The religion of Islam mandates specific hygiene practices before performing religious activities such as praying or reading the Qur'an. Muslims believe that cleansing rituals, also called ablutions, prepare them to address Allah, and they view ablutions as a sign of respect for the deity.

Before engaging in daily Islamic ceremonies, Muslims must perform the appropriate type of ablution to satisfy Allah -- either wudhu, a less extensive ablution in which cleansing is conducted multiple times a day, or ghusl, an ablution that includes an extensive full body bath.

The Purpose of Ablutions: Wudhu and Ghusl

The main purpose of wudhu is for Muslims to cleanse themselves before entering Allah's presence during prayer. If a person is not clean while performing Salah, or the ritual prayer that takes place five times day, Allah will not accept the prayer. Muslims also perform wudhu before handling the Qur'an.

Ghusl, the more extensive cleaning ritual, cleanses Muslims for more serious occasions. Ghusl is required after any discharge from the male or female genitals, either during sex or nocturnal emissions, after a woman completes her menstrual cycle, after a woman gives childbirth and on the corpse of a Muslim who did not die a martyr. Devout Muslims also perform ghusl before Friday prayers, before making a pilgrimage to Mecca, for recent converts and before Eid prayers, also called Salat al-Eid, the special prayer offered to commemorate two Islamic festivals.

The Process of Ablutions

Muslims typically follow a set order for wudhu, though it is not considered necessary. Traditional order begins with Muslims declaring that they are cleansing in the name of Allah. They then wash the right hand and then the left hand, three times each. They wash the mouth three times and splash water into the nose three times, then wash the face; one time is acceptable, though many wash it three times. Next, they wash the right arm, then the left. After washing the hair, Muslims wipe it down and then wash the back of the ears, then the right foot and left foot.

Ghusl begins with declaring the intention to perform the cleansing then washing the hands. Next, a Muslim washes the genitals, then performs all the steps of wudhu. He then washes the body three times in a bath with running water.

Breaking Wudhu

While it is preferable to perform wudhu before each prayer session, if a practionioner has not broken wudhu, then it is not considered necessary. Practices that break wudhu and require ritual cleansing include any discharge from the genitals or anus, touching the genitals or falling asleep. Anything that causes a person to become unconcious, such as fainting or becoming intoxicated, also invalidates wudhu. Finally, bleeding from a cut or wound or touching a wet dog also break the cleansing. Engaging in sexual intercourse or menstruating requires ghusl, not wudhu.

Where to Perform Ablutions

Muslims traditionally take ghsul baths in large buckets, but the water must be running, not stagnant. Any material thing, such as clothing, must also be cleansed in a ritual way if it has become impure. While mosques offer basins specifically designed for wudhu in sparse rooms, Muslims can perform the ablutions anywhere, such as in a bathroom sink. After using the restroom, Muslims practice istinja, or washing the genitals in a basin, similar to a bidet. Wudhu and ghusl are performed with clean water and without soap.