Vol. 4 Num 171 Sat. November 15, 2003  

Cleanliness can be learned

Now for more than a century, cleanliness has been a profound American value. This value is manifested in both personal and public hygiene.

For most Americans, personal hygiene comes first. They take daily showers, shampoo their hair, use deodorants to suppress sweating, manicure their nails, and keep their mouths fresh; women go regularly to beauty parlors, men prune themselves mostly at home. Personal grooming is prompted by a desire to be clean as well as by an impulse to look nice -- for the American culture of cleanliness has come to appreciate good looks -- though painted with the brush of narcissism.

A fusion of cleanliness and good looks is not confined to personal grooming. It is also visible in homes and public places. Government buildings, corporate offices, schools, hospitals, and shopping malls are clean. An additional effort is made to make them look pleasant and beautiful. Flowers, trees, plants, and decorations highlight entrances, hallways, and common areas. Just like grooming a human face, a lot is contemplated and done to improve the looks of public buildings.

Good-looking public places, however, are not mere faces without substance. Real efforts are made to safeguard genuine cleanliness, for public hygiene is the science of preserving the health of the community. In most American counties and cities, therefore, local governments make sure that water is available and safe to drink, and that garbage and sewage are properly removed from streets and factories. Americans have learned that municipal housekeeping requires political action. And It also needs the expertise of skilled engineers and town planners who must carefully plan water and sewage systems. Air pollution is a more complex problem that, above all, requires cooperation of the industry.

No government, however, can maintain public hygiene unless the people cooperate. Ordinary Americans do. They do not trash roads, parks, parking lots, or other common areas. Except some base ball players, very few Americans spit in public.

But Americans were not always like this. In her remarkable book, Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness (Oxford, 1995), Suellen Roy traces the history of how America has changed from dreadfully dirty to clean. Before the American Civil War (1860s), she writes, men spat everywhere, flies accompanied every meal, foul smells emanated from everywhere, hundreds of roaming pigs scavenged garbage thrown into thoroughfares, there was no running water and no plumbing. Of the American habit of chewing and spitting tobacco, Charles Dickens found this filthy custom inseparably mixed with all the transactions of social life. For the most part, the author of Chasing Dirt concludes, the American cities and towns were dirty and dangerous.

After the Civil War, however, American leaders began to advocate personal cleanliness as a moral and patriotic value. It became un-American to be dirty, regardless of the nature of work. New immigrants were taught English and hygiene. Dirt was no longer touted as the worker's jewelry. It was now associated with disease. Epidemics such as cholera and yellow fever brought home the liaison between filth and death. The fear of disease and death, coupled with vigorous education about the benefits of personal hygiene, persuaded Americans to reform their personal habits.

But personal hygiene was not enough to fix the macro problem. Something had to be done to clean cities and communities. Committed sanitarians harped on a simple thesis that uncollected garbage was the greatest nuisance. They lobbied with the government for laying sewers and with the people to install plumbing in houses. Indoor plumbing and outdoor sewers became America's obsession. Resources and political will were brought together to enforce the ethic of cleanliness. With an unprecedented vigor and commitment, America was changing from a dirty nation to a world-class model of personal and public hygiene.

The American story of hygiene transformation has great lessons for the rest of the world, particularly for the Islamic world.

Purification is a profound Islamic value. In Islam, cleanliness is a religious duty. The mandatory wudu (ablution) before daily prayers -- for no prayer is accepted without it -- is a practical lesson in personal hygiene that all Muslims internalise from childhood. Wudu cleans hands, arms, nostrils, mouth, and feet -- all the limbs exposed to dirt. Furthermore, Muslims are required to wash private parts after answering the call of nature, a value not yet American. And if water is available, the Quran mandates ghusl (taking a bath), particularly after sexual intercourse. While taking a bath, the prophet recommended that the hair be thoroughly washed; and he was fond of taking scented baths (Bukhari). Thus, we see that personal hygiene constitutes a core value of the Islamic faith.

While most Muslims are clean in their bodies, some Islamic communities are dirty. Indoor plumbing is still unavailable in many cities and villages. Adults urinate and children defecate wherever they can or want to. We go to masjids in clean clothes but remain unsure whether we will get there clean, for the road to the masjid is often strewn with raw sewage and flying garbage. Visitors are not going to think highly of our great religion if Muslim cities and communities are dreadfully dirty.

The American story of Chasing Dirt tells us that if a nation is determined to obtain public hygiene, it can achieve dramatic results. But to do so, everyoneCgovernment, businesses, neighborhoods, charities, families, and individuals -- has to join the jihad to enforce cleanliness throughout the Islamic world. This should be done not for one time cleaning but for establishing a culture of public and personal hygiene. As I am finishing writing this article, I receive an email from Topeka Corporate Volunteer Council. In sponsoring the Operation Sweep Clean, we are gathering products here on campus that will be distributed to organizations such as the Rescue Mission, Doorstep, and Let's Help. Products needed are soap, shampoo, toothpaste or any personal care items. The donation boxes will be in every building. The email confirmed my belief that cleanliness is a constant jihad.

Taking the faith seriously and marshalling the necessary will and resources, Islamic countries can and must be clean and good-looking, for "Allah is beautiful and loves beauty."

Dr Khan is a professor at Washburn University School of Law in Kansas.