PURIFICATION. A hadith states, “Purity is half of faith.” This terse statement related from the prophet Muhammad underlines the importance of purity and purification in the Islamic tradition. The fundamental notion of purity is also reflected in the Islamic concept of fitrah (human nature). One famous hadith enumerates the following elements of fitrah: circumcision, removing hair from under the armpits and pubic area, pairing the nails, proper cleanliness, and perfuming oneself. Each of these acts has direct relevance to notions of purity and purification in Islam. Accordingly, being human in Islam is in some sense reflected in maintaining purity.
The significance of ritual purity may be examined through the prism of the well-known Islamic division of the rights and duties accorded to God (huquq Allah) and those accorded to the worshippers of God (huquq al`ibad). The duality is reflected in the purification obligations of the Muslim believer.
A state of purity is a precondition for worship (`ubudiyah). Every act of worship is an encounter with God, and the purification ritual is a form of preparation for this event. In fact, the purification ritual in Islam is one of numerous means by which sins and infractions are forgiven.
Purification rituals prepare for the journey that finally leads to closeness to God (qurb). Physical purification rituals culminate in spiritual purity in acts of worship. Both the discipline of the ritual acts and their aesthetic dimensions contribute to the deepening of the purification process at the nonmaterial, spiritual level (Sayyed Ali Ashraf, “Inner Meaning of the Islamic Rites,” in Islamic Spirituality: Foundations. pp. I I I-130, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, New York, 1987).
Purification norms and rituals also function on an entirely human level, facilitating human relations by setting off boundaries for interaction. Sexual relations between husband and wife, for example, are conditional upon a certain degree of ritual purity: menstruating women are ritually impure. Similarly, Muslims consider nonbelievers to be impure at one level or another. Traditional Shfis consider non-Muslims spiritually impure to the extent that bodily contact with them necessitates a ritual bath (Khomeini, 1985, p. 20). Sunnis also consider non-Muslims to be spiritually impure, based on the same verse in the Qur’an (9.28), but they do not require a ritual purification in this case.
The Islamic legal tradition (shari`ah) has set out rules and regulations for the successful fulfillment of purification rituals. I will now turn to the basic types of impurity, the reasons why these impurities must be removed, and the major rituals of purification in Islam. A discussion of some of the trends among Muslim peoples in the modern period will conclude the article.
A distinction is made in Islamic law between real (haqiqi) and conceptual (hukmi) impurity. Real impurities include feces, urine, blood, semen, and alcohol, material impurities that defile objects or persons. In these cases, purity is attained by simply removing the defiling object by washing, rubbing, drying, or exposure to the sun. By contrast, conceptual (hukmi) impurities are states or conditions in which humans find themselves; they may or may not involve actual defilement by real impurities. Conceptual impurity arises through elimination, touching a corpse, disbelief, menstruation and postnatal bleeding, contact with the saliva of a dog, or touching any part of a pig. In such cases, purity can only be attained by special ritual acts after the defiling impurity, if any, has been removed.
The idea of removing impurities implies that purity is the natural human state. A person remains in a constant state of purity as long as this state is not nullified by any real or conceptual impurity. According to classical Arabic lexicons, moreover, “purity” (tahur) is defined as the opposite of “menstruation.” In Islamic tradition, maintaining purity reflects an ancient avoidance of menstrual bleeding; hence, a vast number of traditional rules of purity deal with the purity of women. The culture of purification has, however, expanded beyond this original idea. This association between purity in general and menstrual purity in particular may be understood in the sense that purity is an original state broken by temporary periods of impurity.
There are two major purification rituals in the shari `ah-the bath (ghusl) and the ablution (wudu’)-and one minor ritual for exceptional circumstances. Both major rituals are accomplished through the use of water that is clean, colorless, and odorless and that has not been used for a previous ritual. Traditional manuals dealt extensively with the conditions under which wells and pools would be suitable for use and under what conditions they would be defiled. jurists also stressed that water should be used sparingly.
The ghusl is a major ritual that becomes necessary under the following conditions: conversion to Islam, sexual relations, ejaculation, and for women, the end of the menstrual period or postnatal bleeding. According to Shi`is, the ghusl is also obligatory after having washed a corpse; there exists a difference of opinion among the Sunnis on this issue, many believing that it is only recommended. In addition, both Sunnis and Shi`is recommend ghusl for numerous other occasions like Fridays, the days of the two Muslim festivals (`Id), the pilgrimage, and entering Mecca.
Like other acts of worship in Islam, the ghusl must be preceded by an intention to purify oneself. This is then followed by a general washing of every part of the body. Even though this would technically suffice for a ghusl, the following more elaborate procedure and order is recommended: (I) washing the hands; (2) washing the sexual organs; (3) performing the wudu’, (4) rubbing water into the roots of the hair; and (5) pouring water over the entire body, beginning from the right side. The washing of a corpse follows a similar procedure and must be performed by at least one person in the community; this duty is obligatory on society as a whole until one person performs it (fard kifayah).
There are other forms of defilement that reduce the conceptual purity of a person only to a limited degree. These are elimination, flatus, touching a person of the opposite sex (among some Sunnis), irregular bleeding in a woman, and sleeping while resting against an object. In such a case, ghusl would not be obligatory; only the minor form of purification, wudu’, would be necessary to restore purity.
The essentials of the ritual of wudu’ are washing the face, washing both arms up to the elbows, wiping part of the head, and washing both feet (Qur’an, 5.6). In a different interpretation of the Qur’anic verse, the Shi’is insist that the feet should be wiped, not washed. Like ghusl, wudu’ also has a more elaborate procedure drawn from various prophetic recommendations. After an explicit intention is formed, the wudu’ begins with washing the hands, followed by rinsing the mouth, brushing the teeth with a toothpick, and clearing the nostrils. The face is then washed, followed by the arms (first the right and then the left). The wiping of the head comes next, followed by wiping the ears, the neck, and in between the fingers. The final step is the washing (or wiping) of the feet up to the ankles. The wudu’ is often concluded with the pious invocation, “O God! Place me among the repenters and place me among the pure.”
In exceptional circumstances, a person may be unable to maintain the condition of purity for a sufficient time to fulfill the obligation of prayers or other necessary rituals. Such a person is called ma’dhur (“excused”) and may fulfill the duties of worship as long as the wudu’ is performed on every occasion. A woman who bleeds irregularly is said to be in a state of istihadah and would also be considered excused.
The shari has also made provision for conditions when a person is ill and cannot use water, or when water is not available in the immediate vicinity. In such cases, the ritual of tayammum (dry ablution) may be substituted for either the ghusl or the wudu’. This ritual is performed by (I) making an intention to purify oneself; (2) placing the hands on clean dust and then blowing off excess small stones; (3) wiping the face with the hands; (4) repeating the application of dust and wiping the right arm and then the left arm up to the elbow.
A Muslim ought to maintain the basic minimum of ritual purity with a ghusl. Whenever any of the conditions exists that necessitates a ghusl, it must be performed immediately. As a form of motivation and warning, a hadith reports that angels do not enter a home in which there is a person who requires a bath after sexual relations.
The ghusl is a precondition for all forms of worship in Islam. For example, entry to a mosque is permitted to a person without the wudu’ level of purity but not to one without the ghusl level of purity. Thus, according to most Sunni schools, women who are menstruating and who therefore require ghusl may not even pass through a mosque. Some Shi`is restrict this prohibition only to the great mosques in Mecca and Medina. Similarly, menstruation and postnatal bleeding preclude women from fasting during Ramadan. There is a difference of opinion whether menstruating women may recite the Qur’an without touching it (Sabiq, 1985, p. 53). The state of ghusl is thus the first key to worship in Islam; it opens the first door to an encounter with God. In order to step into the immediate presence of God, however, even lesser impurities must be overcome. The wudu’ is contained in the ghusl, but certain defiling acts partially reduce the pure state. Hence, acts like touching the Qur’an, fulfilling the obligatory prayer (salah), and circumambulating the Ka’bah (tawaf) must be performed in both states of purity. The wudu’, then, is a higher state of conceptual purity and is a precondition for intimate worship. Muslims often perform this act regularly before the abovementioned forms of worship. In fact, especially holy persons are often said to perform the night and morning prayer having made only one wudu’, indicating a night of vigil and contemplation.
Modern technological developments have had an impact on the conception and practice of Islamic purification. Advances in plumbing, sanitation, and the “sparkling clean” culture of advertising have intruded into the Islamic debate on purification. Traditional texts that deal at length with clean pools and wells have become obsolete for most Muslims living in towns and cities. Even the invention of the toothbrush has affected the way Muslims practice Islamic purification.
Most modernist and revivalist thought in matters concerning purity has incorporated what may be called the pseudo-Mu’tazili view that real impurity (haqiqi) is equivalent to conceptual (hukmi) impurity in Islam. Thus the Islamic taboo against the pig or the saliva of a dog becomes the object of ingenious scientific justification. The opposing Ash’ari view that real impurity is subject to the laws of conceptual impurity persists in modern legal thought. However, the general tendency is to view the Islamic concern for ritual purity to be unique to Islamic civilization. In conformity with this trend, for example, reformist movements decry the actual filth around Muslim communities as contradictory to the essential teachings of Islam.
More traditional thinkers, however, have rejected this overt modernization. In the counterattack they have often accused the modernists of imitating the West in its impure ways. For example, in a popular Kitaabut tahaarah (Book of Purity) published by a council of `ulama’. in South Africa, the modernists are castigated for adopting “unhygienic, disease-spreading, Western high-level toilets.”
In another striking example, the Kitaabut tahaarah deals extensively with the tooth-stick (miswdk) of the prophet Muhammad. Twenty-three of its 97 pages deal with the history, real benefits, and importance of the tooth-stick. The final paragraph rules out the toothbrush as a substitute even if the miswdk is not available. More particularly, the text reveals its intended target: “The argument of the modernist that the toothbrush today takes the place of the miswdk is fallacious and a good example of the apologetic attitude adopted by modern Muslims of today.” In contrast, Sayyid Sabiq’s Ftgh us-Sunnah (1985), a popular book on shari`ah written from a revivalist perspective, deals very briefly with the tooth-stick and regards the toothbrush as a legitimate substitute: “This sunnah (prophetic practice) is fulfilled by using any object which removes yellow stains on the teeth and cleans the mouth, such as a toothbrush, and so on” (p. z9).
In modern thought, the Islamic legal injunctions are reduced in favor of keeping to the spirit and principles of purification. For example, concerning menstruation and bleeding after childbirth, Sabiq does not confirm the traditional three or ten fixed days for normal bleeding that appears in Islamic legal texts. He prefers to leave these matters to the individual experience of women themselves (p. 70). Similarly, women may pass through mosques in a state of impurity, and a person who performs the ablution may wipe over his socks where it was previously done over tight-fitting leather socks. For the most part, however, modern Islamic practice follows the standards established by traditional manuals. Islamic purification practice today is poised between traditional requirements and modern possibilities.
Denny, Frederick Mathewson. An Introduction to Islam. New York and London, 1985. Contains a detailed section on the various purification rituals in Islam.
Ghazali, Abu Hamid al-. The Mysteries of Purity: Being a Translation with Notes of the Kitab Asrar al-Tahdrah of al-Ghazzali’s Ihya `Ulum al-din. Translated by Nabih A. Faris. Lahore, 1966. Translation of an early document of the inner and mystical significance of purity by one of the greatest scholars in Islamic history.
Khomeini, Ruhollah. The Practical Laws of Islam. 2d ed. Tehran, 1985. Abridged version of Risalah -yi Tawzih al-masd’il. Khomeini’s juridical opinions on essential Islamic rules.
Lazarus-Yafeh, Hava. “Some Differences between Judaism and Islam as Two Religions of Law.” Religion 14 (April 1984): 175-191. Good account of the general differences between classic Islamic and Judaic rules.
Sabiq, Al-Sayyid. Fiqh us-Sunnah: Purification and Prayer. Translated by Muhammad Sa’eed Dabas and Jamal al-Din M. Zarabozo. Indianapolis, 1405/1985. Partial translation of a very popular Arabic compendium of Islamic shari`ah from a revivalist perspective.
ABDUL KADER I. TAYOB