Most religions employ some form of ritual washing. Islam refers to this activity as wudu', an Arabic term with two principal meanings: on one hand, it stands for a set of ablutions people use to cleanse themselves before prayer; on the other hand, it signifies a purified state of being. When you wash, you are said to be performing wudu'; having finished, it is a condition you possess. You "have" wudu', as you have a state of being. Until you "break" it--by falling asleep, for instance, after which the state should be renewed.
More than a splash of holy water, wudu' cleanses a Muslim's public person. The hands, face, and feet are washed three times. The mouth, nose, and earlobes are gone over. "Being clean is half of religion," Muhammad said, and he frequently compared prayer to fresh water. Once, he called it a stream that runs past everybody's door, emphasizing the notion that, just by stepping into it, one can be renewed.
In Marrakesh some years ago, I learned two more things about wudu'. One morning, my host Mostopha and I were preparing ourselves to attend the congregational Friday prayer at Ben Yusef's mosque. Friday is the Muslim day of rest, an affair to clean up for. And Ben Yusef's mosque is one of Morocco's most venerable.
First, we announced our intention to wash, since with any repeated ritual action, this is what Muslims do. Then, we slipped off our shoes and socks and crouched by a drain in the courtyard. Facing each other, we now took turns pouring water from the spout of a half-gallon teakettle. I began by tipping a thin stream of water into Mostopha's palms.
Beginning with the right side, Mostopha smoothly rinsed his hands three times. Next, he cupped a little more water to his mouth and spat it out, then snuffed a few drops up his nostrils and soundly snorted. The arms came next, three times from wrist to elbow; then the head, from neck to brow. Last came the feet. The kettle was still half-full when he had finished.
We switched roles now: Mostopha handled the kettle while I washed. I had gone through this sequence hundred of times at home in California, but there I had always enjoyed an abundance of tap water. At first, I failed to appreciate the difference. I rinsed both hands three times, as he had done, then cleaned my mouth and nostrils, cupping my palms each time while Mostopha poured. As I began to wet my arms, however, he suddenly stopped me. I looked up, startled, then puzzled. For somehow, without really noticing, I'd managed to wrest the kettle away, getting it into my hand, and now was busy tipping a steady stream of water down one elbow.
"If you're trying to wash by yourself, you're doing it backwards."
He was right. Using my method, the water ran too quickly off the arm, draining away before I could set down the kettle. Working alone, I needed to set it down to free my other hand for washing. Yet the movement left no time to scrub the skin. Figuring I'd have to work more quickly, I reached to pour more water down the arm. Again, I was left with no free hand for scrubbing. Before I could reach up, the water had run down my arm and off the fingers. It was not a good method. I was using the kettle as though it were a tap. The results were awkward, confusing. And how, I was forced to ask myself, had I come to be holding the kettle? Mostopha, during his turn, hadn't touched it. Seeing all this embarrassed me.
Mostopha refilled the kettle and squatted beside me so I could watch. His approach to the arm was humbling, economical, pure Zen. There were three parts to the maneuver. First, he poured from the kettle using his left hand. Next, he cupped the water in his right and set down the kettle, raising the left arm. Then, with a simple, palming action, he let the water run down his wrist to the elbow, while his free hand glided behind it, scrubbing. He passed me the kettle. I tried it. It was simple.
When we were both finished washing, Mostopha lent me an emerald green djellaba. This trim-lined, full-length robe is Morocco's universal over-garment. Mostopha's djellaba was a good one, in wool of just the right thickness to keep skin dry and cool in any weather.
"I don't know," I said as he brought it toward me. "I've never worn one."
It was true. Over the years I had come to Morocco half a dozen times as a non-Muslim and had never seen any reason to dress like a native.
Mostopha laughed. "But in those days you were not going to the mosque. There are no rules for dress, my friend. But it's respectful to wear clean clothes there."
He gathered the robe into measured folds and slipped it over my shoulders like a poncho. As it fell into place, it belled out around the ankles. My shirt and blue jeans disappeared.
Ten years later, I don't remember much about our visit to the venerable Ben Yusef's, but I still recall my lessons in the courtyard. There were two lessons. First: how to wash, Moroccan style. And second: that sometimes a person with just enough knows better how to employ it than a person used to abundance. But we can learn.