Praying while walking or driving!?

Prayer time starts, you leave for home, assuming you'll reach in time, but construction and an accident bring the road to a standstill and the clock ticks away...

How do you fulfill your duty to Allah when you cannot offer ṣalāt as the Prophet ﷺ demonstrated for us? Or, if you were to try to do so, it could put you or others in great danger. Especially if you have no option to combine. For most Muslims, the answer is simple: delay the prayer until you can perform it properly. But that simple answer may not necessarily be correct or be the best or only option, which is why this article exists.

There have been multiple times when I was driving and there was no shoulder to pull over to, and no safe exit within many miles, and the available time for prayer ticked away. This may be all the more hampering when traffic is heavy, and even if a viable exit is 5 miles away, during a jam, you still may not make it in time. What should you do?

As I’ve proven in similar articles, the command to pray is only a command to pray within that time period. It is not a command to pray perfectly whenever convenient. The time window for prayer may pass by while you are unable to break away to properly perform the ṣalāt. Rather than pray later, Allah actually commands us to preserve the prayer times more than preserve the prayer appearance. This way, we enter the next time block having completed our duties required of us till then. He ﷻ says:

{حَافِظُوا عَلَى الصَّلَوَاتِ وَالصَّلَاةِ الْوُسْطَىٰ وَقُومُوا لِلَّـهِ قَانِتِينَ ﴿٢٣٨﴾ فَإِنْ خِفْتُمْ فَرِجَالًا أَوْ رُكْبَانًا ۖ فَإِذَا أَمِنتُمْ فَاذْكُرُوا اللَّـهَ كَمَا عَلَّمَكُم مَّا لَمْ تَكُونُوا تَعْلَمُونَ ﴿٢٣٩﴾} سورة البقرة

Guard strictly the prayers, and the middle prayer, and stand devoutly to Allah. If you are in fear, then [offer prayer] while riding or on foot. Once you are secure, then continue remembering Allah [through prayer] in the manner He has taught you but you did not know before [Islam].” [2:238-239]

These two verses have been intriguingly positioned in the middle of a long discourse about divorce and widowing guidelines. The placement is symbolic of that fact that when prayer time comes, we put everything else we are engaged in on hold to worship our Creator. Allah does not let us forget that we are first and foremost, His worshipers, and that in spite of everything else, the prayer is the most important thing, and guarding it well should make us all the more prepared for the rest. Then Allah gives us guidance for times when guarding our prayers seems to be hopeless, and we fear the inability to do so for what may be beyond our control, or while serving other greater causes. The word fear is unqualified, and should not be thought to merely mean fear from a belligerent human enemy, as might come to mind when considering the historical context of this revelation. Let’s look to see what various scholars have said about the verse throughout the centuries…

Al-Qurṭubī (d. 671) wrote (v. 3, pg. 223 onwards):

“When Allah commanded standing before Him in prayer with qunūt which is solemnity, serenity and quietness of the body, and this is in the most common circumstances of security and peace, He mentioned circumstances of sudden fear. He clarified that this worship [the prayer] does not fall from a believer’s responsibility no matter the situation, and so He conceded prayer for them while moving on foot and riding on horseback and camels and the like, with gestures and movements of the head wherever you face. That’s the word of the scholars. And this kind of prayer regards the individual [not congregation] for whom fear has overtaken him during sword fighting or while fleeing from a dangerous pursuing animal or a tracking enemy or a flood carrying him. In general, every situation for which one fears for their self, then it permits what this ayah suggests. Third, this concession should be understood with the consensus of the scholars that a person should take whatever paths, turns and actions they see fit to save themselves.” And, “Abu `Umar said: the situation wherein it is valid for a fearful person to pray on foot or while riding, facing or not even facing the qiblah, are times of severe fear [شدة الخوف]. As for what many narrations describe [about congregational prayer formations during war] then that refers to something else, and that is the “fear prayer” with an imam and the people behind are divided in teams. That prayer is not what this ayah is referring to and its clarification will come in the tafseer of surah al-Nisa’ insha’Allah.”

Ismail ibn Katheer (d. 774) mentioned (v. 1, pg 655 onwards):

“Malik heard Nafi` describe that if ibn Umar was ever asked about the fear prayer, he would describe it. Then he would say, “If the fear is greater than that, pray on foot, or riding, facing the qiblah, or not facing it.” Nafi` said: I don’t believe he said that except from the Prophet ﷺ. And that is al-Bukhari’s wording. And in the story of Abdullah ibn Unais al-Juhani, when the Prophet ﷺ dispatched him to assassinate Khalid ibn Sufyan al-Hudhali near Arafat, when he faced him down, the time for `asr prayer was waning. He told, “I was afraid I would miss it, so I started praying through motions [فجعلت أصلي وأنا أومئ إيماء].”… And this is from Allah’s concessions that He allowed for His slaves when He removed the binds and fetters [of excessive obligations] that restricted [previous nations of monotheists].”

In this context, al-Bukhari added scholarly support, reporting that Waleed said to al-Awza`I that Sharahbeel ibn al-Simṭ and his companions prayed once while riding, and al-Awza`I said that’s how it is with us when losing the prayer is feared. For added discussion from the fiqh al-Sunnah perspective, see ibn Hajr’s commentary.

Thus, we see the scholars distinguished between the prayer of “fear” and the prayer of “severe fear”, as in the Fiqh Encyclopedia. As for the “fear prayer”, it was legislated with the revelation of 4:102 during Ghazwah of Dhat al-Riqa` and has several admittedly complicated variances. Interestingly, I’ve heard some scholars say it is, more or less, obsolete or has not been practiced since the time of the Prophet ﷺ. Allah knows best. 1)Ibn Katheer mentioned that al-Muzni, Qāḍī Abu Yusuf and Ibrahim ibn Ishaq ibn `Ulayyah thought that delaying prayer abrogated the fear prayer—based on the idea that the fear prayer was actually revealed before al-Khandaq—but considered this a far out opinion since the Prophet ﷺ was reported to have made the fear prayer after the Battle of al-Khandaq as well (Tafsir, 2/400). As for the prayer of severe fear, then that is what we are referring to here.


Validity off the battlefield?

Ibn al-Uthaymeen in his tafseer, noted among the benefits of this ayah are knowing that Allah allows us to continue keeping up with remembering Him and worshiping Him in prayer, even at times when it would be extremely risky for us to pray as normal. Even when physically we are healthy, but circumstances dictate otherwise. He gave an example that if one were to pray standing, they might be a target for the enemy, so they have to pray sitting or lying down. He also talked about being in a vehicle, like a plane, train, boat or car. He said, “If a person is afraid the time will pass, he prays no matter his position, even if lying down, no matter where he is.”

The Prophet ﷺ instructed one of his companions in pain, “Pray while standing, and if you cannot, then while sitting, but if you cannot, then while lying on your side.”

Given the context of the Prophet’s direction, we may envision someone in a wheel chair who simply cannot stand without assistance or debilitating pain, or in a body cast, recovering from 3rd degree burns all over their body and cannot move at all. But fear and ability are unrestricted by cause, only qualified by degree. So any cause for fear that puts you or others at great risk is a sufficient excuse.

For example, a healthy surgeon may be performing a long and time sensitive operation. He can nod his head and quietly say the words of prayer under his breath or in his heart and mind as he continues through the operation if forced to. Thus, the fear doesn’t only include fear over yourself but perhaps fear for the well-being of others. Similarly, if you’re a lifeguard and have to strictly watch the pool for two or three hours at a time and unable to take a break. While that occupation might be doubtful Islamically, Muslims in those positions should fulfill their duties admirably until able to work in a more Islamic environment.

When else might outside factors prevent you from praying while standing? Again we consider driving. I recall once when my friends and I were driving cross country during winter while ice and snow covered the ground. We did not find a rest area with space large, clean and safe enough indoors for us to pray, so we sat in the car and prayed. At least we were able to do so in a parking lot. There is a narration, albeit weak, describing the Prophet ﷺ and his companions praying an obligatory prayer on camel-mount, due to the ground being wet and muddy beneath them. Al-Tirmidhi said this was acted upon by Anas ibn Malik and other scholars while championed by Ahmad and Isḥāq.

Another situation that could call a Muslim to pray like this is when forced to conceal their faith by observing taqiyyah. For example, a young new Muslim, threatened by violence and lost rights by his parents may have to resort to this form of prayer when in their presence and when they are monitoring him. This fear of praying publicly has become heightened due to Islamophobia, as Muslims have been reported to security and law enforcement, or even assaulted when praying in public.

Al-Qurṭubī rounded out his tafsir of this verse saying, “Eighth, His saying “So remember Allah” is said to mean be grateful for this blessing in teaching this mode of prayer that suffices us so that no prayer is lost, and that is what we did not know before…. And by this [requirement, the prayer] has become distinguished from all other forms of worship. Each falls off with various circumstantial excuses and is afforded necessary concessions. Ibn al-Arabi said: for this reason our scholars say this is a tremendous issue, and that the one who leaves prayer entirely is executed, because it resembles our very faith which never falls no matter the circumstance.” In other words, from puberty until death.


How many units is the prayer of severe fear?

Al-Qurtubi added, “Al-Shafi`I said: when Allah ﷻ conceded leaving off some necessities of prayer, that indicated that fighting does not ruin prayer [differing with Abu Hanifah], and Allah knows best. Sixth, there’s no discrepancy regarding the number of units for the prayer of [severe] fear for a traveler according to Malik, al-Shafi`I and a number of scholars [two units]. Al-Hasan b. Abi al-Hasan, Qatadah and others said: they pray only one unit through gestures. Muslim narrated from Bukair b. al-Akhnas from Mujahid from ibn Abbaas who said: Allah obligated prayers as four units in one’s hometown on the tongue of His Messenger, and two units while traveling, and one unit while in [severe] fear. Ibn Abd al-Barr said: Bukair narrated this by himself and he is not an authority when he is alone, and prayer is the greatest thing to be cautious with. So whoever prayed two units in [severe] fear while traveling or present has abandoned the doubt of different opinions for the certainty of consensus. Al-Dahhaak said… one unit, and if unable, then just make takbir twice. Ishaq said if the worshiper is unable to do anything other than one single takbir, it will suffice him. Ibn al-Mundhir mentioned it.”

Ibn Katheer said, “Imam Ahmad went to saying that the [severe] fear prayer can be performed in some instances with a single unit, if the two armies have converged…. And Shu`bah said: I asked al-Hakam and Hammaad and Qatadah on the prayer of combat, and they each said: one unit…. Jabir ibn Abdullah said: the fear prayer is one unit, and ibn Jarir chose this opinion.”

Most of the scholars that conceded one or two units did so based on the assumption that the cause of fear was battle, which was almost inevitably while Muslims were far away from home and thus considered travelers anyway. As for when in town, but, for example, stuck in a traffic jam, with only 30 minutes left to pray that seem to be going like seconds, no rest stop nearby and no accessible shoulder, what then should a Muslim do? They could pray while driving, making the motions and mouthing the words as best as they could while keeping their eyes and attention on the road as their car inches forward during the congestion. However, if it is a prayer that is normally four units, and your situation does not demand that you do the prayer quickly, only that you are not able to perform the actions properly, then keep the length of the prayer.

You will notice that nearly all of these rulings regarding the prayer are in line the with ayah:

{فَاتَّقُوا اللَّـهَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْ} ﴿١٦﴾ سورة التغابن

So fear Allah, as much as you are able.” [64:16]

Meaning, each concession a worshiper takes regarding the obligatory prayer’s conditions and pillars is solely based on their perceived inability to do more.


Delaying prayer until safer?

If you believe even praying, no matter what form that it takes, could put you or others at greater risk, alhamdulillah, there were some companions and scholars from the Salaf that did in fact allow delaying the prayer till later as a last resort. They based this on what happened to the Prophet ﷺ and his companions during the Battle of the Trench when the mushrikoon kept them on guard and unable to gather for prayer until the sun set (see Tafsir ibn Katheer: 2/398). Likewise, the incident when the companions differed over the Prophet’s directive not to pray except at Bani Quraizah and he did not rebuke those who delayed their prayer beyond sunset.

Ibn Kathir also stated (in al-Baqarah), “al-Bukhari said, Chapter: Prayer when invading fortresses and meeting the enemy, that al-Awza`I said: if victory is nigh but they have not been able to pray, they should pray through gestures, each person on their own. If praying by gestures is impossible, then delaying the prayer until fighting ceases or they feel secure. They can then pray two units if possible, otherwise one unit with two prostrations [like sujud al-sahw?? I don’t understand his intention here. – CC]. But if they are not able, simply making takbir is not valid, so they should delay until they are able. Makḥūl agreed. Anas ibn Malik said: I was present at the battle of Shustar fortress when fajr time came, and fighting was severe, so we did not pray until after the day was up, and then we prayed fajr and we were with Abu Musa so victory was given to us. This world and all that is in it would not make me happy regarding that prayer.”

So alhamdulillah there is some flexibility in Islam and we are not limited to one single opinion or method in these instances.

One could critique the idea of delaying a prayer, because the only two instances of conscious delay of the prayer happened around the battle of the confederates, before the fear prayer was revealed in Surah al-Nisa’, which was revealed to save the Muslims from such situations in the future. The legislation of the conventional fear prayer signaled to the Muslims that they should never delay again. In essence, the revelation told them to pray anyway—in formations or each to their own as best as they could. Ibn Katheer did not oblige this idea, saying, “…the eventual legislation of the fear prayer does not negate [the practice of delaying], because this is a specific and rare circumstance, so [delaying is] allowed therein as we said by evidence of the practice of the companions during the time of Umar, and this story spread and no one faulted them, and Allah Knows best.”

In fact, I personally feel that the story of Anas is a stronger evidence for the validity of delaying in extreme conditions than the incidents from the Prophet’s life, since there is strong dispute regarding the order of events. Anas’ story however was disseminated since Umar liked the messengers to tell about the battle to everyone present, and it was subsequently received positively without censure.


In practice, if you find yourself in a situation and you don’t know what to do or how to pray, and you wish you could contact a scholar to ask if you should try to pray normally, or pray through gestures or wait till it’s “all clear”… know that no one will understand your situation better than you do. And that issues of hardship are like issues of finding the proper prayer direction. Scholars agreed that a lot of these issues are issues where each and every Muslim, yes even you, can perform ijtihad and make a decision for themselves. Go ahead and ask a shaykh or two for a second opinion to make sure you’re thinking straight, but if their answers don’t sit right with you then know that ultimately it’s up to you. Scholars may not understand your situation properly. If you feel they don’t, move on. Unfortunately, one of the Prophet’s companions asked another about performing complete ablution when they had a head wound. They told him he must wash. That washing led to the questioner’s death and the Prophet ﷺ blamed the other companions who made the errant judgment. Likewise, maybe you have a caffeine headache and you think that’s sufficient reason to break your fast and have a cup of coffee. In that case no two scholars in the Muslim world will differ, and both would say you need to keep your fast. But in other circumstances between these two extremes, once you make that decision, pray and put your trust in Allah and don’t think twice about it. And, maybe even don’t tell anyone else about it either, because people will always criticize. Remember that when the companions differed on some of these issues the Prophet ﷺ scolded none. In fact, the Prophet ﷺ was more often critical to those who chose the harder way than the easy way. Remember that.


Lessons learned:

  • Fear prayer with specific formations was legislated with Surah al-Nisa’ but prayer of severe fear was legislated in al-Baqarah giving worshipers full freedom of speech and movement to protect themselves during prayer according to their circumstances.
  • The greatness of prayer in Islam, and its similarity to faith.
  • The flexibility and leniency of Islam. We are not required to endanger ourselves or others, physically, or financially or otherwise to make ever prayer perfect, on time and with congregation.
  • Delaying prayer has a precedent that many scholars have recognized, even if it is considered a last and final resort if you’re uncomfortable praying through gestures and indications.
  • Sometimes a fatwa or incident from the companions could have greater indicative value than even authentic narrations and incidents involving the Prophet ﷺ, as the latter may be subject to more possible interpretations than the former, which could have spread and been universally accepted.
  • Every Muslim who is in a pressing or fearful circumstance must ultimately decide for themselves what concession they should take when needed.


On a side note, I’m inspired to consider another a question about Islamic fiqh. Considering this concession, and considering the situations described above by the scholars, like in a sword fight, or being carried by a flood, why then is there not, at the very least, some abbreviated form of prayer for bleeding women, even if it is just a single unit or a single takbir or tasbih or tahlil? Because in those above situations, it’s very possible that the worshiper does not have ablution, and even that does not exempt the worshiper. They perform tayammum, which takes about three seconds, or if dirt is absent, they simply pray as they are. Why then aren’t women allowed to make some offering to Allah during these times so that they do not feel their faith wane but instead feel like they are keeping their duty to Allah and are united with the rest of the Ummah? This is, personally, one aspect of Islam I do not understand and wish I did. Because a woman, even while menstruating, is never forbidden from mentioning the name of Allah or returning the salam. The Prophet ﷺ recited Quran with his head in his wife’s lap while she was menstruating. But this very issue, the forbiddance of any form of prayer for bleeding women, is what leads me to reject the opinions mentioned by al-Dahhaak and Ishaq—that a takbir or two would suffice in the most dire of circumstances. It seems to me still that a full unit of prayer, at the very least, is required, motioning through the stations of prayer, saying what one can say out loud or through a whisper or with their heart at the very least according to their circumstances.

There’s no doubt that believing women would have answered the call to prayer had Allah and His Messenger prescribed some form of prayer upon them during the days of their period, even if it was just one rak’ah by the heart, or a round of remembrances and du’aa. If I were alive during the time of the Prophet ﷺ, or if I met him in a dream, this would be something I would like to ask about. But since there is a consensus from the companions up until our time, there is no way possible, ever, to even recommend or allow women to make any kind of symbolic salat during their cycles and post-partum bleeding. To say otherwise would be heresy. All in all, this ruling for women must be accepted appreciatively as Allah’s Mercy for them, while they sustain their iman in other ways, through remembrances and good intention in worldly responsibilities.

References   [ + ]

1. Ibn Katheer mentioned that al-Muzni, Qāḍī Abu Yusuf and Ibrahim ibn Ishaq ibn `Ulayyah thought that delaying prayer abrogated the fear prayer—based on the idea that the fear prayer was actually revealed before al-Khandaq—but considered this a far out opinion since the Prophet ﷺ was reported to have made the fear prayer after the Battle of al-Khandaq as well (Tafsir, 2/400).
About Chris
Chris, aka AbdulHaqq, is from central Illinois and accepted Islam in 2001 at age 17. He studied Arabic and Islamic theology in Saudi Arabia from 2007-13 and most recently earned a master's in Islamic Law from Malaysia. He is married with children.

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