"The word ab-i shafa in Persian means healing water, and its synonymous in Arabic is ma'ush- shafa. The word shafa occurs six times in the Koran (9:14, 26:80, 10:57, 16:69, 17:82 and 41:44), which literally means remedy, recovery, healing or convalescence. One of the names of the Koran itself is shafa (healing): "And We revealed the Koran which is a healing (shifaun) and a mercy to the believers" (17:82). The word ma' (pl. miyah or amwah) means water, which occurs over 60 times, river over 50 and the sea over 40 times in the Koran, while fountains, springs, rain, hail, clouds and winds occur less frequently. The ab-i shafa is a sacramental water in the Ismaili tariqah.
The Koran says: "And by means of water, We gave life (hayaya) to everything" (21:30). The Koran employs a well-defined set of verbs, showing how God originates both water and its effects, such as "send down" (25:48), "revival" (25:49), "brought forth" (6:99), "gave to drink" (15:22), "to purify you with" (8:11), etc. Water does not fall itself, nor does the earth revive itself or plants come out by themselves. It is God Who does all these things, bi'l-ma (with or by means of water), and this preposition, bi recurs regularly. So also does min (from) water, emphasising over and over again that this vital element is instrumental in His creation. Besides, the Koran uses the verb akhraja for "bringing forth" people out of their mother's womb (16:78), "bringing forth" plants from the earth (32:27) and "bringing forth" people from the earth at the resurrection (7:75).
Likewise, the same verbal root, hayaya is used in "making every thing living, giving life to earth and He Who gave it life will give life to the dead." It indicates that water is the source of giving life to the dead, and therefore, it became ritually a means to give a new life to one who is blemished with sins and longs for forgiveness or it raises one from low to high. The water not only has the power of purifying people externally, but also becomes, as in other religious traditions, a fitting symbol for the purification of hearts.
The purifying properties of holy water have been ritually attested to ever since the rise of the civilization in the ancient Near East. In Babylonia, according to the tablets of Maklu, water was important in the cult of Enki, the Lord of Eridu. The Babylon divided the universe in three zones, viz. Heaven, Earth and Sea, giving them names of Anu, Enhil and Ea respectively as their gods. They revered the god of water, Ea more than other. At Tammuz festival in Babylon, the image of god of water was washed with pure water. The Egyptian water god was Hapi. The water gods for the Greeks were Triton, Proteus, Glaucus, Nerecus and Nereids. The Roman god water was known as Neptunus. The people of Babylon, Egypt, Greece and the Romans celebrated their festivals and drank holy water in the name of their water gods. The Japanese make pilgrimage to the famous waterfalls of their country and will gaze for hours at the unruffled surface of a temple pond, whose water is reckoned sacred.
The Christians sign the Cross with the holy water on their foreheads or chests. The Jews and the Christians also take their supplies of holy water from the Jordan River. Traditiona Roman Catholics sometimes provide small fonts for holy water at the doors of bedrooms. For the Hindus, the water of life finds embodiment in the Ganges which, from its source in the Himalays, irrigates the largest plains of India. Its water is held to be pure. The Mazdeans of Iran call Zaothra to their holy water. In the modern Europe there are still sacred waters, mention should be made of Lough Derg in Donegal, the most northerly country in Ireland. In this lough is an island on which are number of Christian shrines dating from the Middle Ages and also a cave. It is called St. Patrick's Purgatory. The pilgrims are brought to the island by boat. They then walk on it fasting and bare-footed, and carry out some spiritual exercises during a stay of three days. The pilgrims make their way to a large rock that rises out of the water at a little distance from the shore of the island, and look over the sacred water of the lake and drink it.
There are numerous sacred springs and ponds in Islamic world, notably the zamzam well in Mecca. The word zamzan or zamazim means abundant of water. Some suggests that it means to drink with little gulps. Abdullah bin Abbas narrates that they called the zamzan as subha meaning one which fills stomach. The Prophet also called it khayur ma'in (excellent water). The sacred well is located at the perimeter of the sacred complex of Mecca. It is situated to the east of the Kaba alongside the wall where the Black Stone (al-hajar al-aswad) is enshrined, a little further from the centre than the station of Abraham (makam Ibrahim). Most pilgrims carry some zamzam water home in special flasks, some also dip their future shrouds into the well. There is a canal, called Nahr-i Alaqama in the Euphrates at Karbala, whose water is used for the healing purpose in the Shi'ites. Besides, the sacred water of a well inside the house of Ali bin Abu Talib existing in Kufa is also reckoned healing. In addition, Annemarie Schimmel writes in Islam in the Indian Subcontinent (Lahore, 2003, p. 121) that, "The next month, Safar, is usually considered (by the Shi'ites) to be unlucky. For the Shi'a the chihilum, the forty days' mourning, ends on the tenth of Safar; in some regions no important works was undertaken during the terah tezi, the first thirteen days, because the Prophet had fallen ill in those days. Therefore many people, for instance in Punjabi villages, would spend much in charity. The last Wednesday in Safar (akhri charshamba) is devoted to rejoicing because the Prophet felt better on that day, and some people used to write seven salam with saffron or rosewater on a leaf, wash it off and drink the water as a panacea."
In Sufi orders the tradition of holy water is performed mostly after the admission of the new aspirant in their folds. According to Trimingham in The Sufi Orders in Islam (London, 1971, p. 186), "After a prayer of consecration the Shaikh gives him (the new candidate) to drink from a cup of water (pure or sweetened) or oil, and concludes the ceremony."
"Marwan b. Abi Sa'id b. al-Mu'alla relates that he made a search for the wells, whose water the Prophet drank and which were blessed, and into which saliva was dropped to consecrate it. (Tabaqat, 2:598). The following were the famous wells (bir, pl. bi'ar or abar) whose water was to be used as shafa (healing):- Bir Buda'ah (the well of Buda'ah), Bir Malik b. al-Nazr b. Damdan, also called Bir Abi Anas, Bir Jasim, Bir Buyut al-Suqya, Bir Ghars at Quba, Bir al-Abirah, also named al-Yasirah and Bir Rumah at al-Aqiq.
Ubayyi bin Abbas relates that the Prophet once came to the well of Buda'ah and performed ablutions in a bucket and poured it into the well. On another, he washed his mouth and threw saliva into a bucket and drank from its water. When there was an ailing person, he prescribed: "Bath him with the water of Buda'ah." The patient was thus bathed and he recovered as if he was loosened from a rope (Tabaqat, 2:600). There are many traditions, indicating that the Prophet had healed many persons through the agency of sanctified water, vide Bukhari (76:28), Abu Daud (3:463), Muslim (39:78-84) and Tirmizi (26:25).
Some of the Companions vied and sometimes even quarrelled with one another in order to get the water left by the Prophet after performing his ablution, and considered it a privilege to drink it or to apply it to their bodies (Bukhari, 1:32-33). Some of them preserved carefully what was touched by the Prophet and used it as a cure for diseases (Tabaqat, 8:234). In al-Muslim, it has been related that, "The domestic servants and slaves of Medina often approached the Prophet on cold mornings with some water, and asked him to dip his hand in to sanctify it; the Prophet did not turn their request down, whatever the weather." It is narrated that during the event ot Hudaibia, Urwah bin Masud Thaqafi reported to the Meccans, "I had been in the courts of Caesar, Khusaro and Negus, but nowhere did I witness such faith and devotion. When their Prophet was speaking, there was a pin drop silence. No person had a fixed gaze at him. When he was having ablutions, the people took the used water for healing purpose." (Bukhari, 2:179).
There are many instances that the clothes of the Prophet were used as shafa. Suhail b. Sa'd relates that a woman brought a woven mantle (shamlah), requesting the Prophet that she had woven it and have brought, so that he might wear it. The Prophet accepted and blessed her. The Prophet came out wearing it as a waist wrapper. A certain man saw the Prophet and humbly requested for that mantle. The Prophet gave it to him. The people told him that he had not done well. The man replied that he had not begged it for wearing it but it was begged for his shroud. Suhail said that it was his shroud when he died (Tabaqat, 2:538). Abdullah narrates that Asma had a cloak of toga of Kisra's pure silk. She said: It is the cloak of the Prophet, who used to wear it. It came into the possession of A'isha after Prophet's death. When she died, I took it. When there is a sick man, we wash it for him. (Ibid. 2:539). The Prophet usually took rest after noon in the house of Umm-i Salim, the mother of Anas bin Malik. Once the Prophet drank water from her skin-bag. She cut down the portion which touched the mouth of the Prophet and kept it as a baraka and shafa. (Sirat-i Sahabiat, p. 123).
The shafa (healing) for intellect (aql), soul (ruh) and body (jism) have been mentioned in the Koran: "And when I am sick, then He restores me to health" (26:80), and it refers to the shafa of aql; "And We revealed the Koran which is a healing and a mercy to the believers" (17:82), it refers to the shafa of soul; and "There comes forth from within it (honey) a beverage of many colours, in which there is healing for men" (16:69). It refers to the shafa of body. In Ismaili tariqah, ab-i shafa is a ceremony for the healing of aql, ruh and jism. It is filled in a big jug (ibriq in the Koran, 56:18), which is supplied by small cups (suwa in the Koran, 12:72). Both the jug and small cups are placed on a low wooden plank in the Jamatkhana.
Once Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah said, "One who is believer, he always drinks ab-i shafa, means he drinks of a cup of noor for ever" (Poona, 20.1.1912). This indicates that the believers drink the holy water not only in this material world, but continue to drink spiritual nectar in hereafter. The Koran says: "Surely, the pious shall drink of a cup whose mixture (mizaj) is camphor"(76:5), "And they will be given to drink there of a cup mixed with ginger" (76:18), "A spring from (the waters) whereof drink those nearest to God" (83:28), and "Their Lord will give to them to drink a pure drink" (76:21).