Menstruation and Worship

Why couldn’t Allah ﷻ have made praying/fasting/etc. our choice when on our periods?

In recent years, this has been another rung of debate in Muslim women’s related issues – and events to talk about women’s spirituality whilst menstruating are plentiful, especially in Ramadan. I was a panelist among other wonderful women this past Ramadan for an event tackling the topic from multiple angles: fiqh (jurisprudence), a lack of proper understanding of ritual impurity away from negative cultural baggage, jahil (ignorant, foolish) behavior towards menstruating women, imposing secular notions of gender equality onto worship, separating the form of rituals from the spiritual, and the physical from the metaphysical. I want to offer my brief reflections on them one by one prior to circling back to the question posed above.

Men and women’s bodies are different, so fiqh reflects it appropriately. In books of fiqh, ritual worship is discussed from a legal perspective: what the rules and conditions for our acts of worship such as salah (prayer) and fasting are, what is fard (obligatory), sunnah (recommended), makruh (disliked), etc. Major ritual impurity is a state that requires ghusl (full body ablution) for purification, like after sexual intercourse or discharge, and hayd (menstruation) and nifas (postpartum bleeding). Thus, ritual impurity is a temporary state, not an inherent condition of being impure, in which specific actions, including some acts of worship, are prohibited. Keyword is specific – critics and reformists who see this as evidence of an unfair, forced inaccessibility to God fail to realize that other acts of worship, like dhikr, sending salawāt upon the Prophet ﷺ, are allowed and encouraged as they usually are (there is a difference of opinion regarding the recitation of the Qur’an).

Unfortunately, select societies and many individuals still inculcate a mindset that considers the menstruating woman as filthy, behaving in ways not unlike the non-Muslim communities at the time of the Prophet ﷺ who would banish their women to other places, refuse to sit with them, or touch them. Whereas the Prophet ﷺ rested His head on the lap of his menstruating wife Aisha [1], others shamefully internalize these foreign ideas; that menstruation is such a taboo and embarrassing bodily function that women should pretend to fast, wake up for the pre-dawn meal, and even pray to prevent their male relatives from finding out. There should be decency and general good manners that keep one from crudeness or discussing details unnecessarily, some of which is up to the local culture and customs to determine what that constitutes, but it is not an excuse for the above. Menstruation is part of a woman’s life. They are not unclean nor inferior. That some men pressure them to carry out haram acts or wallow in pain alone to protect their self-inflicted ignorance parading as honor is a pathetic attitude they need to immediately rectify.

Next, as menstruation and related issues are a biological reality for nearly half the ummah, there should be no shame in appropriately discussing it and understanding the fiqhi dimension. Even the introductory fiqh text on worship will have a subchapter on or address hayd and nifas, and is studied by both female and male students. Shyness did not prevent the women of Medina from asking the Prophet ﷺ about these matters, and his shyness did not prevent him from teaching about it. Those who disallow a believing woman from seeking out this knowledge actively violates her ability to fulfill her fard al ayn (obligations upon every Muslim). Women need to be well acquainted with their own cycles and the rulings that pertain to them, and families should support them in learning this and hygienic practices. Understanding the concept of istihadha (dysfunctional uterine bleeding), learning the minutiae of what is permissible and impermissible, and what they can do to stay connected to Allah ﷻ during their menses are necessary for a healthier sense of belonging as both a Muslim and a woman.

More recently, there have been attempts to diverge from a discussion of societal stigma to question the legal designation of ritual impurity while menstruating itself. Certain interpretations see not an incorrect understanding or misogynistic attitudes as the reason for vileness, but the rulings themselves. They claim to settle on a more progressive understanding that transgresses all schools of jurisprudence, or argue that rules regarding the menstruating woman are not in the Qur’an, hence an innovation, or were invented by men. This argument fails on multiple counts, primarily that the Qur’an is not the sole source of legislation, and that fiqh was not an independent enterprise subject to the whims of random people. Rather, it was a rigorously codified body of knowledge that also took from the narrations of female companions.

Where they fail in their effort to “return” spirituality to the domain of the woman is in losing sight of the metaphysical value of obeying commands. It is an attempt at making obedience of the sharīa subservient to a secular-liberal conception of gender equality even at the cost of harming women. Do they realize in encouraging such unsubstantiated positions that it jeopardizes a woman’s worship – these women’s prayers and fasts are haram – whereas had they abstained from the impermissible with the intention to obey and fulfill a command just as when it’s an obligation, their reward would’ve been commensurate? Do we have the right to these actions or obey Whom they allow us to gain closeness to: the One who commands them as He wills, with the limits He wills, in His infinite knowledge? Ustadha Suzanne Kasim, another sister on the panel, said far more succinctly:

He commands us to pray, so we hear and obey. He commands us not to pray, so we hear and obey.

Evaluating such arguments without questioning the Enlightenment values they are rooted in is naïve. Such a worldview wrestles with an understanding of gender parity outside of the material, because the idea of a higher entity or afterlife reward doesn’t factor into its reality. Free will and capacity to make independent decisions are what give worship and the test to actualize Islamic injunctions meaning. The tangible, observable aspect of prayer is not independent of spirituality in which its alteration has no bearing – its form, down to which the minutiae has been recorded and preserved, is a vessel through which one strives to be purified. The point of worship, in whatever forms God has prescribed it, is submission and striving for spiritual excellence. Disobeying Allah ﷻ to worship Him is not worship. What Allah ﷻ commands from us is obedience, not solely ritual worship, because sometimes obedience means to refrain from it. This framework of submission is for all people and not exclusive to women.

Separating religiosity from spirituality has resulted in delineating a spiritual self unfettered by commands. Why should it matter, then, how one decides to carry out salah or fast, choosing and disregarding rulings at their behest as long as the self “feels spiritual” and connected to God? The logical conclusion of this line of questioning is inevitably, why should one do anything at all? Ustadha Shazia Ahmad writes,

In our times we find that some people feel that we’ve reached a more ‘enlightened era’ in which spirituality can be derived solely from philosophy and ideas, and need not be bound by rituals and details of religion. However those who propound this notion forget that Allah ﷻ did not create us as minds and souls alone – but coupled them with our physical bodies. We cannot deny the fact that we are body and soul, content and form, together, and each has its own needs and specifications for refinement. This is a sunnah of Allah in the way that we were created, and why prayer, fasting, and all our spiritual endeavors have very specific physical components. These forms house within them dimensions of meaning, but it is only from enacting them precisely that a profound spirituality can be achieved. [2]

The forms of worship that are allowed during a woman’s menses are different – but it is a mercy. It is no less valuable and pious, and no further from God than outside of it.

Further reading:

Works Cited:
[2] Ahmed, Shazia. “Taking Off the Hijab”, Virtual Mosque.

Photo via Dhaya Eddine Bentaleb

About the Author: Heraa Hashmi is the Marketing Director of Traversing Tradition. Best known for her research project, Muslims Condemn, she is a graduate in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and has also studied linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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