Ablution: A Dual Message of Spirituality and Cleanliness
The advent of Islam didn’t merely signify a historical epoch in terms of a birth of a new religion. Contrary to a common misconception, Islam is not a religion solely concerned with or dedicated to the spiritual worship of God in terms of ritual prayers. In fact, Islam is a religion that has successfully married the temporal aspects of life with the spiritual needs of the soul.
This combination of the two was done in such a manner that even temporal action, if done with the proper intention, is an act of worship. It is for this reason that when Muslim scholars discuss Islam they define it as a “complete way of life.” What is meant by this expression is that all the answers to human needs can be found in the guidelines of Islam.
These detailed yet simple guidelines of Islam cover all aspects of human life, from the most basic elements of life such as the etiquette of relieving oneself to the intricate world of politics and state governance.
One of the strands of this vast spectrum of guidelines can be illustrated in the Islamic precept of ritual ablution known aswudu‘ inArabic.
The Islamic ordinance of ablution depicts an excellent example of how Islam combines the concept of spirituality with temporal affairs or — to be more precise in this case — personal hygiene and cleanliness.
To better understand this, one has to apprehend the optimal station of a person’s relationship with God, a station that should be aspired to by all and that forms the cornerstone of a person’s relationship with God.
This station is the love for God. It is the highest aim of true believers who truly love God and reach a point where God loves them back. God addresses the topic of our loving Him in a very subtle manner.
Almighty Allah says in the Qur’an what means the following:
But the love of the believers for Allah is more intense. (The Holy Quran, Surah Al-Baqarah 2:165)
And there is a man who is willing to sell his soul to win the favor of Allah. And Allah is companionate to His creatures. (The Holy Quran, Surah Al-Baqarah 2:207)
However, the love for God is something dynamic in the sense that it requires a complete change in the structure of a person’s life. This entails change in interaction, behavior, thoughts, and concepts. This is the most essential ingredient required for reaching the pinnacle of submission and worship of God.
The starting point of one’s relationship with God is in the purification of thoughts and concepts. Unless the soul is completely purified, one cannot proceed with achieving closeness to God.
Once a person yields to the will of God, he or she has taken the first step in drawing closer to God and gaining His favors. The question now is, how can a person continue to proceed with achieving God’s complete love and favor? The answer can be found in the following hadith.
Prophet Muhammad said, “God the Almighty said, ‘Whoever shows animosity to a friend of Mine, I have declared war upon him. My servant does not draw closer to Me with anything more beloved than the religious duties that I have prescribed on him; and My servant continues to draw closer to Me with voluntary actions so much that I love him, and when I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he holds, and his legs with which he walks. Were he to ask of Me, I would surely give him; and were he to ask Me for refuge, I would surely grant him it.'” (Sahih Al-Bukhari)
This hadith encapsulates for believers the path they have to adopt in order to attain their aim of loving God and God loving them in return, and elucidates that this relationship is a two-way bond.
The first action must come from the person: This reflects God’s self-sufficiency of being worshiped and His independence of His creations. Once the first step has been taken by the person in search of God’s love, God responds.
His response does not in any way equate or resemble the love the person has shown for the Creator. Rather, the Creator’s love for His creation is unmatchable and unquantifiable.
This metaphorical analogue explains nothing but God’s deep love for His creation, which the creation can never reciprocate. If we look closer we will discover that it is a person’sunequivocalsubmission to God that creates that love for God.
To test submission, God has ordained various tasks a person must complete. The successful completion of these tasks not only proves one’s submission to God but is also a manifestation of one’s love for God.
Ablution is one of many tasks that God commands the faithful to perform.
God says in the Qur’an what means the following:
O you who believe when you stand for prayer, wash your faces and your hands up to your elbows, and wipe your heads and wash your feet up to your ankles. (The Holy Quran, Surah Al-Ma’idah 5:6)
Ablution, like all acts of worship, is a symbolic reflection of a person’s submission to God resulting out of love for Him. To God, ablution in itself is meaningless. The meaningful thing about it is His servant’s submission to Him.
This continuous submission helps purify the soul and raise it to a blessed state. The cleanliness of the body is the most elementary stage in achieving this because one’s physical state would most certainly have an effect on one’s mental and spiritual states.
Islam has greatly emphasized the importance of cleanliness and purity; the Qur’an says what means the following:
Indeed Allah loves those who repent and those who keep clean.
(The Holy Quran, SurahAl-Baqarah 2:22)
There you will find men who love cleanliness and Allah loves those who are clean. (The Holy Quran, Surah At-Tawbah 9:108)
Prophet Muhammad has further expounded the importance of cleanliness by saying that “cleanliness is half of faith” (Muslim), adjoining cleanliness to faith in God Himself.
The message of cleanliness in Islam is deep rooted in all aspects of worshiping God. In regard to ablution, God explicitly outlines His intention by saying in the Qur’an what means the following:
Allah wants to purify you and grace you with His favors in full so that you may be grateful.
(The Holy Quran, SurahAl-Ma’idah 5:6)
In other words, enjoining cleanliness of the body brings a person to realize that when physical impurities dominate, their effect is felt mentally, thus creating a corroding effect on a person’s mental status, which will inevitably defile and pollute the soul.
Therefore, for the process of spiritual cleanliness to take place, the beginning must be physical. Hence when a person washes the face and limbs several times a day at different intervals, he or she is refreshed and kept clean.
This continual ritual of washing performed on the physical being of a person will eventually penetrate to the soul and help him or her draw closer to the Creator. Through the institution of ablution one can quite easily see how Islam uniquely combines the need for personal hygiene with the spiritual needs of the soul.