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General Muslim Customs & Traditions

Moiz Amjad
4/6/2009
139530 views

Every culture, besides a number of other things, has its own distinct set of customs, traditions and etiquettes. In fact, one of the important distinguishing features between one nation and one tribe and another has generally been its distinct set of customs, traditions and etiquettes. The nation or tribe formed by the followers of the prophets and messengers of God is no exception. In the formation of this group, the prophets of God directed their followers to conform to a particular set of customs and etiquettes, which would distinguish them as a nation of the followers of God's prophets. However, because the basic objective of all prophetic teachings is to cleanse the human mind, body and soul from all that has the potential of defiling it, the customs and etiquettes for this group of people have also been fixed and promoted with the same target in perspective.

 

The Arab culture, originally, being one consisting of adherents of the Abrahamic traditions, had a number of these customs, traditions and etiquettes in vogue, even before the advent of the Prophet (peace be upon him). With only a few minor exceptions, the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not alter or add anything to these traditions and customs of the Abrahamic legacy. Thus, these traditions, generally, are a more primitive part of Islam, as compared to the Qur'an. After the approval of the Prophet (peace be upon him), they have been transmitted to the Muslim community through the conceptual consensus and the practical perpetuation of the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Thus, the source of these customs, traditions and etiquettes is the conceptual consensus and the practical perpetuation of the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and every subsequent generation of Muslims.

 

An introduction of the Islamic customs, traditions and etiquettes follows:

 

1- Pronouncing God's Name Before Eating or Drinking

 

The pronouncement of God's name before eating or drinking is with a twofold purpose. Firstly, as a recognition of God's countless blessings upon us, and secondly as a supplication for the continuation and abundance of these blessings in future. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported to have stressed strict adherence to this etiquette in a number of sayings ascribed to him. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:

 

Whenever anyone of you eats, he should say: '[I begin] with the name of God'. If he forgets, he should then say: 'With the name of God, at the beginning  as well as at the end".

 

2- Using the Right Hand for Eating & Drinking

 

After pronouncing God's name before starting to eat or drink, a Muslim should use his right hand for eating and drinking. This practice is a continual reminder for Muslims to strive to be among those, who - on the Day of Judgment - shall get their records in their right hands[1]. Adherence to this practice, on behalf of the individual symbolizes his desire and commitment to be among the people of 'right hand' on the Day of Judgment[2]. The Prophet (peace be upon him) has stressed adherence to this practice in a number of narratives ascribed to him. In one of these narratives, the Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:

 

Whenever one of you eats, he should eat with his right hand and whenever he drinks, he should drink using his right hand.

 

3- Muslim Greeting & its Response

 

At the time of meeting a Muslim should greet his brother with the words: “Assalaam `alaikum[3]. The addressees should subsequently respond with the words: “Wa `alaikum Assalaam'"[4]. These words are, in fact, a supplication for the addressee for peace and blessings. These words have been referred to in the Qur'an as well as in sayings of the Prophet (peace be upon him). As a further etiquette of greeting others, the Prophet is also reported to have said:

 

“The young should take precedence in greeting the old, the passer-by should take precedence in greeting the one who is sitting and the smaller group should first greet the larger group”.

 

4- Blessing After Sneeze & its Response

 

A sneeze is a relief from a common temporary disorder in the human body. After being relieved from this temporary disorder, a Muslim should thank the Almighty with the words: “Al-Hamdulillah" [5], while those present around him, who hear him praise and thank the Lord, should pray for God's mercy and blessings for him with the words: “Yarhamukallah" [6]. The initial utterance is obviously to thank the Almighty for the relief one feels after sneezing, while the response - entailing an invocation of God's mercy for the person who has thanked his Lord - signifies a reminder of the fact that God's mercy and His blessings are, in fact, the right only of the thankful. This practice of thanking God after sneezing and then of responding with an invocation of God's mercy for the person who has thanked God is known in the Arabic language as 'Tashmeet'. 'Tashmeet' has been one of the common practices among the followers of God's prophets. The mere fact that there was a word for this practice in the pre-Islamic Arabic language clearly evidences the fact that this practice was also in vogue among the Arabs even before the advent of the Prophet (peace be upon him). The Prophet (peace be upon him) approved and promoted this practice among his followers without any alteration. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:

 

When one of you sneezes, he should say: "All gratitude is due to God", his brother or his companion, in response should say: "May God bless you/have mercy upon you", then again as a response, the listener should say: "May God guide you all and make you all more virtuous". (Bukhari)

 

5- Reciting 'Adhaan' in the Right Ear of a Newly Born

 

This tradition was initiated by the Prophet (peace be upon him).

 

The words of the Adhaan[7] as fixed by the Prophet (peace be upon him), according to God's directive, entail the complete summarized message of Islam[8]. The Adhaan - the call to prayers is, in fact, a call to Islam - a call to complete submission to God's will. Every Muslim is continually being called toward the message entailed in the Adhaan. This message is being delivered through our mosques five times during every day.

 

Recitation of the Adhaan in the right ear of a new born child symbolizes, on behalf of the parents, that like their respective physical contributions in the formation of the child, they have also, through the deliverance of God's message, initiated the transmission of their spiritual beings to the child.

 

6- Trimming Moustaches, Removing Hair from the Pubic Area and from Under the Armpits, Clipping Nails & Circumcision

 

As part of the teachings related to physical cleansing, the Prophet (peace be upon him) directed the Muslims to trim their moustaches, remove the hair from their pubic area and that which grows under the armpits, clip their nails and circumcise their male offspring. These practices were approved, adopted and promoted by the Prophet (peace be upon him) as symbols of cleanness.

 

Large and unkempt moustaches have generally been considered a sign of arrogance. Moreover, such moustaches can also soil food and water at the time of eating and drinking. Likewise, large nails are not only a sign of an uncouth and a dirty personality, but also give a wild and beastly appearance. Thus, the Prophet (peace be upon him) gave the directive regarding the trimming of moustaches and the clipping of nails. In the same manner, removing hair from the pubic area and from under the armpits and circumcising the male offspring are also clearly related to physical cleansing. To stress adherence to all these practices, the Prophet (peace be upon him) even fixed a time-period for some of these practices. According to one of the narratives, Anas (may God be pleased with him) is reported to have said:

 

“We were directed not to leave our moustaches untrimmed, our nails unclipped and the hair on our pubic area and under our armpits unshaved for over forty days.” (Muslim)

 

All these practices were generally adhered to by the Arabs, even before the advent of the Prophet (peace be upon him)[9]. Adherence to all these practices is, in fact, a part of human nature, which, in view of their significance in our physical cleansing and purification, have always been a permanent feature of the teachings of the prophets of God. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:

 

“Five things are a part of man's nature[10]: Circumcision, removing pubic hair, clipping nails, removing hair from the armpits and trimming moustaches.”

 

7- Keeping the Nose, the Mouth & the Teeth Clean

 

As a part of elevating the religious tastes and developing a strong sense of purification and cleanliness among their followers, cleaning the nose, the mouth and the teeth has been a permanent feature of the teachings of the prophets of God. Maintaining cleanliness and hygiene, especially, keeping the nose, the mouth and the teeth clean has been mentioned in the history of the Arabs, since pre-Islamic times, as an accepted religious tradition[11]. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported to have strictly adhered to the practice of rinsing his mouth and his nose every time he performed his ablutions. In the same manner, he also greatly stressed the importance of keeping the teeth clean. He is reported to have said:

 

“Had it not been for the burden that it may have caused for my followers, I would have directed them to brush their teeth before every prayer.” (Muslim)

 

8- Washing after Urination and Defecation

 

The Arabic word "Istinjaa" is used as a term for cleaning the related organs after urination and defecation. "Istinjaa", like many of the aforementioned customs and traditions, was also strictly adhered to by the Arabs, since pre-Islamic times[12]. Depending upon the circumstances, "Istinjaa" may be performed with water, with pebbles of dry earth or with any other suitable thing. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported to have preferred using water for the purpose. Abu Hurairah (may God be pleased with him) is reported to have said:

 

“When the Prophet would go to relieve himself (i.e. to urinate or defecate), I would get him water in a pot. He would perform Istinjaa with the water and brush his hand on the earth.” (Abu Dawud)

 

9- Refraining from Sexual Contact During a Woman's Menstruation and her Puerperal Discharge

 

Refraining from sexual contact with women during their menstruation and during their puerperal discharge has been a part of all revealed religions. The Arabs, under the influence of the Abrahamic traditions, strictly adhered to this restraint even before the advent of the Prophet (peace be upon him). This restraint is also referred, from various aspects, in the pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. There was no noticeable difference of opinion or practice in this regard. However, the allowable limits of interaction with women during these days were not as clear. There were some extremely strict opinions regarding these limits. Some even considered the touch of a menstruating woman to be defiling and corrupting their physical cleanness. Thus, when people inquired about these limits, the Qur'an clarified these limits (Al-Baqarah 2: 222) in the following words:

 

They ask you about menstruation. Say: it is a state of uncleanness. Therefore, detach yourselves from women during their menstruation, and do not approach them until they are clean [from menstruation]. Then, when they have cleansed themselves, approach them, from where God has ordained you. Indeed God loves the repentant and He loves those who keep themselves cleansed. (Qur’an: 2:222)

 

The Qur'an, in the cited verses, has clarified that the 'detachment' from women prescribed during their menstruation, relates only to conjugal (sexual) relations with them. It does not imply that a woman during her menstruation should be rendered 'untouchable' during these days, as is the case in some societies and religions.

 

In the last part of the verse, a beautiful analogy is drawn between repentance and keeping oneself physically clean. A close look at the two phenomena shows that they essentially refer to the same thing from two different perspectives. Physical cleansing, as we know, refers to relieving the body from all such things that soil and defile it; Repentance, on the other hand, is in fact, the cleansing of the soul - i.e. relieving the soul from all such things that have the potential of soiling and defiling it. Thus, the last part of the verse declares that to deserve God's love, one should continually strive to keep his body as well as his soul cleansed.

 

10- Bathing After Menstrual & Puerperal Discharge & After Sexual Uncleanness

 

Bathing after menstrual and  puerperal discharge of blood and after sexual contact has also been a part of all divine religions. It was also a common tradition among the Arabs, even before the advent of Islam, as an Abrahamic tradition. As has been cited above, the Qur'an has referred to a woman's bathing after the discontinuation of her menstrual bleeding. The same rules, as given in the Qur'an for menstruation, should obviously apply to puerperal bleeding as well. Bathing after sexual contact, especially before offering Salah, is also referred to in the Qur'an. The Qur'an (Al-Nisaa 4: 43) says:

 

Believers, do not go near prayers, while you are in a state of intoxication, until the time that you are aware of what you say and neither in a state of sexual uncleanness, until you bathe yourselves carefully, except that you only intend to pass through [the mosque].

 

The example set by the Prophet (peace be upon him) relating to bathing after sexual uncleanness, as reported in a  number of narratives, entailed the following, sequential, steps:

  1. Carefully washing hands;

  2. Carefully washing and cleaning the organ, using the left hand;

  3. Conducting the complete ritual ablution, prescribed for prayers, except for washing the feet;

  4. Thoroughly washing the head while rinsing the hair;

  5. Washing the whole body;

  6. Washing the feet.

 

 

End Notes

 

[1] According to the Qur'an, those who shall stand successful on the Day of Judgment, shall receive the records of their deeds in their right hands, while the doomed shall receive their records in their left hands (see Al-Haaqqah 69: 19 - 22)

 

[2] See Al-Waaqi`ah 56: 27 - 40.

 

[3] Lit: 'peace be upon you (all)'.

 

[4] Lit: 'and upon you too may be peace'.

 

[5] Lit: 'all praise/gratitude is due to God'.

 

[6] Lit: 'may God have mercy on you' or 'may God bless you'.

 

[7] The public call to prayers.

 

[8] The Adhaan begins with the declaration of the fact that God is the biggest and the highest authority and, therefore, deserves our submission and obedience the most. After this, a declaration of the oneness of God and the prophethood of Mohammed (peace be upon him) is made, which is followed by a call to God's worship - in the style taught by the Prophet (peace be upon him) - which guarantees eternal success. In the end, once again the declaration of God's incomparable greatness and His oneness is repeated to symbolize the all-encompassing nature of the belief of Tawheed (oneness of God) in Islam.

 

[9] "Al-Mufassal fi Taarikh al-Arab Qabl al-Islam", (Arabic) Dr. Jawwad Ali, Vol. 6, Pg. 346.

 

[10] That is, a man due to his natural inclination of keeping himself clean should strictly adhere to them.

 

[11] "Al-Mufassal fi Taarikh al-Arab Qabl al-Islam", (Arabic) Dr. Jawwad Ali, Vol. 6, Pg. 346.

 

[12] "Al-Mufassal fi Taarikh al-Arab Qabl al-Islam", (Arabic) Dr. Jawwad Ali, Vol. 6, Pg. 346.

 






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