I was 4 years old when my mother took my little hands into hers, then danced them through a stream of tap water onto my face and arms. This was the first of many times I would be taught to do wudu: the ablution meant to to purify the body before praying, entering a mosque, or touching the Quran. It can be an inconvenient, if tiny, spiritual burden: a single fart means you have to do it again; so does peeing. Taking a nap deep enough to drown out sound and light breaks your wudu, but not if sound filters into your sleep sans light. Some joyless imams even believe that laughing too hard during prayer can not only invalidate your prayer but break your wudu too, lest the ummah be in any doubt that Allah frowns upon hilarity. My dad, a longtime connoisseur of onions and garlic at every meal — we’re Pakistani — is convinced wudu is broken every time you eat a “smelly food.”
The rules, to nobody’s surprise, are many. Wudu has a choreography so precise and formulaic, it could put ballet dancers to shame. You must state your intention to Allah first. Then rinse your mouth, cup water into your hand and tip it far enough to touch the insides of your nose, but not so much that you sputter. Wash your face. Drizzle water on to your right elbow down to your wrist, repeat with the left. Let your wet fingers dangle over your head so water droplets find their way into your hair. Wipe your right foot, then your left. For the fervently devout, there are also prayers to bless the wudu, different ones that accompany each act of purification. (Thankfully, my family strongly believes in doing the bare minimum.)
Within the first five minutes of the new Hulu show Ramy, an Egyptian immigrant Muslim comedy navigating the fraught path of dual competing identities in modern New Jersey, the American audience is walked through the politics of wudu. The timing of the show is charmingly suspect, too, as it dropped mere weeks before Ramadan. (The Islamic month of fasting and restraint definitely has a lot of wudus.) It is perhaps the most joy I’ve ever experienced at seeing two brown men arguing in a mosque when Ramy, our 30-something protagonist played by series creator Ramy Youssef, executes a shoddy wudu and is caught by an older Arab man.
The scene itself is lifted, word for word, out of the lives of all Muslims: South Asian, Arab, immigrant, or otherwise. When Ramy is berated by the old man for not taking his socks off, for denying the water from running between each of his toes, his frustration is palpable. He’s clean; he showered that very morning. But not clean enough for Allah, as the man tells him, “Dirt in your toe is dirt in your heart.” The man then sits down on the marble platform in front of the taps, grabs Ramy’s feet, and proceeds to pour water through each of his toes. It’s a brilliant introduction to a story about clinging to tradition and finding your place within it, about toeing the brittle line between the new-world momentum and the old-world beliefs that define family and your identity. Even the episode’s title, “Between the Toes,” is an apt thesis for what Ramy sets out to achieve.
You miss a step in your wudu, you start again. My nani in Pakistan was the first one who ever caught me sloppily flinging water onto random bits of flesh. So she stood next to me at the small cracked sink, enveloping me in her soft wrinkled body, and made me practice with her, slowly whispering prayers in Arabic for me to repeat as the water moved sinuously over identical brown hands. In those quiet moments, the ritual made sense.
The second time I was caught, it was in the girl’s bathroom of a British school in the city of Tabuk, in Saudi Arabia. We were crowded around the tiny stained sinks to perform wudu for the afternoon prayer, mandatory for all Muslim students in the school’s mosque. The sweetly pungent smell of damp socks hung in the air, as girls gripped them in one hand while thrusting their feet into the sink. I popped out only my heel, wedged my wet hand inside and swiped. I was a Shia in a country that is not accepting of Shias — I was forbidden by my parents to ever tell anyone — but I had just done something very Shia-like. (In Sunni tradition, you must wash your feet properly with water running through each crevice. Shias, my bare minimum people, are content to just swipe a damp hand on to the feet.) And so, finding me more inadequate than a possible Shia, I was given a refresher by 13-year-old girls and later my Egyptian mosque teacher and imam, with a heavy dose of why has no one ever taught you this? Let us rescue you from the grips of the shaytan.
The third time, one of the black-veiled aunties in my madrassa’s bathroom in Muscat, Oman, spotted me dribbling water over my hijab and not under it, earning me a lecture in soothing undulating tones while staring daggers at my siren-red painted toenails, peeking out from under my abaya. For militant Shias, painting toenails voids the wudu and all future ones because water technically is not touching the actual dead skin of the nail.
Watching Ramy, I heard in his exasperated voice my own discontent with gatekeeping one’s relation to Allah. Like him, there’s tension in my fondness for wudu: I relish the cleansing and return to spirituality it represents, even as I resent the old-school devotion to insignificant details that alienate younger generations. The moment is a Muslim unifier of shared eye-rolling, commiserating, and maybe even a reluctant understanding. Because as the old man bemoans to Ramy, “If the water doesn’t go between your toes, the devil will.”
Still, wudu isn’t just “properly washing your feet,” as the Times put it in their review of Ramy. Calling it merely “washing” reduces the import of a stranger scrubbing furiously between Ramy’s toes. The attack on personal space aside, it does give Ramy a moment with a pseudo grandfather in lieu of his real ones. Wudu gave me my first spiritual moment with my mother, my nani, and my sometimes odd, sometimes dysfunctional Muslim community. Instead of swimming and learning to wade pools, this was my first bond with water. It was the first thing I was taught after Allah. It’s also, in practice, one of the meaningless, comical divides between Shia and Sunni Muslims, just another empty point of division. Still, silly as it may seem (and the number of times I’ve secretly skipped it in my hurry, only to carry around the accompanying guilt afterward), when I do take the two minutes and give myself to it, it can be a lovely physical commitment to my belief.
I’m not the child of immigrants and I’m not Arab, so there wasn’t a lot of myself I could see in Ramy past those first five minutes. But it did remind me of the sometimes lazy, sometimes imperfect Muslim that I am: shortchanging my wudu, convinced that Allah doesn’t care what’s between my toes. That’s why delight stole through me during those few minutes watching a very familiar scene about a grown man scolded for not knowing his wudu basics and letting himself be a gateway to shaytan unfold unexpectedly on American TV. That’s five minutes I wish I could’ve shared with my nani — something neither one of us had seen before.