Answered by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani
Question: I have realized that the prayers I was performing were invalid. Is it necessary for me to make them all up, including the Witr prayers? Can I leave sunnah prayers in order to make up all these past prayers?
Answer: In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful
Walaikum assalam wa rahmatullah,
I pray that this finds you well, and in the best of health and spirits. May Allah grant you all good and success in this life and the next.
The position of all four schools of Sunni law is that it is obligatory (fard) to make up all missed prayers, regardless of why they were missed. And prayer is the first thing we will be questioned about on the Day of Judgement, as the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) informed us.
As for Witr, then it is necessary (wajib) because of the many hadiths emphasizing it. The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said, "Witr is a duty, and whoever refuses to perform it isn't of us." (Abu Dawud and Ahmad) However, because it is a less emphatic duty than the obligatory prayers, you can first make up your obligatory prayers, and make up your witr prayers after. However, both must be made up nonetheless.
A Gift From Allah:
You should consider the make up prayers you have to be a gift from Allah, for there is no outward work you can do to draw closer to Allah more effective and powerful than obligatory prayer--such as your make ups. Thank Allah before and after each of these prayers for opening this door of connecting with Him. Perform these prayers with true yearning for Allah, because each prayer is a step you take towards Allah. And Allah tells us in the authentic hadith qudsi, "Whoever comes to Me walking, I rush to them." (Muslim, Tirmidhi, and Ibn Maja)
Also, remember the counsel of our Beloved Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace) that, "Take of religious practice that which you can sustain, for--by Allah!--Allah doesn't tire until you do." (Bukhari and Muslim) From "sustaining" one's practice is that it not be overwhelming for one. Thus, take on a consistent, sustainable amount of make up prayers that is not difficult or draining, and that you can perform meaningfully and with a sense of turning to Allah with true yearning.
The Confirmed Sunnas
According to the Hanafi school, one would still have to stick to one’s confirmed sunna prayers (sunna mu’akkadas), because they remain strongly enjoined such that missing them even once without excuse is blameworthy, and making this a habit is sinful. [Ibn Abidin, Hashiya]
One’s missed prayers are a debt owed to Allah. As such, the first step is to repent, by resolving not to willfully miss any more prayers, feeling remorse, seeking Allah’s forgiveness, and resolving to make them up. This resolve, to be true, needs proof. As such, one must make up one’s prayers as quickly as reasonably possible. The way to do this is to develop a routine whereby one makes up a given amount of prayers (such as 3, 4 or 5 days of prayers, or more) every day, without exception. And one should not forget that Allah Most High has told us in a Hadith Qudsi, “My servant draws near to Me by nothing more beloved to Me than that which I have made obligatory upon him.”
As for people who did not pray for a very long time (like an old aunt), and just won’t pray their sunnas and perform their makeup prayers, then they should be told to try and pray one or two makeup prayers (or as much as they will be able to keep up with, long term) with each current obligatory prayer, with the repentance mentioned above. This way, they will at least be repaying their debt to Allah in some way. They, too, should remember that Allah Most High has told us in a Hadith Qudsi, “My servant draws near to Me by nothing more beloved to Me than that which I have made obligatory upon him.” As such, people should keep in mind that there is nothing more pleasing to Allah than for them to make up their missed obligatory prayers.
May Allah give us success to follow the ways most pleasing to Him.