Washing hair after sex

I have been repeatedly asked by numbers of believing women as to the laws of bathing (ghusl) to remove sexual impurity (janabah), with the concerns around frequent ghusl and the impact it can have on hair health. Problems are exacerbated in hard water areas, not only to hair but to skin, and often skin is irritated either to frequent exposure, or the elongated periods spent in the shower detangling hair under running water. For some hair types (such as particularly curly hair) repeated showers can be quite costly having to saturate hair with conditioning products to provide enough slip to reduce hair breakage.

Even after having a bath, there are persistent issues. Certain hair types can take a significant period of time to dry, and if there is a frequent need to bath due to an active sex-life or recurrent nocturnal emission, persistent wet hair can lead to illness.

These concerns are in no way modern, approximately 1400 years ago it reached A’ishah that Abdullah b. Umar advised women to untie their hair if they bathed. Her response was the same as we might hear today: “How surprising of Ibn Umar! He directs women to untie their hair if they bath, he might as well direct them to shave their heads!" (Muslim)

To be sure, God has said concerning standing for salah, "And if you are junub (sexually impure), then cleanse yourselves." (Quran 5:6), and to not come near salah "if you are junub (sexually impure) - though you may pass through the mosque - not until you have bathed." (Quran 4:43)

However, what does bathe constitute in regards to washing the hair in this context, that is, the bathing of sexual impurity (ghusl al-janabah)? The Prophet's wife Umm Salamah, asked: "Messenger of God, I am a woman who plaits my hair, must I untie it to bathe from sexual impurity?" He said: "No, it merely suffices you that you apply three handfuls on your head then pour water over you (i.e the rest of your body) to purify.” (Muslims and Ahmad)

According to the hadith, the following suffices for purification from janabah:

  • Three handfuls of water poured over the head, and then the rest of the body saturated with water;
  • Plaited hair may remain plaited; hair does not need to be untied;
  • There is neither a requirement to rub water into the hair (or its roots) nor saturate the length of the hair.


Now before explaining the bulleted points above, a preliminary point must be made especially for those who might have multiple baths within a very short space of time. Ghusl is not obligatory immediately after intercourse; it is a condition for those who wish to engage in certain actions such as salahtawaf and dealing with the Quran. It is not necessitated merely to talk to another person or to sleep, nor is ritual impurity transferred from one human to another by touch; the Prophet said: “the believer does not pollute (others).” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim; narrated by Abu Hurairah)

Many of the aforementioned issues typically occur due to idea that the entire head must be saturated with water and rubbed, or that the length of the hair (to the tips) must be washed. To note, some of the assumptions are understandable given the hadith of Ali b. Abi Talib: “I heard the Messenger of God say: whoever leaves a spot of hair from sexual impurity which water does not reach, then God shall do such and such with him from the fire.” (Ahmad, Abu Dawud, al-Tayalisi, and al-Bazzar.) Furthermore, the hadith of A’ishah offers us a general description: “If the Prophet bathed due to ritual impurity he would begin by washing his hands, then he would pour with his right hand over his left and wash his private parts. Then he would perform ablution for prayer. Then he would take water and enter his fingers into the roots of his hair, until he believed he had poured over his head with three handfuls. Then he poured water over his entire body, and then washed both feet.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

However, the hadith of Jubair b. Mut’im offers another perspective: “We were discussing the bath of janabah with the Messenger of God and he said: As for me, I take two handfuls of water and pour it over my head, thereafter I pour (water) over my entire body.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim) The chief Hanbali jurist Majd al-Din b. Taymiyyah wrote in al-Muntaqa, ‘It is evidence for those (jurists) who neither necessitate massaging, nor gargling, nor sniffing.’

But must the general hadiths of Ali and A’ishah apply? A key hadith used by jurists to argue that they do not is the narration of Umm Salamah, the wife of the Prophet, who said, “I said: Messenger of God, I am a woman who plaits my hair, must I untie it to bathe from sexual impurity? He said: No, it merely suffices you that you apply three handfuls on your head then pour water over you (i.e the rest of your body) to purify.” (Muslim and Ahmad)

Based on this hadith, Ahmad b. Hanbal conclusively opined, as narrated by way of Muhanna, that a woman need not untie her hair if bathing from sexual impurity (but should do so for her menses). The hadith of Umm Salamah relates to janabah whilst the Prophet said to Lady A’ishah who was menstruating: “untie your hair and comb it (through).” (Al-Bukhari)

Generally, it is the asl (default position) to untie the hair so as to ascertain water reaching that which is obligatory to wash but there are clearly allowances made for bathing from sexual impurity since it occurs often and causes both difficulty and harm. (See Ibn Abi Umar's al-Sharh al-Kabir) To reflect this, we find that ‘it reached A’ishah that Abdullah b. Umar was directing women to untie their hair if they bathed. She said: “How surprising of Ibn Umar! He directs women to untie their hair if they bath, he might as well direct them to shave their heads! The Messenger of God and I would bath together and I would not pour over my head more than three handfuls.’ (Muslim) The notion of ‘shaving their heads’ is predicated on the fact that frequent washing can lead to hair loss from breakage and tangling.

A similar point of view was also considered for washing the length of the hair to the roots. Whilst some Hanbalis (and the school of al-Shafi’i) viewed it as obligatory relying on the hadith “beneath every hair is janabah, so wet the hair and cleanse the skin” (Abu Dawud and al-Tirmidhi), it was the opinion of leading Hanbali jurists such as Ibn Qudamah, and before him intimated by al-Khiraqi, that it is not obligatory to wash all of the hair given the response of the Prophet to the concern of having hair in plaits, “It suffices you that you apply three handfuls on your head”. As Ibn Qudamah pointed out, ‘This does not usually soak plaited hair, for if saturation were obligatory, it would then (also) be obligatory to untie the hair so as to know that saturation had been achieved.’ (Ibn Qudamah, al-Mughni)

An interesting point of consideration specific to janabah is whether there is a requirement to wash the hair at all. Ibn Qudamah emphatically questioned the assumption arguing the analogy that in the shari’ah, the hair is not considered a part of the animal (with humans considered articulate animals – hayawan natiq) given that hair does not become impure by death, nor is there life in it, nor is ablution negated by a man touching a (non-mahram) woman’s hair, nor is a woman divorced by her hair (i.e. “I divorce your hair!”). Given the shar’i division between the two, it is not obligatory to wash it just as it wouldn’t be obligatory to wash her clothes merely for having worn them during sex. (See: al-Mughni) Ibn Qudamah’s response to the hadith used by interlocutors “drench the hair” is persuasive: al-Harith b. Wajih alone narrates the hadith, and his narrations are weak when narrating from Malik b. Dinar. 

Alternatively, it may be argued that the eyebrows and eyelashes must be washed so why not the hair on the head? I assert that eyebrows and eyelashes are washed by necessity in order to reach the skin underneath which constitutes the face for which there is no concession for partial saturation; those parts of the face is only reached by washing the hair that sits on top. It essentially goes back to the legal maxim: that which is necessarily required to fulfill an obligation also becomes obligatory.

To be clear, the hadith of Umm Salamah is pivotal for an overview for it proposes the following:

  • the prophet took into consideration the circumstances of women on this matter;
  • that three handfuls of water over plaited hair suffices although it neither saturates the entire head nor the length of the hair. 

As indicated from the prophetic directives, God desires that believing women purify themselves but without harm or injury to person nor obstructing the needs of intimacy. A divine wisdom that becomes clear is that the purpose for frequent baths (i.e. intercourse) should not become the cause of subsequent troubles: the loss of desire in the husband due to the hair loss of his wife. Additionally, God has limited the possibility of deen being used as the excuse to impede the rights of spouses. In order to maintain sexual attraction but also ensure purity, God lightened the burden on a woman and offered her a normative approach that beautifully balances the maslahah (benefit) of intimacy with corporeal purification to devotionally worship the Most High.

All praise is for the Most Wise, and we defer full knowledge to Him alone.

Stable and secure believing women and our future

Anyone who cares about the present as well as the future of the believers, has to be concerned with the social conditions under which believing women live and their sense of security and stability. If the purpose of the Prophet’s polity was to provide believers with “security to replace their fear” (24:55), then in general, such objectives ought to also be our own. It was such security that not only allowed believers to grow and thrive but also facilitated the spread of the nascent faith. Women tend to be the pillars that hold up the structure of society, they are the carriers of culture, the (more significant) nurturers of today’s citizens, as well as the cultivators of future generations. The future isn’t bright if they’re not happy, and the future won’t be consequential if they’re not content (and resultantly committed). Yes, it requires women to be sensible and realistic in discovering contentment, but it also means that believing men need to provide the conditions for them to be able to do so.

If we think about it from the perspective of our communal interests and the cause of Islam:

Social and political progress tends to be slow. It does not predominantly occur through revolution (an idea that popular culture has come to embrace) but by gradually cultivating today and tomorrow’s citizens - it's the reason Gove was so happy to be education minister. For the sake of the future, we can only expect tomorrow’s people to be confident, faithful and educated folk IF they’re cultivated by equally confident, faithful and educated folk (and of course that includes men as well). Yet despite its demonstrable importance, the environment in which this might occur hasn't significantly developed. Rather than being supported and permitted to get on with it - to seek an environment that’d help to shape confident, faithful and informed believers, many Muslim women find themselves having to battle social and ethno-cultural pressures as well as reductive, condescending and unrealistic ethno-cultural assertions about their ‘place’. It wears them down and inhibits constructive activity. And no, rhetorically referring to Muslim women who are practically treated like mindless maids as ‘queens’ or ‘jewels’ doesn’t make them feel valued – and this isn’t lost on anyone with a semblance of intelligence. Furthermore, it certainly doesn’t lead to the members we all need believing women to be.

Instead, what we regrettably continue to see is a milieu that produces countless restless beings with various worries, who frequently have their good and charitable nature exploited, who remain greatly unappreciated for their labours, whose views might be overlooked simply because they’re women, and who are given legitimate cause to be anxious about their prospects rather than thrilled at the opportunities and positive challenges the future ought to bring. Whilst some men might put it down to "women's nature", God tells men to challenge their own perceptions:

“Live with them in accordance with what is fair and kind: if you dislike them, it may well be that you dislike something in which God has put much good.” (4:19)

Of course, not all believing women find themselves in such a situation, but even they would acknowledge that the current environment promoted by most ethno-religious communities isn’t one conducive to high aspirations, or one that reflects a godly and productive lens that provides the holistic type of security and stability believing women desire. As believers, we are morally obliged to build an environment where women are able to flourish and become the best women on earth (and the same obviously goes for our men and children).

Some men suffer from protest fatigue. I accept that, as is the case with complaints in any setting, not all are always legitimate. But there needs to be a constructive way of discussing worries in a spirit of cooperation and reason, rather than falling into reductive arguments, belligerence, or retreating into silos and talkshops. I also accept that many believing women have some way to go to become substantial contributors to the future of an inspirational Islam in Britain, but so too do many men – it’s not a gender issue but one of general development. However, if women aren’t provided the space, opportunity and know-how to develop a holistic approach to īmān which improves the intellect with reason and knowledge, the body with vitality, and the spirit with civility and resilience, as well as an emotionally and psychologically sound atmosphere required to achieve all of these, then as a believing community we won’t get very far. It’s easy to put women down, which occurs in some cultures, and claim they don’t know much or that they’re 'slow', but if resources in many communities are mainly geared towards men, and women frequently infantilised, how can we expect them to be on level par? Studies show that where women are given the same educational opportunities as men, they outperform them. Evidently, a phenomenal human resource is being squandered, and in some cases, actively undermined. Is it any wonder that some Muslim women opt for Eurocentric feminism when it seems to offer them more equitable terms? “Islam gives women rights” becomes an empty slogan if not practiced by adherents to that Islam, not to mention that the use of this slogan can inadvertently suggest that if Islam hadn’t advocated such rights, such sloganeers simply wouldn’t bestow equitable treatment to women out of a sense of decency and some good old logic.

استوصوا بالنساء خيرا

The Prophet put it: “Treat women well,” (al-Bukhari) and ‘well’ is not only determined by the situation, but also in the context of being sensitive to the needs of women whilst simultaneously encouraging them to strive higher. In a gender-conscious verse God spells out the relationship between the two groups: “The believers, both men and women, are allies supporting each other (awliya)…” (9:71) and such support includes men cultivating their vital team members and expanding their capacities rather than simplistically putting them down. That’s actual leadership. Furthermore, as believers we inspire one another to be the best reflections of ourselves with the Prophet having put it, “The believer is the mirror of a believer”. So if some men hold the women around them in low stead then they must consider what they themselves actually look like!

As for believing women, it’s up to them to assert themselves and take the bull by the horns, and neither squander nor disregard the opportunities they’re availed by emerging opportunities. Complaints about lack of resources and/or access are often inaccurate or a pretext for some to veil their laziness or lack of commitment. In the end, the effort needs to be made by both sides.

Are women allowed to cut their hair 'short'?

It is perfectly legitimate for a Muslim woman to cut her hair short. Abu Salamah b. Abd al-Rahman narrates: “The wives of the Prophet used to cut their hair until it came just below their ears.” (Muslim) However, the Prophet forbade women from shaving their heads (al-Tirmidhi). Where the shar'i maxim goes that a thing is permitted unless there's a prohibition that states otherwise, cutting one's hair to varying lengths is fine as long as it is not shaved off.

The rest of this article summarily discusses some important points for consideration:

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Talking about "Muslim women"

In breaking down the term Muslim women, and understand how we might view the interests of believing women, the following points might provide a clear account:

1. The operative word in the term Muslim women is the word 'Muslim', one who seeks to be subservient to God as taught by Muhammad, in accordance with the creed of Abraham. The next word 'woman' informs us that she is speaking from a point of the experiences of such subservience to God as influenced by factors specific to womanhood (whatever that might mean in the context). Generally, that'll mean that the issues that most resonate with her are those to do with women, as well as those that are equally relevant to men and women (people often forget the second).

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