CLEANSING ii. In Islamic Persia



ii. In Islamic Persia

The identification of unclean objects (najāsāt) and of the factors or agents that, within certain limits, may cleanse them (moṭahherāt) depends more on the interpretation of prophetic tradition and on juristic deduc­tion than it does on clear Koranic injunctions. None­theless, there is broad agreement on the topic among the two schools of Sunnite feqh that have had a historical presence in Persia—the Hanafite and the Shafiʿite—and Shiʿite jurisprudence. The regulations contained in the Shiʿite books tend, however, to be more detailed, and it is probably true that questions of ritual cleanness and uncleanness play a larger role in the life of the observant Shiʿite Muslim than in that of his Sunnite counterpart.

The urine and excrement of humans, as well as of animals the flesh of which is inedible and from which blood gushes forth when the skin is pierced, are un­clean. In addition, certain circumstances, such as the consumption of unclean substances and the occurrence of bestiality, may make the urine and excrement of animals with edible flesh unclean. Hanafites and Shiʿites regard all semen, both human and animal, as unclean, together with vaginal secretions occurring during coition; Shafiʿites regard all semen as clean, with the exception of that of pigs and dogs (Jazīrī, p. 9). The blood of humans and of animals from which it spurts when the skin is pierced is also unclean. How­ever, the blood of insects, fish, and marine mammals, as well as the blood remaining in the body of an animal properly slaughtered for meat, is clean, as is the blood on the body of a martyr. Shafiʿite feqh regards blood intermingled with milk as clean, whereas Shiʿite law condemns it as unclean (Ḵomeynī, 1359 Š./1980, p. 12). The carcasses of all animals with spurting blood are unclean, regardless of whether they have died a natural death or been killed in a way other than that specified by the Šarīʿa. Similarly, limbs and flesh separated from any living body, human or animal, are unclean, together with any secretions they may emit. Exempt from this are fish and marine mammals found dead in the water, together with their separated parts. Dogs and pigs are unclean, whether alive or dead, together with anything that may become separated from them, like whiskers, hair, and fluff. Wine and any other beverage causing intoxication are unclean, al­though industrial alcohol used for painting and lacquering is clean (at least according to certain Shiʿite rulings; Ḵomeynī, 1390/1970, I, p. 118). Cannabis and other solid narcotics are also clean, even if water is added to them (Ḵomeynī, 1390/1970, I, p. 13).

Shiʿite feqh differs sharply from that of both the Hanafites and the Shafiʿites (but is in accord with that of the Malikites) in regarding all unbelievers as un­clean. It is said that many Shiʿite ʿolamāʾ restrict this ruling to polytheists (mošrekīn), considering the People of the Book to be clean (Bāzargān, p. 49). However, according to Ayatollah Khomeini (Ḵomeynī, 1359 Š./1980, p. 13), all those are unclean who either deny God openly, assign Him a partner, or reject the messengerhood (resālat) of the Prophet Moḥammad, as well as those who, while being Muslim in name, reject any of the manifest duties of religion, such as prayer and fasting. The entire physical person of the unbeliever is unclean, including his nails and hair. This ruling appears ultimately to derive from an inter­pretation of Koran 9:28 (“O you who believe! Truly the polytheists are unclean, so let them not after this year of theirs approach the sacred mosque”), for the contemporary Shiʿite exegete Moḥammad-Ḥosayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī perceives behind it “a ruling to shun con­tact with them, with moisture or without” (IX, p. 238). This view of unbelievers as unclean receives some support from a tradition of Ebn ʿAbbās to the effect that “the persons (aʿyān) of unbelievers are unclean, like dogs and pigs” (quoted in Alūsī, X, p. 76). Nonethe­less, the Koranic verse in question was interpreted narrowly by Abū Ḥanīfa as enjoining only the exclu­sion of unbelievers from performance of the ḥajj and the ʿomra (lesser pilgrimage) and not as barring them from the sacred mosque (al-masjed al-ḥarām) at all times. Shafiʿites took the verse to mean that unbeliev­ers must be barred at all times from the sacred mosque in Mecca but asserted that they might enter all other mosques (Alūsī, X, p. 77). In Shiʿite Persia unbelievers were excluded from all mosques until modern times; now the prohibition is maintained only for shrines of the twelve imams and their descendants. Also re­garded as unclean in Shiʿite feqh are Muslims who insult or show hostility to any of the imams (Ḵomeynī, 1359 Š./1980, p. 13).

Clean objects become unclean through contact with any of the items listed above, especially when the contact involves the transfer of moisture. Shiʿite feqh is particularly emphatic in regarding moisture as the conveyor of uncleanness, regardless of whether the moisture adheres to the clean or the unclean object before the two come into contact (Ḵomeynī, 1359 Š./1980, p. 14).

Nonetheless water is the primary agent of cleansing. In order to cleanse, water must be unadulterated (moṭlaq); it must have originated as rain or spring water; its color, taste, and smell must not have undergone any change; and it must not have been used previously for any purpose. Detailed regulations spell out the different cleansing properties of running water, water stored in or drawn from a cistern, and water poured into a bowl or other vessel. Regulations also differ depending on the nature of the pollution and the location from which it is to be removed. Thus a dish that has been licked by a dog must be rubbed with clean soil before being washed, and the same applies to a dish from which a pig has eaten, according to Shafiʿite (but not Shiʿite) feqh. Polluted garments or carpets should be washed three times, and all the water should be wrung out between washings (Jazīrī, p. 21).

The second principal cleansing agent is dry and clean soil, used principally for cleansing the soles of shoes and of feet that have come into contact with unclean substances. Shiʿite feqh recommends that, after re­moving all obvious traces of pollution from the sole of the shoe or the foot, one walk not less than fifteen paces on dry and clean soil. Asphalt and concrete have no cleansing properties (Ḵomeynī, 1359 Š./1980, p. 20).

Exposure to the heat of the sun is held to cleanse polluted ground, the exterior structure of buildings, and plants and trees that have suffered pollution—in short, all immovable objects. All obvious traces of the unclean substance should first be removed, and then the surface or object to be cleansed should be moist­ened. Shiʿite feqh specifies that the heat of the sun alone should accomplish the cleansing, not aided by a wind or anything more than a light breeze. By contrast, Hanafite feqh regards the activity of the wind as a cleansing agent in its own right (Jazīrī, p. 21).

Another mode of cleansing consists of esteḥāla, the transmutation of the substance of an unclean thing into a clean thing. The classic example of this process, agreed on by all schools, is the transmutation of wine into vinegar. Similar to it is the example of blood in the navel of the musk deer that turns into musk. If a dog falls into a salt mine and is turned into salt, its carcass counts as clean. If an unclean piece of wood is burned to ashes, the ashes are clean, according to Hanafites and Shiʿites but not according to the Shafiʿites. However, neither grinding unclean wheat into flour nor baking bread from unclean flour counts as an instance of esteḥāla (Ḵomeynī, 1359 Š./1980, p. 21; Jazīrī, pp. 26-27).

A somewhat similar procedure is enteqāl, transfer­ence. This involves the relocation of an unclean substance in a clean one that absorbs it and thereby cleanses it. An example would be human blood drawn by a gnat or flea that is then commingled with its own blood (Ḵomeynī, 1359 Š./1980, p. 20).

An unclean object may also be cleansed through the cleansing of its contents, a process known as tabaʿīyat. Thus a vat in which wine is kept is automatically cleansed through the transmutation of the wine into vinegar (Ḵomeynī, 1359 Š./1980, p. 21).

Particular objects, such as mirrors, swords, and other metalwork, may be cleansed through polishing and burnishing. Hanafite feqh regards dry rubbing as effective in the case of semen stains on clothing. The skins of animals (excepting both pigs and dogs, ac­cording to Shiite and Shafiʿite feqh, but only pigs, according to Hanafite feqh) can be cleansed by tanning (Ḵomeynī, 1359 Š./1980, p. 22; Jazīrī, p. 8).

Shiʿite feqh takes into account the possibility that an animal the flesh of which is edible may become un­clean through its consumption of excrement. It then becomes necessary to cleanse it through purgation (estebrāʾ) for periods that vary in length from forty days for a camel to three days for a domestic hen. Another eventuality is that a certain object owned by or in the possession of a Muslim is known to be unclean. If the owner or possessor of the object departs, leaving the object behind, it may be assumed that he took steps to cleanse it before his departure; it may accordingly be regarded as clean. As for the uncleanness that characterizes the unbeliever according to Shiʿite feqh, this may be removed by his profession of Islam (Ḵomeynī, 1359 Š./1980, p. 21).

Noteworthy among contemporary discussions in Persia of questions of cleanness and uncleanness is Mahdī Bāzargān’s Moṭahherāt dar Eslām, which has gone through at least ten editions since its first publi­cation in 1349 Š./1960. It represents an attempt to vindicate the provisions of Shiʿite feqh by correlating them with modern scientific concepts of hygiene and contrasting them briefly (sometimes erroneously) with parallel rulings in Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Sunnite Islam (see the discussion of esteḥāla on p. 145).

It may finally be remarked that, although the deter­mination of cleanness and uncleanness lies firmly within the domain of feqh, Sufis have always been at pains to emphasize the inner purity of which ritual cleanliness is intended to be the support (see especially Ḡazālī, I, pp. 113-14).

See also āb; ablution; bīnamāzī; burials.



Š. Alūsī, Rūḥ al-maʿānī, 30 vols., Beirut, n.d.

M. Bāzargān, Moṭahherāt dar Eslām, Tehran, 1349 Š./1960.

Abū Ḥāmed Ḡazālī, Eḥyāʾ ʿolūm al-dīn, 5 vols., Beirut, n. d.

ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Jazīrī, al-Feqh ʿala’l-maḏāheb al-arbaʿa, Cairo, n.d., I, pp. 9-40 (for Sunnite provisions).

R. Ḵomeynī, Taḥrīr al-wasīla, 2nd ed., 2 vols., Najaf, 1390/1970.

Idem, Resāla-ye aḥkām, ed. Ayatollah M.-R. Reżwānī, Qom, 1359 Š./1980.

H. M. Tabataba’i, An Introduction to Shi’i Law. A Bibliographical Study, London, 1984, pp. 129-31 (for Shiʿite monographs on questions of cleanness).

M.-Ḥ. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Tafsīr al-mīzān, 4th ed., 20 vols., Tehran, 1362 Š./1983.

(Hamid Algar)

Originally Published: December 15, 1992

Last Updated: October 21, 2011

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Vol. V, Fasc. 7, pp. 700-702