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Cleanliness in Christianity and Europe

By: Sayyid Muhammad Rizvi
I do not deny that Islam expects its follows to be physically clean, that it a religion of cleanliness, and that the rules of taharat help in keeping oneself clean. Islam was, indeed, very successful in promoting personal cleanliness not only when compared to the seventh-century Arabia but even when compared to the personal hygiene of the Europeans as late as the nineteenth century.
Will Durant writes, "Cleanliness, in the Middle Ages, was not next to godliness. Early Christianity had denounced the Roman baths as wells of perversion and promiscuity, and its general disapproval of the body had put no premium on hygiene."(Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol.4, p. 835). St. Benedict had said "to those that are well, and especially to the young, bathing shall seldom be permitted."( Wright, Clean and Decent, p.24). Another writer says, "Mediaeval books of etiquette insist upon the washing of hands, face and teeth every morning, but not upon bathing... King John took a bath once every three weeks, and his subjects presumably less often."(Wright, Clean and Decent, p.39).
Describing the age of Reformation, Durant says, "Social and individual hygiene hardly kept pace with the advance of medicine. Personal cleanliness was not a fetish; even the King of England bathed only once a week and sometimes skipped."(Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol.6, p. 244).
The same historian, after describing the dressing manners, writers, "How clean were the bodies behind the frills? A sixteenth-century introduction pour less jeunes dames spoke of women 'who had no care to keep themselves clean except in those parts that may be seen, remaining filthy... under their ', and cynical proverb held that courtesans were the only women who washed more than their face and hands .Perhaps cleanliness increased with immorality, for as women offered more of themselves to view or to many, cleanliness enlarged its area."(Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol.6, p. 768).
Wright, interesting book Clean and Decent, says, "We may boast in many ways of the Elizabethans, but we find few references to bathing or washing in Shakespeare."(Wright, Clean and Decent, p.75). Going on to the eighteenth-century, we find that a manual of etiquette advise "wiping the face every morning with a while linen, but warns that it is not so good to wash it in water..." (Wright, Clean and Decent, p.138). In early nineteenth-century, a doctor remarked that "most men resident in London and many ladies though accustomed to wash their hands and face daily, neglect washing their bodies from year to year." (Wright, Clean and Decent, p.138).
In 1812 the Common turned down a request from the Lord Mayor of London for a mere shower-bath in the Mission House "inasmuch as the want thereof has never been complained of", and if he wanted one, he might provide a temporary one at his own express. (Wright, Clean and Decent, p.138). At Queen Victoria's accession in 1837 there was no bathroom in Buckingham Palace . (Wright, Clean and Decent, p.139)
And no wonder that during those days "saner opinion recognized that frequent bathing must increase rheumatic fever and lung complaints ... one of the Georgian Royal Dukes remarked that it was sweat, damn it that kept a man clean." (Wright, Clean and Decent, p.138-139).
By the end of nineteenth and early twentieth century, the fear of water began to give away," though it was still thought eccentric to battle for any but medical reasons." (Wright, Clean and Decent, p.158).
This brief survey of cleanliness and bathing in Europe shows that Islam was successful in promoting personal hygiene when compared not just to the Middle Ages but even to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Will Durant writes, "One of the results of the Crusades was the introduction into Europe of public steam bath in the Moslem style." (Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol.4, p. 835).
Describing the Ottoman civilization, the same historian writes," Personal cleanliness was common in Constantinople and other large cities of the Ottoman Empire the public baths were built of marble and attractively decorated. Some Christian saints had prided themselves on avoiding water; the Moslem was required to make his ablutions before entering the mosque or saying his prayers; in Islam cleanliness was really next to godliness." (Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol.4, p. 712-3).

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