The Prophet Muhammad left detailed guidance for Muslims on how to live their lives, including how to pray, fast and stay ritually pure. This guidance is available in collections called the Hadith.
According to Islamic law, there are minor and major impurities. Minor impurities involve urinating, defecating and sleeping, among other practices. A person of Muslim faith is supposed to perform a ritual washing of their bodies before praying to get rid of these minor impurities.
While washing with water is required when it is available, if a person has limited access to water, then a Muslim is permitted to symbolically “cleanse” their hands and face with dust or sometimes sand or other natural materials.
A Quranic verse says: “And if you are ill or on a journey or one of you comes from the place of relieving himself or you have contacted women and find no water, then seek clean earth and wipe over your faces and your hands [with it]. Indeed, God is ever Pardoning and Forgiving.”
Major impurity is defined in Islamic texts as occurring after sexual activity or when a woman completes her menstrual cycle. A Muslim woman should not pray during her menstrual cycle. To purify oneself after such an impurity, a Muslim is required to take a shower, called “ghusl.” A person needs to wash their entire body, from head to toe, including their hair.
Preparing for prayer by washing one’s body using water can be a deeply spiritual act for Muslims. Islamic studies scholar Paul Powersargues it isn’t “empty ritualism,” but an embodied practice that helps the individual center on an inner religiosity.
Ritual purity is different from hygienic practices, although Islam also emphasizes good hygiene. Muslims take care to wash often, including using water after going to the bathroom.
Aligning with public health guidelines
In view of the coronavirus risk, Muslim leaders around the world, including in the U.S., have aligned their religious opinions with public health experts
Muslim institutions have begun to recommend that people make sure to wash their hands for 20 seconds with soap before doing wudu. Emphasizing that wudu alone cannot prevent the virus from spreading, other Islamic institutions recommend that mosques supply extra soap and hand sanitizer near the washing area.
While people have cleared local store shelves of hand sanitizers, wipes, cleaning supplies, gloves and masks, basic hygiene practices remain the best way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and other viruses.
At this time, Islamic practices that emphasize purity of body could help reiterate the importance of hygienic practices along with the use of soap or hand sanitizer, to reduce one’s vulnerability to the virus.
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