ĀB ii. Water in Muslim Iranian culture

Water constitutes an essential element in Islamic ritual, as a means of purification, and serves as a common theme in folklore. 


ĀB “water.”

ii. Water in Muslim Iranian culture

Water constitutes an essential element in Islamic ritual, as a means of purification, and serves as a common theme in folklore. The Koran, in describing the creation of life, indicates that water is its basis: “And of water We have made everything living” (21:30); and “Allāh has created every animal of water; some of them go upon their bellies, some upon two feet, and some upon four” (24:45). Ṭabarī discusses the Koranic verse “And He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in six days, and His throne was upon the water” (11:7). On the authority of many early commentators, he states that God first created water and from water created the heavens and the earth (Ṭabarī [Cairo2], I, pp. 39f.; cf. Kolīnī, Rawżat al-kāfī, Naǰaf, 1385/1965-66, pp. 80-81, 134).

A folktale tells how, when God willed the universe into being, he first created a substance which, when he looked upon it, became water, from which the heavens and the earth emerged (Ṯaʿlabī, Qeṣaṣ al-anbīāʾ, Cairo, n.d., pp. 3-4, 7; Kesāʾī, Qeṣaṣ al-anbīāʾ, ed. I. Eisenberg, Leiden, 1922, pp. 6-7; Nīšābūrī, Qeṣaṣ al-anbīāʾ, ed. Yaḡmāʾī, Tehran, 1961, p. 3). According to tradition (ḥadīṯ), the Prophet was asked about the beginning of the creation, whereupon he replied: “God existed and there was nothing before him, his throne being on the water. He then created the heavens and the earth” (Tabrīzī, Meškāt al-maṣābīḥ, ed. M. Albānī, Damascus, 1961-62, III, pp. 111f.).

Water, the source of life, is indispensable for the growth of crops, and prayer for rain is well known in Islam. A tradition states that when the people complained to the Prophet of the lack of rain, he took them out to the place of prayer and prayed for rain (Tabrīzī, Meškāt I, pp. 476-80). The bounties of rain are repeatedly stressed in the Koran: “The water Allāh has sent down from the heaven whereby he has revived the earth after its death” (Koran 2:164). “[He] has sent down water from the heaven, and thereby produced fruits as a provision for you” (ibid., 2:22).

Water is used for ritual purification (see Ablution [vożūʾ and ḡosl] in Islam: “He might purify you” (Koran 8:11). Purification is required before prayer, and a ḥadīṯ states that being purified is half of faith (Tabrīzī, Meškāt I, p. 93). In another, the Prophet is reported as saying, “When a believer washes his face during ablution, every sin he contemplated with his eyes will come forth from his face along with the water; when he washes his hands, every sin they wrought will come forth from his hands with the water; when he washes his feet, every sin toward which his feet have walked will come out with the water, with the result that he will come forth pure from offenses” (ibid., p. 94). According to its suitability for use in ritual purification, water is of two kinds. Māʾ-e maṭlaq (“absolute” water) is suitable, while māʾ-e możāf (“solute” water, to which something has been added [możāf], such as rose water) is not. Māʾ-e moṭlaq can be either running or standing. Running water is considered pure for ritual purposes unless its color, taste, or smell indicates the presence of impurities. Standing water in ponds or reservoirs whose capacity exceeds a certain limit (one ḵorr, or about 350 liters) is the equivalent of running water. Water in a vessel or container is polluted by admixtures. Well water, a kind of standing water, is considered pure unless obviously polluted (Ṭūsī, al-Nehāya, Beirut, 1970, pp. 2-5; idem., Tahḏīb al-aḥkām, ed. M. Ḵorāsānī, Tehran, 1959, I, pp. 214-31; Ḥellī, Šarāʾeʿ al-eslām, ed. ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn, Naǰaf, 1969, pp. 12-16; Qāżī Noʿmān, Daʿāʾem al-eslām, ed. Fyzee, Cairo, 1963, I, pp. 111-13; Tabrīzī, Meškāt I, pp. 148-52; Šaʿrānī, Ketāb al-mīzān, Cairo, 1932, I, pp. 99-105; M. Maḡnīya, al-Feqh ʿalā al-maḏāheb al-ḵamsa, Beirut, 1967, pp. 14-21). Detailed rules are prescribed for removing various kinds of impurities (Šaybānī, Ketāb al-aṣl, ed. Afḡānī, Hyderabad, 1966, I, pp. 78-87; Ṭūsī, al-Nehāya, pp. 5-9; idem, Tahḏīb al-aḥkām, I, pp. 231-49; Ḥillī, Šarāʿeʾ, pp. 13-14; Maġnīya, Feqh, pp. 22-23). Rights regarding water and related matters are discussed elaborately in Islamic jurisprudence.

Revelation (tanzīl) is likened to “water sent down from the heaven by God”: Both are considered lifegiving (Martin Lings, “The Qoranic Symbolism of Water,” in Studies in Comparative Religion 23, 1968, p. 153). In the taʾvīl (esoteric interpretation) of the Koran by the Ismaʿilis, water is a symbol of knowledge. As water is indispensable for the preservation and growth of life, knowledge is vital for the soul. As water washes away the material pollution from the body, knowledge purifies the soul from spiritual impurities (Qāżī Noʿmān, Taʾwīl al-daʿāʾem, ed. M. Aʿẓamī, Cairo, n.d., I, pp. 72, 105f.). This symbolic meaning of water is espoused by the Sufis and the Imamis. On the verse “He sendeth down Water from the sky, so that valleys flow according to their measure” (Koran 13:17), Ḡazālī states, in comment on the text, that water is gnosis and the valleys are hearts (his Meškāt al-anwār, ed. ʿAfīfī, Cairo, 1964, p. 72). On the verse “If they trod the right path, We should have given them to drink of water in abundance” (Koran 72:16), Māǰlesī states in comment that water is knowledge (Qommī, Safīnat al-beḥār, Naǰaf, 1355/1936, II, pp. 562). Several verses of the Koran and traditions of the Prophet are similarly interpreted by Māǰlesī.

Muslim tradition abounds in references to Āb-e Zamzam, Āb-e Kawṯar, and Āb-e Ḥayāt. Zamzam is a sacred well near Kaʿba. It is said to have sprung miraculously for Ismael, the son of Abraham, when he was thirsty as a little child. His mother, Hagar, went seeking water but could not find it, so she went up to the hillocks al-Ṣafā and al-Marva, praying to God and imploring aid for Ishmael. God sent Gabriel, who with his heel hollowed out a place in the earth where water appeared. In the period of paganism, the well was filled in by Jorhomīs; then the Prophet’s grandfather ʿAbd-al-Moṭṭ¡aleb was ordered by God, in a vision, to dig it out. Performance of pilgrimage rites culminates in the drinking of Zamzam water, and the pilgrims carry it home to give it to the sick (Ebn Hešām, Sīra, ed. M. al-Saqqā et al., Cairo, 1936, I, pp. 150f.; Ṭabarī [Cairo2], I, p. 252; ibid. II, p. 240; Ṯaʿlabī, Qeṣaṣ, pp. 47-50; Kesāʾī, Qeṣaṣ, pp. 142-43; Nīšābūrī, Qeṣaṣ, pp. 67-68; EI2, s.v. Zamzam).

Kawṯar, mentioned in the Koran (108, the Sūrat al-Kawṯar), is described as a river (or water basin) in paradise intended for the Prophet and shown to him on his ascension there. This river is said to have beds of pearls and rubies and banks of gold. Its water is whiter than milk and sweeter than honey, its odor is more aromatic than musk, and its jugs are like stars in the sky. On the Day of Judgment the believers will drink from it, and one who drinks thereof shall never thirst (Ebn Hešām, Sīra II, pp. 34-35; Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, Cairo, 1322-30/1904-12, XXX, pp. 179-80; Ṭabresī, Maǰmaʿ al-bayān, ed. Maḥallātī, Tehran, 1339 Š., V, pp. 548-49; Tabrīzī, Meškāt III, pp. 68f.; EI2, s.v. Kawthar). The Shiʿi tradition describes ʿAlī (q.v.) as the sāqī of Ḥawż-e Kawṯar (Maǰlesī, Beḥār al-anwār, Tehran, n.d., VIII, pp. 16-29; ibid., XXXIX, pp. 211-19).

Āb-e Ḥayāt, also called ʿAyn al-Ḥayāt or Nahr al-Ḥayāt, meaning the fountain of life, is associated with Ḵeżr, who is identified with the unnamed companion of Moses in the Koran (18:65-82). Ḵeżr is the patron saint of wayfarers, appearing whenever a pious person is in need. He is immortal because he drank from the fountain of life which is hidden somewhere in the darkness (Ṭabarī, Taʾrīḵ I, pp. 365f.; Ṯaʿlabī, Qeṣaṣ, pp. 121f., pp. 205f.; Kesāʾī, Qeṣaṣ, pp. 230-33; Nīšābūrī, Qeṣaṣ, pp. 338-42; EI2, s.v. al-Khaḍir).

The Shiʿis, during Moḥarram, commemorate the sufferings of the Imam Ḥosayn, his children, and his followers at Karbalā, where they were martyred. In Shiʿi lore, their greatest trial was thirst, because their enemies denied them water from the Euphrates (see ʿAbbās b. ʿAlī, below). As part of Moḥarram observances, the faithful distribute drinking water in memory of Ḥosayn’s thirst. A pious act is widely observed in Islamic countries is the foundation of saqqāḵānas (q.v.), or public drinking fountains, again to commemorate the events at Karbalā. The Persian language is rich in proverbs and sayings alluding to water and the thirst of the martyrs of Karbalā.

Bibliography: Given in the text.

(I. K. Poonawala)

Originally Published: December 15, 1982

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 1 pp. 27-28

I. K. Poonawala, “ĀB ii. Water in Muslim Iranian culture,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition, 1982, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ab-ii-water-in-muslim-iranian-culture