It has never once been related that the Prophet (peace be upon him) ever took a long pause between washing his limbs. Everything that is narrated indicates that he consistently performed ablutions without taking a break in the middle. This is why scholars all agree – to the best of my knowledge – that ablutions should be carried out in one continuous set of motions.
Scholars differ, however, whether doing so is obligatory. They express three different opinions on the matter:
The first opinion
is that it is obligatory to carry out one’s ablutions as a series of consecutive motions without any substantial pause. This is the stance of the Hanbalī school of law. It is one of the opinions expressed by al-Shāfi`ī, Mālik and al-Awzā`ī.
They argue that the verse of wudū’ gives the impression that the acts of wudū’ are to be carried out in succession. This is further reinforced by the Prophet’s actions.
They also cite the following hadith:
`Umar b. al-Khattāb relates that the Prophet (peace be upon him) saw a man who had just performed his ablutions and left a dry spot on his foot the size of a fingernail. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said to him: “Go back and perform your ablutions properly.” [Sahīh Muslim
They argue that had it been permissible to take a long pause between the actions of wudū’, it would have been enough for that man to go back and wash the dry spot on his foot. Instead, the Prophet (peace be upon him) ordered him to make his ablutions over again from the beginning.
The second opinion
is that it is not obligatory to do so. This is the opinion adopted by the Hanafī school of law and by Ibn Hazm. It is also the view of `Atā’ and Sa`īd b. al-Musayyib. It is an alternative view narrated from al-Awzā`ī.
Ibn al-Mundhīr advocates this view, writing in al-Awsat
This is what we affirm, because Allah mentions in the Qur’ān what limbs must be washed. Whoever washes these limbs in his ablutions has done what is required of him, regardless of whether he does so in rapid succession or takes a pause in between. Those who claim that the limbs should not be allowed to dry in the interim have no argument, since the rate of drying varies from winter to summer.
Those who hold this view cite the following as evidence:
1. They argue that there is, in fact, no evidence to establish the obligation of carrying out one’s ablutions as a series of consecutive motions. (Of course, those who hold that it is obligatory to do so claim the evidence cited above as being more than sufficient.)
2. Nāfī relates that `Abd Allah b. `Umar relieved himself while he was in the market district. Then he started to perform wudū’ by washing his face, then his hands, then by wiping over his head with water. At this point he summoned to offer a funeral prayer, so he headed for the mosque. Upon his arrival at the mosque, he completed his wudū by wiping over his socks. [Muwatta’ Mālik
with an authentic line of transmission]
They argue that in this instance Ibn `Umar took a very long pause between wiping over his head and wiping his socks.
Those who argue against this evidence claim that it is not clear that the pause was of a considerable time. It may have been brief enough not to be recognized as an interruption For instance, he may have been performing his ablutions in close proximity to the mosque.
Others have argued that Ibn `Umar paused in his ablutions due to a legitimate need, because he feared missing the funeral prayer. Indeed, some scholars – including Ibn Taymiyah in al-Ikhtiyārāt al-Fiqhiyyah
– say that if a person fears that he will miss a funeral prayer, he may perform tayammum instead of wudū’.
The third opinion is that it is obligatory to carry out one’s ablutions as a series of consecutive motions unless there is a valid excuse for having to pause. This is the opinion adopted by the Mālikī school of law. It is an alternate opinion narrated from Ahmad, and the one preferred by Ibn Taymiyah.
In Majmū` al-Fatāwā
(12/135-167), Ibn Taymiyah points out that many religious obligations require uninterrupted performance, but interruptions are pardoned when there is a valid excuse for it. Examples include tawāf and sa’y and the fasts that need to be observed in succession. Another example is the concession to break off prayer and resume it during times of fear, like on the battlefield. Ibn Taymiyah compares wudū’ to these other acts of worship and argues that it is not permissible to interrupt one’s ablutions except when there is a valid excuse to do so.
For instance, a person might interrupt his ablutions for a matter of religious benefit, like enjoining someone to right or forbidding wrongdoing, in a case where the opportunity to do so will be lost if he waits. Another instance would be to break off one’s ablutions to save someone else from death or serious injury.
A more common case would be where the worshipper has to perform his ablutions in a place that is very crowded. This is quite often the case during Hajj. Someone might wash one limb and then not find any access to the source of water until a good time later. This is a valid excuse for not offering one’s ablutions in a continuous motion.
This third opinion is basically that pausing during one’s ablutions is forgiven if there is a valid reason for it. This seems to be the most correct view. It is a moderate one that takes into account the ease and leniency that is inherent in Islamic Law.
And Allah knows best.