Meditations on Menstruation

By Shazia Ahmad


Most Muslims today are generally familiar with the rulings of purification and menstruation in Islam, but there is often much to be desired in how we, as a community, discuss these rulings and how we understand them.  In a previous post, I touched on the need to change some of our negative ideas about menstruation.  In this article, I hope to share some reflections on the fiqh (body of legal rulings) of menstruation and other women’s issues in Islam, their context in light of a broader understanding of Islamic teachings, and some spiritual lessons we can learn from these rulings.

Learning the Rulings (Fiqh) of Women’s Issues Well

Oftentimes in our communities and in our own personal study of Islam, our attention is drawn to ‘hot topics’ – ideas and issues that are exciting, current, or much discussed, but may have little practical benefit in our lives, and may overlook what is actually obligatory upon us to know.  Our discourse is often so saturated with discussions on contentious modern issues, high-level creedal matters, or philosophical ruminations that there is little room left for the more fundamental and important, as defined by Allah Himself in a hadith qudsi1 :

“A servant draws not near to Me with anything more beloved to Me than what I have made obligatory upon him.”2

Knowing the fiqh rulings related to our everyday practice of religion is considered fard ‘ayn – personally obligatory – in that every single Muslim, regardless of age, educational background, or gender, must learn them sufficiently well to act upon them.  While we may incline towards other things, we are taught repeatedly in our sacred texts that it is enacting our acts of worship precisely and complying with clear religious injunctions that should take precedence.  These matters may seem petty and trivial in light of larger and weightier matters, but they are actually the first crucial steps towards spiritual development and change, both individually and collectively.

We especially see a neglect of fiqh come into play with rulings related to ritual purification –specifically menstruation, postnatal bleeding, and related women’s issues.  As women, to whom these rulings have direct practical relevance, such negligence affects not only the validity of our acts of worship but also our ability to meaningfully contribute to our community from a position of knowledge. Having familiarity with these rulings also helps us reach a level of confidence in our religious practice, such that we are not overwhelmed with doubts and second-guessing our acts of devotion, and can feel hopeful that they are acceptable and sound in Allah’s sight.

Here too is a unique opportunity for women to learn and teach about matters specifically related to them in a manner that male teachers, who would be naturally bereft of first hand experience, cannot do.   Women who feel strongly about an over-dependence on male scholarship should feel it most acutely in matters such as these, where women should naturally take the fore, and feel even more motivated to begin a serious study of fiqh.

Traditionally, this knowledge has been considered so critically important for women that classical books of fiqh teach that a woman has the right to seek it out even if her husband forbids her to do so. One of my teachers went on to stress the importance of learning such rulings even for men, who, though not the locus of the rulings, are affected by them through the women in their lives.

A proper study of the fiqh of ritual purification, menstruation and prayer should be done in a careful and systematic way, such as through a beginner’s level book from one of the four orthodox schools (madhabs), or a book or course with a reliable teacher.  Relying on a ‘hodge-podge’ collection of information from various sources, like websites or occasional lectures, can lead to much confusion, and leave out key information that would ensure one is performing one’s acts of worship and purification soundly.

Not everyone is inclined towards the study of fiqh, which can seem tedious and painstakingly detailed at times, but it is an important and fundamental component of our Islamic education.  Learning the details of syntax and grammar can seem dreary and pointless until one experiences the power of a well-crafted passage from a book or the elegance of a perfectly turned line of poetry.  In the same way, the details of fiqh can seem meaningless until one sees them coalesce into a beautiful act of devotion, that can ascend to Divine reception.

Fiqh in Context: How to Read a Fiqh Book

One of the most serious mistakes one can make in their understanding of fiqh is assuming that a legal (fiqhi) discussion on an issue is the comprehensive Islamic teaching on the subject.  Many people who have negative perceptions about orthodox practice are guilty of this, and may draw hasty conclusions from rulings of fiqh without putting them in their proper context.

Fiqh is a subject under the umbrella of Islamic studies that focuses on the legality of our actions.  While other subjects center on more theoretical, spiritual, or philosophical points, fiqh largely has to do with the technical details of our everyday practice of religion.  Its rulings explain how to perform our acts of worship soundly and correctly, as well as describe what is allowed and prohibited for us in our dealings with others, such as in marriage or business transactions.  Fiqhdeals with matters on legal or technical terms, and speaks in the language of legal validity and invalidity.

As an example, marriage is discussed in books of fiqh in terms of what the actual marriage contract entails, its requisite conditions, and the duties and obligations of the husband and wife –  even describing the exact number of handfuls of grain a man has to provide his wife for daily sustenance.  Marriage in such books is not discussed from a spiritual dimension, as a seat of love, mercy and affection between spouses as described in the Qur’an.  Nor will one find a detailed discussion on the Prophetic recommendations for marriage, or his ? (peace be upon him) example of kindness and generosity towards his wives, which we have ample accounts of in books of hadith.  In short, books of fiqh do not give a holistic understanding of the Islamic perspective of marriage, but focus solely on its legal dimension.  One must also keep in mind that what is explained in such books is often the absolute minimum required to absolve oneself of accountability (al-hadd al-adna), and may not be referring to the ideal or preferred manner of doing things.

In the same way as marriage, acts of devotion in books of fiqh are discussed solely from a legal perspective, detailing what is required for the acts’ validity, but without mention of the purpose of such worship and purification, the state of one’s heart, or the merits and rewards of performing these acts.  One must look elsewhere to learn and appreciate these dimensions, and in order to gain a fuller, more holistic picture of Islamic teachings about them.  We should also be wary of improperly extending the terms and concepts used in fiqh for a certain subject to a broader worldview, such as in what is considered ritually pure or filthy3 .

Fiqh is extremely significant and often shamefully neglected in our times.  However, one must put the study of fiqh in its proper context in order to avoid a distorted or skewed perspective of the Islamic understanding of various issues, and mistaking a critical part for the whole.  This is especially true for matters related to women, which must be studied in light of a broader understanding of the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

Appreciating the Spiritual Lessons of the Fiqh of Menstruation

Here are five lessons we can reflect on from the fiqh of menstruation:

Preciseness as a Form of Discipline:  All our acts of worship have a certain precision in the way they should be performed: there are certain formulations of remembrance we must say in salah (the daily prayers), a particular way of washing ourselves in order to pray (wudu), specific times to begin and end the fast, and so on.  This is also the case with the rulings of purification and menstruation.  Having to abide by these rulings helps us become disciplined, careful and attentive to our acts of worship in the physical realm.  It is through enacting these forms of worship precisely that our acts become valid and sound, the first key to making our actions beautiful in Allah’s sight and worthy of His acceptance and reward.

 Reviving Other Overlooked Acts of Worship:While salah (the daily prayers) and certain other acts of worship are prohibited for a menstruating woman, there are other acts of devotion that are allowed which are often overlooked.  The time away from salah may be an opportunity to revive and engage in some of these other acts that we may regularly neglect.  Dhikr (remembering and praising of God with one’s heart and one’s tongue), du`a’ (supplication), which is a deeply personal and beautiful act of worship, and salah ‘ala an-Nabiy (sending prayers on the Prophet ?)are a few examples of these.

Questioning our Attachments: Being barred from certain acts of worship during menstruation is a good opportunity for us to reflect on what we are actually attached to – Allah, or to the act of worship itself.  If our attachment and connection is to Allah, and our concern is showing our sincere devotion and love to Him through obeying Him (‘ubudiyyah),  then we will be content with whatever the means to that is, whether it is praying or not praying, fasting or not fasting, as He has prescribed.  Not only is there reward in acts of worship, as is commonly understood, but there is tremendous reward in merely stopping at the limits Allah has set for us.  Doing so is a sign of a loving submission to Allah, and while not a physical act of worship, it is an act of devotion of the heart and mind.  However, if our attachment is to the deed itself, then we will desire and want the deed no matter what.  Prohibiting us from certain acts during this time is a way that Allah, Most High, helps us detach from ‘worshipping the worship’, and to return our attachment to Him alone.

A Step Away from Over-Relying on our Deeds:  Being forcefully detached from certain deeds during this time is also an amazing time to reflect on how we perceive our own efforts.  We should not become so conscious of our deeds that we forget the deeper reality of the situation, which is that every good deed we do and every act of worship we perform is in truth only by the facilitation (tawfeeq) of Allah.  What will enter us into Paradise, in reality, is not our own deeds, but the grace and mercy of Allah, Most High.

A Way of Knowing God: Everything that is manifest or expressed in this world is a sign of some of Allah’s attributes.  Here we can reflect on His names such as The Wise, the Just, the One Who Brings Forth and the One Who Delays, meaning that everything has a set time, set order, and set place and is done in infinite wisdom, justice and knowledge.  We see that He created everything in beauty and with apportioned time and phases – even the moon and the stars, and this includes our physical cycles.  We must also realize that He does not do injustice to anyone, and may have to recalibrate our hearts and our way of thinking about Him and His Law.

May Allah draw us close to Him, and make us people who worship Him in the best and most beautiful of ways.  May He make us people of knowledge and understanding, who seek out, reflect on, and appreciate the deeper lessons and wisdom of His law.  May He make our hearts receptive, humble, and ennobled and enlightened with knowledge from Him.  Ameen.


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