Answered by Sidi Abdullah Anik Misra
Question: Can a child, such as one aged six years old, lead the prayer?
Answer: In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful,
It is not valid for an adult to pray their obligatory or nafl prayers behind a child (someone who has not yet reached puberty). Children are not mukallaf, or legally responsible, and so any prayers they do pray are counted as nafl (non-obligatory) prayers. One who is praying a fardh prayer cannot follow an imam who is praying nafl prayers, so an adult praying fardh similarly cannot follow a child whose prayers are all effectively nafl prayers.
Other schools of thought permit following a child in prayer using the hadeeth of ‘Amr ibn Salamah in Saheeh al-Bukhari and other collections as evidence for the ir position. When ‘Amr ibn Salamah was a boy, his tribe had just accepted Islam and they were told that the one amongst them who memorized the most Qur’an should lead the prayers. So when they returned to their homes, they found that ‘Amr, a six or seven year old boy at the time, had memorized the most Qur’an of them all. After teaching him how to pray, he became their imam.
The Hanafi scholars do not question the authenticity of this hadeeth, however, they did not hold it admissible as proof since the permission to make the child their imam was never heard directly from the Prophet (peace be upon him), rather it was by the tribe’s own legal discretion (ijtihad), and the actions of a child or a newly-converted tribe cannot be used as evidence, especially when senior Sahaba such as Abu Bakr and ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with them) never appointed a child to be an imam.
Finally, there is a saying of Ibn ‘Abbas found in the collections of ‘Abdur Razaq, Ibn Abi Shaibah and al-Baihaqi that, “A boy is not made an imam until he experiences a wet dream.” This is one of the signs of puberty, and thus Islamic adulthood.
However, if an adult prayed behind a child in the past, they need not make up their prayers because there is a valid difference of opinion on this issue between the Sunni schools of law.
Although some opinions state that a child can lead taraweeh prayers in Ramadan, this is not the strongest position in the Hanafi school. However, if one finds that his masjid took the other opinion and appointed a child who is a hafidh of the Qur’an as the imam for taraweeh prayers because no one else was qualified in the community, based on there being a valid difference, there may be some leniency in this case. And Allah knows best. We ask Allah Ta’ala to make our children the imams of tomorrow and leaders of the pious.
[Ibn Nujaym, Bahr al-Ra’iq; Zayla`i, Tabyin al-Haqa’iq]
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani