Prostrating on Earth (Turbah)
Prostrating on the earth (turbah) or nature made material does not in any way imply worshipping the earth or stone which one is prostrating upon. As a practice, it has a firm foundation in the tradition of the Prophet, which the Noble Qur’an teaches the Muslims to follow in all aspects.
Imam al-Bukhari narrates that the Prophet said, “I have been given five things which were not granted to anyone (any other prophet) before me:
1. Every apostle was sent particularly to his own people, whereas I have been sent to all people – whatever race they are.
2. The spoils of war have been made lawful for me, and these were never made lawful for anyone before me.
3. The earth has been made pure and a place of prostration for me, so whenever the time of prayer comes for any one of you, he should pray wherever he is (upon the ground).
4. I have been supported by awe (to cause fear and intimidation to enter the hearts of the Prophet’s enemies) from the distance (which if covered, would take one month to cross).
5. I have been granted intercession.
In regards to the subject, the third narration very clearly states that the earth (the dust and the stones) is a place of prostration. In the history of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad has shown that his masjid in Madina had no floor covering; it was only dust, although numerous types of rugs and furnishings existed at that time. Since this masjid did not have a carpet or any other type of floor covering thus when it rained the floor of the masjid would turn into mud; but still, the Muslims prostrated on the mud and did not put any carpets or rugs down. Many other narrations are as follows:
Abu Sa΄id al-Khidri, a companion of the Prophet reported, “I saw with my own eyes, the Messenger of Allah had on his nose the traces of rain and mud.”
Imam al-Bukhari narrates that when the Prophet used to do the prayers in his own room, he would pray on khumra (a solid piece of dirt or a piece of straw).
The Messenger of Allah performed his prayer and I (one of the wives of the Prophet) was lying down opposite to him while I was in menses. Sometimes his clothes touched me when he prostrated, and he used to prostrate on khumra.
One of the wives of the Prophet said, “I never saw the Prophet (while prostrating) prevent his face from touching the earth.”
Wa΄il, one of the Prophet’s companions narrates, “I saw (that) the Prophet, once he prostrated touched his forehead and nose on the earth.”
Other narrations say that the Prophet prohibited the Muslims from prostrating on materials other than the earth. One day he saw a man prostrating on some cloth from his turban. The Prophet pointed to him and told him to remove his turban and to touch his actual forehead on the ground.
Despite the immense heat of the ground, the Prophet and his companions used to prostrate on it. A great companion of the Prophet, Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah al-Ansari says, “I used to pray the noon prayers with the Messenger of Allah and I used to take a bunch of pebbles in my palm to cool them because of the enormous heat so I could prostrate on them.”
Another companion of the Prophet, Anas ibn Malik narrates, “We used to pray with the Messenger of Allah during the enormous heat, and one of us would take pebbles in our hands and once they were cool, put them down and prostrate on them.”
Al-Khabbab ibn al-Arth, another companion of the Prophet says, “We complained to the Messenger of Allah about the intensity of the heat of the ground and its effects on our foreheads and palms (during prostration) but the Prophet did not excuse us from praying on the ground.”
Abu Ubaidah, also a companion of the Prophet narrates that the companion ibn Mas‘ud never prostrated (on anything) except on the earth, while the companion ‘Ibada ibn al-Samit has been narrated to have pushed back his turban to allow his forehead to touch the ground.
During the times of the first, second, third, and fourth caliphs the Muslims used to prostrate on the dust. Abu Umayyah narrates that the first caliph, Abu Bakr used to prostrate and pray on the earth. Prostrating on the earth was also the habit of the tabi’in (those who did not see the Prophet but met his companions). Masruq ibn al-Ajda’, a prominent tabi’in and a faithful jurist, and a student of ‘Abdullah ibn Mas‘ud made for himself a tablet from the dirt of Madina and used it to prostrate on, taking it with him on his trips, especially when he boarded ships.
The people closest to the Prophet, the Ahlul Bayt were also very firm in their practice of prostrating on the earth, and in doing so, were following the tradition of their grandfather, the Messenger of Allah. Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam said, “Prostration is not permitted except on the earth and whatever grows from it except on those things that are eaten or made of cotton.”
When he was asked whether having one’s turban touch the earth instead of the forehead was acceptable, he replied that this was not sufficient unless the forehead actually touched the earth. His companion and student, Hisham ibn al-Hakam asked him whether all seven positions (forehead, hands, knees, and big toes) needed to touch the earth during prostration, Imam al-Sadiq replied that as long as the forehead touched the earth, there was no need for the other six areas to touch the earth.
Thus, people can use carpets or prayer rugs to pray on as long as the forehead itself touches the earth. However, prostrating by putting the forehead on a piece of cloth, carpet, nylon, sheet, wool, or anything that is not a product of the earth (excluding items which are eaten or worn; things upon which prostration is not permissible) would not be considered prostrating on the earth.
Apart from the issue of validity of prostration, prostrating on the earth has very significant indications and lessons for a believer. Prostrating itself is a gesture of humiliation and insignificance before the Almighty, and if it is done on the dirt then it will have more effect than prostrating on a carpet. The Messenger of Allah said, “Make your faces dusty and cover your noses with dust.” When Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq was asked about the philosophy behind prostrating on the earth, he replied, “Prostration is surrendering and humiliation to the Almighty. Therefore, it shouldn’t be on that which is worn and eaten because people are slaves of what they eat and wear, and prostration is the worshipping of Allah, so one should not put his forehead during prostration on that which is worshipped by the people (food and clothing) and that which conceits people.”
Of course, every rule has its exception. Certain narrations allow people in times of emergency, such as imprisonment or being in a place (e.g., a ship or an airplane) in which neither earth nor a piece of wood, leaf, or paper is available to prostrate on. Therefore, in these cases, people can prostrate either on the hem of their clothing or on carpet, for the Messenger of Allah has said, “Nothing has been forbidden to man, except that Allah permits it for whoever is compelled (in times of emergency).”
Why Pray on the Soil of Karbala?
The followers of Ahlul Bayt prefer to prostrate on the earth of Karbala, where the great martyrs are buried and which holds the memory of the great sacrifice of Imam Husayn, grandson of the Prophet. They do not cherish the physical soil so much as the principles of Imam Husayn and his great revolution which saved Islam from corruption, deterioration, and the tyranny of the wrongdoers. Many imams from the school of Ahlul Bayt have narrated that prostrating on the soil of Karbala penetrates the seven veils separating the person praying from Allah, the Exalted.
Conventional wisdom also determines that some lands are better than others. This fact is normal and rational, and has been agreed upon by many nations, governments, authorities, and religions. Such is the case with places and buildings related to Almighty Allah. They enjoy a special status whose injunctions, rights, and obligations are sanctioned and safeguarded. For example, the Ka‘bah has an injunction of its own, as does the Masjid of the Prophet in Madina.
The land of Karbala is similar, for the Prophet has been recorded to have taken the soil from it, smelled it, and kissed it. The wife of the Prophet, Umm Salamah also carried a piece of the soil of Karbala in her clothes. The Messenger of Allah has been narrated to have told Umm Salamah, “Jibrail has come to me and informed me that some of my nation will assassinate my son Husayn in Iraq, and he brought me a piece of that soil.” He gave that piece of soil to his wife and said, “When it turns into fresh blood, then know that my son Husayn has been murdered.”
Umm Salamah took the soil and put it in a bottle. When Imam Husayn left for Iraq in 61H, she checked the bottle every day. One day, on the 10th of Muharram, she came to the bottle and saw that the dust had turned into fresh blood, and started screaming. The women of Bani Hashim gathered around her and asked what was wrong; she told them that Husayn had been killed. When they asked her how she knew this, she narrated the story, and they joined her in lamentation and crying for Imam Husayn.
Hisham ibn Muhammad has said, “When water was released to overwhelm and obliterate the grave of Husayn, it dried after forty days, and the grave was completely left without any trace. A Bedouin from Bani Asad came and sampled the soil, one handful after another, smelling it each time, until he was able to identify the grave of Husayn, whereupon he wept and said, “May my parents be sacrificed for you! How sweet you smelled when you were alive, and how sweet your soil smells even when you are dead!” Then he wept again and composed this poem, “Out of enmity they wanted to obliterate his grave, but the good smell of the soil led to the grave.”
The first to prostrate on the soil of Karbala (where Imam Husayn was beheaded and buried) was his son, ‘Ali ibn al-Husayn Zayn al-Abidin, the fourth Imam of the school of Ahlul Bayt, the great-grandson of the Messenger of Allah. Immediately after he buried his father in Karbala, he took a handful of the soil, made the earth into a solid piece and used it to prostrate upon. After him, his son Imam Muhammad al-Baqir and his grandson, Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq did the same.
Imam Zayn al-Abidin and Imam al-Sadiq made prayer beads from the burial dust of Imam Husayn, and Imam al-Sadiq narrates that the daughter of the Messenger of Allah, Lady Fatima al-Zahra used to carry prayer beads made from twisted wooden threads with which she would praise and glorify Allah, the Exalted. But after Hamzah ibn ‘Abdul Muttalib was killed in the Battle of Uhud, she took the soil from his grave and made prayer beads from it and used them to glorify Allah. People learned her habit and did the same when Imam Husayn was martyred; taking the soil of his grave and using it to make prayer beads.
 Sahih al-Bukhari, “Book on Making Ablutions with Sand or Earth” Hadith 323, “Prayer”, Hadith 419, “The Prescribed Fifth Portion” Hadith 2890; Sahih Muslim, “Book on masjids and Places of Performing Prayers,” Hadith 810; al-Nisa’i, “Book on Washing and the Dry Ablution”, Hadith 429, “masjids” Hadith 728; Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Vol. 3, 305; al-Darami, “Book on Prayer”, Hadith 1353
 Sahih al-Bukhari, “Book on Menstruation”, Hadith 321, “Book on Prayer,” Hadith 366, 487, and 488; Sahih Muslim, “Book on Prayer”, Hadith 797; al-Nisa’i, “Book on masjids”, Hadith 730; Abu Dawud, “Book on Prayer”, Hadith 560; Ibn Majah, “Book on Immediate Call for Prayer”, Hadith 1018; Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Vol. 6, 330, 331, 335, and 336; al-Darami, “Book on Prayer” Hadith 1338
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 al-Suyuti al-Shafi‘i, al-Khasa’is, Vol. 2, 125; al-Maghazali, al-Manaqib, 313; Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Vol. 6, 294; al-Dimishqi,Tarikh al-Islam, Vol. 3, 11; al-Bidayah wal-Nihayah, Vol. 6, 230; Ibn ‘Abd Rabbah, al-‘Aqd al-Farid, Vol. 2, 219; al-Muttaqi al-Hindi, Kanz al-Ummal, Vol. 5, 110
 Tarikh ibn Asakir, Vol. 4, 342; Hafiz al-Kanji, al-Kifayah, 293