Good to know about your Muslim friend: Purity and Impurity in Islam

This is a second entry in the series of Things that are good to know about your Muslim friend. Make sure to read the entry on celebrating Christmas and other occasions here if you missed it.


In Islam, all things are either “pure” or “impure.” (In many respects, this is very similar to Judaism. See here for very good explanations). This does not necessarily have anything to do with hygienic cleanliness, and is more a matter of a legislated, ritualistic notion of purity. A Muslim may not consume anything impure, nor touch the writing of the Qur’an, perform their prayers or enter a mosque if they are in a state of impurity. Things that are impure are not bad or evil, they are simply in a state of impurity, and must be rendered pure again (by washing with water, or placing under the sun for instance) to be used for such purposes as prayer.

There are 10 elements that are identified in Islam as being najis, or impure, namely: urine, feces, semen, dead corpse, blood, dogs, pigs, non-believers, alcohol, and the sweat of animals that consume human feces.

There are obviously a lot of conditions and details to explain how each of these elements is to be understood and applied. (At the highest level of technicality and expertise in Islamic law, books of 10 and 12 volumes have been written on the topic of purity and impurity, so obviously there are a lot of details.)

For instance, while a few scholars define a contemporary non-believer as being anyone who is not a Muslim, the majority of today’s scholars define non-believers as anyone who does not believe in one of the monotheistic religions, which means that Jews and Christians are pure. There is also a minority of scholars who believe that the impurity of non-believers or non-Muslims is completely internal or spiritual, and does not have any repercussions on the physical purity of the person.

Why would it matter to you as a non-Muslim whether Islam considers you pure or impure? First, keep in mind that impurity only travels from one thing to another through wetness. So to become impure, a thing must be in direct contact with one of these 10 impurities or be in contact with wetness that has been in contact with one these impurities. So what does this mean for you? It simply means that your Muslim friend will always be on the lookout for things that are impure and trying to avoid them, or make them pure again. For instance: If your Muslim friend knows that you do not believe in God, (and depending on which interpretation of Islamic law they follow) he or she cannot consume anything you have cooked or baked if it came in contact with you while your hands were wet (which is most likely everything, otherwise, you probably shouldn’t take credit for cooking or baking it…)

There are also other dimensions to purity besides the physical, such as the spiritual or internal purity, as alluded to previously, but this would require another entry.

Stay tuned for more blog entries on things to know about your Muslim friend, and do not hesitate to share any thoughts on any of these points.

Thanks for reading.

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