The Muslim Way of Death

Dawood H Sultan. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Islam, the religion embraced by approximately 25% of the world’s population, is based on the contents of a sacred book, the Koran (or Qur’an), and the pronouncements, actions, behavior, and other details of the life of Prophet Mohammed, which are collectively referred to as the Sunna. Muslims believe that the Koran, which contains 114 chapters (each called a Sura), constitutes God’s divine words, which were transmitted unchanged to Prophet Mohammed through the angel Gabriel (e.g., see Ali 1983:19-29). They also believe that details of how Prophet Mohammed behaved in particular instances and the substantive meanings of a set of authenticated statements (each known as a Hadith) that he made over time provide a context that define proper behavior and social living (see Renard 1998:12). Islamic theology does not consider Koranic and Sunna teachings as mutually exclusive but, rather, as complementary. As such, an understanding of how Muslims interpret and deal with death must be rooted in these teachings as a composite.

Notions of death and dying occupy important places in the Koran and the Sunna (Ali 1983; O’Shaughnessy 1969; Smith and Haddad 1981). As such, they provide Muslims with guiding principles for understanding and interpreting death, body disposal, and mourning. Over the past 1,400 years, however, Islam penetrated various societies and cultures across the world and became the religion of millions of varied people. And although Koranic and Sunna teachings on the interpretation of death and on funeral rites are often presented in Islamic theological discourses as orthodox and universal, there is enough cross-cultural evidence to suggest that room was left at each historical intersection of Islam and local culture to allow for localized practices and expressions of grief (see, e.g., Abu-Lughod 1993; Jonker 1997).

The discussion that follows is rather generic in nature. Indeed, the Islamic faith spans the globe from Morocco to Indonesia. If one includes the Muslims in North and South America, it quickly becomes obvious that the faith is rather expansive and literally encircles the earth. Included in this affiliation are numerous countries, “nations” of Muslims that spread over several countries (such as the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey), a number of different Muslim sects, and even different Muslim cultures in urban and rural areas of a single country. Islam’s tremendous geographical and cultural range implies, among other things, the presence of variations in death-related behavior and practices among its believers. This chapter constitutes an attempt to capture the essence of how Muslims handle death.

Death in Islamic Theology

Conceptions of death occupy a notable place in Islamic theology. According to the Koran, the death of a human being signals the separation of the soul from the body and the termination of all bodily functions and activities. It is inevitable. It occurs only with a command from God (Allah) (i.e., only God causes people to die), and the timing of a person’s death is predetermined by God (see, e.g., the Koran, Suras 3:145; 3:85; 4:78; 56:60; 56:84-87; 75:26-30, and 80:21).

However, the Koran also contains the notion that death is the singular mechanism that heralds a process that includes the eventual resurrection of the entire body (even if an individual is utterly dismembered at the time of death) on the Day of Judgment, or Day of Resurrection (Youm al Ghiyammah), when, finally, an individual is judged by God. The process ultimately terminates with a person’s admittance to Paradise and the start of a new and eternal blissful life or entry into Hell and the start of a new (but not necessarily eternal) life of constant suffering and constant begging for death (see Ali 1983; O’Shaughnessy 1969; Smith and Haddad 1981).

What is of interest, however, is that despite the fact that the Koran is the authoritative source of teachings for Muslims, details concerning body preparation, burial, mourning, and notions about what happens to an individual immediately after burial originate almost exclusively in pronouncements (Hadiths) made by Prophet Mohammed (see, e.g., Renard 1998; Smith and Haddad 1981).

Dying

Among Muslims, dying is hardly a solitary affair. As is the case in many non-Muslim cultures around the world, however, the management of dying and other death rituals is exclusively an adult undertaking. Children are not allowed to witness the passing away of an individual and cannot be part of the body preparation and disposal rituals.

Under normal circumstances, the dying person is often surrounded by friends, family members, or both. When it is thought that death is near, at least one of the individuals present will help the dying person with a final ritual: pronouncing of the confession of faith. This ritual is usually carried out in one of two ways. If possible, the dying person will be enabled to sit up facing in the direction of Mecca (the Muslim Holy City, which is also referred to in Islamic theology as the quiblah). The dying person will then pronounce the confession of faith. If for any reason, it is impossible for the dying person to sit up or face in the direction of Mecca (quiblah), the people present will assist him or her to raise the right index finger (as a symbol of sitting upright or to indicate presence) and will pronounce the confession of faith on his or her behalf (see, e.g., Jonker 1997:152).

This ritual serves a number of vital functions. It reinforces among those who are present at the time of death and who have assisted the dying in the confession of faith the sense that they have carried out the important moral duty of ensuring that the dying person’s last act while alive meets with one of God’s most serious expectations: confession of faith. It also reinforces among those who are present at the time of death the sense that they have provided unfailing support for the dying when he or she needed it most.

Body Preparation Rites

The preparation of a deceased Muslim’s body for burial is simple. With the only exception of those who are considered to have died as martyrs (shuhada’), the body of any dead Muslim regardless of his or her age is prepared for burial in the same manner.

Muslims prefer a speedy disposal of the dead, and once death is ascertained, the preparation of the body of the deceased for burial begins almost immediately. The body will first be washed with the sole purpose of cleaning it of all impurities, especially those that typically nullify prayer (specifically, blood, urine, and feces). As a general rule, performance of the washing ritual and other forms of pre-burial body preparation is gender specific, with only men being allowed to wash a dead man’s body and only women being permitted to wash a dead woman’s body (see Ali 1983:431; Jonker 1997:153).

Washing is a two-stage ritual. The body parts that a Muslim washes as a prerequisite for any of the five daily prayers will be washed first. Subsequently, the entire body will be cleaned with water and soap, starting with the upper parts and ending with the feet. In doing so, the water used for washing the corpse cannot be too cold, and loud speech and other forms of loud verbal expression by the washers are not allowed (Ali 1983:431; Jonker 1997:153; Smith and Haddad 1981:37).

Following the completion of washing, the body will be arranged in such a way as to resemble sleeping. The eyelids will be pushed down to close, the arms stretched straight along the dead person’s sides, the feet brought close together (and the big toes tied together with a strip of cloth), and the mouth kept shut by wrapping a strip of fabric around the chin and the upper part of the head. In some contemporary Muslim societies and communities (as in the case of Muslims in Sudan for instance), this part of body preparation is concluded by inserting cotton balls soaked in perfume in the corpse’s armpits and between the legs. The purpose of this practice is to give the corpse an agreeable smell. Once the washing ritual is over, the deceased will be regarded ritually clean, and the body that has already been readied will then be shrouded in clean white cloth. Many older people expecting death typically purchase and keep the shrouding fabric of their choice at hand and instruct close relatives about where they keep it (see, e.g., Jonker 1997:154). After the older person’s death, the relatives are usually obliged to use this material. If death occurs unexpectedly, the deceased relatives will either purchase new fabric or use any clean pieces of white cloth that are available to shroud the corpse.

The manner in which a corpse is shrouded varies from one Muslim society to another. In some Muslim communities, the corpse is sometimes wrapped in pieces of clean white cloth that are not sewn or knotted anywhere (see, e.g., Jonker 1997:154). In other communities, the shroud may be sewed by machine or by hand first, and the corpse will then be placed inside it through an opening (which is later hand-sewn shut) or knotted after it is wrapped around the dead body.

Once shrouded, the body will be placed on a cot, a stretcher, or a small lightweight bed and is considered ready for transport to the grave site for burial. I should point out here, however, that the washing and shrouding rituals are not followed if the deceased are considered martyrs (shuhada’). They will be buried unwashed and in the same outfits they had on at the time of their death.

Body Disposition Rites

In contrast to the rituals of body washing and preparation, which are gender-specific, among Muslims burial is decidedly a male undertaking. Although not prohibited from attending the burial of a relative or a loved one, women in almost all Muslim societies are typically discouraged from accompanying a dead body to the grave site (see, e.g., Abu-Lughod 1993:195; Ali 1983:431; Jonker 1997:157). In some rare instances, however, women manage to accompany the deceased to the burial site. Yet even these women will not be permitted to carry the dead body or to come close to the corpse or the grave once the burial rituals commence.

After arrival at the grave site, a prayer for the dead (called salat al-jinaza) is performed. Although usually lead by an Imam or a devout male, its mechanics differ significantly from those in the regular Muslim prayer, which is held five times each day. Except for raising the hands up to the ears while pronouncing Allahu akbar (God is great), kneeling, bowing of the head, and all other prayer movements are not allowed. And despite the existence of classic variations reported to have been offered by Prophet Mohammed, the prayer for the dead can be constituted to take any substantive or verbal form that asks for God’s forgiveness of a deceased adult. However, in Islamic theology, young children who die before reaching the age of discretion are expected to go directly to Paradise. In a child’s case, prayer is intended primarily as a mechanism for comforting parents and for asking God to look on the dead child as a reward and cause for forgiveness for the parents who have been afflicted by his or her death.

Typically, the body (regardless of gender or age) is placed in front of the Imam (or the prayer leader) who stands facing in the direction of Mecca (quiblah). The males present at the grave site will stand in two to three rows behind the Imam as he performs the prayer over the dead body. If the women present (if any) choose to participate in the prayer for the dead, they may do so by forming separate lines right behind the male lines (see Ali 1983:431-32).

Burial rituals begin with lowering the shrouded corpse into a 4- to 6-feet deep grave. However, once the grave has been dug, and before lowering the corpse into it, the grave is further prepared by digging an oblong and rather narrow pocketlike cavity (called the lahd) along one of its walls. The corpse is then gently lowered and positioned inside this small crevasse (lahd) to rest on its right side with the head supported by a mud brick (see the following sentence) or a few handfuls of soil or a stone and turned to face Mecca (quiblah). The lahd is then sealed by using mud bricks made by mixing the soil that was unearthed while digging the grave with water and forming the mixture into bricks. The dead body is, therefore, contained in what amounts to a sealed compartment. Once the lahd is sealed, the grave is then filled up with soil and prayer is again performed by the graveside (again with the Imam and those behind him in prayer facing in the direction of Mecca). This last act concludes the burial rituals, and those who attended the burial then leave the grave site.

Immediate Postburial Interrogation

A number of pronouncements (hadiths) by Prophet Mohammed led to the evolution of a belief among practically all Muslims that a dead body will be reunited with its departed soul for an indeterminate (but arguably short) period of time immediately after the completion of the burial rituals. During this period, the deceased will regain vision, hearing, and all other mental faculties and will be visited by two angels who will interrogate him or her. The entire postburial in-grave experience is for the purpose of determining the content of the deceased person’s faith. The experience is traditionally referred to in rather severe terms as the “anguish of the grave” (see Jonker 1997:159), the “punishment of the tomb” (see Renard 1998:40), or the “punishment in the grave” and the “pressure of the tomb” (see Smith and Haddad 1981:41, 46). There is some disagreement, however, among those who research Islamic theology and eschatology regarding the extent to which the Koran details exactly the nature of what transpires in the grave immediately after burial (see, e.g., Renard 1998:40; Smith and Haddad 1981:40-42). Regardless, over time, Muslims developed strong and elaborate foreboding perceptions and beliefs concerning what happens to the corpse immediately after the completion of the burial rituals. To a considerable degree, these perceptions and beliefs now amount to being “articles of faith” (Renard 1998:40).

Central to these beliefs is the idea that once the body is reunited with its departed soul, the deceased will be immediately visited by two angels, named Munkar and Nakir. According to traditional folklore in many Muslim societies, Munkar and Nakir will enter the lahd and order the deceased to sit up. They will then closely interrogate the deceased by asking a number of questions. The answers the deceased gives will determine the strength of his or her faith. It may be necessary to note here that Muslims who believe in the interrogation by Munkar and Nakir do not seem to ponder the physical dimensions of the lahd and how the little space there will make it impossible for the deceased to sit up. To them, the interrogation is part of a divine process, and therefore, its mechanics cannot be explained by terrestrial notions.

Although there seems to be a theological agreement that the questions that Munkar and Nakir ask require knowledge of the basic tenets of Islam, the exact number of the questions to be asked continues to be a source of theological dispute. In some folkloric traditions, the angels are expected to ask three questions: Who is your God? Who is your prophet? What is his religion? The correct answers to these questions should be Allah, Mohammed, and Islam. In other folkloric traditions, the angels ask the three questions outlined above and also ask questions about the deceased person’s Imam and direction of prayer (quiblah). The deceased is expected to give the three answers described above, identify the Imam who leads the five daily prayers that the deceased attends, and identify Mecca (the Muslim holy city) as the direction that he or she faces when praying.

Traditional belief and folklore tend to suggest that both angels have a rather fearsome appearance. For instance, Smith and Haddad (1981) note that the descriptions of the appearance of Munkar and Nakir “vary slightly from one account to another, but in general they are understood to be fearsome to behold, black in appearance with green eyes, having voices like thunder and eyes like lightening (sic), and with long fangs rending the ground” (pp. 41-42). They also note, however, that some traditional narratives “omit these terrible details entirely, while others indicate that they appear in such a frightful image only to those who are destined for the Fire” (p. 42), or Hell.

With the exception of children who have not reached the age of discretion and, therefore, are presumed innocent of any sin and martyrs who are absolved of any form of afterlife punishment, every deceased person will undergo intense interrogation by Munkar and Nakir. Successful passage through or failure in this ordeal are considered both a necessary and sufficient indicator of what awaits the individual on the Day of Judgment, or Day of Resurrection (Youm al Ghiyammah). Indeed, some Muslims believe that after the dead person has answered the questions, the angels open a door or window in one of the grave walls. Through this opening, the deceased person who gave the correct answers will be able to sense a cool breeze and pleasant smell, which emanate from Paradise. And through the same portal, an unfortunate deceased person who has failed the interrogation will catch a glimpse of Hell and will sense the terrible pain that awaits him or her. It is, therefore, no wonder that Muslims often voice fear, anxiety, or concern about the time that immediately follows burial and often (even when young and in good health and not expecting natural death soon) implore God to make their undoubted “future” encounter with Munkar and Nakir pleasant.

Orthodox and Localized Expressions of Mourning

Orthodox theological teachings typically require restraint from indulgence in excessive mourning following the death of a beloved individual (see, e.g., Ali 1983:435). However, somewhat contradictory sayings directly attributed to Prophet Mohammed have enabled Muslims in different societies to show varied responses and patterns of mourning following the death of beloved individuals. Over centuries, Muslim communities developed mourning patterns specific to their individual cultures.

Mourning also seems to be another gender-specific ritual. Muslim men rarely cry, and when they do, the deceased is usually a very close relative (e.g., a parent, sibling, or one’s child). Women on the other hand tend to show grief publicly through crying or by baring their heads and throwing a fistful of soil on their hair or by beating on their chests with their hands once death of a beloved individual is ascertained. In some Muslim societies (Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan, and Turkey, for instance), close female relatives sometimes mix crying with lengthy dirges extolling the deceased person’s qualities. Women also grieve by wearing particular colors. For instance, “in North Africa women will wear white. In the Middle East they wear black” (Jonker 1997:160). In other Muslim societies, the choice of a particular color may not be emphasized. Perfume and bright colors (implying happiness), however, are sometimes discouraged.

Although Muslim death traditions do not include a wake and although excessive mourning is usually discouraged, among Muslims, mourning is still a rather public or community affair. Friends and relatives usually gather (sometimes for up to about a week) around the dead person’s immediate family members throughout the entire day, and many spend the 3 to 7 nights of mourning with the deceased person’s family. That is why in countries such as Egypt and Sudan, families usually rent tents to shelter those who gather around them in the days following the burial of a beloved one. And although the deceased person’s family usually spends a considerable amount of money to feed those who join them in mourning, neighbors and relatives who live nearby often contribute food at mealtimes. An atmosphere of community and support is always evident at these postburial gatherings.

Judgment, Retribution, and Afterlife

Muslims believe in a final Day of Judgment, or Day of Resurrection (Youm al Ghiyammah) on which all life will cease to exist and resurrection will take place. Despite the fact that the Koran gives extensive details of the signs (alamat) that denote the arrival of this day (which is also referred to as the Hour), it does not give exact details as to when this day will arrive. That knowledge is considered divine and exclusive to everyone but God (see, e.g., Sura 33:63).

Every living being will be brought to stand in front of God to be judged. During judgment (hisab), an individual’s good and evil deeds will be weighed against each other. If the good deeds outweigh the evil deeds, the individual will be allowed to enter Paradise (junna); otherwise, he or she will be sent to Hell (jahim). Individuals will reach their respective destinations by crossing over a bridge called the sirat. Traditional narratives and theology suggest that for those whose good and evil deeds are of equal weight, the sirat will appear as thin as a strand of hair and as sharp as the edge of a sword. Crossing it becomes a definite ordeal. Without God’s or Mohammed’s intercession (which may not occur for whatever reason), they will fall into Hell for a period of purgation after which they may be admitted to Paradise.

Afterlife in Paradise is eternal and is often described as blissful and full of all sorts of pleasure (see, e.g., Sura 9:72; Sura10:9-10). Paradise itself is usually described as a set of seven gardens, arranged hierarchically (see Smith and Haddad 1981:88). As such, it is stratified in terms of “different categories of holiness among the inhabitants of the heaven, and only the most deserving may proceed to the higher gardens. The top [is] reserved for great saints and martyrs” (Taylor 2000:155). Furthermore, the Koran describes Paradise as a “place of peace” where rancor, anguish, fatigue, and work vanish forever and will, thereafter, not afflict its inhabitants (see, e.g., Suras 10:9-10; 14:23; 15:45-48; 36:57-58; 50:34-35; 56:25-26). It is also described in the Koran as a magnificent, cool, and shaded place with unusual golden and silver trees (Taylor 2000:157) that bear fruits perpetually and where four rivers (Kawthar, Kafur, Tasnim, and Salsabil) of pure and eternally uncontaminated water, milk, wine, and honey flow (see Sura 47:15; also see Smith and Haddad 1981:88; Taylor 2000:156). And those who enter it will not only enjoy a blissful and opulent existence but will also be transformed and will remain forever youthful (Taylor 2000:157).

Hell, on the other hand, is described in the Koran as a dreadful place of seven layers “each descending on an abode of increased torment” (Smith and Haddad 1981:85). Those destined to it will remain eternally alive while being constantly burned and subjected to endless torture in the hands of angels charged with the task of punishing them. Indeed, this particular theological and folkloric presentation makes it rather easy to understand why many Muslims often entertain foreboding thoughts about death and the Day of Judgment and, consequently, desperately try to obey God’s orders and live up to myriad theological expectations.

Conclusion

This chapter included a presentation of the orthodox theological and folkloric (traditional) influences that shaped the way in which Muslims manage death rites and how they conceive of the afterlife. Throughout, it became rather apparent that although theological orthodoxy and localized traditions have gradually intertwined in the varied societies that Islam has penetrated over the past 1,400 years, much of the way in which Muslims handle death notions and rites is rooted in Koranic and Sunna teachings. Yet despite the fact that most of the death and funeral rites seem to follow standard theological teachings, varied localized traditions that sometimes run counter to these teachings seem to have emerged over time and taken root in many societies. This gradual convergence of local and orthodox notions about death, funeral rites, and the afterlife is indicative of progressive changes across the Muslim world. The continuous and rapid shrinking of the world as a consequence of inexorable technological progress can only mean that the possibilities of cross-cultural borrowing and fusion of localized death-related notions and practices are now real and greater than ever before. As such, one can now actually entertain the thought that the ostensible power of theological orthodoxy and its dominance over death management patterns among Muslims is likely to diminish over the foreseeable future.