Coronavirus versus ritual ablution

I’ve been seeing a tweet being retweeted all over by Muslims, which lists an “anti-coronavirus protocol” which consists of washing the hands, face, hair and feet, washing the mouth out, and snuffing water into one’s nose and then blowing it out. This is the ritual ablution or wudu (variously also spelled wazu or wudhoo’, the latter being the precise transcription of the Arabic letters) that Muslims perform before praying if they have used the toilet or done any of a variety of other things since they last prayed. Here’s an example:

As you might guess, this type of wash is not designed to stop a virus and will not do so. It is a ritual purification to prepare for a ritual prayer. A coronavirus is a respiratory tract virus which spreads through bodily fluids, specifically those emitted into the air through the mouth and nose. This is why we are being encouraged not to touch our faces, especially our mouths, nose and eyes (while masks, and indeed niqaabs, do not provide much protection against the virus itself, they do make touching two of these three orifices, or all of them in the case of the full niqaab, much more difficult). This particular virus is one that none of us has any immunity to, because it is new. When the common cold virus, also a coronavirus, was transmitted to natives in the Americas following the voyages of Columbus, huge numbers died. It is something we get every year or so and it gives us a runny nose and sore throat for a while and then we get over it; that is because we have immunity. We will only develop immunity to COVID-19 over time from exposure to it.

A row of four ablution areas with a white stool in front of a white ceramic sinks with a tap over the top of each, with a drain at foot level. There are slate tiles on the wall and marble tiles on the floor.
A modular wudu area in a mosque in Moscow, Idaho. There is no divider between the modules so that when a worshipper blows his nose out, he may blow it over the hands and into the immediate environment of his neighbour. (Source: WuduMate).

In fact, given the layout of many mosque wudu areas, where people sit with no barrier between them, the way people do wudu and then walk away with dripping wet hands might actually help spread the virus, not stop it. When you blow the water out of your nose, some of it will go on your hands and into the air. Washing your hands afterwards might get rid of a lot of it, but not all of it, so shaking your hands dry with a huge flourish as you walk towards the door will give everyone in the surrounding area a dose of it. In our fairly cool climate, hands stay wet longer than they do in a hot climate such as Egypt. People should be encouraged to dry their hands and faces before going into other communal areas and, if possible, do wudu before they leave the home (although this is already encouraged at busy times). Paper towels should be provided so that hands and faces can be cleaned before people leave the wudu area; there should also be dividers between the seats so that nobody is blowing anything at their neighbours. People should also be encouraged to dry things like toilet seats after using them; I have lost count of the number of wet seats and floors I have encountered in Muslim restaurants where there are water jugs for cleaning oneself after toileting. People must understand that just because something is not impure (najis), this does not mean it is healthy and that others should be expected to sit in it. (Lots of things that are not impure can contain and transmit pathogens: raw egg, for example.)

It is not only mosque wudu areas, of course, that should be redesigned to impede the spread of this virus. Any public hygiene area should be. At least temporarily, paper towels should be provided because they dry the hands quickly; electric hand dryers are worse than useless because the air is tepid and the flow weak, and the air itself is drawn straight from the immediate environment, i.e. the toilet (it is better to locate them outside the toilet or at least as far as possible from the toilet cubicles). Doors should open both ways so that anyone can push them with their feet or elbows, not grip a handle and pull it. Toilet bowls should always have lids, and the flush handle located behind the lid so it can only be used with the lid down (very few toilets have this latter design feature); this prevents filth being spread around when the toilet is flushed, especially if the user has had a bowel movement. This prevents other pathogens being spread to other users, including the enteroviruses (gut/bowel viruses) which cause neurological illnesses.

I am not suggesting for a moment that we should not do wudu; it is absolutely necessary for us to practise our religion, but to claim that wudu is an “anti-coronavirus protocol” in itself is hugely irresponsible. Being clean and being in the habit of cleaning ourselves as we go are hugely beneficial, but if anything, these other forms of purification are more relevant to maintaining good health than wudu itself. If this virus starts spreading wild in the general populations, open wudu areas may well become a thing of the past and mosques will have to invest in paper towels and dispensers as well as the exquisite marble washing stations many of them have.

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