The Wudhu at Work Conundrum
[Just to let you know, the text below is a transcription of what I've said in this video. So please excuse any words or phrases that don't quite look right.]
A few days ago, I got a message from a young guy who lives not too far away from me. This is what he said (he sent me a message on WhatsApp):
“Salam! Quick question. Is it permissible to do Tayammum at work if there are no wudhu facilities (for example, inadequate space and privacy)?”
So I replied pretty bluntly because we had known each other for some time. I said, “Wa alaikum assalam. You don't need privacy.”
Note that was the first thing he said.
Who said that we need privacy to do wudhu?
Now, obviously, for a lady, that situation may well differ. But generally, for guys, we don't need privacy to do wudhu because in doing wudhu, we're not revealing any part of ourselves that is a problem for anyone else to see.
What is behind this question is the shyness that one feels from possibly being seen to be doing wudhu, which is a key thing many of us face.
So then I continued, “A basic sink is enough space,” and then perhaps (and obviously there are different views on this) I said, “If it helps, you can wear slightly thicker socks after doing wudhu in the morning when leaving from home and then wipe your socks.”
I'm not getting into the sock wiping thing; that’s for another time.
So he said, “Hmmmmm,” and then he goes, “By privacy, I mean, it could implicate me at work if people have an issue with it.”
Basically, he revealed that somehow there's this potential tension that he's thinking may result if he is seen to be, or known to be, doing wudhu. This strange action uses a fair amount of water relative to somebody just normally washing their hands. He's asking under what circumstances, if any, would Tayammum at work be acceptable?
So I said, responding to this fear type issue, “What kind of issue would they have with it, meaning your colleagues? You be you, don't be afraid. Let them learn, educate them. If you are harassed, there must be avenues for you to deal with that.”
He said, “I just started at a new firm with another brother. We're the only Muslims here. Quite frankly, they frown upon us even when we pray.”
So then I went into “Which firm is it?” and we had some other discussions. So very interesting.
I want to elaborate on this because this is a common question and scenario. Is it not the case? Perhaps you've done this when you are, for example, in a restaurant, a shopping centre, work or some other public space.
Are We Afraid to Display Our Wudhu?
When you want to do your wudhu, what's the first thing you do? Oftentimes, you look for the disabled toilet! I always had a huge problem with this. Why are we looking for the disabled toilet and why do we do that? Because it's like a single self-contained unit with a toilet sink and everything else so that no one else will see us doing wudhu.
Now, first of all, in most disabled toilets, I don't know why this is the case, but the sinks are ridiculously small. The point is, you're going to be making a complete splash everywhere anyway. So from that perspective, it’s not a great idea.
Secondly, what is our problem in doing wudhu in a normal setting? In the normal way? If we need to use the bathroom and wash our hands, we can bear to be seen by everybody else. But now we need to do wudhu and it’s almost as if we're afraid to be seen doing wudhu.
This is a real problem.
First of all, it speaks to a problem of self-esteem or lack thereof. There's absolutely no reason we cannot do our wudhu confidently without disturbing anybody else.
The fact that it is a "strange action" for an onlooker who might think, “What is this person doing? Why are they washing up to their elbows and wiping their heads?”
Even if we wash our feet in the sink, it’s as if we’ve been "caught red-handed". Instead, we’ve been "caught wet-footed" because of some “crime” we’re committing or even wiping socks. Either way, it looks or feels odd to be in public with others.
Our Responsibility Towards Others
Look, this is where it turns into a fundamental issue.
As believers, we forget the significant part, function and responsibility we have in life and society. We need to understand that the very prayer we are hoping to pray ought also to be understood and hopefully prayed by more people around us.
This is not something we are doing as an act of worship simply for us. Prayer, service and worship of God are for human beings. So how are the people around us ever going to know and ever going to find out this fundamental truth if we’re shy from even being seen doing wudhu?
People will never know.
In fact, there are thousands of people in our communities and countries where we live who have never seen a wudhu when they could have if we had simply been happy to do it normally wherever we are.
Then there’s the fact that we don't ask for that same privacy if, for example, we're doing wudhu in a masjid. In that case, we know we're happy with the next person because usually there's all that splish-splashing and water going all over the place! That's fine. We're okay with that. Why? Because this person will understand we're doing the same thing. We're here for a similar purpose.
Remember, it's a prophetic practice to even pray out in the open where anyone and everybody can see you, let alone doing the wudhu.
Why Are We Afraid?
This is an important idea and important principle for us to develop self-confidence. To paraphrase a sentiment expressed by Ibrahim, may God grant him peace, (Abraham) in the Qur'an in the 6th chapter in Surah al-Anam: Why are we afraid?
How can we be more afraid to be seen doing wudhu than people are of defying their Lord in the first place by not submitting to Him or not praying?
Why do we have that greater fear? Even out of empathy for others, even if we feel that they have some tension or otherwise, we are not doing anything that is disturbing anybody else.
So be confident of your wudhu! Be conscious of your Lord. Make the intention that this should be seen, and if it is seen, that's a good thing because you're hoping that it might initiate a conversation, for example, which is a positive thing.
At least someone, at the very minimum, will understand and appreciate what this is about. Muslims will become better known as people who pray and wash themselves as the respect we show in preparation for the Salat.
This is something beautiful. We appreciate it as something beautiful and we should make that known.
We don't have to be overtly proactive, but we shouldn't also deliberately hide away.
You Have the Right to Prayer in the Workplace
If, in the workplace, there are tensions and all the rest of it, frankly speaking, there are many protections. I don't like to use this term when we're talking about our situation, but let's just say there are protections for all kinds of “protected characteristics” for minorities.
You have the right to offer your prayer in your workplace. That's not something anyone can or should be taking away from you.
Typically, in most people's circumstances or situations, when they share their need to pray with their line manager, team members or whoever is in charge, they get supported.
I remember when I used to work in the finance industry years ago, whenever I needed to offer my prayer, sometimes a team member or manager would say to me, “Hang on a second, don't you need to go for Jummah?”
They knew normally I would be leaving for Jumuah at a certain time.
Or well, they wouldn't say that, but, "Don't you need to go for prayers? Right? It’s a Friday. Get out there. Go and do your prayers."
I've had a generally positive experience. You will find that level of support. A lot of people and Muslims in workplaces have experienced that. It takes confidence.
Be Confident - Normalise Wudhu
Think about any other phenomenon nowadays that has become normal in the minds and hearts of people that weren’t that way ten years ago, 20 years ago, all sorts of social and cultural kinds of phenomena.
The principal reason why they are normal for people today is because of the confidence of the people who, for example, are adopting a particular way of life. They have a narrative around them.
We, as believers, should be the most confident people but without being arrogant, abrasive or belligerent in any way. That's not the intention.
We must be confident about who we are. Maintain a desire that others should also find this truth, the beauty of what we have and maybe pray alongside us one day. This should drive us and make us confident to continue, not steal away when it comes to these things.
I hope this helps you in your particular scenario in your situation, whatever that may be.
May Allah help us become confident, become people who purify ourselves fully and properly before each of our prayers and make the prayers themselves a reason why we should have much more confidence.
If we combine that confidence with good character insha'Allah, this is a winning formula. Not just for us but for our engagement with the wider society.