The Purpose of Wudu (Ablution)
By: A. Muhammad
"O you who believe, when you rise to observe the Salat, you shall wash your faces and your arms to the elbows, and wipe your heads and your feet to the ankles." 5:6
This is the ablution decreed in the Quran. It consists of four simple steps:
1- Wash the face
2- Wash the arms to the elbows
3- Wipe the head
4- Wipe the feet to the ankles.
But is this the ablution that is performed by 99% of Muslims today? The answer is no!
In spite of this very clear command in the Quran, the majority of Muslims today perform their ablution in a different way. The ablution they perform is taken from the "sunna" (methods of the Prophet). They follow an ablution which they believe is how the prophet Muhammad performed. In addition to the four steps prescribed in the Quran, they also wash the hands to the wrists, the mouth, the nose (nostrils), the ears, and the neck.
They argue that since "Al-Nazafah min al-Imaan" or (cleanliness is an attribute of good faith), as their hadith says, then the more steps one performs to achieve better cleanliness is encouraged.
Performing these additional steps in ablution, none of which are in the Quran, compels us to ask the following questions:
1- Is it conceivable that the Prophet whom we are told in the Quran was a "fine example" for the believers (33:21), and who was commanded very firmly by God to follow only what was revealed to him (46:9 and 10:15), has in fact disregarded the Quranic ablution and devised his own version of ablution?
2- And if the Prophet devised a different method for ablution, would that mean that the ablution prescribed in the Quran by God is inadequate? Has the Prophet in fact devised a better method of ablution?
3- All this ultimately leads to the crucial question: is physical cleanliness the main purpose and aim of ablution after all?
The only answer to the first and second questions must be the negative. The Prophet could never have devised or followed a different format for ablution than what God gave him in the Quran.
As to the third question one must pose and reflect on the following thoughts:
If the primary purpose of ablution was in fact cleanliness why did God not command us to wash under our arms (arm pits), or our private parts, or better still to take a bath? Surely those parts of our body are more in need of washing than ones face! If the primary purpose of ablution was cleanliness why did God only say "wipe your heads" and not "wash your heads"? Surely, wiping the head does not properly clean it!
The obvious and rational answer to these questions is that the purpose of ablution cannot be primarily for physical cleanliness. Ablution is nothing more than a simple command from God to test our obedience. Are we going to obey God in four simple steps or will the devil dupe us into changing God's command? This test is in fact identical to the test given to Adam and Eve with regards to the forbidden tree. Why did God place the forbidden tree among all the others and warn Adam not to eat its fruit? Obviously there was nothing wrong with the fruit of the tree because when Adam and Eve ate its fruit no physical harm befell them, however Adam and Eve failed in the simple test of obedience to God. The devil tricked them exactly in the same way he is tricking millions of Muslims today into disobeying the simplest of God's commands!
Satan's tricks are always the same, God Almighty has warned us that the devil will entice us with lies and illusions. In the case of Adam, the devil tricked him into believing that the fruit of the forbidden tree is better than the others saying:
"O Adam, shall I lead you to the tree of immortality and unending kingship?" 20:120
Similarly, in the case of ablution the devil has enticed the millions into believing that there is a better way than the one prescribed by God! To make it more convincing, he has tricked us into believing that the Prophet followed the "improved ablution"! In reality the Prophet is innocent of all these fabricated lies ascribed to him. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Prophet must have followed God's commands in the Quran by the letter without altering them.
If cleanliness was the issue exploited by Satan to instill his poison, we find that God has given us sufficient indications in the Quran to confirm that ablution is merely a test of obedience and not a matter of cleanliness, they are:
First: The parts of the body addressed in the Quranic ablution (5:6) are not the parts of the body that need cleansing the most (under the arm pits and private parts are more in need of frequent cleansing).
Second: Why did God command us to wash the faces and arms but only wipe the heads? Since wiping the head does not really clean it, it must be taken as another indication from God to confirm that physical cleanliness is not the main issue, and that obeying God's simple commands is the real issue and test.
Third: The third confirmation is found in the following verse:
"………… If you are ill or travelling, or if any of you has come from the toilet, or had sexual contact with the women, and you could not find water, you shall observe Tayammum by means of wiping your faces and hands with clean dry soil." 4:43
The very important observation here is that the one who has just been to the toilet or has just had sex with his/her spouse really needs to wash their private parts and not the face and hands! However, and in the absence of water, the command from God is to wipe the face and the hands in dry ablution (which obviously will not clean the private parts). Once again this confirms that the whole issue of ablution is not one of physical cleanliness, but simply a test of obedience.
Sadly, this is the route taken by millions of Muslims throughout the world. Not only do they add their own innovations to God's simple commands, but they also add the most ridiculous conditions possible. Some will tell you that if the water slides from your elbow to your wrist that your ablution is void, and that the correct method is for the water to slide in the opposite direction! Others will quote hadith stipulating ridiculous things like the importance of sneezing upon waking up, and the method of sneezing .. etc!
God tells us in the Quran two pieces of knowledge that come to mind in connection to the issue of ablution and the arguments of such people:
1- God has created the human being, and thus God knows us perfectly well. God knows that no matter how simple His commands may be, yet the human being will always argue unnecessarily …..
"We have cited in this Quran every example for the people, yet the human being is most argumentative." 18:54
2- Reference can also be made to the story of the people of Israel when they were commanded to sacrifice a heifer (young cow), but they went on dithering and demanding all sorts of unnecessary clarifications, when the command was very simple for them to execute (see Sura 2, verses 67-74)
Finally, we must also mention the word "taharah" (purification) and its connection to the subject of ablution. Does "taharah" mean physical cleanliness as many Muslims believe or does it have a different meaning?
Let us read some of the Quranic verses that speaks of "taharah":
- "The angels said, "O Mary, God has chosen you and 'tahharik' (purified you), and He has chosen you over the women of all the people." 3:42
It is obvious here that God did not take Mary and physically clean her! The word "tahharik" used here is related to spiritual purity.
- "Take from their money a charity to 'tuttaherahum' (purify them) and sanctify them." 9:103
Once again it is clear that this command, which is directed to the messenger, is to take a donation to charity from the believers so as to purify them spiritually (and not to clean them physically).
- "Those are the ones whose hearts God did not want to 'yuttahhir' (purify). They shall have humiliation in this world, and in the Hereafter they shall have a great punishment." 5:41
Once again, the meaning here is of spiritual cleansing and not the physical cleansing of the heart.
The Quran stresses that the concept of "taharah" (spiritual purity) is attained through worshipping God and submitting to His commands and to His Will, and not through scrubbing away at our limbs!
Through our obedience to God and His law (the command in 5:6 is one example) and without arguing, amending and altering His commands, we would indeed attain the "taharah" (spiritual purity) which moves us closer to our God and our Creator.