Muslim Funeral Traditions
There are primarily two sects within Islam (Shi'a and Sunni) that hold different views on a number of religious issues.
For the most part, however, Muslims commonly believe that the good deeds one does in life will yield entry into Paradise on the Day of Judgment, also called the Last Day, when the world will be destroyed. Many Muslims believe that until the Last Day the dead will remain in their tombs, and those heading for Paradise will experience peace while those heading for Hell will experience suffering.
When Death Is Imminent
When a Muslim is approaching death, family members and very close friends should be present. They should offer the dying person hope and kindness, and encourage the dying person to say the “shahada,” confirming that there is no God but Allah. As soon as death has occurred, those present should say, “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un” (“Verily we belong to Allah, and truly to Him shall we return”). Those present should close the deceased’s eyes and lower jaw, and cover the body with a clean sheet. They should also make “dua’” (supplication) to Allah to forgive the sins of the deceased.
When To Hold A Muslim Funeral
According to Islamic law (“shariah”), the body should be buried as soon as possible from the time of death, which means that funeral planning and preparations begin immediately. A local Islamic community organization should be contacted as soon as possible, and they will begin to help make arrangements for the funeral service and burial, assist the family in identifying an appropriate funeral home, and coordinate with the funeral home.
Organ donation is generally acceptable for Muslims, as it follows the Qur’an’s teaching that "Whosoever saves the life of one person it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind." If there is any question as to whether or not organs may be donated, it is best to consult with an imam (religious leader) or Muslim funeral director.
Routine autopsies are not acceptable in Islam as they are seen as a desecration of the body. In most cases, the family of the deceased may refuse to have a routine autopsy performed.
Embalming and cosmetology are not allowed unless required by state or federal law. Because of the prohibition on embalming and the urgency with which the body must be buried, it is not possible to transport the body from one country to another. Many Muslims living in America have a desire to be buried in the country of their ancestry, and this cultural practice, while acceptable in some communities, is in conflict with shariah. An imam or Muslim funeral director should be consulted if there are any questions on the matter.
For more information on this topic see our article: Embalming
Cremation is forbidden for Muslims and is considered to be “haram,” or an unclean practice that is a desecration of the deceased.
Preparing The Body
To prepare the body for burial, it must be washed (“Ghusl”) and shrouded (“Kafan”). Close same-sex family members are encouraged to give Ghusl, though in the case of spousal death the spouse may perform the washing. The body should be washed three times. If, after three washings, the body is not entirely clean, it may be washed more, though ultimately the body should be washed an odd number of times. The body should be washed in the following order: upper right side, upper left side, lower right side, lower left side. Women’s hair should be washed and braided into three braids. Once clean and prepared, the body should be covered in a white sheet.
To shroud the body, three large white sheets of inexpensive material should be laid on top of each other. The body should be placed on top of the sheets. Women should, at this point, be dressed in an ankle-length sleeveless dress and head veil. If possible, the deceased’s left hand should rest on the chest and the right hand should rest on the left hand, as in a position of prayer. The sheets should then be folded over the body, first the right side and then the left side, until all three sheets have wrapped the body. The shrouding should be secured with ropes, one tied above the head, two tied around the body, and one tied below the feet. The body should then be transported to the mosque (“masjid”) for funeral prayers, known as “Salat al-Janazah.”
Viewing, Wake, Or Visitation Before A Muslim Funeral
When a Muslim dies, the body should be buried as soon as possible after death, thus there is no viewing before the funeral.
The Muslim Funeral Service
Salat al-Janazah (funeral prayers) should be performed by all members of the community. Though the prayers should be recited at the mosque, they should not be recited inside the mosque; instead, they should be performed in a prayer room or study room, or in the mosque’s courtyard. Those praying should face the “qiblah”—that is, toward Mecca—and form at least three lines, with the male most closely related to the person who died in the first line, followed by men, then children, then women.
After Salat al-Janazah has been recited, the body should be transported to the cemetery for burial. Traditionally, only men are allowed to be present at the burial, though in some communities all mourners, including women, will be allowed at the gravesite. The grave should be dug perpendicular to the qiblah, and the body should be placed in the grave on its right side, facing the qiblah. Those placing the body into the grave should recite the line “Bismilllah wa ala millati rasulilllah” (“In the name of Allah and in the faith of the Messenger of Allah”). Once the body is in the grave, a layer of wood or stones should be placed on top of the body to prevent direct contact between the body and the soil that will fill the grave. Then each mourner present will place three handfuls of soil into the grave. Once the grave has been filled, a small stone or marker may be placed at the grave so that it is recognizable. However, traditionally, it is prohibited to erect a large monument on the grave or decorate the grave in an elaborate way.
After the funeral and burial, the immediate family will gather and receive visitors. It is customary for the community to provide food for the family for the first few days of the mourning period (usually three days). Generally, the mourning period lasts 40 days, but depending on the degree of religiousness of the family, the mourning period may be much shorter.
Muslim Mourning Period And Memorial Events
Widows are expected to observe a longer mourning period, generally of four months and ten days. During this time, widows are prohibited from interacting with men whom they could potentially marry (known as “na-mahram”). However, this rule may be overlooked in cases of emergency, such as when the widow must see a doctor.
It is acceptable in Islam to express grief over a death. Crying and weeping at the time of death, at the funeral, and at the burial are all acceptable forms of expression. However, wailing and shrieking, tearing of clothing and breaking of objects, and expressing a lack of faith in Allah are all prohibited.
Are you planning a Muslim funeral? For help, see our article Plan the Funeral or Memorial Service.
Are you attending a Muslim funeral? For etiquette tips, see our article Attending a Religious Funeral.
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