2021 June 9 – JJ – female age 33 – The How and Why of Prayer and Wudu
In today’s class, I learned about wudu (ritual washing) and the physical steps of the salat (Islamic prayer). I recently converted to Islam in 2020 and took an online class that was not part of GS. Thus I came in with a rudimentary idea of what Muslims do in their ritual washing and prayers, but not necessarily why. My teacher elaborated upon why certain steps are necessary. There were also two other students in the adult class. One student was a brother named C, who is a convert like me. The other student was a sister named N, who was born with a Muslim father but wants to learn more about her faith. It was useful to have feedback from the other students as well as the teacher.
There are roughly eight steps of wudu (though I’ve also heard nine or eleven depending on how people break the steps down). I will provide a brief overview of the steps and then go into more detail about how each step is done and why. The steps of wudu are the following: start with the right niyyah (intention) and say Bismillah, wash the hands three times (starting with the right hand), wash the mouth three times, rinse the nose three times, wash the face three times, wash the arms three times (beginning with the right arm from the fingertips to just above the elbows), wipe the head once along with the ears once, wash the feet three times (beginning with the right foot from the tip of the toenail to just above the ankle).
Now that I have provided a brief overview of the steps, I will explain why they are done as they were taught to me by my teacher. The importance of prayer and ritual washing is being in the presence of God. Both the steps and the intention behind each of those steps solidify that presence. Once someone declares the intention to make wudu, they must wash their hands below the wrists and ask that God purify their hands from any evil they have done or may do in the future, such as making a crude hand gesture or writing angry letters. Next, when someone washes their mouth, they should ask God to purify their mouth from any evil their mouth may have spoken, such as saying harsh words. When a person washes their nose, they should ask God to prevent their nostrils from leading them toward olfactory temptations, like the Baconator at Wendy’s. When a person washes their face, they should ask God to prevent their face from engaging in sins like ogling someone or looking at peoples’ private belongings. When a person washes their arms, they can ask God to protect their arms from sin, like using their arms to violently attack someone. Then when they wash their head, they can ask God to purify their mind from indecent thoughts. And finally, when they wash their feet, they can ask God to prevent them from walking to improper places, like a bar.
Before the class, I must admit, this seemed like a lot of steps to me—a veritable Macarena that one does five times a day in their bathroom. I wasn’t sure it was necessary for someone to perform eight steps just to wash before prayer. In the days I went to Catholic church, their closest equivalent was a mere splash of holy water on the forehead. But now that my teacher explained the spiritual purpose behind each of the steps, it makes more sense.
After explaining the steps of wudu and the purpose behind it, my teacher went over the steps of the salat and how the male and female stance differs. For the purpose of my teacher’s explanation, it was useful to have a male and female student present so that I could physically see how they pray. The male position seems more open and sometimes the guys put their elbows in each other’s space. This behavior (the “Man Spreading” of prayer) is not encouraged but is something guys do sometimes as a bad habit. The female position is more restrained in order to better conceal oneself.
I was already familiar with the fact that there are five daily prayers (Fajr, Dhur, Asr, Maghreb and Isha). I was also already familiar with the number of rakats (cycles) required in these prayers and the basic words said. However, I did not know that one mentally declares their intention to pray to God before they start their prayer. After a person thinks on their intention, they must also think about which prayer they intend to pray, how many cycles they intend to do and where they intend to face. I also did not know that one recites a short verse after doing the Tashahhud (peace and blessings to God and the prophets) at the end of the prayer. Furthermore, I learned about some of the etiquette for coming into the masjid late. If one makes it by the time sami allahu liman hamidah (God hears the one who praises Him) is declared, they have made that cycle. But if they are later than that, they must make up their missed cycles.
My teacher told us two stories. One story was about the sami allahu liman hamidah and one story was about the Tashahhud. According to some hadith, people say, “rabbana wa lakal hamd (all praises are due to God)” after the sami allahu liman hamidah because of something Ali did. He was late to prayer because he was stuck on a narrow path behind an old lady. When he finally arrived at the prayer, he exclaimed, “rabbana wa lakal hamd” and that ended up in the prayer from henceforth.
The story of the Tashahhud relates to the Mi’raj (miraculous night journey) of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). The Prophet (PBUH) was traveling in the company of the angel Jibreel through the seven levels of heaven. The Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) had a private conversation with God that Jibreel could hear but not see. In this conversation, the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) said, “At-tahiyyatu Lillahi wa’s-salawatu wa’t-tayyibat (All compliments, prayers and pure words are due to God).” The Lord replied, “Al-salamu ‘alayka ayyuha’n-Nabiyyu wa rahmat-Allahi wa barakatuhu (Peace be upon you, O Prophet, and the mercy of God and His blessings).” Mohammad (PBUH) replied, “As-salamu ‘alayna wa ‘ala ‘ibad-Illah is-saliheen (Peace be upon us, and on the righteous slaves of Allah).” Jibreel said, “Ash-hadu an la ilaha ill-Allah wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadan rasoo-Allah (I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah).” I looked this story up out of my own curiosity I found more about it at the following website for those who want to read more: https://islamqa.info/en/answers/117604/tashahhud-originated-during-the-miraj
In the class discussion, our teacher told us that we will eventually have to memorize prayers in Arabic and English. This surprised me because many Muslim institutions focus on having their students memorize the Classical Arabic with little focus on the meaning behind what they are saying. I have several Muslim friends who say that there are few places for simply having an in-depth discussion on prayer or the Quran itself in English, and that much of the discussion is on rote memorization. Yet if memorization is all one needs for understanding, then even an African Grey Parrot could be a scholar. In the writings of the 13th century Sufi poet, Saadi of Shiraz, he says, “A donkey laden with books is neither an intellectual nor a wise man. Empty of essence, what learning has he? Whether upon him is firewood or book?”
After discussing prayer, my class went to eat at CAVA, which is like the Mediterranean Chipotle for those who have never heard of the restaurant. At CAVA we discussed the importance of why one says bismillah before they eat. Apparently, this is so the food can nourish a person’s soul as well as their body. I have trouble remembering to say bismillah before I eat, so understanding the reason behind the practice should hopefully help me remember.
Since my teacher told us to bring questions, I asked the following, “Is it contingent upon all Muslims to attempt to bring non-Muslims to the faith?” Indeed verse 16:125 of the Quran states, “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided.” We talked about this for a while, and it seemed that people believed it was best to meet individuals where they were at. If someone is not particularly religious, forcing God upon them might backfire. For example, I have a younger sister who is uncomfortable with religion. I think it’s because she had bad experiences with religious people. Thus, if I tried to push Islam onto my non-religious sister, it would probably make her dislike Islam. Instead, I just try to be as good of a person as I can around her, hope that she sees the positive effect Islam has had on me, and maybe in the future thinks better of both Islam itself and religion in general.
In conclusion, I learned much today on the how and why of what one does in their ritual washing and prayer. This will help encourage me to be more vigilant about doing my prayers and doing all the steps with a spiritual intention behind them, rather than mechanically doing the steps for the mere sake of getting them over with. The purpose behind these steps is to purify oneself and to bring oneself closer to God. As the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) said, “If there was a river at your door and a man took a bath in it five times a day, would you notice any dirt on him?” The people said, “Not a trace of dirt would be left.” The Prophet said, “That is the parable of the five prayers by which Allah removes sins.” (Source: Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 505, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 667)