The Islamic Culture of Cleanliness: A Panacea for the Spread of Viral Diseases


By Qasim Oyèkólá

Today, when the novel Covid-19 pandemic is ravaging the world, cleanliness, especially hand washing, has become a most prescribed means to forestall its further spread. Millions of dollars have been expended globally by governments and corporate bodies on advertising the importance of washing of hands in this trying time. This campaign of regular washing of hands has rent the air of the world through both the traditional and the new media. Scrubbing of public places and joints have also become regular duties in many cities around the world. It thus appears that all human beings are just waking up into a new culture and tradition!

In his submission on “Disease Control via Handwashing: An Effective Tool in the Health and Safety Arsenal”, Michaels B. (2003) takes us to memory lane on how effective has handwashing been in containing diseases:

“The history of handwashing practice is as old as dirt itself… Modern principles of handwashing (friction, dilution, disinfection and drying) were established long ago. Just as in architecture, personal and hand hygiene had a role in shaping history: the Greeks were victorious over the great naval fleet led by Xerxes because the Persian forces were incapacitated by dysentery…The human hand and its role in germ transmission, was well documented in ‘The Sources and Modes of Infection, 1910’, by Charles V. Chapin MD, one-time Boston health officer. Since the hands touch all parts of the body, other people, objects, domestic animals and food, it follows that a diverse microbial flora can exist on the hands. Hand transfer was thus identified as a significant mode of transmission for bacteria, such as Salmonella typhi (source of Typhoid Mary Mallon’s fever) parasites and viruses from person to person, in zigzag fashion: from person to surface, from surface to person, and from person to food. This explains the value of “hands free” hygiene systems seen in modern public facilities… And thus, as it has been and shall ever be, let’s all remember to wash our hands!!”

Well, for those of us who attended primary schools before and around four decades ago – a period when the real Nigeria Education Policy held sway; we had the opportunity to be taught with the languages of our immediate environments. Where this writer attended primary school, Yorùbá was the language of communication both on the assembly ground and classrooms. This made the lessons to sink well in the mind. During the daily school assembly, several moral and ethic-ridden nursery rhymes in the local language were taught and must be recited by us every morning before matching to our respective classroom. One of such rhymes that still resonates in mind and which is apt in this Covid-19 era is reproduced below:

Ó lè ṣẹ́’gun àrùn gbogbo.
Ìmọ́tótó ilé;
Ìmọ́tótó eyín;
Ìmọ́tótó ara;
Ìmọ́tótó oúnjẹ;
Ó lè ṣẹ́gun àrùn gbogbo.

It can prevent every disease.
Home Cleaning
Cleanliness of teeth
Body hygiene
Food hygiene.
It can prevent every disease.

Additionally, once weekly in school, we were taken through practical session of cleaning that included clipping of nails, brushing of teeth with any available chewing stick, washing of our hands and faces, etc. These school extra-curricular activities complemented the daily routine of cleanings at home. Those were the days when civil responsibilities were held high by teachers above material rewards and pecuniary gains.

Perceptions of cleanliness and dirtiness have been used as yardsticks with which individuals and groups of different social, cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds are measured. Villages, cities and nations have also been assessed and ranked with scale of cleanliness. Countless similes and metaphors, too, have been employed by different linguistic entities to create mental images of how clean or dirty a person, animal, place or thing is.

This article intends to bring home the Islamic concept of cleanliness as it relates to the current trend. It seeks to serve as a reminder for us who are already aware of the teaching, and also to inform those who may find it strange that the Islamic concept of cleanliness is so in-depth. Afterall, ‘For whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written for our learning…’ [Romans 15:4]

Islam is a religion that discusses all universal concepts in ways that every curious mind would have its own take-home. In contrast to what has been erroneously believed, teachings of Islam are meant for all mankind. The Holy Quran declares that the light it has come to beam knows no boundary. It says:

اَللّٰہُ نُوۡرُ السَّمٰوٰتِ وَ الۡاَرۡضِ ؕ مَثَلُ نُوۡرِہٖ کَمِشۡکٰوۃٍ فِیۡہَا مِصۡبَاحٌ ؕ اَلۡمِصۡبَاحُ فِیۡ زُجَاجَۃٍ ؕ اَلزُّجَاجَۃُ کَاَنَّہَا کَوۡکَبٌ دُرِّیٌّ یُّوۡقَدُ مِنۡ شَجَرَۃٍ مُّبٰرَکَۃٍ زَیۡتُوۡنَۃٍ لَّا شَرۡقِیَّۃٍ وَّ لَا غَرۡبِیَّۃٍ ۙ یَّکَادُ زَیۡتُہَا یُضِیۡٓءُ وَ لَوۡ لَمۡ تَمۡسَسۡہُ نَارٌ ؕ نُوۡرٌ عَلٰی نُوۡرٍ ؕ یَہۡدِی اللّٰہُ لِنُوۡرِہٖ مَنۡ یَّشَآءُ ؕ وَ یَضۡرِبُ اللّٰہُ الۡاَمۡثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ ؕ وَ اللّٰہُ بِکُلِّ شَیۡءٍ عَلِیۡمٌ ﴿ۙ۳۶

“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as a lustrous niche, wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a glittering star. It is lit from a blessed tree — an olive — neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would well-nigh glow forth even though fire touched it not. Light upon light! Allah guides to His light whomsoever He will. And Allah sets forth parables to men, and Allah knows all things full well”. [Q.24.36]

The Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, himself, who graciously conveyed the light to us was commanded in the Holy Qur’an chapter 7 verse 159, to inform all of mankind that he is a prophet to all.

In Islam, every matter that has far-reaching effects on physical, moral and spiritual lives of man, including cleanliness, has been considered significant. Whereas, to many, cleanliness falls to the insignificant category of concepts; hence discussing it is a hair-splitting exercise. Holders of such notions have forgotten so quickly the maxim that ‘Great things are done by a series of small things brought together’.

Cleanliness is established in Islam as a part of faith. The Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, is reported to have said:

الطُّهُورُ شَطْرُ الإِيمَانِ

Cleanliness is part of faith [Sahih Muslim]

This is because every deed of a believer, and indeed every man, has very significant and lasting impacts on his moral and spiritual dispositions. Hadrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Promised Messiah and Mahdi, peace be on him, teaches that:

…even a person’s manner of eating and drinking affects his moral and spiritual states. If the natural state of a person is subjected to the control of the directions of divine law it becomes his moral state and deeply affects his spirituality, as is said that whatever falls into a salt mine is converted into salt. That is why the Holy Quran has laid stress on physical cleanliness and postures, and their regulation in relation to all worship and inner purity and spiritual humility. [The Philosophy of Teachings of Islam, 2010 edition, UK, page 8]

Islam also underscores that purity or cleanliness of body is one of the major steps towards winning the love of God. The Holy Quran says:

اِنَّ اللّٰہَ یُحِبُّ التَّوَّابِیۡنَ وَ یُحِبُّ الۡمُتَطَہِّرِیۡنَ

Allah loves those who turn to Him and loves those who keep themselves clean [Q.2.223]

The act of purification in Islam starts with the rituals of ablution that must be performed before salat; otherwise the worship would be null and void. In this process thorough washing of hands and faces are compulsory.

The Holy Qur’an says:

یٰۤاَیُّہَا الَّذِیۡنَ اٰمَنُوۡۤا اِذَا قُمۡتُمۡ اِلَی الصَّلٰوۃِ فَاغۡسِلُوۡا وُجُوۡہَکُمۡ وَ اَیۡدِیَکُمۡ اِلَی الۡمَرَافِقِ وَ امۡسَحُوۡا بِرُءُوۡسِکُمۡ وَ اَرۡجُلَکُمۡ اِلَی الۡکَعۡبَیۡنِ ؕ وَ اِنۡ کُنۡتُمۡ جُنُبًا فَاطَّہَّرُوۡا ؕ وَ اِنۡ کُنۡتُمۡ مَّرۡضٰۤی اَوۡ عَلٰی سَفَرٍ اَوۡ جَآءَ اَحَدٌ مِّنۡکُمۡ مِّنَ الۡغَآئِطِ اَوۡ لٰمَسۡتُمُ النِّسَآءَ فَلَمۡ تَجِدُوۡا مَآءً فَتَیَمَّمُوۡا صَعِیۡدًا طَیِّبًا فَامۡسَحُوۡا بِوُجُوۡہِکُمۡ وَ اَیۡدِیۡکُمۡ مِّنۡہُ ؕ مَا یُرِیۡدُ اللّٰہُ لِیَجۡعَلَ عَلَیۡکُمۡ مِّنۡ حَرَجٍ وَّ لٰکِنۡ یُّرِیۡدُ لِیُطَہِّرَکُمۡ وَ لِیُتِمَّ نِعۡمَتَہٗ عَلَیۡکُمۡ لَعَلَّکُمۡ تَشۡکُرُوۡنَ ﴿۷﴾

O ye who believe! when you stand up for Prayer, wash your faces, and your hands up to the elbows, and pass your wet hands over your heads, and wash your feet to the ankles. And if you be unclean, purify yourselves by bathing. And if you are ill or you are on a journey while unclean, or one of you comes from the privy or you have touched women, and you find not water, betake yourselves to pure dust and wipe therewith your faces and your hands. Allah desires not that He should place you in a difficulty, but He desires to purify you and to complete His favour upon you, so that you may be grateful. [Q. 5.7]

Incidentally, in the campaigns of precautionary measures against Corona Virus, as noted earlier, washing of hands before touching the face, nose or mouth, if one has touched any dirty surface or object are now being encouraged! But Islam goes further to prescribe that the face itself should be washed properly. Ironically, it is also prescribed by the experts that, during this period of pandemic, if one wants to sneeze, the inner part of the elbow should be used to cover the mouth. Coincidentally, the Islamic ablution also makes washing of hand up to the elbow compulsory!

In his Friday sermon of 20th March 2020, His Holiness, Hadrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih V, May Allah be his Helper, reminded us of how beneficial Islamic ablution in combating infections especially during this time of pandemic is. He said:

“Doctors are also urging people to drink more water and to keep their hands clean. If you can’t find sanitizers then keep washing your hands. Like I said before, performing Wuḍū carefully five times a day is a good means of keeping clean. If you happen to sneeze, whether in the mosque or at home, keep a handkerchief on your nose or cover it with your elbow. In short, cleanliness is crucial and should be adhered to.”

Moreover, to many, cleanliness stops after daily ablution for salat. Conversely, cleanliness is an integral part of daily Islamic culture and every Muslim is urged to adhere strictly to it as prescribed. This was the subject of Friday sermon that was delivered by Hadrat Khalifatul Masih V, May Allah be his Helper, on 23/04/2004. The sermon covered all aspect of personal hygiene, cleaning of home, environment, roads and houses of worship.

His Holiness impressed it upon our minds that to keep the surroundings clean is as essential as to keep the homes. To throw litters out anyhow, one would be making the surrounding unclean and causing disease thereby. He then taught that special arrangement should always be made to ensure that there is no litters around the homes. If it is part of our culture to keep our environment green with flowers and grass, they should be well kept and litters and rubbish should not be allowed in the same surrounding. Much attention should be paid to this while the drains in front of the houses should always be cleaned and well maintained, he emphasised.

This important point was also reiterated by His Holiness in the guidance he graciously gave on how to prevent ourselves and our dear ones from being caught in the web of Corona Virus. He says:

“The Promised Messiah (Peace be upon him) also instructed that we keep our houses and our clothes clean, and also keep the drains clean. The Promised Messiah (Peace be upon him) said that, above all else, we need to cleanse our hearts and make amends with God.” [Friday Sermon 10th April 2020]

To the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, every minute detail of personal hygiene that can foster one’s beauty and spirituality is important. Therefore, he guided us in detail on the care of cloth, hair, beard and shoe, among others.

Abul Ahwas (rd) report that his father said:

أَتَيْتُ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم فِي ثَوْبٍ دُونٍ فَقَالَ ‏‏ أَلَكَ مَالٌ ‏”‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ نَعَمْ ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ مِنْ أَىِّ الْمَالِ ‏”‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ قَدْ أَتَانِيَ اللَّهُ مِنَ الإِبِلِ وَالْغَنَمِ وَالْخَيْلِ وَالرَّقِيقِ ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ فَإِذَا أَتَاكَ اللَّهُ مَالاً فَلْيُرَ أَثَرُ نِعْمَةِ اللَّهِ عَلَيْكَ وَكَرَامَتِهِ ‏”‏ ‏

I came to the Prophet (saw) wearing a poor garment and he said to me: Have you any wealth? Yes, (I replied). What kind is it? He asked, again. (I said) Allah has given me camels, sheep, horses and slaves. He then said: When Allah gives you wealth, let the mark of Allah’s favour and honour to you be seen on your cloth and the way you dress. [Sunan Abu Dawud, Chapter on Clothing]

Hadrat Jaabir bin Abdullah, may Allah be pleased with them both, also reports:

أَتَانَا رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَرَأَى رَجُلاً شَعِثًا قَدْ تَفَرَّقَ شَعْرُهُ فَقَالَ ‏‏ أَمَا كَانَ يَجِدُ هَذَا مَا يُسَكِّنُ بِهِ شَعْرَهُ ‏”‏ ‏.‏ وَرَأَى رَجُلاً آخَرَ وَعَلَيْهِ ثِيَابٌ وَسِخَةٌ فَقَالَ ‏”‏ أَمَا كَانَ هَذَا يَجِدُ مَاءً يَغْسِلُ بِهِ ثَوْبَهُ

“The Messenger of Allah (saw) paid us a visit and saw a man who was not keeping his hair well. He said: could this man not find a comb or a brush to keep his hair well? He saw another man wearing dirty cloths and said: Could this man not find any water to wash his garment with.” [Sunan Abu Dawud, Chapter on Clothing]

Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, may Allah strengthen his hands, explained here that, what the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, meant was that why were they in filthy state.

There are some who wear long filthy garment, as we see in some ladies among fellow Muslims. They claim that the extra of their garments that sweeps the floor all along their paths belongs to the paradise. Filthiness is never a sign of piety and was thus advised against by the Beloved of Allah, the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.

Hadrat ‘Ata bin Yassaar (saw) reports:

كَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فِي الْمَسْجِدِ فَدَخَلَ رَجُلٌ ثَائِرَ الرَّأْسِ وَاللِّحْيَةِ فَأَشَارَ إِلَيْهِ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم بِيَدِهِ أَنِ اخْرُجْ كَأَنَّهُ يَعْنِي إِصْلاَحَ شَعَرِ رَأْسِهِ وَلِحْيَتِهِ فَفَعَلَ الرَّجُلُ ثُمَّ رَجَعَ فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏‏ أَلَيْسَ هَذَا خَيْرًا مِنْ أَنْ يَأْتِيَ أَحَدُكُمْ ثَائِرَ الرَّأْسِ كَأَنَّهُ شَيْطَانٌ.‏

The Messenger of Allah (saw) was in the mosque when a man came in with uncombed hair and beard. The Messenger of Allah (saw) motioned with his hand that he should be sent out to groom his hair and beard. The man did so and returned. The Messenger of Allah (saw) said, ‘Isn’t this better than that one of you should come with his head unkept, as if he were a shaytan?’. [Muwatta Imam Malik, Chapter on Hair]

Commenting on this hadith, Hadrat Khalifatul Masih V, may Allah be his helper, noted that the Holy Prophet (saw) compared such people who appear unclean and filthy with Satan. In many places, people appear unclean and pose to be pious. They do because they have not recognized the Imam of age.

Beloved Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih V (may Allah be his helper) added:

“The Promised Messiah says: ‘Allah says: وَثِیَابَکَ فَطَھِّرْ۔ وَالرُّجْزَ فَاھْجُرْ i.e. keep your body and your garment clean; protect yourself from dirt and continue to implore your people to also develop the custom of keeping their cloth clean. Let us pay attention to these words of the Promised Messiah (as).”

Besides, Hadrat Aisah (rd) reports that the Holy Prophet (saw) said,

‏ عَشَرَةٌ مِنَ الْفِطْرَةِ قَصُّ الشَّارِبِ وَقَصُّ الأَظْفَارِ وَغَسْلُ الْبَرَاجِمِ وَإِعْفَاءُ اللِّحْيَةِ وَالسِّوَاكُ وَالاِسْتِنْشَاقُ وَنَتْفُ الإِبْطِ وَحَلْقُ الْعَانَةِ وَانْتِقَاصُ الْمَاءِ ‏”‏ ‏‏ قَالَ مُصْعَبٌ وَنَسِيتُ الْعَاشِرَةَ إِلاَّ أَنْ تَكُونَ الْمَضْمَضَةَ.‏‏

‘There are ten things that are related to the nature of man:

To cut the mustaches
To wear a beard (by men)
To brush teeth
To clean nose with water
To cut one’s nails
To clean the in-between fingers and toes
To remove the armpit
Removing pubic hair
To cleanse after toilet
Musa’b (rd) who narrates the hadith said he has forgotten the tenth one but it appears it is flushing of mouth after eating. [Sahih Muslim]

Hadrat Khalifatul Masih V, may Allah be his helper, guided further on these noble guidelines. He said:

“These are necessary for health precaution and hygiene. By cleaning the nose as one does during ablution five time daily; if you breathe in little water and flush the nostrils with it one is safeguarded against the cold as well. I was told in Germany by someone that he had cold and went to a doctor. The doctor said you are Muslims and you are supposed to clean your nose five times a day, if you do that regularly every day, you can save yourself from catching cold. This perhaps may be the thinking of the doctor or there has been a research on it. But when the Holy Prophet (saw) has told us this then there must be a fact behind it and it must benefit. Then if you trim your nails you can save yourself from all kinds of filth. But there are some men and women as well who wear long nails and they do not care whether there are filths under them or not. In any case, it must be clear to everyone that the Holy Prophet (saw) has commanded that we should cut our nails because there is harm in wearing long nails; there is no advantage in it. Keeping of the ways, paths and roads tidy and convenient for their users was also part of the teachings of the Holy Prophet (saw). He encouraged that twigs or stones or any litter on the paths always be removed.”

In furtherance, the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon) taught his community the etiquette of usage of roads and paths.

عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ، أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ ‏‏ بَيْنَمَا رَجُلٌ يَمْشِي بِطَرِيقٍ وَجَدَ غُصْنَ شَوْكٍ عَلَى الطَّرِيقِ فَأَخَّرَهُ فَشَكَرَ اللَّهُ لَهُ فَغَفَرَ لَهُ

‏Abu Hurairah (rd) narrates that:

The Holy Prophet (saw) said: While a man walks along a path, finds a thorny twig lying on the way and puts it aside, Allah would appreciate it for him and forgive him. [Muwatta Imam Malik, Chapter on Prayer in Congregation]

One of the dirty things people do that create inconveniences for the users of roads is spitting. If one is pressed to do this it should be to a side of the road where no one can see you doing it or where it will not hurt the senses or sentiments of others. Illustrating against this act, the Holy Prophet (saw) said:

اَلْبُزَاقُ فِي الْمَسْجِدِ خَطِيئَةٌ، وَكَفَّارَتُهَا دَفْنُهَا

Spitting in the mosque is a sin and its expiation is to bury it. [Sahih Bukhari]

Hadrat Khalifatul Masih V, may Allah be his Helper, guided further on this that although, the guidance contained in this hadith belongs to the era when the early Muslims were still in their infancy regarding etiquettes of the Mosque at the same time the guidance carries a general application.

Relating this guidance to the current pandemic era; the droplets from the mouth and nose have been specifically noted to be the main carrier of the Corona virus. Hence, nose and mouth must be covered when one coughs or sneezes. The nose cover or mask that has been strongly recommended, therefore, becomes the system through which the discharges would be buried as directed by the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, in the hadith.

In conclusion, the Islamic culture of cleanliness is such that leaves no aspect of hygiene unexplained. Through the Holy Qur’an and Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, we are guided by Allah that we may be safeguarded against casual diseases, endemic and pandemic.

We therefore find it appropriate to end this discussion with a note of Hadrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, the fourth successor and worldwide head of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, may Allah have mercy on him. He said: “The Holy Prophet of Islam has reminded us in so many ways how to protect our body from foulness and impurity that no Muslim can ignore it. On one occasion, the Holy Prophet said, ‘I was shown a man suffering the torture of hell just because he never protected his body from splashes of urine.’ Therefore, he has made it compulsory for every Muslim to: Wash his body with water or, if water is not available, with soil or clay after relieving himself. Avoid, as much as possible, touching the filth. Use only his left hand for this purpose. Clean his hands thoroughly afterwards with water or soil. Although these may seem small matters, but as far as I know, no religion goes into such details for its believers; nor has man been able to learn these matters on his own during his evolution.” [‘Steps to Exercise’ 2006, Majlis Khuddamul Ahmadiyya, UK, page 17]