Everything that the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) did was for our benefit; to teach and guide us to that which is more beneficial in this life and the next. This not only applies to the licit (halal) and illicit (haram), or the ‘big’ questions in life, but he also urged us to seek the blessings and rewards in the ‘small’ aspects of everyday life.
When done sincerely, it is the attention to these detailed Prophetic etiquettes (sunna; pl. sunan) that embellishes our worship, breathes spirit into our day, and keeps us in the remembrance of God and his Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) as our days and nights pass.
In this series of articles, I intend to present simple, everyday practices of the beloved Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) that are either often neglected or go unbeknownst by many of us. Like many subtleties in life, these practices carry great reward with the least amount of effort.
Among these sunan is the tooth-stick (siwak, miswak), and it is categorized under the general rubric of the qualities of natural human disposition (khisal al-fitra).
The siwak is a sunna from previous generations, as indicated by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) when he said, “This is my siwak and the siwak of all the Prophets before me” [al-Tabarani], though it is said that the first person to use the siwak was the Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him), and then the nations following him.
A brief, electronic search in the major hadith works tallies 86 narrations related to the siwak. Among the most important are these two sound narrations:
“Were I not afraid that it would be hard on my followers, I would order them to use the siwak.” [al-Bukhari]
“I have indeed urged you with regard to the siwak.” [al-Nasa’i]
Times of Use
The siwak is recommended at all times for all people. The exception to this is the fasting person, for whom it is disliked to use the siwak after Dhuhr and up until sunset (i.e. should not be used for the Dhuhr or Asr prayers).
The most emphasized times to use the siwak are:
1) At the start of wudu: It can be used just before or after the sunna of washing the hands and before the sunna of rinsing the mouth.
2) Before beginning prayer (obligatory or supererogatory): The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was reported to have said, ‘A prayer with a siwak is better than seventy prayers without a siwak.’ [al-Bayhaqi]
I used to have my daily legal interpretation (fiqh) lessons after Dhuhr in one of the old masajid behind the marketplace in Tarim, Yemen. One day, noticing that I had forgotten my siwak when we got up to pray, my teacher looked at me disappointedly and mumbled, “It’d be better if you paid for a taxi home and fetched your siwak than to begin your prayer without it.” Since then, I’ve done my best to keep a few sticks in various pockets and bags on me all the time!
3) When reciting Qur’an, dhikr, or learning sacred knowledge: This could also include any job or communal obligation if one makes the right intention.
4) Meeting people: Cleanliness, hygiene and good appearances are all part of Muslim character. It is recommended to use the siwak on any occasion when one is meeting others.
5) Entering the house: This applies to entering any house.
6) When waking up: This is because the mouth odour changes for various reasons during sleep (e.g. bodily sleeping position, clenching one’s teeth, sleeping with the mouth open, snoring, and general matter accumulating between teeth). It is recommended even if there is no change perceived in the mouth, and even after a short nap.
7) When going to sleep: To reduce the likelihood of oral changes that may take place during sleep.
8) When any changes occur in the mouth or teeth, such as smell, taste, or color.
9) At the time of death: The Mother of the Believers, A’isha (may God be pleased with her) said, “‘Abd al-Rahman bin Abu Bakr entered upon the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) while I was supporting the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) on my chest. ‘Abd al-Rahman had a fresh siwak and he was cleaning his teeth with it. God’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) looked at it, so I took the siwak, cut it [chewed it with my teeth], shook it and made it soft [with water], and then gave it to God’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) who then cleaned his teeth with it. I had never seen God’s Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) cleaning his teeth in a better way. After he finished brushing his teeth, he lifted his hand or his finger and said three times, ‘O God! Let me be with the highest companions,’ and then he passed away.” [al-Bukhari]
When a person is dying, it is sunna to wet the tip of a siwak with water, softening it, as A’isha did for the Prophet ﷺ, and give it to dying person to sucks on, as it relieves some of the terrible thirst they experience. The dying person feels an incredible thirst at the point of death. Our teacher, Habib Mashhur bin Hafiz, a man with considerable experience of attending those last moments when people are on their deathbeds, said, “Were [the dying person] to be given all the water in the world, it would not quench his thirst.”
He further explained that this insatiable thirst is Satan’s last hope to deceive some servants, appearing at the moment of death and offering a vessel of water in exchange for disbelief. If the servant stays firm, the devil despairs and flees, while if the dying person attempts to take the cup, the devil spills the water, then runs away abandoning his victim to his fate. We ask Allah for a good ending (husn al-khatima)!
Another benefit of the siwak at the time of death is that it reminds the dying person of the testimony of faith (shahada), and it eases the exiting of the soul.
Imam al-Bajuri mentioned in his work al-Hashiyat that the siwak is beloved to Allah and abhorred by Satan. He also mentions a few of its benefits, such as it increases intelligence and eloquence, strengthens the gums and eyesight, aids digestion, slows [the signs of] ageing, and increases one’s provision. Who wouldn’t want one any of those?
Conditions of the Siwak
In order to be considered a tooth-stick or to function as such, the siwak must be coarse. Even a toothbrush or a coarse cloth suffices for the basic purpose.
The best trees for siwak, according to many scholars, are the mustard tree (al-arak), the palm tree, and the olive tree.
How to Use the Siwak
It is best to take a dry tooth-stick and dip it in water or moisten it by sucking on one end. It is said that the first juices from a siwak have healing properties, so one should swallow it; but not after this, as it is not hygienic.
The minimum sunna is to brush the entire mouth once with the tooth-stick in one sitting, while the optimal sunna is to brush the mouth three times, starting with the right side.
According to the Shafi’i opinion, in order to gain the reward of the Prophetic practice, one must make the intention that they are using the tooth-stick as a sunna by saying “I intend the sunna of using the siwak” or something similar.
It’s no use knowing all these benefits without doing something about it. The challenge this month is for all of us to try to get hold a siwak, and use at least for one prayer in the day. If one really has aspiration, then all five prayers a day. The winner will be known in the next life!
by Shaykh Jamir Meah