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FUNERARY RITES. [To articulate religious values and traditions reflected in funerary rites in modern Islamic societies, this entry comprises two articles: Legal Foundations and Modern Practice.]

Legal Foundations

The Qur’anic kerygma is grounded in the fact of human mortality, and death is referred to euphemistically as “the certainty” (al yaqin). Natural death is part of the

order of things, while unnatural death evokes particular responses. Suicide is a terrible sin: “One who kills himself by means of something will be tormented with it at the resurrection” (Sahib Muslim, Kitab al-iman). Martyrdom and its equivalents (such as death in childbirth, from the plague, by burning, falling from a building, at sea, or in a foreign land, can call for funeral rituals different from those given to those dead by natural causes (Kanz al-`ummal, 4.415, ft al-shahadah al-hukmiyah).

The treatment of the dead is a major subject of legal thought, and every legal work has an extensive chapter on funerary rituals, located in the section on prayer in a subsection on the funerary prayer. Islamic legists have three concerns in their work on funerary rites: to present the death as instructive of the fate that awaits all, to treat the dead in an appropriate manner, and to suppress what are perceived as non-Islamic customs that obscure the message of death.

The dying are enjoined to be aware of their death, to repent, and if possible to perform ritual ablutions. Making a will determining the disposition of up to one-third of one’s property is encouraged. It is desirable to repeat the shahadah to the dying one, and for him or her to repeat it without being prompted. The responsibilities of preparing the body for funerary washing, of performing the washing, and of leading the funerary prayer devolve upon the members of the family roughly according to age, with males preferred over females. The responsible party (wali) undertakes to close the eyes, secure the jaw, and flex the joints to insure mobility for washing. Washing is then performed, ideally while the deceased remains covered: the washing is repeated at least three times, during which all filth is removed. It is advised to seal the body’s orifices with cotton. The body is then enshrouded with clean, undyed cloth, covering at least the torso of a man and the whole of a woman’s body. Use of perfumed unguents is commended as part of the shrouding process.

There are two cases in which the status of the Muslim at death interferes with the normal funerary practices: when the person died in ihrdm (ritual purity) status during the pilgrimage, or when the person is martyred in the course of jihad. In the former case the rules of ihrdm apply, and a man’s shroud man must have no sewn seams; a woman’s face may not be covered. In the case of martyrdom or its equivalents, there is no cleansing of the body, and it is buried as it fell.

The funeral prayer must be said by at least one male, if one is available; in default of men, women may perform this act. The body is oriented in the mosque, as throughout the washing and burial, facing Mecca; that is, at least the axis of the body is aligned with the qiblah, feet foremost, and ideally the body is on its right side facing the qiblah. The imam leads the prayer while standing by the head of a man or by the torso of a woman.

Burial itself is in a grave deep enough to conceal odor and prevent abuse of the body by animals. Within the grave a niche is dug on the qiblah side of grave, or else a smaller trench is dug in the floor of the grave. Into this the body is placed without a coffin, lying on its right side, facing the qiblah. The cheek is bared and placed on a stone. The niche or trench is then sealed with bricks or stones, and earth is replaced in the grave and mounded slightly above ground level. These burial stipulations reflect the belief that the individual is questioned by two angels at death, and those who answer unsatisfactorily are chastised by the pressure of earth upon their bodies until the last judgment.

Religious reformers from the Prophet’s time onward have sought to eliminate “innovations” in the form of intrusions of local custom on funerary practices. Particular points of friction have included the lamentations of women at the burial, inclusion of food or bedding with the burial, the visiting of graves, and the erection of elaborate structures over graves. The Wahhabis of Arabia outraged many Muslims at the time of their conquest of the peninsula in 1804-1806 and again in 1924, when they destroyed the shrines of notable Muslims throughout Arabia.

[See also Rites of Passage.]


Granqvist, Hilma. Muslim Death and Burial: Arab Customs and Traditions Studied in a Village in, jordan. Helsinki, 1965.

Muttaqi, ‘Ali ibn `Abd al-Malik al-. Kanz al-`ummal ft sunan al-aqwal wa-al-af’al. 5th ed. Edited by Bakri Hayyani and Safwat al-Saqqa. Beirut, 1985.

O’Shaughnessy, Thomas. Muhammad’s Thoughts on Death: A Thematic Study of the Qur’anic Data. Leiden, 1969. Despite the unfortunate title and the assumptions behind it, this is a sensitive study of the Qur’anic discourse on death that informs later Muslim speculation on the subject.

Modern Practice

The Qur’an contains much about human death and its refigio-moral meanings but nothing about funeral rites.


There is much information in the hadith, but precise regulation must be sought in the books of fiqh. Significant variations-mostly folk customs–occur regionally, but modern reformist influences have produced a widespread preference for canonical funerary rites. Muslims have widely shared customs concerning proper Islamic attitudes, procedures, and rites connected with anticipating death, preparing the body for burial, and committing it to the grave.

Muslims believe that death should be contemplated throughout life and viewed not as its conclusion but as the most critical stage in the progress of the soul. At the onset of death, a Qur’anic surah, preferably Yd Sin (surah 36), should be recited. Relatives and companions should be present to pray for the dying person and provide solace. The first Shahadah (creed) should be recited in the dying one’s ear in the hope that he or she will remember it and other fundamentals of Islam when interrogated in the grave by the angels Munkar and Nakir.

Muslims are required to bury their dead as soon as possible, ideally before nightfall on the day of death. Notice of death should be prompt. When the body has become cool, its eyes and mouth are closed, its limbs straightened, and the body covered by a sheet. If possible, the dying one should lie on the right side, facing Mecca. A close relative of the same sex, a spouse, or a professional washer of the dead gives the body a complete washing in a ritually regulated way, usually three times, while preserving the utmost modesty and decorum. Cloth is placed in the orifices and scent is applied to the limbs, extremities, and body cavities. [See Purification.]

There are variations, but simplicity is preferred in the final winding of the corpse. This normally requires three pieces of cloth for males and five for females, with each sex completely enclosed by the final, tightly tied covering. Although a simple coffin may be used, it is not required. A Muslim martyr, however, is promptly buried in the clothes worn at death, without washing or further ceremony beyond the funeral salat and burial.

The funeral service (salat al janazah) may be held in any clean, dignified place indoors or outside, but normally not in a mosque. The brief, four-part service is performed with the congregation standing throughout.

The body is then committed to the grave, which should be deep enough to be safe from animals and sufficiently filled in to prevent unpleasant odors from escaping. It is preferred that the body be laid on its right side, facing Mecca, in a niche (lahd) hollowed out of the grave wall. The head rests on a support and the grave clothes are loosened. The person who places the body in its final position should pronounce the Shahadah in the deceased’s ear. Then the grave is filled in, with each member of the party casting some soil into it. Someone pronounces a final benediction containing a summary of Islam’s key beliefs. Shi’s also list the twelve holy imams.

A simple headstone may mark the grave, but anything more elaborate is to be avoided. Loud lamentation, particularly by paid mourners, is forbidden and thought to increase the deceased’s suffering in the grave during the interrogation. Visiting the grave and offering prayers for the deceased are meritorious acts, but mourning should be limited to three days (four months and ten days for a widow), according to fiqh. However, in many Muslim societies (for example, Malaysia) mourning is observed also on the third, seventh, fourteenth, fortieth, and hundredth days after death. Qur’anic recitation is a major part of such observances. [See Qur’anic Recitation.]

In addition to the basic core of Islamic funerary practices summarized here there are many regional and folk practices. Among these are cow sacrifice (southern Philippines); feasts (various places); placing food offerings under the bed of the deceased daily during the first forty days after death (Java); including grave goods like rosaries of unbaked Karbala clay and seals inscribed with the names of Muhammad, Fatimah, ‘Ali, Hasan, and Husayn (Shi’is); wrapping the body with a cloth inscribed with Qur’anic quotations (traditional Iran); depositing an arrangement of pebbles over the grave (Sudan); placing betel-nut scissors between the stomach and chest of the newly deceased in order to prevent demons and ghosts from stepping on the body (Malaysia); high-pitched wailing by women mourners (Egyptian bedouin); close relatives walking under the litter three times before it is borne away to the cemetery (Java); baking special pastry as a sacrifice for the dead (Lebanon); and having an open casket viewing of the corpse’s cosmetically enhanced face (United States).

Muslims today as always are deeply concerned about conducting their lives in obedience to God, knowing that the present life is merely a stage on the way to the afterlife. In Western countries too Muslims are taking pains to ensure that their funerary duties and customs are properly preserved. One finds mortuaries in mosques, which have become (for example, in America) the principal places for the funeral service-a distinct departure from traditional practice. Muslim communities in the West are also acquiring tracts for cemeteries, strong evidence of a successful establishment of the ummah in new lands.

[See also Rites of Passage.]


Algar, Hamid. “Burial: In Islam.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 4, pp. 563-565. London and New York, 1987-. With special reference to Shiism.

Ali, Maulana Muhammad. A Manual of Hadith. New York, 1988 (original publication date unknown). Contains Arabic text with facing English translations. See chapter 15, “Burial Service.”

Bowen, John R. “Death and the History of Islam in Highland Aceh.” Indonesia 38 (October 1984): 21-38. Highly perceptive, field-based treatment of traditional Gayo death rites and the challenge of modern fiqh-based reformism, which the author argues has undermined the “life-giving” benefits of traditional customs in favor of seeing death as a passage to final judgment.

Donaldson, Bess Allen. The Wild Rue: A Study of Muhammadan Magic and Folklore in Iran. London, 1938. Contains absorbing detail, for instance, on the terror and pain believed to be experienced by the deceased in the grave. See chapter 7, “Death, Burial, and Resurrection.”

Jaziri, `Abd al-Rahman al-. Al-Fiqh `ala al-madhahib al-arba’ah (Islamic Jurisprudence According to the Four [Sunni] Schools). Cairo, 1984. Funeral rites are treated on pages 386-425, with clear expositions of the variations among the schools of law.

Khatib al-Tibrizi, Muhammad al-. Mishkat al-Masabih. 4 vols. Translated by James Robson. Lahore, 1964-1966. Extensive collection of hadiths, from the widely used medieval anthology, Masabih alsunnah, compiled by al-Baghawi and further arranged by al-Khatib al-Tibrizi. Highly recommended. See Book 5, “Funerals” (vol. 1, pp. 320-370).

Khomeini, Ruhollah al-Musavi. A Clarification of Questions. Translated by J. Borujerdi. Boulder, 1984. Detailed guidance on funerary matters from a Twelver ShN perspective (see pp. 70-89). Koentjaraningrat. Javanese Culture. Singapore and New York, 1989. Anthropological study, with mortuary rites treated on pages 361365 and passim.

Kutty, Ahmad. Islamic Funeral Rites and Practices. Toronto, 1991. Simplified yet comptehensive guidance for Muslims in North America.

Lutfiyya, Abdulla M. Baytin, a Jordanian Village: A Study of Social Institutions and Social Change in a Folk Community. The Hague, 1966. Death and burial are treated on pages 62-67.

Masse, Henri. Persian Beliefs and Customs (1938). New Haven, 1954. Absorbing travelers’ accounts of traditional funeral customs (see pp. 8o-107).

Mohtar bin Md. Dom, Haji. Traditions and Taboos. Kuala Lumpur, 1979. Covers Malaysian customs. See chapter 6, “Funerals.” Nadel, S. F. Nupe Religion: Traditional Beliefs and the Influence of Islam in a West African Chiefdom (1954). New York, 1970. Compares and contrasts traditional African and Islamic beliefs and practices in a time of change.

Rauf, M. A. Islam: Creed and Worship. Washington, D.C., 1974.

Clear, detailed, learned description of funeral prayers, the washing of the corpse, and burial, with recommended prayers in romanized Arabic and English translation.

Smith, Jane I., and Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad. The Islamic Understanding of Death and Resurrection. Albany, N.Y., 1981. Highly sophisticated survey of traditional and contemporary ideas concerning death and the afterlife, based on classical sources as well as interviews with leading Muslim scholars of today.

Wasfi, `Atif Amin. An Islamic Lebanese Community in U.S.A.: A Study in Cultural Anthropology. Beirut, 1971. Funerals are discussed on pages 82-85.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/funerary-rites/

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