What does wuđūˀ (ablution) mean and symbolize?
Looking at the trees darkened by dust storm, they do not stir attention of people passing by. When Allah descended rain, it wiped out dust and the leaves' became glamorous and beautiful. It was a wonderful scene! Thanks are due to cleanliness which highlights natural creation in its original beauty!
The same applies to the human body. Cleanliness purifies and beautifies it. The human body is not only affected by dust, but also by skin secretions resulting from wastes of organs. Therefore, it is in dire need for permanent cleansing. The Islamic system of purification is the ideal one in this regard. The Arabic word wuđūˀ (ablution) is one of the basic rites of Islam permeating Islamic life. It is linguistically derived from wađāˀah which literally denotes beauty. Ablution is a degree that is higher than cleanliness. It combines cleanliness and beautification because cleanliness only denotes removing dirt. Linguistically, ghusl (full washing) does not only mean pouring water, but also means strong removal of dirt through rubbing out. In Arabic language, it is said that the sky washed the earth; this means that heavy rain has poured down on it.
Islam makes wuđūˀ and some types of washing (ghusl) of the body as an obligation. Unlike deviating trends underestimating the human body, seeking for the sublimity of the soul, wuđūˀ represents the Islamic symbolic philosophy to dignify the human body and support it. I think that man combines both physical and spiritual aspects, a body and soul. One should not separate the physical aspect from the spiritual one. Therefore, a pure soul should inhabit a pure body and a sound heart should be in a sound body!
"It was narrated that Omar ibn ‘Absah said, ‘I asked Rasūl Allah: 'O Messenger of Allah! How is wuđūˀ done?' He said: 'When you perform Wudu', and you wash your hands to clean them, your sins come out from between your fingers and fingertips. When you rinse your mouth and nostrils, then wash your face and hands up to the elbows, and wipe your head, and then wash your feet up to the ankles, you are cleansed of all your sins. When you prostrate your face to Allah (may He be exalted) you come out of your sins and become pure like the day your mother gave birth to g you.'" Abu Umāmah said: "I said: 'O ‛Amr ibn ‛Absah! Look at what you are saying! Can all of that reward be given in one sitting? He said: 'By Allah, I have grown old, my appointed time is near and I am not so poor that I should tell lies about the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). I heard it with my own ears and understood it in my heart from the Messenger of Allah.'"
In fact, this reward is not merely for wuđūˀ (ablution), but Wudu' is a means to prayers. Both of them, however, illustrate a sound faith and a keen interest in pleasing Allah’s. The reward given for these interrelated qualities is confirmed in many ḥadīths.
Wudu’ alone is not valid if the body needs complete purity, as in the case of janābah (major ritual impurity following sexual discharge), menstruation, and nifās (postpartum period). Islam orders everything that pollutes the body to be removed so that there may be no trace of najāsah (impurity). Muslims in the past would use some herbs and fibers to get the required purity. Today, scientists have discovered many materials that can be used for such a purpose!
The teacher is like the doctor; both want perfection for the humans. The doctor, in his treatment, deals with the whole body; similarly, Islam seeks to purify the body and beautify it. Moreover, it does not overlook anything important regarding personal hygiene, no matter how shameful it might sound to be talked about to some people. The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) says, "Five are the acts of fiţrah (innate pure nature): circumcision, removing the pubes hair, clipping the moustache, cutting the nails, and plucking the hair under the armpits”. This ḥadīth implies that performing such acts regularly falls under fiţrah or natural hygiene implied in the essence of religion.
Thus, leaving one’s his hair grow tall, it should be kept clean and combed, even perfumed. According to one ḥadīth, "He who has hair should honor it.” It is very important to wash the mouth and brush the teeth to avoid any bad smell of the mouth. Thus, Islam commands one having bad-smell mouth to leave congregational prayers except when he is able to remove it. Besides, it recommends one eating onion, garlic or radish to avoid public mass meetings. There are many ḥadīths recommending the use of natural siwāk to clean the mouth; and a tooth brush is feasible as well.
Not only does Islam take interest in purity but it also recommends Sharia-set adornment. Abu Dawūd and Al-Nasā’iyy narrated on the authority of ‘Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) that she said, "A woman reached out her hand (to give) a letter to the Prophet (Allah's peace and blessings be upon him), and he withdrew his hand. She said, “O Messenger of Allah, I reached out my hand (to give you) a letter and you did not take it.’ He said: ‘I did not know whether it was the hand of a woman or a man.” She said: "It is the hand of a woman.’ He said: ‘If you were really a woman, you would have changed your nails (by dyeing them with Henna)’”. Similarly, ‘Aisha also narrated, "When Hind, daughter of ‛Utbah, said, ‘O Prophet of Allah, accept my allegiance, he replied; ‘I shall not accept your allegiance till you make a difference to the palms of your hands; for they look like the paws of a beast of prey’”.
Tajammul (Beautification) is different to tabarruj (woman’s public display of her adornment or charms). Tabarruj is discouraged because it implies a deviation from normal adornment in which women going outdoors become an object of sexual seduction, which in turn leaves them sinner. Tajammul, however, is encouraged because it implies going outdoors in moderate adornment in which there is natural feminine beauty without in the woman treating her body or clothes in a way which sexually tempts men. Moreover, Islam prohibits that someone behaves in a way that makes one look like the opposite sex. It, however, does not commands that women appear abominably or with an unpleasant smell. Thus, they should maintain both modesty and good appearance without putting strong-smelling perfumes when coming outdoors.
The Arabic term wuđūˀ is linguistically derived from wađāˀah which means shine, beauty, etc. Muslims in the past would take great interest in cleanliness. Unfortunately, some Muslims went extreme, based on their false understanding of religion, claiming that to have unclean or dirty clothes is required in order to display a sign of religiosity or piety. In fact, this is a sheer departure from any sound understanding of religion. Neglecting the right of the body of the body to be purified indicates that such a person cannot possibly fulfill other duties properly, either.
Allah requires Muslims to take their due adornment in prayers and He intends for people to be pure and is pleased with it. He says in the Holy Qur’ān,
"Say, ‘Who has prohibited the adornment of Allah, which He has brought out for His servants, and the good items of (His) providing?’ Say, ‘These, on the Day of Resurrection, will be exclusively for the ones who have believed during the present life.” (Qur’ān, 7: 32)
Wuđūˀ is an Islamic symbol for all reasons of cleanliness and adornment. However, there should be behind this a pure thought and morality so that the outer appearance may go in harmony with the essence or the truth.
Wuđūˀ is not a required condition for the remembrance of Allah. A Muslim can remember Allah at all times. So a person can say Dhikr while not being in a state of wuđūˀ. In my view, without wudu’ one can recite the Qur’ān, and similarly a menstruating woman can. The believer is never defiled; janābah (major ritual impurity related to sexual discharge), however, is accidental and it can soon be removed at any time.
Yet, regarding Prayer, one is not allowed at all to perform it without being in a state of wuđūˀ. Wuđūˀ is sufficient in cases of minor ritual impurity. Major ritual impurity, however, requires ghusl (ritual shower). Such rulings were set so that people may not neglect purity as people often incline to excuses especially in matters which are not obligatory. If prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam, purity is also an important pillar because of its relation to Prayer. A person, for instance, cannot perform Prayer without wuđūˀ. There is a general command in the Qur’ān for people to take Shari‛a adornment in Prayer. Allah (may He be Exalted) says, "O Children of Adam! Take your adornment at every mosque.” (Qur’ān, 7: 31) Purity is not separable from morality and piety; moreover, it is not a custom only followed by rich people. There are people who take interest in purity even though they are poor, whereas others do not, although they are rich.
 Muḩammad El-Ghazāli, “A Hundred Questions on Islam”, Al-Azhar Center for Translation (ACT), 2017, p. 62.