This post received an Honourable Mention from the Eighth Annual Brass Crescent Awards.

Like every other, regular day, Eryn went through her morning ritual of slapping my face, poking my nose ring, and pulling down my shirt to stealth nurse her stuffed animals. I saw her shining inquisitive face through half slits, and she laughed delightedly at my groggy voice telling her that mama would start breakfast after I had gone pee-pee.

Falling out of bed to more delighted laughter, I stumbled my way to the bathroom. When I pulled down my pants I could barely believe what was rudely greeting me so early in the morning and I shouted in surprise. Calling from his refuge under the pillow, the Hubby asked if everything was okay. I poked my head out from the bathroom and said, “I got my period.”

For many, this is no big deal — but for me, it was the first time in two years, and a very unexpected surprise. I’ve been amenorrhoeic due to lactation, and not counting post-partum, this was my first official period post pregnancy. Now I understood why nursing Eryn felt like she replaced her teeth with knives, and why my head was foggy and pounding. When I mentioned that it was disturbing and shocking, just like getting it for the first time, my sister-in-law said cheerfully, “wow, you’ve had quite the prayer stretch, enjoy your little break.”

Prayer is central to the faith and is an obligatory act of worship that’s performed at certain times of the day. You could even say that prayer helps define what it means to be Muslim. The media loves the stereotypical image of a robed and bearded man, or rows of women in prayer shawls, kneeling and prostrating on a prayer mat — and especially, the particularly spectacular sight of millions bowing down in unison toward the Kaabah in Mecca.

Men and women stand shoulder to shoulder (in their respective, segregated sections) and perform the same motions and say the same Arabic words the world over. With a few variations here and there, the framework of the Islamic prayer is so uniform, that you could join a group praying on another continent and not feel out of place. It binds us together as a global community, provides solace, and expresses love for the divine.

Despite being the spiritual equals of men, women are forbidden to pray during menstruation — and a woman who decides to pray is told she is sinning and committing sacrilege. The way in which this religious law is dealt with by many scholars, online literature, pamphlet Islam, multimedia lecture series, discussion forums and conferences, directly affects how women understand and relate to their bodies and is also used by men to help remove women from active worship and participation in the community.

Ask any woman why she can’t pray during her period and she will most likely tell you that because menstruation is painful, God has lifted the requirement to pray as a kind of concession. She might even follow that up with the argument that the blood flows freely, without end until the period is over, and is an impurity.

Now, the Qur’an does not make any reference to menstruation and prayer. The only reference to how people should relate to this natural process is in respect to sexual intercourse:

And they will ask you about [woman’s] monthly courses. Say: “It is a vulnerable condition. Therefore, stay away from women during their monthly courses, and do not draw near unto them [for sexual relations] until they are cleansed; and when they are cleansed, go in unto them as God has bidden you to do.” Verily, God loves those who turn to repentance and loves those who keep themselves pure. (2:222)

Note that this verse addresses men, not women, and it is telling men when it is permissible to have sexual intercourse with a woman — namely, any time except during their menstruation. The reason given is that menstruation is a “vulnerable condition,” or as other translations would have it, “a hurt and a pollution,” “an illness,” or “a discomfort.” In this verse, the Qur’an is letting men know that sexual relations require a continued, open dialogue and that a woman’s well being needs to be ascertained before the lights go out. The verse has nothing to do with prayer, and yet, it is cited as the most popular reason to why women cannot pray.

Now, it’s very true that many women have horrendous experiences with their menstrual periods. Migraines, pelvic pain, cramping, back pain, blood clots, fever, joint aches, and nausea are just some of the symptoms that can drive any woman into bed with a hot water bottle and her preferred method of pain relief. And this is exactly what many sources reference when producing literature on menstruation and prayer. Women are weakened by blood loss. Women are emotionally fragile. Women suffer in their biological pain. Women are naturally unclean. Therefore compassion towards women’s “condition” is required, and they have been granted a boon not to pray. We’re not even required to perform any make-up prayers.

The problem with this reasoning is that every person with physical capacity is required to perform the ritual movements for prayer. If you have mobility issues, you may use assistance like a chair, shorten the length of your prayer, or lessen the extent of the ritual movements. If you are severely incapacitated by illness or disability, you may use your pinky finger to perform the motions. If you cannot even do that, you may move your eyes. Failing that, you gain reward for your intention to pray. Reasonably, if I am bedridden due to my cramps, I am still physically able to pray.

The second argument relates to the potential impurity of blood. Ritual purity is required for prayer. From a worship standpoint, prayer is held within a sacred space, and ritual washing helps prepare a person mentally and physically by washing off the profane. For minor breakages, purity is gained through the light washing of certain body parts (wudhu) after a person farts, urinates, defecates, sleeps, or loses consciousness; and is gained through a full bath (ghusul) for major breakages after a person has an orgasm (self administered or otherwise) has sexual intercourse, or for women specifically, after menstruating.

Of course, when related to menstruation, much of the literature refers to blood as being a pollution or defilement and by extension, women are impure. Often women will hear that blood defiles everything it touches and is free flowing. I’ve read pamphlets coupling the hardship of menstruation with the notion that God would not want us to pray if we had a major wound, so why would God expect us to pray while we bleed? Some even say that because you have to perform ritual purification for even a drop of blood from a papercut, there’s definitely no praying while menstruating.

Again, the Qur’an does not mention menstruation in regards to prayer or even impurity. Even if you cite the above verse as requiring women to “cleans” themselves because they are impure — it’s within the context of sexual intercourse, not prayer. In verses 4:43 and 5:6, the Qur’an sets out the actions required to make one ritually pure for prayer and lists “calls of nature” and sexual intercourse as the breakers of one’s ritual purity. So, the legal position on blood is mainly defined from the prophetic traditions.

There are plenty of examples from the prophetic traditions where men prayed in the middle of nosebleeds, with the blood streaming down their hands; praying with a freshly severed arm acquired in the battlefield; and the 3rd Caliph, ‘Umar, even prayed while he had a gaping sword wound to his chest. You are also permitted to pray if fresh blood is coming from the cervix, hymen or vagina.

There are also certain rules given for menstruating women who are indeed allowed to pray. If you have an extra heavy flow, or a longer than normal flow that does not stop, you can follow the custom of the women in your community and abstain from prayer for about a week, take a shower and then pray for 2 weeks — taking your menstrual cues from other women. Or, you may combine the noon and afternoon prayers and the sunset and evening prayers, making sure to perform major ritual purification before each and pray until you see fit.

It seems strange to me that based upon the legal permissibility to pray with gaping wounds, people would argue that the 2 ounces of blood lost during a week of menstruation weakens women to a state where they are unable to pray. And that while menstruating women are indeed allowed to pray, and are seen as pure for prayer, there is so much fear mongering for the rest of us.

In light of all of this flowing blood, where do Muslims get the notion that women are not allowed to pray while menstruating and that menstrual blood is unclean? We find it in the common practice and custom of the early Muslims:

The Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace, said to Fatimah bint Abu Habish, “Do not pray during your period. After it has ended, perform ghusl and pray.” (Related by al-Bukhari and Muslim.)

To my knowledge, the Prophet never says that menstrual blood is an impurity. In fact, he went to great lengths to illustrate that menstruating women are not physically impure. The most famous is:

‘A’isha reported: The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said to me: Get me the prayer mat from the mosque. I said: I am menstruating. Upon this he remarked: Your menstruation is not in your hand. (Related by Muslim)

From the Prophet we also learn: that while men and women must abstain from penetration during menstruation, they are certainly allowed to do everything from fondling to heavy petting; he used to recite the Qur’an while laying his head in his menstruating wife’s lap; menstruating women can groom others, cook for others, and others can drink from the same cup as a menstruating woman; menstruating women are encouraged to join in religious celebrations, can recite Qur’an and make supplication to God; and that menstruation is a natural occurrence ordained by God.

The capacity of menstrual blood to break ritual purity is taken from a Qur’anic verse (6:145) on what animal products are forbidden for consumption. Listed among pork and roadkill, is the blood of animals that have been slaughtered. The scholars reason that “dead blood” is therefore an impurity because it is forbidden to eat. Fresh blood flowing from veins in a live body however, is not. Which is why you can pray with a bloody nose, but not with a bloody tampon.

That said, it is not the substance itself that is ritually impure, but the state. Because bodily functions are linked to ritual, ideally, one does not become physically impure, and therefore does not physically pollute things they come in contact with (unless you are actually soiled). A few drops of semen on your pants doesn’t mean that you can’t pray in your clothes. You just scrape it off and you’re good to go. Cleanliness is the key. And according to the legal position on purification, it’s the same expectation for menstrual blood.

Yet, many feel that a menstruating woman has the capacity to pollute items she touches — especially the Qur’an. Despite the fact that early scholars up until the 12th century argued that menstruating women could indeed recite and touch the Qur’an. Menstruating women even used to send the Prophet and his wife ‘Aisha samples of their menses on cotton swabs, just to ask if a brown, yellow, or creamy sample was considered clean.

But in their understanding of menstrual blood, some ignore the common practice of taking a ghusul after menstruation, as well as the order to not pray as explaining ritual impurity — instead reasoning that it’s because menstrual blood is akin to the dead blood of slaughtered animals.

The arguments explaining a woman’s relation to her menstruation are based upon a framework where a woman’s state is defined only by external reference: male sexuality and dead blood. You can imagine what damage this reasoning does for a woman in relating to her period, to her sense as a woman, and how this understanding is translated in popular practice.

Now to be fair, there is material and lectures from the pulpit explaining menstruation in positive and healthy ways for women — but primarily focusing on menstruation as a natural process from God, who gave women the strength to endure it.  The overwhelming, sometimes innocuous message being sent to women is that they are naturally dirty and spiritually defiled. That their menstrual cycle is something to be hated and feared. That they cannot walk into a mosque, touch a Qur’an, recite the Qur’an, or become an imam. That it takes women longer to memorize the Qur’an or achieve a religious education, because they are out of commission for 25% of the year. That they cannot cut their hair or clip their nails while menstruating due to impurity. That they cannot touch a prayer mat. That if they apply henna to their skin while menstruating, their impurity will last as long as it takes the temporary tattoo to wash off. That it makes women weak, lacking, imperfect and second class. That if you pray you are a sinner. That it’s a reason why more women are in hell than men. That if you question the ruling not to pray, or feel it is unfair, you aren’t faithful enough — or worse, are deluded by Western notions of equality. This is a bit more involved than just being told you can’t pray.

But let me tell you: women pray on their periods. I’m always amused when hoards of women “conveniently” get their period right after the ‘Eid prayers. It’s a celebration, no one wants to sit in the car, in the lobby or in the specially designated areas for menstruating women — they’d rather be with the congregation celebrating.  Women take birth control pills and suppress their cycle in order to complete the Hajj. If you’re going to wait years for such an event, you’re not going to let a little blood stop you. Some pray at the Kaabah regardless. An Islamic Art professor once confessed to me that while she was learning from a master calligrapher in India, she would lie about her period — because even learning the art of Qur’anic calligraphy is barred from women on the basis of purity.

If the injunction not to pray is indeed formed upon the common practice as taught by the Prophet, then it is unfair to argue otherwise. Women’s bodies are routinely portrayed negatively in the materials aimed at educating us on what we can and cannot do. Even if the the topic is dealt with respectfully and only notes the physical differences between men and women, relying on the traditional arguments still sets up unhealthy attitudes for women about their bodies.

It’s disingenuous to relate a woman’s purity to a verse on sex that’s not even addressed to her, to her weakness for pain tolerance and to the blood of dead animals. When in fact, menstruation is natural and healthy. It’s the body’s way of preparing the womb for the next cycle and to potentially support new life.  Menstruation is renewal. Or as it’s also alluded to in 2:222 of the Qur’an, menstruation is a cleansing.

This post relies on the Qur’anic translation of Muhammad Asad, and refers to legal positions outlined in Fiqh us-Sunnah (sections on Purification, Ghusul, and Menstruation) and Imam Malik’s Muwatta. I am not arguing against the injunction, but how it is presented in popular literature.