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There's some aspects of wudu which seem to indicate it's not literally about purity. E.g.

  1. Passing wind is somehow countered by wetting/washing one's face, arms, and feet, and nothing is done about one's bottom area.

  2. Urine inside one's body is fine. However, passing that same urine breaks wudu, yet cleaning one's genitals does not renew wudu.

  3. It's good to make wudu before sleeping, despite sleeping breaking wudu.

  4. The actions performed are specific, and not just "clean those areas".

This motivates my question:

Question: Is wudu largely symbolic?

Maybe it cleans the body to a certain extent, but it wouldn't be considered up to par with today's hand washing standards, given our understanding of microorganisms.

  • "but it wouldn't be considered up to par with today's hand washing standards, given our understanding of microorganisms." That sounds like a question better suited to Medical Sciences than here. – G. Bach Jun 25 '17 at 23:11
  • Wudu has great meaning. Every physical action that we do, during hajj, prayer, fast, etc is a resemblance of something (either something related to afterlife or some act of some prophet). Not knowing doesn't make you a bad Muslim, Though knowing them is highly recommended and would add logic/virtue to your deeds. Is it symbolic? You mean just as...a symbol of devotion and nothing else? No. Does each act represent something? Yes. See here. – Honey Jun 29 '17 at 13:23
  • FWIW there is a Shia book written by The Great Scholar: Shaikh Saduq ثواب العمال و عقاب العمال (merit/punishments of deeds). In which he goes through 1. The reward/punishment of the deeds 2. Why there is such instruction. The book isn't about him rationalizing. It contains narrations from the Prophet and Imams. A link of the book can be found here – Honey Jun 29 '17 at 13:31
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Wudū' is a form of worship ritual, which means that it is meant to be followed as is without trying to figure out the wisdom behind it or its impact. In other words, it would be what one would consider symbolic with one's limited knowledge.

Abu Is-̣haq al-Shātibi in Al-Muwafaqāt (Arabic: الموافقات) said in Vol. 2, pp. 513-519:

الأصل في العبادات بالنسبة إلى المكلف التعبد دون الالتفات إلى المعاني وأصل العادات الالتفات إلى المعاني

— NOTE: My own translation, so treat with care:

The basis of worship rituals, in relation to the performer, is to worship without reverting to intention [of its prescription]; whereas, the basis of habits is to consider their intentions.

He then elbaorates that trying to read into the reasons using one's logic does not yield much. For example (the examples are Al-Shātibi's):

  • Purification extends beyond a direct connection to impurity.
  • Prayers are defined with specific actions at specific times; if done with actions other than specified at the specified times would not be considered prayers.

Purification can be done using water (tangible cleanliness), or dust in case of tayammum (intangible cleanliness). Therefore, it is obvious that cleanliness per se is not the desired outcome of the purification ritual.

Finally, Al-Shātibi concludes by emphasizing that the objective of worship is to show total submission to Allah's commands, whether one understands the logic, reason, impact, cause, etc.,or not. It is to exalt Allah ﷻ, and to worship Him within the boundaries He defines and in the manner He defines.

  • 1
    We are not robots: is to worship without reverting to intention. Before Muslims start a prayer they say I intend to... and there are many other examples of such. Every source does not hold ground. And then to say this: whether one understands the logic, reason, impact, cause, etc.,or not is also totally incorrect and again reduces a Muslim to a mere robot. – CodingYoshi Jun 26 '17 at 12:01
  • @CodingYoshi, actually one is not required to say "I intend to ..." as this is an innovation. If one feels that one has a logic that matches that of Allah, by all means, one should go ahead and rationalize everything. – III-AK-III Feb 28 '18 at 16:25
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I think the answer to your question is going to depend on how a person interprets wudu. You can look at it from two perspectives.

Perspective 1

Wudu has to be done exactly like it has been prescribed. For example, if a person urinates or defecates then istinja is required. If you just pass wind then no istinja is required and you only need to do wash the hands, mouth, nose, arms, feet and hands again.

Perspective 2

The act of wudu and istinja is to enforce self cleanliness and better health. Therefore, performing wudu (rinsing your mouth etc.) is beneficial before bed even though it will break during sleep. When you wake up, wudu makes sense again since during sleep you may have slightly urinated and again the rinsing of the mouth is beneficial.

Therefore, we have to see what the overall intention of wudu is. In some cases, if there is no water, one can use sand or stone and just do the acts of cleaning. Because of this, I will conclude that when a person wants to pray: They need to make a good effort and clean themselves up with whatever amenities are available.

I live in Canada where we have access to water everywhere. Therefore, a Muslim who lives here and does not perform istinja after passing wind, is not making a good effort. But if a person lives in a third world country where water is not always around and they only have enough water to wash their mouth face etc. then it would not be required of them to do istinja just for passing wind.

So in conclusion, it is both symbolic and for purity. It all depends on availability. If water is not available and the person uses sand, it is a reminder to the self the importance of trying and achieving purity and cleanliness.

You ask the below question:

Maybe it cleans the body to a certain extent, but it wouldn't be considered up to par with today's hand washing standards, given our understanding of microorganisms.

That is a very good question. If a person is aware of these standards and knows the importance of it, then how could the person consider him/herself clean if they do not live up to this standard? How could they consider themselves pure and stand and pray in front of God when they already know they could have made a better effort to clean themselves up? Wudu is simply a reminder to everyone of how important cleanliness is. If there is a new standard that we discover, then we have to live up to that standard or else we are not making a good effort.

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