There is a psychological link between physical cleanliness and moral purity, apparent in the common vocabulary we use to describe these two (clean, pure, washing away of sins, etc). Whether this is inherent in humans, or the result on our shared consciousness of a long tradition of spiritual cleanliness rituals, I don’t know. But I am happy with the idea of a cleanliness ritual on this basis.
In Islam, the rituals of prayer – presumably including cleanliness – are a continuation of a pre-existing tradition. I was fascinated to learn this a few months back. This tradition includes Aramaic Christians as well as Arabs, and like the ritual of pilgrimage to the Kaaba, may extend back to Abraham. The Qur’an-only Muslims explain the absence from the Qur’an of instructions for prayer and pilgrimage in terms of the pre-existence and widespread practice of these traditions.
Western Christianity is unique among the monotheistic traditions in not having a concept of ritual cleanliness. This is probably because – as recorded in the book of Acts – the decision was made, when the early Jewish Christians took Christianity outside of Judaism, to impose only a limited few of the Jewish rules onto new converts. This perhaps anomalous absence of ritual in my own tradition makes the idea of ritual cleanliness a little challenging.
I know more about Islamic cleanliness rituals now than I do about Jewish ones, and so it’s these that I’ll focus on as I state the things that I don’t understand, bearing in mind that these issues are not limited to Islam. Firstly, why is a pure state broken by the expulsion of waste from the body? Secondly, why is it broken by lawful sexual activity? Thirdly, if periods come under the bracket of expulsion of waste from the body and so a pure state is impossible during them, doesn’t it take away from a woman’s spiritual nourishment if she is unable to pray for say one week out of every four?
My first two questions arise from the possible misunderstanding that ablution is to “wash away sin”, i.e. improve one’s moral state. Perhaps it’s about a clean body being conducive to a clean, relaxed, focused mind?
Your thoughts, feelings, insights welcome!