This is a basin that allows the ritual ablution (Wuḍū) with the help of an automaton of a young slave who holds a jar of water, a towel, and a comb in his other hand. We have already encountered a peacock that discharges water from its beak, and there are three different tools for Wuḍū that we will meet later. As far as I know, there are no other examples of automatons or “patents” for the ritual Aablution before al-Jazari. I was happy to find out that in 2009 at the Electric Engineers Convention (IEEE) held in Kuala Lumpur, an article was presented on an ” Automatic Ablution Machine using Vision Sensor” in the hope of saving water. The multitude of tools at al-Jazari can attest to the importance of the ceremony in the Artuqid court in Diyarbakir or that the Ritual Ablution is especially suitable for the desire of al-Jazari for Automaton and allowed him to make use of his favorite siphons and buoys. Either way, it has made me read a little bit more about the wudu, and this will be the center of this post.
The Basin of the Slave, Topkapi Manuscript, 1206
The Ritual Ablution (Wuḍū- الوضوء)
Wuḍūʾ in Islam is a ritual purification or ablution done before the prayer. According to tradition, when the prayer, one of the five pillars of Islam, was given to Muhammad, the angel Gabriel came to him, hit the earth with his heel, and the water gushed out. The Angel Gabriel purified himself, and thus Muhammad learned how to do the Wudu. Then he returned home and taught Khadijah, his first wife as well.
The source of the Ritual Ablution is in the words of the Qur’an:
” O you who have believed, when you rise to [perform] prayer, wash your faces and your forearms to the elbows and wipe over your heads and wash your feet to the ankles. And if you are in a state of janabah, then purify yourselves. But if you are ill or on a journey or one of you comes from the place of relieving himself or you have contacted women and do not find water, then seek clean earth and wipe over your faces and hands with it. Allah does not intend to make difficulty for you, but He intends to purify you and complete His favor upon you that you may be grateful.
Surah 5 -The Table Spread(سورة المائد) verse 6
Muslims believe that physical purity is the basis of spiritual purity and a necessary condition for prayer (الصلاة). This chapter of the Qur’an, or any other, does not detail the ablution process or discuss the full-body ritual purification called Ghusl (غسل). The details of purification appear in the hadith (الحديث), A collection of laws, stories about Muhammad, his way of life, and his statements and advice on various topics. The hadith is second only to the Qur’an.
How does it work?
A young copper slave kneels on a square platform, holding a jug of water in his right hand and a towel and comb in his left hand. At the four corners of the stage are columns bearing a handsome castle with a dome topped by a bird. Adjacent to the stage is a half-basin with a good-looking duck crouching on the floor. From an engineering point of view, all the components, float, and siphons are familiar to me and my readers from al-Jazari’s previous works, respectively, I have given up on the traditional coloring of the text in blue. I’m fascinated by his ability to connect them each time in a way that really tells a story, and in this case, the story is the appearance and disappearance of the ablution waters. This is the diagram of the mechanism with captions that I added:
The servant brings the device when the tank is filled with the amount of water necessary for the purification ceremony and pulls the plug. Water goes down the pipe hidden in the castle column and through the young slave’s arm reaches the top of the jug. This whole path is concealed to enhance the wonder of the automata and its operation. The spout is a siphon that reaches the bottom of the water jug. I’ve written about siphons here. The water will not come out until the water level exceeds the arc of the siphon. The air in the jar has no outlet; apart from the thin tube attached to the whistle, the king would imagine the bird on top singing for him and announcing that the ceremony is beginning. Soon after, the water in the jug will reach a sufficient height, and the water will come out of the spout and allow the king to perform the purification. The water will be collected in the adjacent sink, but the latter lacks a drain, so the water will accumulate. The handsome duck at the bottom of the sink is also a siphon, and when the water reaches a height indicating that the ceremony has ended, the duck will empty the sink into the lower water tank. In this container, a float is attached by a chain to the slave’s left arm, located on a hinge. When the float rises, it will release the arm, which will move, offering the king the towel and comb.
Reflections on the Basin
While wandering, I tried to imagine the Artuqid ruler Nasir al-Din Mahmud making the Wudu with al-Jazari’s automata. The Wudu includes several components, and there are differences between Sunnis and Shiites. We begin by connecting the bathing to the ablution ritual by reciting (possibly only in the heart) the Basmala (Arabic: بَسْمَلَة, = بِسْمِ ٱللَّٰهِ ) literally “In the name of Allah but a short of the Islamic phrase “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”This is followed by a ritual washing that includes a triple wash of the face, including washing the mouth and nose, triple washing of the hands, including elbows, symbolic cleaning of the head with water (مسح), and bathing both legs up to the ankles. We conclude by saying the Shahada ( ٱلشَّهَادَةُ), which is the Islamic oath: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger.”
Wudu bathing at the entrance to the mosque in Dashahi. Photo by Pale blue dot
The ablution is thus a part of the prayer and “justifies” Al-Jazari’s multiple devices. On the other hand, there is something playful and amusing about the basin of the slave that contradicts (in my mind) the seriousness of the ceremony. But maybe it’s just me, and in the 12th century, prayer sat perfectly with the wonder of the water appearing and disappearing like a magic wand.