How do Ismaili Muslims perform ablution (wudu) before prayers?

"O you who have believed, when you rise to [perform] prayer, wash your faces and your forearms to the elbows and wipe over your heads and wash your feet to the ankles. If you are impure then purify yourself. But if you are ill or on a journey or one of you comes from the place of relieving himself or you have contacted women and do not find water, then seek clean earth and wipe over your faces and hands with it. Allah does not intend to make difficulty for you, but He intends to purify you and complete His favor upon you that you may be grateful." 

 Qur'an 5:6

Firstly, the Qur'an was guidance for its own time period. Just because the Qur'an mentions a ritual action and how to perform it  like wudu  it doesn't mean Ismailis must perform the same physical action for every time thereafter. The Qur'an's guidance in literal terms changed over 23 years, and it would be naive to think the physical literal actions commanded in the Qur'an must hold for eternity.

The wudu ritual in the Prophet's time had two functions:

  1. Cleanliness
  2. Symbolic participation in the batin

Today, our modern day hygiene and advancement in technology and way of life take care of cleanliness. The batini symbolism of the exoteric wudu is fully enacted in the practice of Dua Karavi or mubayah where a murid reaffirms bayah to the Imam of the time. In Jamatkhana, this is supposed to be done before first Du'a although we have many opportunities to do this batini wudu in the form of dua karavi individually and communally.

Nasir Khusraw gives an important ta'wil (esoteric exegesis) of the practice of ablution (wudu), which is relevant for Ismailis today because they live in a time where there is currently no formal external or zahiri practice of wudu (ablution) before prayer. Yet, according to the ta'wil given below, through the act of bayat to the Imam, one is, generally, performing ablution in the spiritual or internal sense:

"By the grace of God, may He be exalted, we say that ablution is the door to ṣalāt (prayer), just as islām (submission) is the door to īmān (faith). The ẓāhir or exoteric aspect of ablution is to wash with water and wipe [with it] when it is available and, when it is unavailable, to do tayammum with dust. The bāṭin or esoteric aspect of ablutions, on the whole, is to pledge the covenant to the lord of the time and to be averse to the enemies of the awliyā’ (friends) of God. 

Salāt, on the whole, signifies attaching oneself to the awliyā’ of God. Ablution is not permissible except with pure water, which signifies the knowledge of ta’wīl (bayān). Bodily impurities are cleansed with pure water, while spiritual impurities are cleansed with the knowledge of ta’wīl. Just as exoteric ṣalāt is impermissible without having performed ablutions, listening to the true knowledge, which is the esoteric ṣalāt, is impermissible without [pledging] the covenant [to the Imam of the time].

Bodily impurities are caused by the passing of urine, faeces, blood, pus and wind, whereas spiritual impurities are due to ignorance, disobedience, doubt, polytheism, anthropomorphism and ta’ṭīl, renouncing the friends of His friends and befriending the enemies of the friends (awliyā’) of God."

 Nasir-i-Khusraw, Wajh-i-Din, Discourse 15 

To summarize, the ta'wil of the exoteric wudu is to give bayah to the Imam of the Time and to purify one's soul and intellect by listening to true knowledge. This conclusion is further confirmed when the very next verse of the Qur'an is examined. The below verse directly refers to Bayah since another name for bayah is Mithaq (covenant). So the Qur'an mentions the zahiri Wudu first, and right after, it mentions the batini Wudu.

"And remember the favour of Allah upon you and his covenant with which He bound you when you said we hear and we obey and fear Allah. Indeed Allah is knowing of that within the breasts."

 Qur'an 5:7

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