Let’s Talk Taharah


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clean-water“Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world.” (George Bernard Shaw)

While people generally consider cleanliness desirable, Islam insists upon it. Let’s talk Taharah.

We jump into the shower, soap up and clean the dirt off – then get on with our days’ activities. We mull over the brand of our toothpaste, soap and shampoo more than the actual “act” of cleaning.

Islam deals with hygiene as part of an overall scheme of ritual, spiritual and physical cleanliness called Taharah. The nearest meaning of Taharah in the English language is “purity.” But it also includes essence of cleanliness, ablution as well as sanctity.

We do not know “Taharah.” We generally associate Taharah with cleaning and hygiene only.

Hygiene is a complex Pandora’s box of a topic, full of doubtful stuff we’d rather not confront. It contains filth and disease, bugs, germs and grubby private habits. On the other hand, it also contains images of sparkling kitchens and bathrooms; scrubbed, perfumed and well-groomed people; and an endless array of cleaning products. It sits uneasily between filth and cleanliness; between the private and the public; and between the scientific and the religious domains of society. While we all agree that hygiene is important, improving it becomes difficult if we cannot agree on what it means or understand where it comes from.

Islam deals with hygiene as part of an overall scheme of ritual, spiritual and physical cleanliness called Taharah. The nearest meaning of Taharah in the English language is “purity.” But it also includes essence of cleanliness, ablution as well as sanctity.

So, do we humans have hygiene instincts? After a series of research projects looking into hygiene motivation around the world (example, India, Africa, Netherlands and the United Kingdom), a scientific study found evidence for this idea. When interviewed about the ‘why’ of their hygiene habits, the study found that people found it hard to explain their reactions to certain stimuli. Faced with feces, bodily fluids, rotten food and creepy-crawlies, people would say, “I can’t explain it – they are just yuck!” It seemed that there was a powerful sense of disgust involved, which compelled people to avoid nasty, sticky, oozing and teeming stuff. (‘A Natural History of Hygiene’, Valerie A Curtis, PhD, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)

So, do we humans have hygiene instincts? After a series of research projects looking into hygiene motivation around the world (example, India, Africa, Netherlands and the United Kingdom), a scientific study found evidence for this idea.

It is in our nature (Fitrah) to want to be pure or Tahir. Taharah is an instinct ingrained in us by Allah (swt). It is no wonder then that Taharah is the first lesson of Islam. Allah (swt) says in one of His first revelations: “And purify your garments….”  (Al-Muddaththir, 74: 4 – 5)

There is a link between physical and ritual purity. Physical purity is ridding one-self of dirt and physical impurities (Najasah). Being physically clean is conducive to ritual purity. Just like having a clean container is essential for keeping water free of impurities. No matter how pure the water is, if the container is contaminated with filth, it will certainly contaminate the water.

In many cases, Taharah encompasses both physical and ritual purity simultaneously.  For example bathing (Ghusl) after sexual intercourse, and for women – at the end of menstruation and after post partum bleeding is a deliberate cleansing act of purifying the body by following a Sunnah prescribed ritual.

The Islamic prayer (Salah), has a uniqueness unlike the prayer in other religions, in which physical purification is a necessary condition. If prayer is the key to Paradise then, likewise purification is the key to prayer. 

A distinctive characteristic of Taharah is that it is a means to an end as well as an end in itself.  It is a form of worship (Ibadah) as well as preparation for other forms of Ibadah. Since worship is direct communication with Allah (swt), Taharah can also be viewed as a protocol preparation for an important event.

Taharah embraces cleanliness. A clean environment and a clean body are part of aesthetic beauty and are also necessary for sanitation and health. However, we must not equate it with fancy stuff only. There are some cases like Tayammum (dry ablution) where Taharah is achieved without cleanliness as we usually understand.  The spectrum of Taharah then goes beyond our acceptable perception of hygiene here.

Do not think for a minute that Taharah is merely a hypothetical concept.  Islam is pragmatic in all matters and Islamic concepts have practical implications. Taharah is an essential part of the rites and worship to such extent that it is an inseparable part of a Muslim’s life.  The Prophet (sa) said: “Purification is half of faith.” (Muslim, Ahmad and Tirmidhi)

A distinctive characteristic of Taharah is that it is a means to an end as well as an end in itself.  It is a form of worship (Ibadah) as well as preparation for other forms of Ibadah.

The Islamic prayer (Salah), has a uniqueness unlike the prayer in other religions, in which physical purification is a necessary condition. If prayer is the key to Paradise then, likewise purification is the key to prayer. The Prophet (sa) said: “Allah does not accept prayers without purification.” (Muslim and Ibn Majah)

Taharah then becomes essential knowledge for every Muslim, it is not simply “staying clean” or “being hygienic” – but preparing for standing before Allah (swt).  It is a ruling of Islamic law. Every Muslim is obliged to turn to the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet (sa) and take instructions from there.

“O you who believe! Approach not As-Salah when you are in a drunken state until you know (the meaning) of what you utter, nor when you are in a state of Janabah, (i.e. in a state of sexual impurity and have not yet taken a bath) except when travelling on the road (without enough water, or just passing through a mosque), till you wash your whole body. And if you are ill, or on a journey, or one of you comes after answering the call of nature, or you have been in contact with women (by sexual relations) and you find no water, perform Tayammum with clean earth and rub therewith your faces and hands Truly, Allah is Ever Oft Pardoning, Oft Forgiving.” (An-Nisa, 4:43)

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The Companions of the Prophet (sa) declared with confidence, that yes, our Prophet (sa) has even taught us how to clean ourselves after going to the toilet – Alhumdulillah.

Why is there such stress on Taharah in Islam? Firstly, it is one of the qualities beloved to Allah (swt). He says: “Truly, Allah loves those who turn unto Him in repentance and loves those who purify themselves.” (Al-Baqarah, 2:222).  Secondly, it is the path to health and strength. The Muslim is entrusted with his body, thus, he must not neglect it. The Prophet (sa) said: “Your body has a right on you.” (Agreed upon)

Thirdly, it is a prerequisite to appearing in the way most loved by Allah (swt) and His Prophet (sa). Allah (swt) says: “O children of Adam! Take your adornment (by wearing your clean clothes) while praying.” (Al-Araf, 7:31)

And lastly, cleanliness and pleasant appearance are conducive for cultivating healthy human relationships. A man came to the Prophet (sa) with unkempt hair and untidy beard. The Prophet (sa) pointed to him, as if ordering him to straighten his hair and beard. He did so and returned. Thereupon the Prophet (sa) observed, ‘Is that not better than one of you coming with his hair unkempt, as if he were a devil?’ (Malik)

Science continues to zero in on, to make more precise, what we ‘feel’ to be right: dirt causes disease. But as a species, we are naturally hygienic – in fact, we ‘knew’ that all along. Islam endorses and institutionalizes the whole hygiene thing for us in the most user-friendly package – so go soap up!

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