The Miswak - A Natural Toothbrush with Medicinal Qualities
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
Visitors travelling in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula are often surprised to see men in offices or walking the streets chewing or brushing their teeth with a small stick. Yet, in that part of the world and in the neighbouring lands, the miswak, a bacteria-repelling toothbrush has been around since the beginning of civilization. However, its use was greatly enhanced after the dawn of Islam when the Prophet Muhammad recommended its use.
Archaeological evidence has established that some five thousand years before the birth of Christ, the inhabitants of Mesopotamia were using miswak for oral hygiene. In the ensuing centuries its use spread to the Greek and, later, Roman worlds. However, its use in Europe ended in the Medieval Ages, while in the Islamic countries it flourished. Today, in these lands, it remains one of the most favourite instruments for cleaning the teeth.
The main source of miswak is the root of the Arak (Salvadora Persica) tree, known also as the ‘toothbrush tree’. It thrives in the Arabian Peninsula and in parts of North Africa and India. Even though the trunk and branches of the tree are, at times, used, the root is the chief and best source of the true miswak. In places where the Arak tree is not found, the miswak is made from other trees such as the bamboo, jasmine and myrtle; in India the Neem tree; and in West Africa, from lime and orange trees. However, in healthful qualities, miswaks made from these trees cannot compare with those made from the Arak tree.
The Arak tree is a shrub-like plant with a myriad of branches and grows up to 3 m (10 ft) high. The crust of the roots is dark brown in colour, covering an inner core of white fibers which, when chewed, give out a fresh and sharp flavour.
From the roots, cinnamon-coloured miswaks are cut – six to eight inches long and 1/2 inch in diameter. Before use, a 1/2 inch of the end of the miswak stick must be peeled with a sharp knife and gently chewed until the fibers become brush-like. Because these fibers are parallel to the handle, it is much easier to clean between the teeth with a miswak, than with a conventional toothbrush.
Miswaks are at their best when fresh and flexible. After a period of time they dry up and have to be soaked in water, preferably rose water, for several hours. Also, miswaks are renewable. As the end fibers dry-out, they can be cut off, then soaked and new ends prepared.
More practical than traditional toothbrushes, the miswak is environmentally friendly and can be used anytime and anywhere. Its use dispenses with the need for toothpaste, vigorous brushing of the teeth, foaming of the mouth and spitting. A natural multi-purpose stick, it combines the features of a toothbrush and toothpaste to clean the mouth, remove bad odors and sweeten the breath, whiten the teeth and keep the gums strong and healthy.
Perhaps, the greatest benefit of this natural toothbrush is its medicinal attributes. The miswak does not need cleaning. It contains natural antiseptics and because of these, bacterial harmful micro-organisms in the mouth are killed. This healthful stick also helps in eliminating plaque and yellowness and, hence, aids in the prevention of tooth decay.
Researchers have analyzed the chemical composition of the Arak tree and found that it contains at least 19 substances useful for oral hygiene. From these are aromatic oils which increase salivation; fluoride, a compound used in the manufacture of toothpaste which helps in the strengthening of the teeth’s enamel; tannic acid which has astringent qualities and protects the gums from disease; and also a good amount of calcium, phosphates, sulphur and vitamin C.
Strangely, in most countries where the miswak is used, only in the last few years has it been available manufactured and packaged in the odd retail outlet. Usually, miswaks cannot be found in modern markets or pharmacies. They are only sold in the souks (peoples’ markets) or hawked out by street vendors.
In our times, the use of the miswak is more popular among the older generation. From India, across the Middle East and North Africa, among the males of these lands – very few females use this stick – the earth’s natural toothbrush remains a favourite way of cleaning teeth. The brightness and brilliance of the teeth one sees in the countries of the East, in the main, is due to this mouth purifier, as old as time itself.
In the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, office workers and students carry miswaks to work and school to freshen their breath during the day. The brilliant white teeth of many Arabs bears witness that miswaks, a true product of nature with a pleasant-bitter taste, are truly excellent instruments in the area of oral care.
The saying of the Prophet Muhammad, as quoted by the 9th century Imam al-Bukhari, “Make a regular practice of miswak for verily it is the purification of the mouth and a means of pleasure of the Lord”, is still relevant today as it was in the past ages.