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assalaamu alaykum wa rahamtullahi wa baraktuh

Can you explain the meaning of this hadith and is it authentic?

Narrated Mu’awiyah (rad): Allah’s Messenger (saW) said: “The eye (when awake) is the string of the anus (to stop air escaping), and if the two eyes sleep the string is untied”. [Reported by Ahmad and At-Tabarani who added, “Whoever sleeps should perform ablution]”

Reference : Bulugh al-Maram 80 In-book reference : Book 1, Hadith 97 English translation : Book 1, Hadith 86

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It's a probably metaphoric way of saying "when you fall asleep, you will in all probability release wind, so do wudhu when you wake up". I have never heard anyone contesting the content of this hadith, and I don't think I have heard anyone contesting it on grounds of isnad either.

Maybe something to look into: I seem to recall that there are versions of this hadith that suggest that if you fall asleep while having valid wudhu while you are sitting, and you wake up still sitting, then you do not need to perform wudhu again. I have no reference for it at hand, though.

Disclaimer: I am not a muslim.

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Note if you just went one hadith further in bulugh al-maram you will find an answer on the qualification of this hadith: It is a weak narration (Qualification of at-Tabarni's and abi Dawod's versions), for some reasons al-Albani has qualified a similar narration from Musnad Ahmad as hassan.

The meaning is as quoted by G. Bach in his answer: Once you sleep (deep sleep) you don't have control over your body, so how can you maintain wudu?

Note that scholars have different views on whether sleep makes your wudu' (ablution) invalid:

  • some say it doesn't make it invalid at all, based on this hadith or in this version.
  • some say it makes it invalid no matter what based on this hadith.
  • if somebody sleeps while sitting with his background on the ground (this means he stays in this position even while sleeping) then this wouldn't invalidate his wudu' this could be a conclusion from the first quoted hadith, as the sahaba were waiting in the mosque as described.
  • some say only light sleep, if the person is sitting or staying would leave your wudu' valid.
  • some say only a few of sleep would keep your wudu' valid: this means a kind of sleep where you are still aware of what goes around you, so you may feel it if some "air" escaped your body. And this is what this hadith referred to.

Se also this fatwa for details.

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