First of all, we would like to say that that shortening and combining prayers together in travel is a dispensation that Allah has granted Muslims to make worship easier. Almighty Allah is Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Sheikh `Atiyyah Saqr, former head of Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, states the following:
“Allah says in the Glorious Qur’an: “And when you go forth in the land, it is no sin for you to curtail (your) worship if you fear that those who disbelieve may attack you…” (An-Nisaa‘: 101)
Fear of temptation mentioned in the verse is not the condition that warrants shortening prayers. This is according to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, who considered this as a gift Allah has bestowed on His servants. Therefore, it is fitting for us to accept Allah’s gift.
As for the type of travelling that warrants shortening prayers, the scholars differ in opinion on this. According to Zahirites, one is allowed to shorten prayers in any journey, whether the distance is long or short and even within three miles. They base this on the Hadith where Anas Ibn Malik, may Allah be pleased with him, says that whenever the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, set out on a journey of three miles or nine miles (this indicates doubtfulness on the part of the narrator, Shu`bah), he’d perform prayers of two Rak`ahs.
Imam Al-Qurtubi comments on this: “This does not qualify enough to be evidence, as it is doubtful. Even if we assume the authenticity of one of those two distances, it might be the starting point of the Prophet’s journey, which extended to more than three miles or more.”
Actually, the distance of a journey that warrants shortening prayers is neither clarified in the Qur’an nor in the Sunnah. The reason for this is that what was meant by the Arabic word “As-Safar” at that time was well known to people of that period (the people first receiving the Qur’an). Besides, we know that leaving the house for a short errand is not considered as travelling in the lexical and literal meaning. But anyone who walks a long distance that takes three days is considered to be travelling and the same applies to a person who walks a distance that takes a day and night, according to Imam Malik.
This is based on the Hadith in which the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, says: “It is not permissible for a woman to travel a distance that takes a whole day and a night without a non-marriageable kin.”
The previous Hadith has many versions: in some occasions it says “a day and a night…” and others “three days.” Due to this, Imam Malik adopted the practice of `Abdullah Ibn `Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, in such cases. He used to shorten prayers within the limit of Reem (a place near Madinah) in a distance of four (4) Burds (about 20 km). Ibn `Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, used to emulate the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.
Most scholars understand the issue of shortening prayers as a form of dispensation or facilitation of matters, especially in journeys that involve hardship. As-Shafi‘, Malik, and their followers, Al-Layth, Al-`Awzai`e, and scholars of Hadith like Ahmad, Ishaaq and others opine that a journey lasting a day is enough for one to shorten his prayers.
In his book Al-Mughni, Ibn Qudamah mentions that some scholars maintain that one can shorten prayers even in a journey of a distance less than the aforementioned limit (four Burds — about 20 km). But this opinion doesn’t carry much weight.
In the opinion of the famous four juristic schools, prayers are allowed to be shortened within a distance of 16 Farsaqs (one Farsaq equals three miles, and one mile equals 6000 arms length). So the distance here is about 80 km.
Those who are excluded from this restriction in distance are the people of Makkah, Mina, Muzdalifah and Al-Muhassab. Whenever they leave their place of residence to `Arafat during the Pilgrimage, they are allowed to shorten prayers coming and going, as long as they are in the midst of Hajj rituals.
There is a good example of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, delaying a prayer, while travelling, so as to join it with the following prayer. He delayed the Zuhr prayer and combined it with the `Asr prayer. The same happened with the Maghrib and `Isha prayers, according to the Hadith narrated by Mu`adh Ibn Jabal, may Allah be pleased with him, which follows. “The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, in the expedition to Tabook, combined the Zuhr and `Asr prayers and Maghrib and `Isha prayers. When Mu`adh was asked why, he replied that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, didn’t want things to be difficult for Muslims.”