Excerpt: Fundamentals of Islamic Law: Introduction to Purification

The following sample chapter gives an idea of the format and style of a proposed work on Islamic law written for a modern student. The chapters begin with a “You Will Learn” outline of the chapter’s content, followed by the body of the chapter (with bolded concepts/important vocabulary). Each chapter ends with a Summary (which is to be memorized), a Key Concepts list, and Study Questions. Tables, graphs, and case studies will be interspersed throughout the body text but in a way that is not intrusive or visually distracting.

Section 1: Purification

In this section, you will learn the:

  • division of legal actions
  • categories of acts of worship
  • definition and obligation of purification
  • categories of purification and impurities
  • spiritual dimensions of purification

Acts of Worship

Scholars of Islamic law divide legal actions into two categories: (i) actions that involve the relationship between man and God, such as ritual prayer or fasting, and (ii) actions that involve the relationship between man and man, such as marriage or business transactions. The former are acts of worship, or ʿibādāt, while the latter are social dealings, or muʿāmalāt. All legal actions in Islamic law can thus be categorized into either the (i) ʿibādāt or (ii) muʿāmalāt.

Acts of worship in Islam include the following: (i) ṭahārah (purification) and (ii) ṣalāt (ritual prayer), (iii) zakāt (charity), (iv) ṣawm (fasting), and (v) ḥajj (pilgrimage). By agreement of the scholars, the most important of these acts of worship is the ritual prayer. This is established through numerous verses of the Quran as well as traditions of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) that emphasize its primary position amongst the acts of man. One such evidence is the tradition of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) in which he states, “The first act that for which a slave will be held accountable on the Day of Judgment will be the ritual prayer. If it is sound, then all of his acts will be sound. If it is bad, then all of his acts will be bad.” (Ṭabarānī)

Traditionally, scholars of fiqh organized legal texts by starting with the acts of worship given the primacy of their importance in the eyes of Allah. Of the acts of worship, undoubtedly the most important is ṣalāt, yet due to the ṣalāt’s various preconditions for validity, most often legal works will begin with a chapter on ṭahārah (purification).

Ṭaḥārah encompasses both physical and spiritual hygiene. One can be physically hygienic, however, without being in a state of spiritual hygiene. Thus, the concept of ṭahārah in Islam is more specifically focused on seeking spiritual purity, though spiritual purity is conditional upon the physical. When a Muslim attains both physical and spiritual purity he is in the most virtuous and pure state.


The word ṭahārah is the verbal noun (maṣdar) from the root ṭ-h-r and carries the meaning of purification or removal of filth. The same three root letters vowelled with a kasrah (short ‘i’) on the first consonant (thus ṭihārah) are used to denote the instrument through which one achieves purification (in this case the water used for ablution), while a ḍammah (short ‘u’) on the first consonant of the word (thus ṭuhārah) connotes the excess water that remains after a person purifies oneself. As a legal term, ṭahārah is more specifically defined as “purification from both ritual impurity (ḥadath) and physical impurity (khabath)”.

Purification becomes an obligation, and not simply a virtuous or hygienic act, when a person intends to perform those ritual acts of worship whose validity is conditional upon ṭahārah, such as ṣalāt or ṭawāf (circumambulation around the Kaʿbah). A person in a state of ritual impurity is not only disallowed from performing such ritual acts of worship, their observation without ṭahārah would be considered legally ineffective, invalid, and void of reward.

Muslims know of the importance and necessity of purification from two sources of law – the Quran and the Sunnah. One of many proofs found in the Quran is the verse: Indeed, Allah loves those who are ever-penitent, and He loves those who purify themselves. (Q 2:222) From the Sunnah we find a hadith narrated by Abū Mālik al-Ashʿarī that the Messenger of Allah (upon him blessings and peace) proclaimed, “Purification is half of faith.” (Muslim)

Categories of Purification

Purification can be classified into two categories based on the nature of the impurity:

  1. Purification from ritual impurity (ḥadath)
  2. Purification from physical impurity (najāsah/khabath)

There are further two categories of ritual impurities and subsequently two corresponding categories of purification to remove each. The two types of ritual impurity are:

  1. Minor ritual impurity (ḥadath aṣghar), which requires purification through ritual ablution, or wuḍūʾ.
  2. Major ritual impurity (ḥadath akbar), which requires purification through a purificatory bath, or ghusl.

If impurity is physical and not a ritual state, then purification from it can achieved by simply washing and removing the physical impurity itself.

Muslim scholars unanimously agree that water is an inherently purifying substance that can remove both ritual and physical impurities. In terms of physical impurity or filth, the relied-upon opinion of the Ḥanafī school is that some liquids other than water can also be used to remove filth. Of course, the liquid must meet certain conditions including the condition that it flows and is pure itself. Imam Muḥammad as well as Imam Shāfiʿī differed from this dominant and majority opinion and restricted purification to water.

Spiritual Dimensions

It is generally recommended to maintain a state of ritual purity at all times, even before going to sleep. The benefits of purification are not only physical but extend to the spiritual as well. One who remains in a state of ritual purity with the intention of Allah’s pleasure is said to be in a constant state of worship and therefore constantly earning reward. Additionally, attention to matters of purification is a means of increasing one’s concentration and focus in prayer.

Perhaps most importantly, maintaining a state of purity is indicative of one’s devotion to Allah and the sincerity of one’s actions. When a person prepares to meet an important figure, a boss or president for example, imagine how much care and attention is given to preparing for the meeting. One maintains their appearance with a mind to please and impress the one they are meeting, taking extreme caution not to appear unkempt, unprepared, and inattentive.

In the same way, when a believer presents himself before Allah in prayer, it behooves him to make himself presentable by cleaning his body parts and clothes with full attention to detail. He should miss no obligatory nor preferred step, nor even the etiquette of purification in order to prove to the Ruler of all rulers, the King of all kings, the Creator of all that exists, that he is sincere and true in his acts of worship.


  1. Legal actions are divided into (i) ʿibādāt and (ii) muʿāmalāt.
  2. ʿIbādāt consist of: (i) ṭahārah, (ii) ṣalāt, (iii) zakāt, (iv) ṣawm, and (v) ḥajj. 
  3. Ṭahārah encompasses both (i) physical and (ii) spiritual purification.
  4. Ṭahārah is legally defined as “purification from both ritual impurity (ḥadath) and physical impurity (khabath)”.
  5. Impurities are of two categories: (i) ritual impurity and (ii) physical impurity.
  6. Ritual impurity is of two categories: (i) minor ritual impurity (ḥadath aṣghar), which requires purification through ritual ablution, or wuḍūʾ, and major ritual impurity (ḥadath akbar), which requires purification through a purificatory bath, or ghusl.
  7. Water is the main instrument for achieving all types of purification.

Terms and Concepts

Ṭahārah طَهَارَة

Ḥadath حَدَث

Khabath خَبَث

Najāsah نَجَاسَة

Ḥādith حَادِث

Ḥadath Akbar حَدَث أَكْبَر

Ḥadath Aṣghar حَدَث أَصْغَر

Ṭāhir طَاهِر

Ṭahūr طَهُوْر

Māʾ Mustaʿmal مَاء مُسْتَعْمَل

Māʾ Kathīr مَاء كَثِير

Māʾ Qalīl مَاء قَلِيل

Study Questions

1. What are the linguistic and legal definitions of ṭahārah?

2. What are the two types of impurities?

3. What are the two states of ritual impurity and how is each state removed?

4. What substance or substances can be used to remove both ritual and physical impurity?


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