Wudu or Ablutions for Islamic Prayer

Men washing hands and feet in ablution faucets in the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul (Turkey)
Daniel Candal/Moment Open/Getty Images

Muslims pray directly to Allah and believe that out of humility and respect for the Almighty one should prepare to do so with a clean heart, mind, and body. Muslims only pray when they are in a ritual state of purity, free from any physical impurities or uncleanliness. To this end, ritual ablutions (called wudu) are necessary before each formal prayer if one is in a state of impurity. During ablution, a Muslim washes the parts of the body that are generally exposed to dirt and grime.

How

A Muslim begins every action with intention, so one mentally determines to cleanse oneself for prayer, for the sake of Allah. Then one begins with the silent words: "Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem" (In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful).

With a small amount of water, one then washes:

  • the hands three times, making sure that the water reaches between the fingers and all over the hands up to the wrist
  • the mouth three times, bringing a handful of water to the mouth and rinsing thoroughly
  • the nose three times, using the right hand to bring water up to the nose, sniffing the water, and using the left hand to expel it
  • the face three times, from the forehead to the chin and from ear to ear
  • the arms three times, up to the elbows, starting with the right arm
  • the head one time, using wet hands to wipe over the head from front to back and front again
  • the ears one time, using wet fingers to wipe the inside and outside of the ears
  • the feet three times, up to the ankles, starting with the right

It is recommended that one finishes the ablution with the supplication: "Ashhadu anlaa ilaaha illallaahu wahdahu laa shareekalahu, washhadu anna Muhammadan 'abduhu wa rasooluhu" (I witness that none should be worshiped except Allah, and that Muhammad is His slave and Messenger).

It is also recommended to perform a two-rakah prayer after completing wudu.

Only a small amount of water is needed for ablution, and Muslims are not supposed to be wasteful. It is thus recommended to fill a small water container or the sink, and not leave the water running.

When 

Wudu does not need to be repeated before each and every prayer if one remains in a ritual state of purity from the previous prayer. If one "breaks wudu" then the ablutions needs to be repeated before subsequent prayer. The actions that break wudu include:

  • Natural discharge - urine, stool, gas, vomiting, etc.
  • Falling asleep
  • Falling unconscious
  • Bleeding from a wound

A more extensive ablution is needed after sexual relations, childbirth, or menstruation. This is called ghusl (ritual bath) and involves similar steps to the above, with the addition of rinsing the left and right sides of the body as well.

Where

Muslims can use any clean bathroom, sink, or other water source for ablutions. In mosques, there are often special areas set aside for ablution, with low faucets, seats, and floor drains to make it easier to reach the water, especially when washing the feet.

Why

Ablution (wudu) helps the worshiper break from normal life and prepare to enter a state of worship.

It freshens the mind and the heart and leaves one feeling clean and pure.

Allah says in the Quran: "Oh you who believe! When you prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; rub your heads and wash your feet to the ankles. If you are in a state of ceremonial impurity, bathe your whole body. But if you are ill, or on a journey, or one of you comes from an act of nature, or you have been in contact with women, and you find no water -- then take for yourselves clean sand or earth, and rub your faces and hands. Allah does not wish to place you in difficulty, but to make you clean, and to complete His favor to you, that you may be grateful" (5:6).

Exceptions

Islam is a practical faith, and Allah in His Mercy does not ask of us more than we can handle. 

If water is unavailable, or if one has medical reasons for which ablution with water would be harmful, one may perform a more minimal ablution with clean, dry sand.

This is called "tayammum" (dry ablution) and is mentioned specifically in the Quran verse above.

After wudu, if one puts on clean socks/shoes that cover most of the foot, it is not necessary to remove these to wash the feet again when renewing the wudu. Rather, one can pass wet hands over the tops of the socks/shoes instead. This can be continued for 24 hours, or for three days if traveling.