Preparing for Prayer
In many religious contexts, preparing to pray has a certain ritual to it. In Christianity, for many, posture is important. Many Protestants will bow their heads and close their eyes; some may kneel. In Judaism, men and women will cover their heads in different ways as a sign of respect and submission to God. In Islam, an act known as ablution takes place, which is a physical act symbolizing one’s desire to purify themselves both physically and spiritually prior to engaging in prayer. This practice is known in Arabic as wuḍuʾ (وضوء).
Ablutions (wuḍūʾ/وضوء) are part of a larger Islamic legal subject known as ritual purification (ṭahāra/طهارة). This purification is necessary to cleanse an individual from impurity (najāsa/نجاسة). In Islam, purity is divided into two types, actual impurity, like what would happen from a mud bath, and technical or legal impurity, where an individual had done something to cause them to be impure or has come into contact with something that is legally impure or dirty. In addition to this, both actual and legal impurity can be considered either heavy or light. Ablutions, which Muslims often perform prior to either communal or individual prayer, are carried out to purify oneself from light, legal impurity.
The actions which one carries out to perform ablutions consist of washing oneself with water according to both a particular order and a particular method. The body parts needing to be cleansed during ablutions include the head, ears, nose, mouth, neck, hands, arms, elbows, toes, feet and lower legs. In many Muslim countries, it is common to see men wearing flip flop type sandals, making the process of ablution easier, avoiding the taking off and putting on of socks and shoes. Water is the medium intended to be used in ablutions, however in some cases, in the desert, water can be in very short supply, so exceptions can be made when water is not available. In many mosques, a special area is set aside near the entrance to the mosque where the faithful can quite easily wash themselves in the required manner in order to prepare adequately for prayer.
In compendiums of Islamic law from the formative period through to the classical period, ritual purification is a major subject almost always found near the beginning of these texts. How one washes was and is deemed very important to ensure that the purification undertaken meets the necessary standards. Missing a step or performing ablutions in an unsatisfactory manner adversely affects the value of the subsequent prayer ritual.
In Islam, the intentional action of ablutions acts as preparation for prayer not only spiritually by removing legal impurity, but also psychological or emotional preparation as one performs a physical act with spiritual ramifications. Preparing oneself for prayer in any faith is considered a worthy action. When communicating with deity is seems best to divest oneself of any and all distractions. Ablutions in Islam can help to accomplish this. Have you considered recently how you prepare yourself to pray?