Body, Significance of

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The body is the locus of human existence and activity in Islam. Islamic law stipulates the regular purification of the body, requires the use of a body in performing rituals, and views the body as the site of both social continuity and punishment in the case of violating social norms.

Purification and renunciation of the body are required for both men and women in Islamic law. Ritual purification involves washing and wiping certain parts of the body, and is invalidated by natural bodily emissions (urine, feces, pus, blood, vomit), sleep, unconsciousness, insanity, and sexual contact. Most jurists also agree that touching one's genitals (penis, vagina, anus) also invalidates purification. The ritual fast during the month of Ramadan requires keeping substances from entering the body (food, drink, medicine) and abstinence from sex.

The body is also of symbolic importance for the rites of the pilgrimage to Mecca. While in the sanctuary at Mecca pilgrims are not allowed to eat the meat of wild animals or plants. Pilgrims are not allowed to have sex, and marriages performed during the pilgrimage are invalid. Nor are pilgrims allowed to wear sewn clothing or apply perfume to their bodies. The hair and fingernails of pilgrims cannot be cut during the pilgrimage but are cut upon exiting from the sanctuary at the end of the pilgrimage. Many classical sources report that the prophet Muhammad distributed his hair and fingernails, cut at the end of his last pilgrimage, to his followers as relics.

Islamic law recognizes the body as the legal sphere of the individual. The "private area" (˓urwah), the area which must be covered in public, is defined differently for men and women. For men it is the area between the waist and the knees, for women it is the area from the neck to the ankles, although some authorities also include in this the female voice. Crimes such as theft require the amputation of limbs (hands and feet), and other crimes such as fornication require death by stoning under certain circumstances.

See alsoCircumcision ; Gender ; ˓Ibadat .


Katz, Marion Holmes. Body of Text: The Emergence of theSunni Law of Ritual Purity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Reinhart, Kevin A. "Impurity/No Danger." History of Religions 30 (1990–1991): 1–24.

Zannad, Traki. Les lieux du corps en Islam. Paris: Publisud, 1994.

Brannon M. Wheeler