THE MISWAK: Tooth Brushes on Trees! [Archives:1997/52/Health]

December 29 1997

Dental care has been around for centuries, even during the prophet’s times. One method, even more popular during the month of Ramadhan is the use of the “miswak”, a stick coming from the Arak tree. The tree is native to the Tihama area and both the branches and the root are taken from the tree and sold by venders on the streets of Sanaa.  Using miswak during Ramadhan doesn’t make you break your fast. In fact it is even more secure since it can be used without rinsing so there is no risk of swallowing any water. Even the prophet Mohammed recommended it for his followers advising them of the benefits of proper oral hygiene. This news was passed down as a “Hadith” or saying that if it is not too difficult for the people to use they should use it before every prayer, meaning five times a day. Sticks are cut to 10 cm lengths and peeled back at the edges. The stick or root piece are applied to the teeth much like a common toothbrush, that is in and up and down motion. The up and down motion has been suggested for years by dental experts as it maximizes the removal of food particles from between the teeth and prevents the user from transferring food particles to the crevasses of the neighboring teeth.  It is also applied to the gums and the upper palate and leaves a refreshing taste inside the month. This explains while its particularly expedient during the fasting month so that the fetid odor coming from the oral cavity and empty stomach can be masked. The root part of the tree is supposed to be spicier than the branch itself and leaves a slight tingling sensation on the gums and palate.  Ideally the stick or root should be used once and then discarded or it can be kept for the entire day and then changed. This is because the inner fluid will eventually dry out. Reason enough for the venders to wrap their sticks in a moist linen cloth to prevent drying out at the market place.  Better than the toothbrush or the dental floss? Well many use it as a sort of toothpick to clean between the teeth but the disadvantage there is a loosening of the inter dental ligament between the teeth, widening the distance and thus making it easier for food particles to get in between. Discretion should then be practiced as the stick is used to move away food particles without forcing it into these inter dental spaces. Advantages over the toothbrush is that it can be used without any paste or water, it’s disposable and can be used at localized areas of the oral cavity. Toothbrushes have also evolved since the advent of the Colgate, “ring of protection”; toothbrushes that are anatomically designed so that the head of the brush can reach even the remotest part of the mouth, around where the wisdom teeth grow. Toothbrush bristles are now selective, the harder ones for the teeth on the inside and the softer ones on the outside to massage the gums. And it is interesting to note that a Swiss company has extracted the active ingredient from the Arak tree for its toothpaste to give it the characteristic flavor of the stick. The prophet did well then to get his followers to use the stick centuries ago because modern technology has capitalized on it. To close this article with an entertaining story , years ago Muslims were facing an enemy, which sent in spies to discover their movements. These spies watched how the Muslims used miswaks to clean their teeth and they became frightened because they thought that the Muslims would also use their teeth during combat. In fact during battle, at first it appeared that the Muslims would lose but then afterwards they won.  
Martin Dansky, Yemen Times