Washing our hands has become one major way to protect ourselves from Covid-19. However, ablutions have always had a central place in the practices and beliefs of many religious traditions. Christians perform baptism with water, in amounts varying from small sprinkles to larger vessels, to bring about purification, cleanliness, revival, and rebirth. Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples as narrated in the Gospel makes the washing of feet an important practice in Christianity to promote cleanliness and is still carried out to this day. The Jewish tradition also has many instances of ablution where water is specifically used to promote cleanliness, including washing hands to reclaim or preserve purity and mikveh in which the feet or whole body is immersed in water.
The Islamic ablution, also known as “wudhu,” contains 24 washing movements to be carried out several times a day for the five daily prayers. If performed for all five prayers, it would consist of about 120 repeated actions as Muslims washed parts of their body.
A lover must undertake the required preparation to cleanse and beautify oneself before meeting with their Beloved. Likewise, a believer is required to wash specified parts of their body to stand before God in supplication, as instructed in Chapter Maidah of the Qur’an, verse 6: “O believers, when you stand for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands up to the elbows, and wipe your heads, and wash your feet up to the ankles. If you are unclean, bathe and purify your bodies fully. But if you are ill or in the middle of travelling or … you cannot find water, then take wholesome dust and wipe your faces and hands with that. For God does not wish to burden you, rather He desires to purify you and to complete His blessing and favor upon you so that, perhaps, you may be grateful” [5:6].
The spiritual cleansing that the act of wudhu provides is highlighted by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in numerous hadiths, or prophetic sayings, which has been collected under The Book of Purification. While water literally cleans the face and limbs, with every pure intention to do wudhu, the water droplets that meet the body also wash away the minor sins that were committed by the hands, mouth, face, ears, and feet. The famous hadith that “cleanliness is half of faith” [Sahih Muslim, 223] can be interpreted as applying primarily to doing wudhu in one translation [Wudhu: Fiqh, Rules, Purification and Blessings, Qadri]. Therefore, to perfect the faith, to be cleansed of our mistakes continuously, God has given us a simple mechanism through which to be purified and recalibrated countless times in a day.
Many of us perform this pattern of washing with little thought. It has become a routine that we seldom consider a medical protection that we apply to our body. Besides its effects on the soul, washing also has wonderful effects on the body. Over fourteen hundred years ago, the Prophet (pbuh) advised ablution before going to bed. Interestingly, yoga experts in recent years have also started to encourage the washing of the legs, hands, arms, eyes, and the mouth before sleep with cool water for a deeper undisturbed sleep. This is not surprising considering the relief that comes with the touch of water on a busy day.
Three of our principal systems benefit from wudhu; the circulatory system, the immune system, and the electrostatic balance of the body. In this way, the health benefits from the ritual of washing are threefold…
The circulatory system is a magnificent circuit of blood vessels between the heart and the tissues that make up every other system of the body. The systemic circulatory system circulates oxygenated blood from the heart to the tissues around the body and back to the heart, whilst the pulmonary circulatory system transports deoxygenated blood to the lungs for detoxification and returns clean blood to the heart. The correct functioning of the blood vessels, which act as wires that connect our major organs, are essential to the efficiency of this circuit. These vessels divide into thinner branches called arterioles which in turn split into smaller capillaries which surround the cells of the body. The vascular resistance generated by blood vessels is overcome by the blood pressure generated by the heart to enable blood flow. Over time (due to ageing, or a diet high in fat), our blood vessels often harden and become constricted meaning that the heart has to work harder to overcome increased vascular resistance to maintain steady blood flow. The vessels in the limbs are the most peripheral to the heart and thus the most vulnerable to the process of hardening and narrowing over a long period.
The application of water in our daily routine “exercises” these blood vessels by alternately contracting and dilating them. Water can act as an agent of temperature gradients, thereby affecting the thermoregulatory response of the cutaneous circulation. When hot, water ensures that vessels in the limbs dilate, and when cold, that they contract. In this way, water ensures the flexibility of vessels distant from the heart, forcing nutrients deposited in tissues as a result of poor circulation back into the bloodstream through a temperature gradient.
The lymphatic system, on the other hand, is probably not the first to come to mind when we think of the body’s organ systems. Yet without this quietly working system our cardiovascular system would collapse and our immune system would be impaired. Our lymphatic vessels transport “leaked” blood fluids into our capillaries to prevent the accumulation of fluid in the interstitial spaces and eventual tissue damage. The vessels of the lymphatic system are much thinner than those of the cardiovascular system, ensuring the circulation of white blood cells which have an essential role in protecting the body against invaders and resisting disease. It is this fluid that we see oozing out when we have a cut or wound.
The optimal functioning of this system and its thin vessels, like those of the circulatory system, can be said to be closely linked with the effect of washing. The phagocytes and lymphocytes, which make up the immune system are housed by our lymphoid tissues and organs, are supported by the act of wudhu. The nasopharyngeal region behind the nose leads to the tonsils, which are small masses of lymphoid tissue that trap and remove pathogens that are entering the throat. Washing the mouth and nose three times with every wudhu therefore helps to remove the bacteria that builds up in the region of the body most exposed to the external environment. Moreover, the act of washing both sides of the neck during wudhu stimulates our cervical lymph nodes – a specialized mass of tissue which houses lymphocytes and particularly helps to protect the body by removing bacteria and tumor cells from lymphatic circulation. Our lymphocytes are arguably the most important component of our immune system, patrolling every point of the body many times a day and destroying cancer cells and pathogens along the way. Considering that the act of wudhu enhances the filtration effect of our lymphoid circulation, one can see the blessings that come with the divine command to “wash…and purify your bodies fully….”
Our physiology is also closely related to the electrostatic balance of the body. While many psychosomatic diseases result from electrostatic imbalance, the most pronounced effect of static electricity is exerted on the subcutaneous muscles located under the skin, mitigating their function and inducing the onset of wrinkles which often start in the face. Maintaining the regular habit of washing the skin – particularly the face which is most frequently exposed to ultraviolet radiation – protects the surface and internal layer of our skin cells by constantly dampening the skin surface with clean water. It is a much simpler alternative to spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on expensive skin care and makeup products to maintain a healthy complexion.
In regards to how wudhu can benefit our electrostatic balance, the part of the verse which sheds light to tayammum, “if you cannot find water, then take wholesome dust and wipe your faces and hands with that” highlights that the water substitute for wudhu significantly reduces static electricity, like water. This is why when wudhu is performed calmly with care, it often leaves one feeling refreshed and discharged.
The Quran is a grand source containing many prescriptions for good health. While every civilized person may wash their face and hands throughout the day, wudhu ensures that cleanliness and a sense of well-being is sustained by virtue of its association with worship. The worth and significance of wudhu is not limited to the medical benefits discussed here. However, for anyone else wondering why taking a pause on a busy day with wudhu feels so rejuvenating, I hope this humble article sheds some light to a grand prescription from among the many medicines revealed in the Qur’an.