Bismillah in the bathroom
Mahfuzur Rahman

The idea of the above title is not entirely mine. It was actually thrust on me by an earnest post I read on the internet. Entitled “Saying Bismillaah in bathroom,” it discusses the propriety of uttering Bismillah while doing ablution for ritual prayer in a bathroom which also has a toilet in it. The toilet part of the story is the crucial one. Note in passing how Bismillaah is spelt with two ‘a’s, rather than the usual one, suggesting the importance the author attaches to the correct Arabic pronunciation of the word.
A number of Fatwas are invoked in this connection. In one, “It is makrooh [something that is preferable to avoid, though there is no blame if it becomes unavoidable] to utter the name Allaah in the bathroom where a person relieves himself [I.e., defecates], out of respect for His name, but it is prescribed to say Bismillaah when starting to do wudoo’ [ ablution], because it is obligatory according to a group of scholars.” In a contrary opinion, “… if the place where you do wudoo’ is inside the bathroom — which is the place for relieving oneself and is not used for washing only — then it is makrooh to utter the name of Allaah in this place, even though it is prescribed to say Bismillaah [ when doing wudoo’ ]. Some of the scholars say that a person should say Bismillaah in his heart without uttering it on his tongue. ”
One is struck by the earnestness of ritual piety of the writer of the discourse. Note too that it is the piety at the level of the individual rather than at that of the collectivity of the community that lies at the core of the concern discussed. Behind the earnestness lies a kind of simplicity born of pure belief.
It would be a pity, however, to leave the matter there. First, human action, even of the simplest kind, calls for a rationale. Second, in Islam, individual acts of piety, having obtained the sanction of a fatwa or the backing of opinion of the ulama, soon become stepping stones to conformity: the society at large is expected to abide by such sanction or opinion. While this aspect of saying Bismillah in the loo may look inconsequential, in many other cases demand for conformity in matters of individual decisions has led to erosion of long-held tradition and clashes with secular ideas.
To take a close look into the question of saying Bismillah in the bathroom that has a toilet in it: why should such an act be seen as unseemly? It appears from the discourse mentioned above that the act is disrespectful to Allah. One can ask, why not simply desist from saying Bismillah? The problem arises because saying Bismillah before every conceivable human action is considered an act of piety. But this is blind belief and no rational ground exists in support of the practice. Neither is there a reason to think that saying Bismillah, if one must, is disrespectful to Allah in some circumstances. If a bowel movement is something despicable, the creator of man would not have endowed the human body with such a function to begin with. Moreover, Allah is said to be present everywhere. He is omnipresent. Presumably, He exists in the most noisome of bathrooms too. The difficulty of merely saying the name of a supreme being who is omnipresent is thus hard to explain at a rational level.
The matter of conformity over saying (or not saying) Bismillah is of course subtle but can nevertheless be pernicious. It adds another layer of irrationality in personal behavior. If the choice of not saying Bismillah in the bathroom is devoid of rationality, turning the choice into a part of social mores is adding one more instrument of irrational decision to the plethora of unreason that already pervades many Muslim societies.
In many walks of life the impact of calls for universal acceptance of what guardians of orthodoxy regard as piety is all too visible. Indeed, visibility is the cherished goal. Take the case of the propaganda against the sari, and in favour of the shalwar ( pyjama ), in recent times in Bangladesh. Groups of Tabligis would quietly go around calling upon Bengali women to abandon their saris, which the guardians of Islamic rectitude have started to view as un-Islamic, and choose the shalwar instead. I have seen in my own village many women abandoning saris and wearing shalwar. Sari, a thing of grace and beauty and an integral part of Bengali culture has thus fallen prey to propaganda calling for conformity to what the Tabligis consider an essential act of piety. Bengali women wearing the long, all- enclosing, floor-sweeping, dress in imitation of Arab women, are also becoming a commonplace fixture of the social fabric.
Similarly, wearing the hijab has fast become the new ‘norm’ defined largely by the recent surge in Islamic fervor in the country. In many families, not previously known to make their women wear more than a perfunctory anchal over their heads, women wear a full hijab. And the expectation that other women would do the same is becoming a new norm in many households in our society.
It is easy to extend examples of demands for conformity to norms set up by orthodoxy, old and new. It is as easy to bring in many instances of irrationality in behaviour couched in piety. The matter of piety in the bathroom may be an uncommon example of both, but is still relevant, even if in a rather quaint fashion.