Ritual cleanliness

June 17, 2009 at 1:25 pm (Islam, religious practices, science)

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!



  1. Aynur said,

    It is interesting to note that the idea that is woman is unclean during her period is not mentioned in the Qur’an.
    I also believe that the prayer ritual goes way back, it didn’t just “appear” suddenly.
    Besides that, I don’t think getting wudu/ghusl “washes away sin”, exactly. When you break your wudu, you’re just ritually unclean. Not unclean as a person. Maybe it’s just as simple as washing the affected parts after sexual activity, for hygiene reasons. Or washing the main parts you’re going to be praying with. Maybe to prepare us mentally for prayer. I’m guessing it’s for reasons that we just don’t understand with our limited human reasoning.

    • Sarah said,

      Aynur: yes – submission.org (Qur’an-only site) says women should pray during their periods. But I feel that the understanding of women being unclean during their period would be one of the things that goes way back, and so wasn’t spelled out in the Qur’an. It certainly exists in Judaism.

      I used to think Islam introduced a lot of new things, yet claimed to be a continuation of previous religious traditions. But now I understand that most of the rituals of Islam were not new at all but extend back possibly to Abraham. This made a big difference to how I felt about it. It means that even as a Christian I should feel some affinity with Islam.

      “Or washing the main parts you’re going to be praying with. Maybe to prepare us mentally for prayer.”
      I like this explanation, and I would be totally happy with this if it was required before every prayer. But it’s not required unless you went to the toilet or broke wind since the last prayer. That’s the part I don’t understand. Maybe there’s just some mystical/psychological connection between toilet stuff and spiritual attitude.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Candice said,

    I am unsure about menstruation. I’ve prayed during my period before, feeling like there was no real reason not to. I didn’t feel like I was “unclean” just because of it and I hated that women were given less of a chance to worship God. Now I don’t know. As you were saying, just breaking wind or going to the bathroom makes a person “unclean” and certainly, I don’t feel unclean just because of that. I mean, as long as I keep good hygiene. :p

    But it made me think and kind of accept the idea, although not fully, that women might be ritually unclean during their periods, and unable to do salat. People say it’s a mercy from God to be “exempt” from prayer during that time of the month, when we can be in pain, irritable, etc. etc. and still having our responsabilities around the house to take care of! I guess it could be! I always feel like I’m as capable as any man and should not get “special treatment” but our bodies are different. I had very bad cramps for a long time that would interfere with my life while they were present. I had prescribed meds for that too and it didn’t even work that great! Now I don’t get much pain and if I do it’s easily controlled, but it was hard to deal with at the time!!

    The other thing about women in their periods not praying is that it gives them extra time to focus on their religion and learn more to improve their deen but also teach their chidren.

    I am still not convinced abotu women not praying while in their periods… I see each side’s point so I’ll just pick one and go with it when the time comes.

    Oh, and you’re right about the ritual to prepare yourself… I think it’s a good reason to do it and it certainly does work at putting a person in a praying mindset and Godworshipping mindset, but then why do we not have to do it before each prayer? Maybe it’s because any bit of doubt makes you need to do it again. So if you have no doubt, then you were actively making sure not to do any of the things that invalidate wudu, and so you are in the mindframe already??

    Good post, lots to think about! :p

    • Sarah said,

      Candice: if the Qur’an is silent on the issue of menstruation and ritual purity I guess this would indicate continuation with the previous tradition. If a break from tradition was intended, it probably would have been spelled out. The things you say about it make some sense, and particularly for fasting, it would make sense to be exempt. I can’t imagine coping with the cramps and headaches on top of hunger and thirst.

      Your last paragraph about wudu makes sense too. I guess most of the time people do it before each prayer.

      I love the way you think, so sensible! 🙂

      • Aynur said,

        I wondering though, if we’re unclean during our period – then why if a woman bleeds longer than something like 10 days she’s supposed to start praying again anyway.

        • Sarah said,

          Hmmm… maybe it’s a compromise between a woman’s spiritual needs and whatever the reasons against praying are? I would imagine the worst should be over by 10 days so if it’s an exemption due to hardship type of thing then 10 days should be an acceptable limit.

          Another thought… I suppose in years gone by women might not have had adequate sanitary protection and so the issue might be that they shouldn’t go to mosques because their clothes were soiled or they were even dripping blood?! These days we can certainly feel cleaner, but who’s going to say that the rules should change? 😛

          • Aynur said,

            That’s an interesting thought, and it makes sense. 🙂

  3. Ange said,

    i differnetly agree with the pyschological link with washing.

    after wudu and praying yesterday, i walked out of my house into the backyard and just felt so great as my clean feet hit the soil. its definately a good feeling.

    • Sarah said,

      Ange: wow. It’s all theoretical for me at the moment so it’s nice to hear about actual experiences!

  4. Kay said,

    Some thoughts…

    …I made a huge mistake while I was beginning to learn about Islam by agreeing with what submission.org (Qur’an-only site) said. DON’T LISTEN to them please. Please don’t make the same mistake that I did. They completely ignore the Sunnah of Muhammad (SAWS). Yes Qur’an comes before Hadiths in most legal methodologies, but there was a reason why the Qur’an came through a person and didn’t just fall out of the sky. Over and over again in the Qur’an it commands us to follow Muhammad (SAWS): 7:158 (Asad) “Say [O Muhammad]: ‘O mankind! Verily, I am an apostle of God to all of you, [sent by Him] unto whom the dominion over the heavens and the earth belongs! There is no deity save Him; He [alone] grants life and deals death!’ Believe, then, in God and His Apostle-the unlettered Prophet who believes in God and His words-and follow him, so that you might find guidance!”

    …Wudu is an act of worship in of of itself, just like salaat is an act of worship. I have noticed with a lot of ritual practices in Islam, such as wudu, it goes back to setting us in a state of fitra – a state that is similar to when we were first born into this world. While this theory may or may not be correct it is one dimension to look at fitra. (Refer to: http://e5pre55odr1nk5.blogspot.com/2008/03/fitra-return-to-natural-state.html). For me wudu also helps transition my mind from the outside world to the inner spiritual dimensions.

    It also has to do with showing respect to Allah (swt) by following a commandment He made clear to us. In salaat you are standing in front of Allah (swt) in a way, the one who created you out of nothing. As told by our Prophet (SAWS) salaat must be performed in order for our required prayers to be valid. Yes we can invoke Allah (swt) whenever we please to ask for His aid, but this invocation is different than performing the fard (required) salaat.

    …The ritual prayer in Islam is recognized by its prostration. Prostration is not a new concept invented when Muhammad (SAWS) came. The early Jews did prostration in their prayer as well. (See: http://sagavyah.tripod.com/id4.html#3 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFKhjDzgdNw&feature=related).

    …I really suggest that you take a class from SunniPath Online because they go into great depth about ritual purity. Why it is done, how it is done, etc.




    • Sarah said,

      Kay, thanks for all this info.

      The submission.org people do seem a bit dogmatic in their own way, which always makes me wary. I’m not buying into what they say, but I’m not at a stage yet where I trust the Sunnah, partly because of issues of authenticity, partly because I don’t know if Muhammad really was a prophet, partly because I don’t think even prophets are perfect. I’ve heard a lot of people say they find hadith less inspiring than Qur’an, I wonder what you have felt about them?

      It’s really amazing how similar the Jewish prayer is. With supplications during prostration too.

      The courses do sound interesting, but I fear at the moment it would just feed my tendency to worry over minor details. Something for the future when my heart knows where it is!

      • Kay said,

        My advice is to continue to go slow, and to learn from reliable sources. Don’t focus on hadiths. I haven’t even gotten to a stage where I understand the methodology of them because I’m not ready. But this doesn’t mean that in the mean time we ignore what people say who have dedicated their whole lives to studying them.

        As far as Muhammad (SAWS) being a prophet I feel with my mind and heart that he is the last prophet because of the existence of the Qur’an. I suggest that you read more about the life of Muhammad (SAWS). Here is a great resource to start: http://www.lastprophet.info/en/.

        The Islamic view of prophets is that they are humans like us but were exceptional because of God chose them. Faraz Fareed Rabbani writes in ‘The Absolute Essentials of Islam’:

        “Belief in the Messengers. This is to believe in the prophets and the messengers of Allah, the first of whom is Adam (PBUH) and the last our Master Muhammad (PBUH). Everything that the messengers came with is true. Five attributes are necessary for all messengers: Truthfulness, Trustworthiness, Conveying the message, Intelligence, and Sinlessness. The opposites of these attributes are impossible for messengers. They are: lying, betrayal, not conveying the message, lack of intelligence, and sinning, whether the sins are major or minor.”

        The Old Testament view of prophets is that they are like us (sinful) and the only thing different from them is that they have a message from God. In the New Testament another extreme is taken: the prophet (Jesus) turns into a divine. Islam has a view that is inbetween: prophets were the pearls amongst human beings because they were examples for us to follow and imitate.

        As far as the classes I think they would help you because you seem to have a lot of questions and you can ask every single question you want via the live sessions, discussion boards, and emailing the teacher. There is obviously a lecture component, but there is a huge emphasis of asking questions. And the teachers explain their answers very well.

        • Sarah said,

          I don’t really believe that prophets were sinless. Adam for a start sinned by eating the fruit he was told not to eat. And Soloman married too many foreign wives. And David committed adultery. And doesn’t the Qur’an admonish Muhammad on occasion for certain decisions he made? And didn’t he always pray for God’s forgiveness? I believe they had exceptional spiritual insight and God-consciousness but not that they never made mistakes.

          I will definitely think about the classes, thank you!

  5. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    This topic hit me hard. I don’t know why, but I’ve always accepted that women shouldn’t pray during their periods. When I began praying I asked some people and they said that women shouldn’t pray when on their periods. I have no idea why I never questioned/thought about this, especially since I usually question everything I hear from other Muslims.

    I really miss praying when I’m on my period. It’s interesting that nowhere in the Qur’an is it mentioned that we should not pray when menstruating. Where is this idea from then? A hadith? Other traditions?

    And Sarah great point about how today women can handle their periods better than before when they probably had to use pieces of cloth etc and it may not have been as sanitary as today.

    Re. wudu I really like it, it gives me a very fresh feeling and it’s sort of a mental preparation for praying, like Aynur said.

    • Sarah said,

      As I understand it, Qur’an doesn’t give complete instructions for worship. This could be because the Sunnah was meant to cover that, or because people at the time already knew the rituals because it was a long-standing tradition. Either way in my view it would be hard to make a case for praying during periods.

      An alternative view I can imagine is that the details that aren’t spelled out don’t really matter, or that we can think for ourselves of how best to do it. This would be pretty controversial. You’d need to be very confident to abandon mainstream rules and follow a “personal” religion. At the moment I don’t have this confidence, but I’m not confident in the rules either. I am lost.

    • Aynur said,

      The idea that we should not pray during menstruating is from the hadith.

  6. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    Then again prayer etiquette in general is not in the Qur’an, like you said Sarah. HOW to pray isn’t even in the Qur’an, the Prophet demonstrated it.

  7. ellen557 said,

    Wow, you write such brilliant posts.
    I really agree with Sara; when I finish my period, I am out of whack with praying. Seriously, I feel like I’ve been on a trip for a year and just returned 😐
    I do love ghusl & wudu, though. That sounds weird but I just adore it. I also feel like it serves a practical purpose. When I can be sure I’ve finished my period, I make ghusl and then I really know I’ve finished. Another month’s gone, etc. It feels like a “moving on” thing to me.

    As for after sex – wow, even if I wasn’t interested in Islam I think I’d still be taking a shower ;). It’s a symbolic thing, as well as a cleansing thing – it’s like taking your mind away from those thoughts so you can concentrate on, for example, prayer. I want to be clean when I pray – I want to be clean before God. That’s my personal thing though, I haven’t looked into it too much.

    Again, I always love your posts!

  8. Sarah said,

    Ellen, thanks!

    “it’s like taking your mind away from those thoughts so you can concentrate on, for example, prayer”
    This makes a lot of sense. A LOT. Thanks for that! By the way, what does ghusl involve? Do you have to wash your hair too?

    Also, I was wondering if there are other forms of worship or remembrance we can participate in during periods? Like dhikr, or reading Qur’an in our own language? Anybody know?

    • ellen557 said,

      Ghusl is just like taking a shower, really. The specifics differ according to Sunni/Shia (ugh, I know right, more differences) but I just follow what my husband does and he is Shia, so, that involves pouring water over the head three times, washing your mouth with water three times, then washing the right side of the body and the left.
      I remember hearing something about “no hair on your body should be dry”.
      I think you can also do it by just having a bath, but I don’t want to impress my own way of doing it – I don’t know any good Sunni websites, but from what I gather ghusl is very similar in both sects, it’s just the specifics that are different.
      I don’t think you have to wash your hair with shampoo, but with water: yes. You have to take off your earrings/rings/anything that stops water too.

      Oooh and both start with an intention in your heart.

      And to your second question: again, this is from my point of view which has a Shia background, but sure. Just abstain from prayer, that’s all. But I did read something about not touching Qur’an in Arabic (everyone forgive me if I’m wrong because I probably am hahah) but that your own language is ok. An ayatollah has also said that for each prayer time, it is ok for women to make wudhu and sit on the prayer mat, remembering God, just not doing the specifics of prayer.
      I’d encourage you to check out Sunni websites (if that’s your line of thinking) because the second bit about praying is from a Shia Ayatollah’s advice :):):)

  9. Sara (cairo, lusaka, amsterdam) said,

    I heard that we aren’t supposed to even touch a Qur’an when we’re on our periods but I don’t have proof for this and it sounds weird so I don’t follow that.

  10. Sarah said,

    Thanks for the info everyone!

  11. ellen557 said,

    Sarah – I just wanted to add (only just remembered this) that if you have a bath, you can make ghusl just by submerging yourself completely (so nothing is left dry) and then that’s it 🙂 So just take off any earrings or anything that stops the water getting through to the skin and then do the submerging thing ^_^

  12. NeverEver said,

    Salam Sarah!

    I have learned that not praying during your period was a mercy from Allah subhanu wa ta’ala, not really an “unclean” thing. Truthfully I can’t imagine going through ritual prayer during my period as it is so painful, especially the first few days. And as always we can make du’a or supplication, where we can maintain our connection to Allah subhanu wa ta’ala. Alhamdulillah this is a mercy that I truly enjoy… This is not a lost opportunity to gain closeness to God. You can maintain your relationship with Him, just in a more convenient and comfortable way.

    It sort of reminds me of how women are not obligated to pray in congregation as the men are. Allah subhanu wa ta’ala knows that women have children. We are the ones who get pregnant, we are the ones who breastfeed. This makes praying in congregation difficult… so as a mercy, this is not required of us alhamdulillah.

    From a conservative source I read that you can make du’a, listen to Qur’an, recite Qur’an, read Qur’an in a translated version, etc. but that out of respect for the written words of Allah you should avoid actually handling a Qur’an in the original Arabic. Some say this isn’t necessary. I prefer to edge on the side of caution and just listen to the BEAUTIFUL recitation available, or to read it in English. 🙂

    • NeverEver said,

      It should also be noted that women actually recieve MORE benefit from praying in the home for this very reason: so that we do not lose the opportunity for blessings that men get for praying in congregation. Perhaps there is some equivalent with the menstruation thing as well…

    • Sarah said,

      “And as always we can make du’a or supplication, where we can maintain our connection to Allah subhanu wa ta’ala. Alhamdulillah this is a mercy that I truly enjoy… This is not a lost opportunity to gain closeness to God. You can maintain your relationship with Him, just in a more convenient and comfortable way.”

      This is really good to read.

      “out of respect for the written words of Allah you should avoid actually handling a Qur’an in the original Arabic”

      I don’t really understand this business of ascribing mystical quality to ink on a page or to vocal sounds (in recitation). To my mind, the only sacredness in the words of a scripture is in their meaning. If God indeed spoke those words, it was only those particular words in that dialect of Arabic in order for them to be understood readily at the time.

      • NeverEver said,

        Yes… the not touching thing kind of gets to me too. And I just don’t know… so like I said I edge on the side of caution. Plus really… they read it so much better than I do!!!

  13. Achelois said,

    Pagans didn’t stop praying or invoking their gods during periods but Jews did and it is interesting that the ahadith that tell women not to pray during their periods date back not to the Meccan but to the Medinian period when Muslims were greatly influenced by the Jews.

    • Wrestling said,

      That’s interesting. I think Judaism did influence things a lot.

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