhari/Muslim)
As this hadith indicates, if a person is to pray individually at night, by daybreak he would have prayed one hundred and one raka'ats, or more.
In their desire to pray more raka'ats, some people make Taraweeh in extreme speed. That is wrong, especially when the speed leads to a breach of certain rules of prayer. In that case, the prayer will not be valid. Similarly, it is undesirable for an Imam to pray with such speed whereby the followers will have difficulty observing the necessary deeds in Salaat.
No one should neglect Taraweeh without a good reason, for it is part of physical and spiritual training, for its observation soon after Iftar insures timely and proper digestion of food. Besides, there are spiritual rewards awaiting the observers of this prayer. No one would like to leave the Masjid before the prayer is over.
Everybody should attend the Masjid prayers, including women, provided they are properly covered. The Messenger of Allah said: "Prevent not the women servants of Allah, from going to the Masjid of Allah." However, when they attend the Masjid they should wear no perfume, nor raise their voices, and or show their beauty. Allah (SWT) states: "...they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof..." (Al-Qur'an, 24:31)
What ordinarily appears, refers to the outer garments, for when the Messenger (saas) commanded women to attend Eid prayer, Umm 'Atiyah (raa) said: "O Messenger of Allah, some of us do not have the outer garment (jilbab). The Messenger of Allah told her to let a sister (who has more than one) give her one to wear." (Agreed upon)
It is Sunnah that they pray behind the men in the rear lines. The Messenger has been reported as saying: "The best lines for men are the front lines and the worst lines for men are the rear lines. The best lines for women is the rear and the worst lines of women are the front line. (Muslim)
The women should leave the Masjid as soon as the Imam says: As-Salaamu 'Alaikum. They should not delay without a valid reason. In a hadith by Umm Salmah, she said: "When the Messenger of Allah (saas) saluted to end prayer, the women would stand up to leave and the Messenger would remain in his place for a while." Umm Salmah (raa) said: Allah is the best knower, but perhaps the Messenger did that so women would leave before men could overtake them". (Bukhari)