The Quality of Washing the Hands

The Quality of Washing the Hands

The first issue of difference in ablution between the Sunni and the Shia is the quality of washing the hands. The Shia, when washing the hands during the ritual ablution, begin from the elbows down to the fingertips, while the usual method among the Sunni is the reverse, i.e. they start from the fingertips up to the elbows. Of course, this is not a basic difference. All the Sunni jurisprudents consider the Shia’s method in washing the hands as true. That is right! Some of them state that in some cases beginning from the fingertips is recommended. Nawawi in his Al-Majmu’, says, “Abu’l-Qasim Saymuri and his friend, Mawirdi, in the book entitled Hawi say that it is recommended to start from the fingertips during washing the hands in ablution.

So, one should pour water to his palm and reach it to the elbow by the palm of the other hand. The natural flow of water is not sufficient. And if someone else pours water for him in ablution, it is recommended to pour water from the elbow to the fingertips and one who pours water should be on the left side.”(1) Also, a part of Al-Fiqh ala Al-Madhahib Al-Arba’a reads: “One of the recommendations in ablution for the Shafiite is to begin from the front part of the organs (the fingertips) provided that the water is taken by handfuls from a bowl or a vessel. But if someone else pours water or water pours from something like a trumpet, it is recommended to begin from the elbows.”

Except the Shafiite, others have quoted the virtue of beginning from the fingertips when washing the hands in the ritual ablution. As far as the author scrutinized, no Sunni jurisprudent knows beginning from the fingertips compulsory. A point worthy of mentioning about washing the hands is that the elbow should certainly be washed, as stipulated in traditions narrated by both the Sunni and the Shia: Jabir said: The Holy Prophet (a.s) always washed the elbows in ablution.

The honorable verse states the same thing too, because the word “إلى” (into) is used as meaning “مع” (with) implying that the elbow should also be washed to the sufficient extent. The lexicographers and jurisprudents have stipulated this fact. The usage of “إلى” with the meaning “مع” is not limited to this verse only, since both in Allah’s Word and in Arabic, it is frequently found.(2) In Arabic language, there is a proverb supporting this claim.(3) But Sharih Razi has proposed the meaning of addition. Undoubtedly the theme of the honorable verse is that hands should be washed including the elbows and the word “إلى” (to) means inclusion, but the verse does not include the quality of washing the hands.(4)

Most Shia scholars, based on traditions, believe that beginning from the elbow is mandatory when washing the hand in ablution, but some others reject the proof of these traditions and believe that traditions only prove the desirability and preference of beginning from the fingers when washing the hands in ablution. Consequently, to them, washing the hands from the fingers is allowed and does not nullify the ablution. Among the believers in this issue is Sayyid Murtaza Alam Al-Huda, in one of the two quotations attributed to him.(5) Ibn Idris Hilli, in Sara’ir, explicitly accepts this quotation and about adducing it, he says: “…since the Exalted God has ordered us to wash the hands in the ritual ablution and one who washes his hand from the fingers to the elbow has undoubtedly done his duty.”(6)



1. Abu Zakariyya Muhyi Al-Din Ibn Sharaf Al-Nawawi, Al-Majmu’, Dar Al-Fikr, Vol. 1, p. 394.

2. such as 11:52, 4:2 and 3:52

3. An Arabic proverb says: الذَّودُ إلى الذَّودِ إبِلٌ.

4. Other jurisprudents propose the possibility of the meaning ‘end’ for ‘إلى’ but this is not to say that the thing to be washed (hand in this case) is limited to this extent and that ‘إلى’ means the end point in washing since beginning from the elbow when washing the hand in ablution is agreed upon by all Muslims. The quality of washing the hand in the honorable verse: We should see what ‘إلى’ (to) means and to which verb it belongs. There are two possibilities; the stronger one is that it means “مع” (with) and belongs to the verb ‘wash.’ In this case, the verse does not include the quality of washing the hands at all, and we should obtain it from traditions; since this verse only implies that hand should be washed along with the elbow, but does not say anything if the hand should be washed beginning from the elbow or the fingertips. The other, yet weaker, possibility is that ‘إلى’ (to) means ‘the end point.’ In this case, we should see to which verb ‘إلى’ belongs. If it belongs to “اغسلوا” (wash), the verse means that the elbow is the end point of the hand to be washed in the ablution. In other words, washing the hand should begin from the fingertips and end in the elbow. At the first glance, ‘إلى’ may seem to belong to “اغسلوا”, But with further attention, it becomes clear that ‘إلى’ (to) cannot belong to “اغسلوا” (wash), because when ‘إلى’ is used to mean the end point of something, the action before the end point should be repeated before the final action. As in the phrase, “ضربته إلى أن مات” (beating to death), in which the action before the end point (beating) is repeated before the end point (death). But it is not true to say “قتلته إلى أنْ مات” (killing to death). The question here is that if the mentioned condition exists in the honorable verse, i.e. whether or not the action before the end point is repeated before “مرافق” (elbows).
The answer is negative, because the action before the end point is “washing the hand” and it is not repeated before “the elbows.” The reason is that “hand” includes the fingertips and the arms and the parts between them, and when “washing the hand” is completed, washing “the elbow” is done too and “washing he hand” cannot be repeated before “the elbow.” As a result, if ‘إلى’ means the end point, it cannot belong to “اغسلوا”, since the mentioned condition is not present, i.e. the action before the end point is not repeatable before it. So, ‘إلى’ should be considered to belong to something else and that is the verb أسقِطوا‘’ (exclude), which is omitted here. In this case, the meaning of the verse becomes, “Wash your faces and your hands, but exclude up to the elbows.” Of course “washing the hands and excluding up to the elbows” can be in two ways; first, not to wash from the fingertips to the elbow and wash from the elbow to the arm; and second, not to wash from the arm to the elbow and wash from elbow to the fingertips. But no one has ever said not to wash from the fingertips to the elbow. Therefore, the only true sense is not to wash from the arm to the elbow, but to wash from the elbow to the toes. This possibility is quoted by Ibn Husham from some grammarians and he has not rejected it. See: Mughni Al-Labib, Vol. 2, section 5 (Editor).

5. Al-Intisar, p. 16.

6. Al-Sara’ir, Vol. 1, p. 99.