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Death and Funerals

Source:
The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

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    Death and Funerals

    The Qur'an refers to death as “the certainty.” For Muslims, death is the most important stage in the soul's progress toward God. For this reason, Muslims try to prepare themselves spiritually for it. In Islam, suicide is considered a grave sin.

    When Muslims are near death, they are expected to repent their sins and, if possible, perform ritual ablutions, or purifications. Family and other loved ones should stay close to the dying person to pray for him or her and offer support. Those present at the deathbed should recite the shahadah (expression of faith) in the ear of the dying person so that he or she will remember it when questioned by angels. The dying person should recite it as well, if possible, without needing the encouragement of others. It is also desirable for the dying person to make a will distributing up to one-third of his or her property. When the person's death seems near, family members should recite surah 36 from the Qur'an, which describes God's resuscitation of the dead on Judgment Day and encourages mindfulness of the Islamic faith.

    The Qur'an provides no guidance on funeral rites. Muslims have developed customs concerning procedures during and after death. The family of the deceased is responsible for preparing the body for burial and for leading the funerary prayers. Muslims are required to bury their dead as soon as they are able, preferably before sundown on the day of death. As soon as the body cools, a close relative or a professional washer of the dead gives the body a complete washing in a ritually regulated manner. The body is typically washed three separate times, always in a respectful way that preserves the modesty of the deceased person. The washer plugs the body's openings with cotton, wraps the corpse tightly in a cloth shroud, and applies strong-smelling ointments, such as camphor. Throughout the cleansing process, the body should face Mecca. Some families place the deceased in a simple coffin. Sometimes, however, the body is placed in the earth without a coffin. If a Muslim dies as a martyr, in childbirth, or as the result of an accident, the body is not washed at all, but is buried as it fell. If a man dies at the hajj, his shroud must have no seams. If the deceased is a woman, her face must show through her coverings.

    The funeral service itself can take place in any appropriate, dignified location. Outside of the United States and other Western countries, it usually does not occur in a mosque. Whether the service is held inside or outside, the congregation stands throughout the ceremony. Bearers place the body in the grave, which should be deep enough to protect it from animals and to prevent unpleasant odors from escaping. Male relatives of the deceased enter the grave and arrange the body in its proper position. They place the body on its right side in a niche hollowed out of the grave wall, turn the head toward Mecca, and place the cheek on a stone or other support. The person who arranges the body in its final position recites the shahadah in its ear. After the men climb out of the grave, each member of the funeral party throws soil into the grave to fill it. Finally, a member of the party gives a blessing containing a summary of the key beliefs of Islam. Shi'i Muslims also recite the names of the 12 holy imams. Some family members mark the grave with a simple headstone, but tradition discourages the use of elaborate monuments.

    Traditional Muslims believe that the dreaded angels Munkar and Nakir visit the deceased in the grave and question him or her about the shahadah and other tenets of Islam. Satisfactory answers allow the deceased to wait in comfort until the Day of Judgment. According to tradition, if the person gives incorrect answers, he or she experiences various torments, such as feeling the crushing weight of the earth. The deceased remains in this intermediary state, called the barzakh, until the resurrection, when all the dead arise and rejoin their souls for God's judgment on the Last Day.

    Muslims are encouraged to refrain from making loud expressions of grief at funerals because these are believed to increase the deceased person's suffering during the angels' questioning. Visiting the grave and offering prayers are considered worthy acts, but Muslim tradition specifies that mourning should be limited to three days. For widows, the period can last for four months and ten days.

    Although all Muslim societies observe these basic funeral customs, many regional and folk practices also exist. Throughout the world, many Muslims include feasts in their rituals. Muslims in the southern Philippines sacrifice cows for the dead. In Java, Muslims place food offerings under the bed of the deceased during the first 40 days after the death. Family members in Iran may wrap the body in a cloth inscribed with quotations from the Qur'an. In Sudan, mourners place pebbles on top of the grave. In a custom with possible pre-Islamic origins, Muslims in Malaysia put betel nut scissors on the torso of the deceased to prevent demons and ghosts from stepping on it. In some parts of Egypt, Bedouin women mourn by wailing in high-pitched voices. Lebanese mourners may bake special pastries as a sacrifice for the dead. In some places, including the United States, Muslims have adopted the custom of viewing the body in an open casket before the funeral. See also Afterlife; Day of Judgment; Shahadah.

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