The Accessible Conspectus: Ablution Invalidators

This is the third installment from a series of posts aimed at making The Ultimate Conspectus accessible to readers who have never read fiqh before.

1.5.5 Ablution Invalidators

Six things invalidate ablution.

The first invalidator is anything exiting from the private parts (i.e., the urethra, vagina, and anus) whether it is solid (like feces), liquid (like urine), or gas (like flatulence). It includes substances that typically exit from the private parts (like the ones already mentioned), and substances that do not (like worms, and kidney stones). And it includes impure things (like feces, urine, and blood), as well as things that are pure (like babies).

The second invalidator is sleeping while one’s buttocks are not firmly seated. Breaking wind invalidates ablution. While people sleep, it is very easy to break wind without noticing. But if someone sleeps in a way that keeps his buttocks held together, it becomes quite unlikely that he would break wind without also waking. So if one sits directly on the ground on his buttocks, or on a firm surface, he will remain in a state of purification even though he is asleep.

Wooden benches, bus seats, airplane seats, and car seats are all candidates for being firm surfaces. (If you are in a classroom it should not be difficult to come up with your own example.)

The third invalidator is losing consciousness due to intoxication or sickness. Loss of consciousness includes sleep (with the exception of what was mentioned above). It does not include light dozing where you can hear voices around you but not make out what they are saying.

The fourth invalidator is direct skin contact between a male and an unrelated woman. This applies to the person doing the touching and the person who is touched. And it applies even when the touch is accidental or annoying. So long as the touch involves skin contact between a physically mature male and a physically mature female who are not closely related, it will invalidate ablution. There are exceptions to this when the touch involves people who are closely related, like a man touching his mother, sister, or daughter; or a woman touching her father, son, or brother.

Part of the rationale behind the invalidation of ablution upon contact between members of the opposite sex who are not close kin is that it is typically associated with arousal. Arousal is something subjective and without a clear definition: it is something that others cannot observe directly, and people differ in what they consider to be arousal. Legal scholars tend to avoid causal explanations that depend upon things that are subjective and without a clear definition. And since touch between members of the opposite sex has a high potential for being associated with arousal, the Shāfiʿīs consider the act of touching that is objective and clearly defined to be what invalidates ablution.

The fifth invalidator is touching a human’s genitals with the palm. This includes someone touching their own genitals or somebody else’s. Here “touching” means coming into contact with the palm of the hand or the bottom side of the fingers. One way to understand what this includes is by placing the palms of your hands, with the fingers extended, against each other, and then pressing a little bit. The surface skin that is now touching is the area of the hand that invalidates ablution when it comes into contact with the genitals. So ablution is not invalided when the touch involves the remaining outer edges of the fingers and hands, the fingernails, or the back of the hand.

The sixth invalidator is touching one’s anus, according to the new school. Imām al-Shāfi‘ī’s “new school” refers to his opinions after his move to Egypt. His “old school” refers to his opinions prior to this move. The new school is followed in all but approximately seventeen issues. So according to the new school, any touch or contact with the anus will invalidate ablution, similar to coming into contact with genitals. You probably understood that this was the case when reading the fifth invalidator. One of the benefits of stating it explicitly here is that it removes any doubt or confusion that may have existed due to other scholars advocating the opinion of the old school.

This section ends the discussion on raising minor ritual impurity through ablution. The next section discusses raising major ritual impurity through the purificatory bath. You may be more familiar with its Arabic name: “ghusl.” This book is for individuals who are adults or on the verge of becoming adults. These topics may be a bit embarrassing. But suffering a few minutes of embarrassment to learn how to worship Allah correctly is better than letting the fear of embarrassment prevent us from doing so.

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