Ablution is a term used to refer to ritual or sacred washing for the purpose of ritual purification in conjunction with prayer within various religious traditions. They mark transitions from profane to sacred states, etc and are often associated with rites of passage. In Islam, achieving physical hygiene is symbolic of more than a squeaky clean body. It is the cleansing of the body, mind and soul.
The obligatory Islamic act of washing parts of the body using water is called wudu or (less often) ghusl. Muslims are required to perform wudu in preparation for ritual prayers and for handling and reading the Quran. Wudu is often translated as “partial ablution,” as opposed to ghusl, or “full ablution”. The Arabic term for the system of ritual purity in Islam is taharah.
Ghusl involves complete washing of the body in pure water and is prescribed when a major ritual impurity (for example, sexual intercourse, menstruation, childbirth) is incurred. For the dead, ghusl must be carried out before burial. Wudu, minor ablution, is required to remove minor impurities (urination, defecation, flatulence, deep sleep and light bleeding).
The need for purification is emphasised in both the Quran and Hadith (Prophetic traditions), and it has become an essential aspect of the worship ritual. The Quran establishes the principle: “O ye who believe! Draw not near to prayer… till ye have bathed” (Q4:43).
Muslims have a contractual relationship to God that is manifest through the body. Looking after the body is a prayer, a communion, an expression of a commitment to God .The hammam or Turkish communal bath was a dark, womblike space where Ottoman Muslims purified themselves spiritually before entering a mosque or reciting from the Quran.
Outside most mosques and near to the entrance, one can see a washing area, a shallow pool of water, where the worshipper may perform the required ablution. If the worshippers are at home or at work, they may use whatever facilities as available for cleansing. The stages of the ablution are as follows: intention to perform the wudu; washing the hands to the wrist thrice; rinsing the mouth and snuffing water into the nostrils three times; washing the face from the beginning of the hairline to the neck, the chin, and the openings of the nostrils (done once); washing the hands to the elbows thrice, the water running to the elbow; combing the beard (if there is one) with wet fingers; passing both damp hands over the whole head — from the forehead to the nape of the neck, including the ears (back and inside of the ears); rubbing wet fingers of one hand between the fingers of the other; washing both feet up to the ankles three times and moving wet fingers between the toes. The feet represent the last of the four com
pulsory areas of washing. It is essential to remove anything that could prevent water from reaching the skin i.e. dough, mud, paint, etc.
In certain contingencies when water is unavailable, unaffordable or inaccessible one can also use water-free alternatives like natural surfaces such as rock, sand or dust. This is known as tayammum or dry ablution and is symbolic token washing.
The Prophet said, “If there was a river at the door of anyone of you and he took a bath in it five times a day, would you notice any dirt on him?” They said, “Not a trace of dirt would be left.” The Prophet added, “That is an example of the five prayers with which Allah blots out (annuls) evil deeds.” (Sahih al-Bukhari Vol. 1, Book 10, Hadith 506)