Drops of Faith: Water in Islam

As a universal religion born initially in the harsh deserts of Arabia to complete the message of former prophets and convey the divine revelation in its last testament (Qur’an), Islam ascribes the most sacred qualities to water as a life-giving, sustaining and purifying resource.

It is the origin of all life on earth, the substance from which Allah created man (Al-Furqan 25:54), and the Holy Qur’an emphasizes its centrality: {We made from water every living thing} (Al-Anbiyaa’ 21:30). Water is the primary element that existed even before the heavens and the earth did:

{And it is He who created the heavens and the earth in six days, and his Throne was upon the waters} (Hud 11:7). 

The water of rain, rivers and fountains runs through the pages of the Qur’an to symbolize Allah’s benevolence:

{He sends down saving rain for them when they have lost all hope and spreads abroad His mercy} (Ash-Shura 42:28).

At the same time, the believers are constantly reminded that it is Allah Who gives sweet water to the people, and that He can just as easily withhold it:

{Consider the water which you drink. Was it you that brought it down from the rain cloud or We? If We had pleased, We could make it bitter} (56:68-70)

In this verse the believers are warned that they are only the guardians of Allah’s creation on earth; they must not take His law into their own hands.


Facing Allah in Radiant Purity: Ablutions

Cleanliness is half of faith,” the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) tells his companions in one of the Hadiths. (Muslim) These well-known and oft-repeated words reveal not only the central importance of purity and cleanliness, but also the essential role water plays in Islamic religion. Purification through ablution is an obligatory component of the Islamic prayer ritual; prayers carried out in an impure state are not valid. In addition, a more thorough ritual is required on specific occasions.

The Qur’an tells believers that Allah {loves those who cleanse themselves} (At-Tawbah 9:108) and instructs them:

{O you who believe, when you rise to pray, wash your faces and your hands as far as the elbow, wipe your heads, and [wash] your feet to the ankle. If you are in a state of ceremonial impurity, cleanse yourselves… Allah does not wish to burden you, but desires to purify you} (Al-Ma’idah 5:6)

Allah will reward those who purify themselves, as proved by the hadith reported by Muslim:

“My Ummah will come on the Resurrection Day with brightness on their foreheads, hands and feet from the effect of ablution.”

Entire chapters of the Hadiths are dedicated to ablutions, detailing when and how they should be performed, and explaining in which order the various parts of the body should be washed, how the feet are to be cleaned, how the head should be rubbed – even how often the nostrils should be cleared.

They also specify that the water used for ablutions should be pure (mutlaq) which means it should not be mixed with any other liquid. Water from rain, wells, flowing water from taps, rivers and streams, and still water from lakes, ponds, seas and oceans, are all considered to be pure and suitable for ritual ablution.


The body and the Soul: Physical Purity in Religious Contexts

There are two types of ablution. Wudu’, the minor purification carried out before prayer, consists of washing the hands, the face, the forearms, the head and the feet. The Hadiths explain that by performing wudu’ the believer washes away sin, and drives the devil away.

The process of wudu’ is described in a very physical way, as though the sin were a visible stain, an insidious little demon that clings to the believer and can only be chased away with water. Thus when a believer washes his face during wudu’, the Hadiths say that every sin that he contemplated with his eyes is washed away from his face with the last drop of water; when he washes his hands, every sin they wrought is effaced; and when he washes his feet, every sin toward which his feet have walked is washed away, until he comes out pure of all sins.

Ghusl is the major purification, which cleanses the whole body from impurities and is required after intercourse, menstruation, childbirth, when adopting Islam, and after death. It is also recommended before important celebrations and before the Hajj.


Cleansing the Mind: Spiritual Purity

Wudu’ and ghusl are both part of the act of worship, rituals that are mandatory before starting prayers, or touching the Qur’an. As such, these rituals include a spiritual component, which means that even if one is physically clean, but has not carried out the purification in ritual fashion, it is not permitted to even touch the Qur’an.

This prohibition has nothing to do with physical purity – whether one has clean hands or whether one might stain the pages of the Holy Book, for example. It is purely a question of reverence towards the Word of Allah. Thus physical purity alone does not suffice to arrive at a state of tahara, ritual purity.

Ablution should not be carried out mechanically, but only after niyyat (intention), the silent expression of sincerity and obedience to Allah. This is the spiritual component of the purification ritual: while the body is purified with water, the mind must be completely focused on Allah. Carrying out wudu’ or ghusl simply for refreshment in hot weather, for example, makes it invalid.

The physical and spiritual components of the purification ritual reflect the Islamic principle of tawhid(unity): body and mind should be united in the performance of religious duties. Islam means “surrendering to Allah”, and Muslims, “those who have surrendered to Allah”, do so with body and soul. An inscription in the baths of Granada’s old Moorish Quarter expresses this link between physical and spiritual purity. It says that the body is the mirror of the soul, and therefore “outer stains suggest inner ones as well.”


Saving Water

The Hadiths urge moderation and thriftiness in the use of water during ablution. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) warned that wudu’ should not be performed more than three times in a row before each prayer; the Prophet himself (peace and blessings be upon him) washed each part only two or three times without ever going beyond three, even if water supplies were abundant. Commentators add:

“The men of science disapprove of exaggeration and also of exceeding the number of ablutions of the Prophet.”

The Hadiths also offer advice for times of scarcity, using the Prophet’s actions as a guideline. One day when the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was travelling through the desert with his companions, his wife `A’ishah lost her necklace. They spent time searching for it and when prayer time came, the company was nowhere near a water source. It was then that Allah revealed the ritual of tayammum to the Prophet:

{O you who believe, (…) if you are sick or on a journey, (…) and if you can find no water, then have recourse to clean dust and wipe your faces and your hands with it. } (An-Nisaa’ 4:43).

Clean earth can thus be used as a substitute for water in exceptional circumstances. Indeed, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) acknowledged the pure nature of earth when he said: “The earth has been created for me as a mosque and as a means of purification.”


Islam and Christianity: Two Religions, Two Waters

One of the fundamental distinctions between Islam and Christianity lies in their view of the relationship between body and soul, and this also indirectly reveals a difference in the valuing of water. Where Islam assumes a unity of body and soul, Christian philosophy sees the two as independent entities. Inspired by Plato’s philosophy of dualism, it conceives of a rational, controllable mind or soul, and a body that is governed by blind necessity and that cannot always be kept in check by the mind.

The idea of separation of body and soul was adopted by the Church and strongly dominated the ideology of early Christian ascetics. They believed physical suffering and deprivation would purify the spirit and bring the faithful closer to Christ, leading to decidedly questionable ideas about purity and cleanliness. Saints of early Christianity boasted that water had never touched their feet except when they had had to wade across a stream. St. Jerome also denounced bathing as a pagan practice and affirmed that “He who has bathed in Christ [i.e. has been baptized] does not need a second bath.”

This abhorrence of bathing and everything related to it persisted far into the Middle Ages and went beyond the realms of the clergy. During the Spanish Reconquista of the fifteenth century, Queen Isabella famously declared she would not change her robe until Granada fell. Given that the siege lasted eight months, one can imagine the odour that surrounded the pious Catholic Queen. As mentioned above, in Islam, the unity of body and soul means regular ablution and bathing is a religious requirement.

Christian baptism, in which newborn babies [or adults] are blessed by holy water and accepted into the Church, also reveals a different view of water in the two religions. In Islam, all water is sent as a gift from Allah. This is repeated many times in the Qur’an: {We provided you with sweet water} (Al-Murslat 77:27). All water, as long as it is mutlaq (pure), can be used for ablution.

The holy water that is used in Christian baptism is of a different nature; it is not just any water, but water that has been blessed in the name of Christ. This blessing gives the water a special quality, an added value that sets it apart and elevates it above other water. Records from the early Church Fathers show that holy water was believed to chase away evil spirits and cure a variety of illnesses. Many Christians kept baptismal water in their houses throughout the year, or else used it to water their fields, vineyards and gardens. Islamic doctrine ascribes holiness to all water:

{And you see the land dried up, but when We send down water upon it, it trembles, and swells, and grows…}(22:5)


The Bathhouse and the Drinking Fountain: Water’s Legacy in the Islamic City

Water’s importance in Islamic culture has, over the centuries, also left its mark on the design of the city. The fountains, cisterns, and public baths that can still be found today in cities around the Islamic world survive as a physical testimony to the central role water plays in Muslim society.

The hammam, the public bathhouse, has a long history that goes back to pre-Islamic times. Tradition attributes the creation of the bathhouse to King Solomon and Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba (see Al-Tha`labi, The Stories of the Prophets for more on the origin of the hammam). While scholars generally agree that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) never visited a hammam himself, they were much frequented until running water was installed in homes.

While the visit to the hammam was, of course, in the first place part of the purification ritual, the steam and hot water also served medicinal purposes, and many visited them for health reasons. Today hammams are not frequented as often as they were, except in North African countries like Tunisia and Morocco, where visits to the hammam have become a social event as much as a component of the religious ritual.

Before running water was installed in households, inhabitants of the Islamic city fetched their water from fountains, cisterns or wells. In many of the medieval towns, the water source was a place where women and girls met and chatted when they came to fill up their jugs and pitchers every day. Today little remains of these social hubs with the exception of the sabil, the drinking water fountain that existed through the Ottoman Empire.

Sabils were usually charitable donations from rich and powerful citizens, and their water was free for all. They were more than just water sources; soon buildings were designed around them, and they evolved to become architectural features within the urban texture, monuments to water’s holy qualities. Many sabils are combined with small madrasas (schools) on the first floor.

They are called sabil-kuttub, literally “fountains of books” or “fountain schools”. Hidden in the narrow alleys and lanes of Islamic Cairo, the sabil and the sabil-kuttub can still be found. Some are built of wood and decorated with fine carvings; some look like baroque tea pavilions, dripping with ornaments, elaborate stone and metalwork; others are hardly recognizable, crumbling stone structures hidden under layers of grime and dust. Today, as the majority of homes have running water, the sabil has fallen into disuse, though some of the madrasas within them still function.


Shafa and Shirb: Water and Islamic Law

The harsh desert climate of Arabia, the Near East and Saharan North Africa makes water a highly valuable and precious resource here. Islamic law, the Shari`ah, goes into great detail on the subject of water to ensure the fair and equitable distribution of water within the community.

The word “Shari`ah” itself is closely related to water. It is included in early Arab dictionaries and originally meant “the place from which one descends to water”. Before the advent of Islam in Arabia, the shari`ah was, in fact, a series of rules about water use: the shuraat al-maa were the permits that gave right to drinking water. The term later evolved to include the body of laws and rules given by Allah.

Water is a gift from Allah. It is one of the three things that every Muslim is entitled to: grass (pasture for cattle), water, and fire. Water should be freely available to all, and any Muslim who withholds unneeded water commits a sin. The Hadiths say that among the three people Allah will ignore on the Day of Resurrection there will be “the man who, having water in excess of his needs, refuses it to a traveler…” (Abu Dawud and authenticated by Al-Albani)

There are two fundamental precepts that guide the rights to water in the Shari`ah: shafa, the right of thirst, establishes the universal right for humans to quench their thirst and that of their animals; shirb, the right of irrigation, gives all users the right to water their crops. Both rules are interpreted in different ways by the various schools of Islam, and their implementation varies from region to region, from village to village, each community applying the law to suit geographical and social circumstances.


Boiling, Festering and Simmering Waters: Punishing the Non-believers

Allah does not always send water as a gift. It can also be a violent punishment. The unbelievers and those who take their religion “as jest and frolic” will be burned by rains of fire, and boiling water will be poured over them. In Hell, the unbelievers will be forced to drink from a source of simmering water (Al-Ghashiyah 88:5). They will drink boiling, festering water (Al-An`am 6:70) that will tear their innards apart (Muhammad 47:15), and they will be dragged in fetters through boiling water (Ghafir 40:72) and receive it over their heads (Al-Hajj 22:19), burning their skin.

In the earthly context, water can also be a source of suffering. Indeed the quantity and quality of the water Allah sends down from heaven determines whether it will be a blessing or a punishment. The Qur’an distinguishes between different types of water: {one palatable and sweet, the other salt and bitter} (Fatir 35:12) Salt, bitter, and brackish water cannot quench thirst or bring life to the land; it will only bring suffering. It is not only the quality; the quantity of water also determines whether it will bring life or destruction.

Again, this decision lies in Allah’s power: {Who sent down water from the heaven in measure}(Az-Zukhruf 43:11). This means the rains can bring life to barren land, bringing forth crops for the people and their cattle (As-Sajdah 32:27), but the Qur’an also speaks of rains of hail (An-Nur 24:43), rains of fire (11:82) and of punishment {darkness, thunder and lightning.} (Al-Baqarah 2:19)


“Water, Greenery and a Lovely Face”: Images of Islamic Paradise

The poetic and Qur’anic metaphors in which water is used to symbolize Paradise, righteousness and Allah’s mercy are, however, much more frequent. From the numerous Qur’anic references to cooling rivers, fresh rain and fountains of flavored drinking water in Paradise, we can deduce that water is the essence of the gardens of Paradise. It flows beneath and through them, bringing coolness and greenery, and quenching thirst. The believers will be rewarded for their piety by {rivers of water incorruptible; and rivers of milk unchanging in taste, and rivers of wine, delicious to the drinkers, and rivers of honey purified} (Muhammad 47:15).

The water in Paradise is never stagnant; it flows, rushes, unlike the festering waters of Hell. The Qur’an also equates the waters of Paradise with moral uprightness:

{In the garden is no idle talk; there is a gushing fountain} (Al-Ghashiyah 88:11-12).

The many specific statements about the topography of Paradise in the Qur’an led to many attempts to map Paradise. Throughout history, Muslim rulers from Moorish Spain to Persia sought to reproduce the image of Paradise in the design of their palace gardens, creating elaborate water features, pools and fountains. The gardens of the Alhambra in Spanish Granada, the Bagh-é-Tarikhi in Iran’s Kashan, and the gardens of the imperial palaces in Morocco’s Marrakesh all testify to this desire to emulate Qur’anic Paradise on earth. All are designed around water features and fountains that have been subtly woven into the layout of the beautiful parks, hence combining water and the beauty of natural landscape to fill the human soul with faith, joy and happiness.

* This article was originally published in November 2002.