Water is critical for life on earth. This is a well-known fact. However what is less known is that this scarce resource is being carelessly used globally. Recognising these issues, the UN dedicates two international days to it: the International Water Day (on March 22) to raise awareness about the issues of water shortage, and Global Handwashing Day on Oct 15 to sensitise people about the significance of washing hands with soap.
These problems are genuine and must be addressed at all levels; individual, institutional, national and global.
With the significance of the above issues, testified by the shortage of it, water is, however, also important for a deeper spiritual reason and that has to do with its use in religion as a symbol of purity, and cleansing of the human soul. Almost all religions use water as a symbol but we focus here on Islam due to space constraints.
The Quran describes water as an expression of Allahs mercy and power. It uses water both in a physical and in a symbolic sense. In the first, the Quran alludes to His mercy and majesty and how He creates and sustains things from water. It says, He made all living things from water. … (24:45). Verses of the Holy Book also refer to water in a symbolic sense, such as, …We sent down Pure Water (maan tahura) from the sky so that He may give life to a dead land, and slake the thirst of things Allah created.
Still more fascinating is another verse that says His [Allahs] throne was upon the water. … (11:7). Such verses very likely are symbolic, as the literal meaning would be difficult to understand; they lend themselves to multiple interpretations, the discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article. Prophetic traditions advise us to use water judiciously, and Muslim ethics have elaborate instructions about its sharing even among enemies.
In Muslim tradition, water is used in so many ways from birth to death and in between. Selecting a few, for example, a newborn child is bathed, and before burial, ghusl is given to the dead. Muslims must be ritually clean for prayers. As well, there are many other forms of ritually using water before or after a particular occasion, such as Eid prayers.
The most sacred water in Muslim tradition is seen as that of Aab-i-Zamzam, found near the Kaaba from which pilgrims bring a quantity back as tabarruk (blessings) for their kith and kin; it is received with utmost respect. In his illuminating talk on water, Dr Ali Asani, a Harvard University professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures, highlights how the Quran, Hadith collections, Muslim tradition, and subsequent scientific literature show that water is a key substance and symbol in Muslim piety.
In Muslim histories, other than ritual or ceremonial use, water has been utilised in art and architecture of the built environment. Architects have played with water in notable public buildings such as mosques, gardens, and hospitals inspired by Quranic descriptions of paradise wherein are mentioned, among other things, water canals (anhar) flowing underneath. Often, water has been taken as a symbol for rahma, barakah, and ilm.
Yet another dimension of water, ie the opposite side of its blessings, is its destructive power, such as excessive water/ rain converting into floods, tsunamis, poisonous rain and polluted water. The flood of the Prophet Noah is proverbial; Pharaoh and his armies were drowned in the Nile. Many excessive rains cause floods that destroy a lot of property and human life.
The theological argument traditionally advanced says that these (floods) are caused by the sins of people. If that is the case, how have some nations overcome many of these? Many nations have contained the damage through, for example, meteorological science enabling weather forecasts, and by following up on strategic plans to contain the damage. Though these issues are beyond the scope of this article, it is, nonetheless worth reflecting upon them with the intention of finding ways to convert tragedies into opportunities (such as storing excess rainwater through reservoirs).
In sum, the significance of water is a sine qua non for human life, a substance for the sustenance of life, and of ritual purity. All of us, collectively and individually, should be alive to its value and use it judiciously. In addition, when we use it for ritual purposes we need to reflect on the multiple symbolic meanings in each act of the ritual to enrich our spiritual lives.
Finally, we also need to appreciate our traditions of art and architecture of employing water in iconic buildings to sustain heritage meaningfully.