We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more The Ablution - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Next Result

The Ablution

Hani al-Rahib
Document type:

    The Ablution


    Syrian writer Hani al-Rahib (1939–2000) described the novel as “an immunization against madness,” and throughout his career he used the art of fiction to address what he saw as a crisis in the Arab world. His first novel, The Defeated, published when he was still in his early twenties, features a common archetype in his work: an Arab hero thwarted by betrayal and struggling in vain against contradictory forces. Rahib revisited this theme in his novels One Thousand and Two Nights (1977) and Drawing a Line in the Sand (1999), which depicted the 1967 war with Israel and the 1991 Gulf War. Although these novels were controversial in how they described the modern Arab world, his 1981 novel The Epidemic became extremely popular among political prisoners in his home country and drew praise for its combination of traditional and modern elements to create a truly epic story. The short story below is set in Damascus and addresses the daily ritual of ablution mandated in the Qur’an. Again, we see a protagonist attempting to fulfill his basic duties as a Muslim but driven to bizarre extremes by the modern world.

    Ahmad awoke gasping. As he did so he heard the powerful voice of the muezzin: “Prayer is better than sleep…prayer is better than sleep.” It was the voice he had heard in his sleep. He had heard it pressing close to his ears until it almost pierced them. But the words he had heard were not these. They were words which hounded him like a terrifying darkness: “Ashes and brimstone on your head…and in your soul black soot.”

    He took a deep breath, his eyes roaming around the darkness of the gloomy room. Now he could perform his ablution. He was relieved that the impossibility of washing himself clean was simply a muddled dream. The suffocating sensation of dirt and uncleanliness was a nightmare. Cold coursed through his veins, and he realized that the wave of profuse perspiration had spent itself and left behind nothing but lassitude. He felt the oppressive darkness weighing on his chest; then he threw the blanket aside and switched on the light.

    The room lit up, and as Ahmad gazed at the objects of the material world around him his terror subsided and he began to feel secure again. This nightmare had not been simply a dream which had vanished, for it had caused him to break out into a profuse sweat, which had exhausted him. It was such that he could only be reassured by the sight of water and the bath and soap, and he determined to have a bath immediately. The nightmare persisted, with its feeling of dense and evil-smelling black hair. Why was he overcome with this intolerable feeling of uncleanliness which did not allow him to sleep? He fingered the hairs on his arm, and felt an increasing repulsion rising up within him at the clammy softness which clung to both hair and skin.

    This time he would wash himself free of it. He would rub his skin with water and soap until this dreadful layer of impurity was peeled off. It would be scoured from him and would drain away with the water into the depths of the earth. His skin would once again have its original pure whiteness, that whiteness which was so remote that he could not remember when he had last seen it. He had seen it a long time ago and longed for it. His whole being yearned for it; it yearned for it but could not find it. His whole existence had become a burden because of his uncleanliness.

    He jumped out of bed lightly and quickly. He did not bother to put on his slippers. He hurried barefoot to the bathroom. He put his hand on the tap. Before turning it on he looked at the silvery water-pipe and the open mouth of the tap. A childish feeling of pleasure took hold of him, and he rubbed his arm against his hip and tucked up the sleeves of his pyjama jacket.

    He turned on the tap, but no water came out. He cursed irritably. His irritation increased with the disagreeable silence. He thought to himself how any period of silence had always gotten on his nerves ever since he could remember. The tap showed no signs of life. Ahmad stood looking at it until his anger manifested itself in his hand; he turned the tap until it struck hard against its socket.

    No water came out. Ahmad realized that there was something amiss with the stubborn tap. He pounded on the washbasin angrily. With a blow from his hand he forced the tap round to its furthest extent.

    A fleeting, meager thread of water dribbled onto the bottom of the washbasin. Ahmad thrust forward his hands with satisfaction, to gather a handful of water. But he was unable to fill his hands as the thread of water grew thinner and thinner and then failed. He watched the mouth of the tap give a few more drops and then stop altogether. The air in the pipe gave a long convulsive gulp; then everything was quiet. The pipe was silent; so were the narrow corridor and the darkened rooms. Once again Ahmad felt the stillness. His feeling of oppression returned more strongly. It was mixed with bafflement and a reinforced desire to wash. He rushed to open the outside door and went up the steps to the roof. Quickly, with resolute steps, he went up to the water tank. As soon as he had reached it he lifted off the cover and looked in.

    Perplexity now filled his whole consciousness. He no longer felt any anger or irritation—nothing but confusion. A silent creeping confusion. How could the tank be empty? He stood there. In the midst of the fresh spring breeze he was enervated by a feeling of bitterness. Needles of cold stung him and he shivered. But for the wind everything was still. The distant stars were silent. The city was silent. In his ocean of perplexity he was surrounded by stillness. As he felt the cold he looked down at his feet. His legs shivered. The feeling of uncleanliness increased, but there was no water.

    He recalled to himself the dirty roof of the house, and with an imperceptible movement could see a number of people down on the pavement from where he stood. Exasperation overcame him once more, for he knew that they had performed their ablution and were now making for the mosque. Where had they found their water?

    He had to wash his body in order to be able to wash his soul. A feeling of panic passed over him, lest the Prayer should be performed and he should miss it, and another day pass without ablution, leaving the recurrent, lowering nightmare to descend on him again.

    His thoughts suddenly turned to the public street, and he rushed to descend the steps. The water sources at the old public fountain from which passers-by drank and washed themselves—surely they would not have run dry? He reached the pavement, and its coldness chilled his feet as the brisk air of the street struck him. He rushed as quickly as he could toward the public fountain. He flew like the wind along the pavement. Only two things broke the prevailing stillness: the wind and himself, barefoot, fearful, and dirty. The desolate dryness, like the dryness of the wind, which he saw written on the face of the fountain shortly before he reached it, did not stop him. He resumed his running as though grasping fingers were chasing after him, or he were chasing them. He passed fountain after fountain in his questing, feverish rush, like a devotee in a frantic search for the object of devotion.

    Every fountain was dry. The devout, keeping close to the walls, hurried toward their mosques. They must have performed the ablution with water; and those who had not must have performed it with dust. They had obtained water and performed their ablution. They had washed their bodies, on which they were probably not conscious of the least trace of dirt. They breathed contentment. They praised God. They took satisfaction from their cleanliness. And they made for the mosques.

    He was panting. The last fountain was mocking him with the dry dumbness of the desert. He was nonplussed. He pulled with clenched fists at the handle of the fountain. He leaned on it. He eyed the fountain dully. He began to feel weak at the knees. Once again stillness. He stood stock still. Perspiration began to flow from the pores of his skin and form beads on his forehead. How could he perform the ablution now? The smell of his sweat was like the smell of stale food. He felt an overpowering heaviness.

    This boisterous wind: why did it not bring clouds? Why did the clouds not gather and bring rain? Why did the twinkling stars not fade? How could the unclean continue without ablution, those who are aware of their impurity, who feel their repellent perspiration when they are awake, and who suffer deadly nightmares when they are asleep?

    His hand slipped from the handle and hung loosely. He was aware that something, somewhere, was wrong. But it was still possible to perform the ablution with dust. It would be acceptable to God. The domed walls in the Mu’abbad Market could in truth solve the problem. It was not yet too late, for he was almost at the confines of the Market. Before him stood the Grand Umayyad Mosque; to his left the Zahiriyyah Library. High walls and great solid stones which no wind or rain could destroy. He put out his hand to the wall, but could not reach it. He gave an ironic smile and reached out again. He laughed at his sudden shortness of stature! He was not short, and had not been so before. Some demon must be increasing the distance.

    Finally he turned away from the fountain. He put out his hand but it touched nothing. He approached the walls of the Mosque, oblivious to their mute solidity. A little dust would suffice for ablution. He rolled up his sleeves. He stretched out his palms to the massive wall of the Mosque, and was startled to see it sink into the ground. The earth simply split open to accommodate the wall’s bulk, and it was swallowed up. The ground appeared as though nothing had been there. Ahmad peered in front of him, and saw the interior parts of the Mosque like the intestines of some mighty maw, exposed without any covering. They were silent and lifeless like an ancient tombstone. But it did not matter, so long as they held a little of the dust of the ground, for this would suffice to perform the ablution. He hurried to enter the Mosque.

    One by one the walls sank. Every time he reached a wall it fell into an abyss. The wall adorned with mosaics fell. The wall of the prayer-hall and the prayer-niche fell. The illumining chandeliers fell. Two things only remained: the worshippers absorbed in their devotions, and the roof watching over the heads below like a sky of stone. He ran toward a wall which alone stood upright among the vanished parts of the Mosque.

    He ran with all his might. His mind was filled with a resolute determination to reach it before it sank from sight. He would throw himself at it. As he saw it falling he hurled himself toward it with desperate determination. He thrust his arms out toward it, and in the next moment his middle finger touched stone. Then the wall sank, and Ahmad passed over it as the ground became level and undisturbed once more, as though no wall had been there a moment ago.

    He went on running, making for the front of the Zahiriyyah Library; he saw it set in front of him like a promised land. He ran so quickly that he was no longer aware of the ground. His bare feet did not run—they flew. The wind stung them, just as it had stung his whole body, and he felt their soreness more and more. Profuse sweat poured from his body and cooled his feverishness. The wind crucified his feet. The ground became even less firm as this yawning abyss opened up to swallow the walls of the Library. Wall after wall sank into the bowels of the earth, pulled away from their rows of books. The staircases, the windows, the arches—they all sank into the earth. Even the neighboring houses, shaken violently, crumbled before the earth. Everything disappeared into the ground except Ahmad and the collection of books. He raised his face and cried out: “Oh mighty Lord, wilt thou never permit me to perform the ablution?”

    He felt himself suspended in space, running, and beside him ran the books, yellowing volumes which the Imams and the commentators had filled with the legacy of their learning, and which time had filled with dust. Why were they fleeing? Were they also seeking ablution? What wall and what dust were they looking for?

    A brilliant idea suddenly came to him. He marveled how he could have forgotten the thick dust covering the books—there was enough of it to perform the ablution. Like a bird of prey he changed direction and pounced upon them. He was capable of reaching them quickly. He made for them like a streaking arrow. He descended on them, his hands open, ready to grasp them, defiant, predatory and resolute.

    As the books sank into the earth, Ahmad’s head and hands collided with the unyielding ground, and he felt a sudden massive shock transfuse his body. From his hands and his head spurted red blood, which spilled over his unclean body. He knelt down, floating above torrents of fear and agitation, and looked at his body. He stared in supplication at the blood. The blood gushed from every vein.

    Without delay he tore off his clothes and cast them away. He raised his hands to his face and rubbed it in the blood, and did the same with his neck, his chest, his back, his legs, and his arms. The blood flowed over the surface of his skin, and drops of it fell upon the ground.

    At the first appearance of the morning sun he saw how his body was becoming white and pure, and how his hair, obstinately clinging to his skin, was becoming free and supple, like tender, young plants.

    With deep contentment Ahmad murmured to himself: “This is the finest ablution!”

    From Modern Syrian Short Stories, translated by Michel G. Azrak and revised by M. J. L. Young. Copyright © 1996 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. Used with permission by the publisher.

    • Previous Result
    • Results
    • Highlight On / Off
    • Look It Up What is This? Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
    • Next Result
    Oxford University Press

    © 2021. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice