The purpose of wudu’ or ablution is referred to in the Quran 5.6:
‘O you who believe, when you observe the contact prayers (salat) you shall wash your faces, wash your arms to the elbows, wipe your heads and wash your feet to the ankles.’
There are then four steps to ablution and these involve washing the face, the arms up to the elbows, wiping the head and washing the feet to the ankles.
By contrast with this very clear command in the Quran, the majority of Muslims carry out their ablutions in a different way. They follow the sunna, the way in which the Prophet ﷺ carried out his ablution, as it has been reported. To the four steps prescribed in the Quran they added washing the hands to the wrists, the mouth, the nose (in particular the nostrils), the ears, and the neck. The reasoning for this is not only based on the sunna but also the desirability of cleanliness, especially before prayer. Yet it must be said that there is no evidence that the reason behind ablution is cleanliness. Rather, it is a formulation of God’s will. Were cleanliness to be the issue, the requirement might be to clean other more important parts of the body. To back up this view there is the case of dry ablution, which is to be carried out when water is unavailable:
‘if you are ill or travelling, or you had urinary or faecal related excretion, or physically contacted women, and you cannot find water, you shall observe tayammum (dry ablution), by touching clean dry soil, then wiping your faces and hands with it’ (4.43);
this does not seem to have much to do with hygiene.
The word tahara (purification) does not necessarily mean physical cleanliness:
‘The angels said, ‘‘O Mary, God has chosen you and tahharik (purified you). He has chosen you from all women’’’ (3.42)
‘Take from their money a charity to tuttaherahum (purify them) and sanctify them’ (9.103).
In the case of Mary, surely it is not physical purity that is at issue. The other passage clearly does not refer to physical cleanliness.
‘God does not wish to yotahir qulubahum (purify their hearts). They have incurred humiliation in this world, and in the Hereafter, they will suffer a terrible retribution’ (5.41).
It seems clear that what is at issue here is spiritual, not physical, purity, and one aspect of this is presumably following God’s original command.
On the other hand, there is an emphasis on the significance of cleanliness and purity in both body and clothing:
‘And thy Lord do magnify, And thy garments do purify, And uncleanness do shun’ (74.3–5).
‘Attend to your adornment at every time of prayer’ (7.31).
In the aya
‘Surely God loves those who turn to Him again and again, and He loves those who purify themselves’ (2.222),
the reference could be to physical or spiritual purity, or both. However, the hadith literature giving details of the practice of the Prophet ﷺ is enormously detailed, and includes instructions for using a toothbrush or stick, where and how to go about one’s natural functions, the etiquette of bathing, combining modesty with cleanliness, and so on. The implication is that it is important to follow this practice even where explicit religious issues are not in question, since following the sunna of the Prophet ﷺ is invariably desirable and earns merit.