Miswak: Sticking with tradition…
Millions of Muslims across the world, especially in Arab countries, swear by the miswak as the ideal tooth cleanser, with no need for mouthwash, toothbrushes and visits to the dentist.
They also cite sayings from the Prophet, peace be upon him, who reportedly promoted its use for cleansing and purification on a daily basis, especially before prayers and during the holy month of Ramadan. The Prophet, peace be upon him, reportedly said: “Siwak cleanses the mouth and pleases Allah.”
According to Islamic tradition, it is a sunnah to use a miswak.
A Muslim can use it several times during the day, before reciting the Holy Qur’an, at suhoor during Ramadan, at mealtimes, when undertaking a journey, before sleeping and in the morning.
There is now increasing scientific evidence that miswaks have medicinal properties and can fight plaque, recession of gums, tooth decay, bleeding gums and periodontal pocket depths.
Miswak users first trim or chew off about one centimeter of the bark at one end of a twig.
Then they start chewing it until it softens and forms bristles. Softening can be expedited by dipping the stick in water.
Water softens and separates its fibers.
Once the bristles are formed, they brush their teeth as usual but without using toothpaste.
When the brushy end is shredded, it can simply be cut or chewed further to form a fresh edge.
This is an ancient practice in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and many Asian countries.
It is said that the use of the miswak started thousands of years ago in the ancient empires of the Babylonians, and later used by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.
Today, the miswak is still commonly used in the Kingdom and many countries around the world. Those not in Asia can order it online. People who prefer conventional toothbrushes, can now buy formulated toothpaste with miswak extract. This paste is natural, biodegradable and has the proven ability to reduce tooth decay.
In Saudi Arabia, the use of sticks or twigs from the Salvadora persica trees, known as arak in Arabic, are common. In several parts of the Arab world, these trees are indigenous to arid regions and planting them reduces desertification in areas where little else is capable of growing. This also helps local communities in several countries in the Middle East to develop a sustainable income while preserving an important part of their cultural heritage.
Miswaks can be taken from many trees except for those that are poisonous or harmful, such as the pomegranate and myrtle trees. But users prefer the roots and branches from bitter-tasting palm, olive or arak trees.
The arak trees are grown in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, southern Egypt, Chad and eastern parts of India. In parts of the Muslim world where the arak tree is not found, other trees are used for the same purpose.
Strips of bark are used in Morocco and branches of the Neem tree are often used in India. Two kinds of miswak are sold in Yemen, spicy and bland ones, said a local miswak seller Hamdan, a Yemeni national.
“The repeated process of chewing sticks releases fresh sap and silica (a hard glossy mineral), which acts as an abrasive material to remove stains,” said a study conducted by a panel of dentists at King Saud University (KSU).
The study also concluded that “the beneficial effects of miswak for oral hygiene and dental health are equal to, if not greater than, those who use toothbrushes and paste.” The research identified 19 natural substances found in these branches that benefit dental health.
According to research, the miswak contains a number of natural antiseptics that kill harmful microorganisms in the mouth, tannic acids that protect gums from disease, and aromatic oils that increase salivation.
The study said that “the miswak’s bristles are parallel to the handle rather than perpendicular, and can reach more easily between the teeth, where a conventional toothbrush often fails to reach.”
The KSU’s research has been supported and substantiated by other research conducted by Abdul Al-Sharif of the Ministry of Agriculture.
According to Al-Sharif, miswaks have antiseptics and other ingredients to fight mouth ulcers.
“In addition to the substances that prevent teeth caries, gum bleeding, mouth cancer and putrefaction, miswaks have another ingredient that strengthens the gum and prevents teeth from coloring or decaying.”
He said the two studies have proven that miswaks release a substance that soothes toothaches. Its use might also improve appetite and regulate peristaltic movements of the gastrointestinal tract, he said.
“In fact, the World Health Organization recommended the use of miswaks way back in 1986, but stated that further research was needed to document its effects,” said Aziza Al-Mubarik, a KSU dentist.
Several dentists are also of the opinion that miswaks have many medicinal properties including scents, painkillers and sodium bicarbonate, which are widely used in the production of different kinds of toothpastes.
Majed Almadani, a dentist, argued that the miswak is a natural toothbrush that provides many health and beauty benefits.
Karim Siddiqui, a dentist, said that miswaks strengthen gums, prevent tooth decay, create a fragrance in the mouth and sharpen memory.
Siddiqui said that there have been some reports that miswaks also strengthen eyesight and assist in digestion.
Asked about the use of miswaks among women in Saudi Arabia, Zaina Hamid, a young Indian girl, said: “I use miswaks during Ramadan because the use of toothpaste nullifies fasting. I have seen Saudi and non-Saudi Muslim women using miswaks more commonly than Asians or European Muslims,” she said.
Traders are making a roaring trade in Ramadan.
Bandar Al-Harifi, a miswak seller in Riyadh, said: “Miswak sales have gone up in Ramadan, especially in Makkah and Madinah, where sales have increased by nearly 500 percent.”
“There is a big market for miswaks in Saudi Arabia and users can find these sticks nowadays in every nook and cranny of the city, on pavements, or even in stores that sell books and cassettes,” said Al-Harifi, 65, who has always used miswaks and never visited a dentist in his life.
Sharif Hossain, a Bangladeshi salesman, who sits in front of a mosque in Rawdah district in Riyadh, said: “This is our season. We do brisk business in Ramadan and Haj. For me, it is fun, praying and talking to people, while selling miswaks, especially in the evenings.”
Asked about the business, Ali Hamza, a 50-year-old seller, said: “Business is good. To me, it’s fun sitting near the mosque, talking to people, watching people coming and going and making a little profit,” he said. “I buy miswaks from dealers. I pay SR80 for 100 or 150 miswaks and sell each for between SR2 and SR5 depending on the type,” he said.
“During the busy seasons such as Ramadan and Haj, I make profits of between SR250 and SR350 a day,” said Hamza.
He takes turns with his son, with a few breaks in the afternoon.
He sells different kinds of miswaks, like Al-Arak, Al-Hulai and Abu Hans. The most popular and most expensive is Al-Arak, he said.