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The History and uses of Henna


Originating from the Arabic term, Al Hinna, Henna can be found in the plant known as the lawsonia inermis, of which the leaves, flowers and twigs are grounded into fine powder to make the Henna which we recognise today. In the current age, Henna is popular in regions such as Pakistan, India, Africa and the Middle East. Establishing when Henna use began is challenging but most historians agree that its use for healing and cosmetic purposes can be traced back 5000 years. Modern day infrared technology has confirmed the use of Henna to be dated back to as early as 3400 BC, when Egyptian mummies had henna applied to their corpses. 

Although archaeological research indicates that henna was first used in ancient Egypt it may have been used before this time. There is some reason to believe that henna was used by many indigenous and aboriginal people who believed that the naturally derived red substances of ochre, blood and henna had qualities that improved human awareness of the Earth’s energies and thus used henna to enhance their spirituality.

Henna is commonly used in popular Asian culture where it features heavily at special occasions such as weddings. However in countries where henna is available in abundance it is a common feature in everyday life. During the hot weather, henna acts as a cooling agent and for many Egyptian working class citizens henna is used to provide a regular covering for their feet. Henna conditions, cleanses, colours and cools the skin and hair. A defining characteristic property of henna is the fact that it contains the natural dyeing properties in tannin, making it common for body art decoration and to dye silk, wool and leather. 

Henna in Islam

Henna has many documented links to Islam and Islamic culture. Although there is no mention of Henna in the Quran, there are several references to henna in ahadith compiled between 8th and 9th centuries. The common association to eleven out of the twenty two references of Henna found in Islamic Hadith is in reference to men. In one particularly significant Hadith the Prophet (peace be upon him) is stated to have dyed his hair and beard with Henna. The application of Henna on the hair and beard is encouraged in men yet the use of Henna on the hands of a man is considered forbidden. A Hadith narrated by Abu Hurayra (may Allah be pleased with him) spoke of one incident of the Prophet (peace be upon him)  banishing a man from Madinah for having henna on his hands. Out of the references found, there is mention of the henna colour of spoiled well water which was described as "an infusion of Henna leaves" and many references to Henna being used for body adornment, as well as reference to its medical use. Interestingly, the reference of henna for adornment found in Hadith does not equivocate with the Henna rituals which we practice today. One famous Hadith tells a story of a woman who motioned with her hand to the Prophet  (peace be upon him) from behind a curtain. Reportedly, he could not tell if the hand was a man’s or a woman’s and told her if she was a woman she should demonstrate her gender  by dying her nails with Henna.  Therefore, if this Hadith is authentic, then we may assume that the Prophet (peace be upon him) endorsed the use of Henna on hands for identification purposes which would infer that that its use for adornment is acceptable and to be a feminine trait. Although, the use of Henna is acceptable, it is not obligatory by any means. In another Hadith, when Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) was asked about dyeing with Henna she apparently responded that it was allowed but she did not like to use it, since her husband the, Prophet (peace be upon him), disliked its odour. The only context in which Henna use is discouraged for women is in a time of mourning.  The reference of Henna in Hadith makes the use of Henna a Sunnah for Muslims. Those who follow Henna practice therefore do so out of devotion to tradition and as an act of piety. 

Henna in Medicine

Henna has been used in Medicine to aid healing for a range of illnesses. In one Hadith the Prophet (peace be upon him) ordered anyone who has been pricked by a thorn or has an ulcer on his leg to apply Henna to it. Subsequently, science has discovered the healing properties in the tannins and glue like substances found in Henna. Henna has also been found to have antimicrobial and antiviral properties. Today, Henna is used for the healing of chronic wounds and ulcers; ulcerative and duodenal.  Another common use for Henna is to relieve headaches. Henna can also be used as a prophylaxis. It is especially effective in protecting foot conditions in diabetic patients. Henna when applied to burns in either powder or paste form can help healing immensely.

Mehmoona Akhtar BSc