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Ablutions

By:
Gabriele Tecchiato
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Ablutions

A practice that consists of washing, which introduces the Muslim into the state of ritual purity (ṭuhr) and is an essential condition for the fulfilment of some religious practices. Ablution is a prerequisite for the performance of daily prayer, and, according to some schools of legal thought, other religious performances such as reciting the Qurʿān and pilgrimage. The absence of the state of purity makes such acts invalid. Muslims distinguish between simple or minor (wuḍūʿ) ablution and major ablution (ghusl), depending on the level of impurity. The former is necessary in the presence of minor impurities (al-ḥadath al-aṣghar) for example, as a result of certain physiological functions, such as passing urine, excrement, gas, or blood, deep sleep, vomiting, returning to the state of consciousness after fainting, and touching of genital organs. Major ablution (al-ḥadath al-akbar) is necessary, for instance, after sexual intercourse, ejaculation, and the menstrual period. Major ablution is also recommended before the Friday prayer, and it must be performed by a non-Muslim converting to Islam. Beyond the practices for which ablution is required, Muslims are called upon to keep themselves as clean and pure as possible (Qurʿān 2:222 and 9:108).

Water is the pure and purifying element par excellence (25:48), and waste of it during purification is strongly disapproved. In exceptional cases, such as lack of water, or the impossibility of using it, for instance, because of being sick, a type of dry ablution (tayammum) using sand or other solid material, such as dust or stone, is permitted. Purification is thus a symbolic act.

In a famous tradition Prophet Muḥammad is quoted as saying, “The key to Paradise is prayer and the key to prayer is being purified.” Historically, ablution is common in the religious context of the Semitic world. It is practiced by Jews and Samaritans, although through different procedures. The presence of purifying rites based on ablution is evident as well in epigraphic documentation of pre-Islamic South Arabian cultures. In Islam it is the Koran itself that introduces and formally founds, such practice.

The first verses in the Qurʿān to refer to ablutions are 4:43 and especially 5:6: “O believers, when you stand up to pray wash your faces, and your hands up to the elbows, and wipe your heads, and your feet up to the ankles. If you are defiled, purify yourselves; but if you are sick or on a journey, or if any of you comes from the privy, or you have touched women, and you can find no water, then have recourse to wholesome dust and wipe your faces and hands with it. God does not desire to make any impediment for you; but He desires to purify you, and that He may complete His blessing upon you; haply you will be thankful.” Both verses are Medinan and, according to tradition, are part of the last revelation period. Rather than introducing a new practice, however, the verses seem to institutionalize it instead, providing its definitive character.

The basic procedure will therefore consist of pronouncing the name of God, the most Gracious and Merciful (basmallāh), washing the hands, rinsing the mouth and nose, washing the face, washing the forearms up to the elbows, rubbing the head with the damp hand, washing the feet up to the ankles, and rubbing the spaces between the toes. The procedure of major ablution consists of washing the hands and genitals, performing the minor ablution, except feet washing, washing the head, the whole body and, finally, the feet. In both types of ablution, priority is given to the right side of the body.

Washing the corpse of a deceased Muslim before the funeral prayer and burial is also part of major ablution, and in this case, the procedure finds its model in the washing of the body of Prophet Muḥammad.

As for other religious practices, there are differences among the major Sunnī schools of legal thought, as well as between Sunnīs and Shīʿīs. For example, all schools except the Ḥanafī require the clear expression of nīyah (the intention to perform the act for the right purposes) before ablutions, although the Ḥanafīs also require it for the dry ablution. The Shāfiʿīs hold ablution as necessary after any kind of contact, even a handshake, whereas the Ḥanafīs believe it is not obligatory unless the contact is accompanied by lustful desires. The Shāfiʿīs consider it proper to perform the ablution if the believer has touched his genitals, even through his clothes; Ḥanafīs require it only if direct contact is associated with lustful thoughts. Only Ḥanbalīs judge the ablution lost if the believer has eaten camel meat. Divergences between Sunnīs and Shīʿīs mostly revolve around the issues of lawfulness, accepted by Sunnīs and rejected by Shīʿīs, of rubbing the feet, in specific circumstances, covered by thin footwear instead of washing them (al-masḥ ʿala al-khuffayn).

Ablution has remained essentially unchanged from its origins to this day, giving Muslims a deep sense of continuity of the history that animates believers. See also MENSTRUATION; PRAYER; PURIFICATION; and ṢALāT.

Bibliography

  • Badawi, Jama A., Al Taharah. Purity and State of Undefilement. Plainfield, Indiana, n.d. Burton, John. “The Qurʿān and the Islamic Practice of wuḍūʿ.” In The Koran: Critical Concepts in Islamic Studies, edited by Colin Turner. Themes and Doctrines, vol. 2, pp. 111–159. London, 2004.
  • Al-Jazīrī, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān. Kitāb al-fiqh ʿalá al-madhāhib al-arbaʿa. vol. 1, pp. 28–171. Beirut, 1990.
  • Katz, Marion H.“The Study of Islamic Ritual and the Meaning of wuḍūʿ.   ”Der Islam82i (2005), 106–145.
  • Kuskular, Remzi. Cleanliness in Islam: A Comprehensive Guide to Tahara. Somerset, U.K., 2007.
  • Sabiq, Sayyid. At-Tahara and as-Salah. Indianapolis, Ind., 1991.
  • Subḥānī, Ayatollah Jaʿfar. Doctrines of Shīʿī Islam. A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices, translated and edited by Reza Shah-Kazemi. London, 2001, pp. 185–187.
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