Whether you are already a Muslim, thinking of converting to Islam or just interested in finding out more about this fascinating faith you may have heard of something that is a very important part of the religion – ablution. Islam requires all of its followers to perform a purity ritual which involves a special way of washing to ensure that you are both physically and spiritually clean. This article looks to define ablution and help you to understand the meaning behind it and to consider how vital ablution is to the meaning of being Muslim.
What is the meaning of ablution?
The general ablution definition is of washing oneself and keeping oneself hygienic. In Islam ablution takes on a spiritual dimension too as it is the ritual purification that followers are required to perform before saying formal prayers – known as ‘Salat’. Ablution usually refers to washing with water but there are also dry ablutions too if water is not available or if a Muslim suffers from a skin condition such as eczema that may be exacerbated by the use of water.
Sunni and Shia Muslims both interpret ablution differently and have slightly different definitions of the ritual itself and when it is needed. There are a number of variations to the practice depending on which Islamic scholars are followed. For a full definition it is always a good idea to speak to your Imam or religious leader.
Different definitions and types of ablution
So how does Islam define ablutions? Well there are actually a number of different types of ablution that must be performed in certain situations.
Firstly there is Wudu. This refers to a partial ablution that happens before formal prayers take place or before a Muslim holds the holy book of the Quran. The ritual washing usually covers the hands, feet, arms, mouth, nose, head and ears. Wudu needs to be re-done after any bodily function occurs such as urination or defaecation, breaking of wind and also after a deep sleep.
Secondly there is Ghusl. Sometimes performing the Wudu ablution is not enough and there are situations where full ablution that must take place. This full ablution is known as Ghusl and it is usually recommended that it takes place after sexual intercourse for both genders and for women after their period and after childbirth.
It is also recommended that people who are formally converting to Islam should perform Ghusl to mark their conversion.
The final ablution definition is of Tayammum which refers to dry ablution with sand and dust in cases where water may not be available.
Islam and the spiritual meaning of ablution
Of course the true definition of ablution is not just the practical act of washing itself but also the transcendent act of using the water to perform a spiritual purification, of washing away the world so that one is clean enough to pray and take on religious duties.
The origins of ablution are thought to be found in the sixth ayat of sura 5 which says…
O you who have believed, when you rise to [perform] prayer, wash your faces and your forearms to the elbows and wipe over your heads and wash your feet to the ankles. And if you are in a state of janabah, then purify yourselves. But 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 do not find water, then seek clean earth and wipe over your faces and hands with it. Allah does not intend to make difficulty for you, but He intends to purify you and complete His favour upon you that you may be grateful.
And the act of cleanliness and of the ritual definition of ablution are mentioned in a number of Hadiths and throughout the Quran. The importance placed on the meaning of ablution can be best summed up in the words of the prophet himself as Mohammed (pbuh) tells his followers that “cleanliness is half of faith”.