Pollution and Purification
Catherine Cartwright-Jones © 2003
In traditional Islam, a menstruating woman was considered vulnerable and polluted; therefore she could not pray, fast, or have sexual intercourse. Menstrual blood was najis, polluted, haram, very dirty, as were all blood, excrement, and reproductive fluids. Islamic tradition emphasizes that Allah values people who are clean and pure, whereas malevolent jinn, predatory evil spirits, are not repulsed by filth, blood and decay, and may even find such things attractive. In some Islamic traditions the jinn are believed strongly attracted to menstrual blood. For these believers, anyone who sees or touches menstrual blood is ritually impure and vulnerable to malevolent spirits, and dire consequences can follow. Running water and a thorough scrub purified a woman at the end of her menstrual cycle or other reproductive blood flow, so she could resume prayer, fasting and intercourse, and dispel malevolent jinn. When she bathed, she also applied henna to her hands, feet and hair. Henna stained her skin and hair dark blood-red, and remained visible for several weeks, showing that she had a purified body, worthy in the eyes of God and her husband, and repellant to malicious jinn.
Islamic sacred texts, the Quran and Hadith, set the beliefs about jinn, menstruation and henna, but the interpretation and practice of these beliefs is always filtered through local tradition. Women throughout the Muslim world used henna, and cleansed after menstruation, because the Prophet Mohammed recommended it. Different sects and tribes had different henna and cleansing techniques, visual symbols, exorcisms, and rituals reflecting local culture. Henna was frequently part of postmenstrual ghusl, the purification bath, applied in patterns and techniques varying according to local taste.
Islam did not create these concepts about reproductive blood and henna; Islam adapted pre-existing Semitic traditions. Islamic menstrual taboos were based on a concept of pollution and vulnerability versus purity and strength. Menstruating women were vulnerable to jinn and the Evil Eye, irresistibly drawn to blood, particularly reproductive blood. These evil forces caused fitna, or disorder, which manifested as disease, inappropriate conduct, and tragedy. Henna contained baraka, or blessedness, which protected the wearer from misfortune. Women used henna and protective patterns drawn with henna to purify their bodies, to preserve the health of their skin and hair, and to protect their souls and minds from attack by malevolent spirits. Women negotiated their menstrual and reproductive vulnerability through henna, wearing visible symbols to show that they were pure, strong, and in good spiritual standing as well as in emotional and physical health.
Western fashion and cosmetics changed henna use patterns in the twentieth century. North African and Middle Eastern women now often prefer the convenience and style of commercial nail polish and lotions to henna. Though there is a thriving henna tradition in Mauritania and Sudan, many contemporary Muslim women prefer to wear hijab and modest clothing to express their purity, and avoid henna because it seems old-fashioned and rural, or too much like tattooing (Messina 1988).