Shīʿa Islam: History and Doctrines / Ayatullāh Jaʿfar Subḥānī
Wiping the feet in wuḍūʾ
Islamic jurists are divided about whether the believer must wash or wipe his feet when performing wuḍūʾ. Some of them say it is obligatory to wash the feet; the Imāmiyya say that wiping is correct. Dāwūd b. ʿAlī, the leader of the Zāhiriyya and Nāṣir al-Kabīr, a leader of the Zaydiyya, advocate a combination of wiping and washing. Ḥasan al-Baṣrī says the wuḍūʾ maker is free to choose between the two.
Muslims used to observe how the Prophet made wuḍūʾ day and night, at home and on journeys, so why is there any disagreement? This shows that jurisprudence (ijtihād) can take the most straightforward issue and turn it into the most contentious one.
There is a Qur’anic verse which explains in clear terms how to perform wuḍūʾ. If there is any ambiguity, it must have occurred in the minds of the Muslims in the following years, because the verse is exceedingly clear:
‘O you who have faith! When you stand up for prayer, wash your faces and your hands up to the elbows, and wipe a part of your heads and your feet, up to the ankles. If you are junub, purify yourselves. But if you are sick, or on a journey, or any of you has come from the toilet, or you have touched women, and you cannot find water, then make tayammum with clean ground and wipe a part of your faces and your hands with it. Allah does not desire to put you to hardship, but He desires to purify you, and to complete His blessing upon you so that you may give thanks.’ (Q5:6)
Exegetes differ about the declension of the word ‘your feet’ (arjulakum) in the first part of the verse. According to the seven different major recitations it can be read with either a kasra or fatḥa, which alters its grammatical position in the sentence. The reciters Ibn Kathīr, Ḥamza, Abū ʿAmr and ʿĀṣim based on the recitation of Abū Bakr, recite with kasra – arjul-i-kum. Meanwhile, Nāfiʿ, Ibn ʿĀmir and ʿĀsim based on the recitation of Ḥafṣ recite it with a fatḥa – arjul-a-kum. (Majmaʿ al-Bayān, 2/163)
It is fundamentally unlikely that the Prophet recited the same verse in two completely different ways, as this would introduce ambiguity to the Qur’an on an issue that the divine revelation should be speaking clearly about; the Qur’an sets instructions for everyday life and ambiguity has no place there.
The Imāmiyya say the verse recommends wiping no matter how it is pronounced. If both ‘your heads’ and ‘your feet’ take kasra, then they are in conjunction (ʿaṭf), which makes them both objects of the same verb – ‘wipe’. On the other hand, if ‘your feet’ takes fatḥa then it is still in conjunction with ‘your heads’ as an object of the verb, but it does not take the Arabic preposition bi, which makes ‘your heads’ take kasra – ‘bi ruʾūs-i-kum.’ Therefore it takes fatḥa because it is the direct object of a verb. To better illustrate this, we can look at the following verse:
‘…an announcement from Allah and His Messenger to all the people on the day of the greater hajj: that Allah repudiates the polytheists and His Messenger…’ (Q9:3)
The second occurrence of ‘His Messenger’ in this verse at first appears to be the object of ‘repudiates’ (i.e. God repudiates His own Messenger!), however this is not the case as when we look at the declension of the Arabic word ‘His Messenger’, we notice it has taken ḍamma – ‘wa rasūl-u-hu’, which means it cannot be the object of repudiates, but rather is the subject of the sentence, like ‘Allah.’ So this renders the meaning ‘Allah repudiates the polytheists, as does His Messenger.’
The original text of this verse in Arabic is the best indication that the previous verse calls for wiping the feet during wuḍūʾ. Those who advocate washing the feet are frustrated by the grammar of the verse and they try to justify their reading based on torturous interpretations Arabic grammar. They say that the word ‘washing’ in the verse also involves the feet, as ‘your feet’ is actually in conjunction with ‘your faces’, which also has a fatḥa, hence the two are both objects of the same verse.
However, this is patently incorrect because this involves a completely unrelated sentence about wiping the feet interposing between the two sides of a grammatical conjunction – something which is not allowed in Arabic grammar!
It is clear to every reader that every Muslim, making wuḍūʾ, has to wipe over his head and feet. But unfortunately, interpretations have given an ambiguous form to this religious practice. One of them is definitely unreal and you must have noted that those who call for washing the feet fail to justify their interpretation. Some others are used to making philosophies saying washing also includes wiping. But religious instructions could not be changed as we wish. A large number of Companions of the Prophet have said that the feet must be wiped over during wuḍūʾ. Here are some quotes:
Ibn ʿAbbās says: wuḍūʾ includes two washings and two wipings.
Anas b. Mālik used to wet his feet when he wiped over them. One day he heard Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf calling on worshippers to wash their feet. Anas interrupted him saying: ‘God has said the truth and Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf is lying.’ Then he recited this Qur’anic phrase: ‘wipe over your heads and your feet to the ankles.’
ʿIkrama, a disciple of Ibn ʿAbbās, said: ‘Feet must be wiped over and not washed.’
Shaʿbī sayid: ‘Gabriel has ordered the Prophet to wipe over his feet in wuḍūʾ. But in tayammum, the face and the hands are wiped over while it is not necessary to wipe the head and feet. Therefore, if the feet were to be washed in wuḍūʾ, they would have to be wiped over in tayammum.’
Qatāda interprets the verse as follows: ‘God has ordered two washings and two wipings. But some groups keep reading the verse differently to justify their recommended washing for the feet.’ (Tafsīr Ṭabarī, 6/82–83)
The practice of the Infallible Imams
The infallible Shīʿa Imams, who are all heirs to the Prophet, and who have been described by the Prophet to be on the same level as the Qur’an say the Prophet used to wipe over his head and feet. To that effect, Imam al-Bāqir says: ‘I explain to you how the Prophet performed his wuḍūʾ. He filled his hands with water, washed his face and finally he wiped over his head and feet.’ (Wasāʾil al-Shīʿa, 1/ch. 15)
Attempts to prove that washing is compulsory
Those who say the feet must be washed interpret the Qur’anic verse as recommending wiping. But at the same time, they try to justify their opinion that the feet must be washed in wuḍūʾ by claiming that some aḥādīth refer to washing feet. Thus, if we wash our feet we will be doing both (washing and wiping), as wiping is included in washing but washing is not included in wiping.
If they refer to aḥādīth from Sunnī sources about washing, they must know that the same Sunnī scholars have also narrated accounts of wiping. Due to such contradictions, the view that is in agreement with that of the Qur’an should be taken as correct.
They claim that Imam ʿAlī once told a man that there has been a different arrangement in the verse of wuḍūʾ and that God has ordered the feet to be washed while the head is wiped over. Had Imam ʿAlī mentioned such a thing, his close associates would have recorded and recounted it. Imam al-Bāqir has narrated the way the Prophet used to make wuḍūʾ and Qur’anic verses are clear because they give instructions to people.
Ibn ʿUmar says: ‘The Prophet was lagging behind us on a trip. We returned to look for him and, at the time of ʿaṣr pryaers, when we were very tired, we found him. We made wuḍūʾ and wiped over our feet. At that time, the Prophet said loudly: ‘Woe to the heels of fire!’ and repeated this three times in total. (Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī, 1/18)
For more details on this issue, readers can refer to our book, al-Inṣāf fī Masāʾil Dām fīhā al-Khilāf.