The emphasis on cleanliness and specific practices promoted by the Prophet and his family (pbut) have both apparent and hidden wisdom; sometimes special circumstances alert us to the layers of meaning in these practices.
The devastating sweep of the novel coronavirus through our communities has prompted a spirited emphasis on handwashing, sanitizing, and social-distancing on a global scale. This renewed emphasis on hygiene in our communities gives us the opportunity to reflect on the weight given to cleanliness in the Islamic tradition. The Holy Prophet (pbuh&hp) states, “Clean yourselves as much as you can, for God Almighty built Islam on cleanliness.” The emphasis on cleanliness and specific practices promoted by the Prophet and his family (pbut) have both apparent and hidden wisdom; sometimes special circumstances alert us to the layers of meaning in these practices.
Hygiene in Islamic Tradition
There is a strong emphasis on hygiene and cleanliness in the Quran and traditions of the Prophet and his family (pbut). Imam Ali al-Rida (p) says, “Good hygiene is from the ethics of the prophets.” The Holy Prophet (pbuh&hp) was always meticulous about his hygiene and appearance. He would comb his hair and beard sometimes more than once a day, brush his teeth, perform ablution before every prayer, , and, before every Friday prayer, he used to trim his moustache, trim his nails, and apply perfume. This attention to cleanliness is a testament to the perfection of the Holy Prophet (pbuh&hp), and also establishes a culture of personal hygiene as a hallmark of Islamic practice. These practices take on increased importance as the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us how intimately our own habits can impact our bodies and the people around us.
Moreover, we are required to perform wudu at least a few times a day for our daily prayers—ensuring that we are washing our hands and faces frequently, and thus removing the oils, dust, and germs that accumulate on the surface of our skin that could potentially make us sick. Through the example of the Prophet, we see the wisdom in brushing our teeth frequently, which takes on greater meaning with our knowledge of the various forms of bacteria and viruses that are housed in our mouths and can be spread as we speak, sneeze, or cough. Even something as simple as trimming our fingernails takes on greater meaning in light of Covid-19, as the media has emphasized the importance of reaching under the fingernails when washing the hands, because the virus and other pathogens can live in the space between our nails and flesh.
The wisdom of the Prophets and the Imams (pbut) regarding cleanliness is not a substitute for the science-backed protocols recommended by health professionals in response to COVID-19. Rather, they serve to remind us of the infinite wisdom of our beloved Prophet and his family (pbut) in all matters.
The emphasis on physical hygiene and cleanliness within our religious tradition is a layer that is meant to cultivate spirituality. There is symbolism in the daily ablution or the ritual washing (ghusl) that we often perform. They are meant to be the first step in purifying our hearts and souls, on the path to seeking closeness to God. This is perhaps one of the wisdoms behind the Quranic verse when God states, “God loves those who repent and those who purify themselves.”
Bits of Advice:
- Observe the hygiene and social distancing protocols required of us. Health experts have made it clear that the best way to limit the spread of COVID-19 is by limiting our contact with others, remaining home for the time being, and being diligent about washing our hands and disinfecting items we retrieve from outside. Even if we personally may not be at risk for severe illness, the health and wellbeing of others depends on all of us observing these protocols.
- Utilize our time wisely. For many of us, the current situation has given us more time than ever before. We do not spend hours of our day commuting to and from work or school, and our daily routines have shifted tremendously. It is important that we utilize our time wisely to read, write, and study. We should utilize the time we have been given to build a lasting connection with God that we can extend to when our days return to a sense of normalcy and the daily grind continues.
- Take steps to help those who are disenfranchised. This virus has not only infected thousands of people, it has exposed the myriad of social problems that plague our communities. The poorest among us have been made most vulnerable to this virus, and many people who have not been infected personally have lost their jobs or their healthcare. The virus has illuminated the vast inequality of income and resources in the world, and God has put us in this moment for a reason. God states, “Evil has spread over the land and the sea because of human deeds and through these God will cause some people to suffer so that perhaps they will return to Him.”
When we reflect on our deeds, we must turn back to God and work to end the injustices we have seen, even in small ways. If we can afford to stay home, purchase provisions, and see the doctor, we must work together to ensure that our brothers and sisters around the world have those same opportunities.
 Rayshahri, Mizan al-hikmah, vol. 4, p. 3303. روي عن النبي (ص): “تنظفوا بكل ما استطعتم، فإن الله تعالى بنى الإسلام على النظافة، ولن يدخل الجنة إلا كل نظيف”
 Al-Kulayni, Al-kafi, vol. 5, p. 567. روي عن الإمام الرضا (ع): “من أخلاق الأنبياء التنظف”
 Al-Tabrasi, Makarim al-akhlaq, p. 33.
 Al-Majlisi, Bihar al-anwar, vol. 73, p. 137.
 Al-Saduq, Al-faqih, vol. 1, p. 39.
 Al-Harrani, Tuhf al-uqul, p. 442.
 The Holy Quran 2:222, Both Quranic quotes in this blog are from the Mohammad Sarwar translation. قال تعالى: (إِنَّ اللَّـهَ يُحِبُّ التَّوَّابِينَ وَيُحِبُّ الْمُتَطَهِّرِينَ)
 The Holy Quran 30:41. قال تعالى: (ظَهَرَ الْفَسَادُ فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ بِمَا كَسَبَتْ أَيْدِي النَّاسِ لِيُذِيقَهُم بَعْضَ الَّذِي عَمِلُوا لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْجِعُونَ)