Witr prayer is one of the greatest acts of worship that draw one closer to Allah. Some of the scholars – the Hanafis to be precise – even thought that it is one of the obligatory prayers, but the correct view is that it is one of the confirmed Sunnahs (Sunnahmu’akkadah) which a Muslim should observe regularly and not neglect.
Regarding how this prayer is performed, Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, an Islamic scholar, states:
“Witr can be performed in a number of ways such as the following:
1) Three rak`ahs with one salaam exactly as we perform the Maghrib Prayer, which has been the format followed by the Hanafi School. They have based this on a hadith reported by `A’ishah, the Mother of the Faithful, that: “The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to perform witr by praying three rak`ahs, saying salaam only upon finishing (the entire three rak`ahs).” (Reported by Muslim).
In addition to this narration, they also cite a statement of Abu al-`Aliyah, “The Prophet’s companions taught us to pray witr exactly the way we perform Maghrib Prayer, since the former is witr of the night, and the latter is witr of the day.”
2) Three rak`ahs with just one salaam at the end but, unlike Maghrib, one skips the sitting after the two rak`ahs. This format of witr is considered acceptable according to both Shafi`i and Hanbali schools. They have relied on a report from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) that he used to pray witr without sitting in between, but sitting only in the last rak`ah. (Reported by an-Nasa’i and al-Hakim).
3) Three rak`ahs are offered, but they are split into two parts; salaam is said after the first two rak`ahs, then following a slight pause, one stands up and prays another rak`ah followed by salaam. This is the format most preferred by the Maliki School, and they consider it undesirable to do it the other ways except when one is following an Imam who adopts any of the other formats. They have based their opinion on a report from Ibn `Umar that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) used to separate witr into two parts: two rak`ahs, followed by a single rak`ah, saying salaam after praying the two rak`ahs (as well as after the third). (Reported by Ahmad)
4) Praying more than three rak`ahs (i.e. five, seven, etc.), which has also been considered as permissible, according to Shafi`i and Hanbali schools. TO support this, they cite a number of traditions from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) indicating the permissibility of doing the same.”