World Funeral Customs: Islamic Funeral Traditions

Religious/Cultural Traditions

Posted on May 31, 2016 by Morgan Marant

Religious Background on Islam

Muslims, the worshippers of Islam, believe that there is only one God (Allah) and that Muhammad is God’s prophet. The Quran is the primary holy book of Islamic teachings. Most Muslims either belong to the Sunni denomination (~80%) or the Shia denomination (~15%). With about 1.6 billion followers, Islam is the second largest religion worldwide. It is also the world’s fastest growing religion.

Emotional Tone of Islamic Funerals

It is perfectly acceptable for Muslims to express grief during the mourning process. However, it must be done in a dignified manner, with respect to Allah’s will and to the spirit of the deceased. For example, Muslim mourners are prohibited from engaging in sacrilegious speech, loud wailing, shrieking, self-injury, ripping of clothes and breaking of objects. But it’s quite okay for mourners to cry in a reserved manner, just as the Prophet Muhammad did when his own son died. Islam recognizes that the death of a loved one is often a very emotional and painful time for family and friends. On the other hand, it is also a hopeful time in which mourners should pray for the future happiness of the departed in the afterlife.

Islamic Death Rituals

When death is imminent, family and friends should gather around their loved one and offer them kind words of comfort and encouragement. The dying person should recite the Shahada, which is an important Muslim vow that Allah is the one and only God. At the moment of death, those present should say “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.” This Arabic phrase translates to, “Verily we belong to Allah, and truly to Him shall we return.” The body should then be covered with a clean sheet and mourners should then give du’a to Allah to absolve the sins of the departed.

Muslim Views on Organ Donation and Embalming

Organ donation after death is generally accepted within Islam. The deed is in line with the Quran teaching that “Whoever saves the life of one person it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind. “ However, the religion does not accept brain death as a proper criterion for official death. All vital signs must be fully extinguished before organs can be removed. Embalming is not accepted among Muslims, unless required by state or federal law. Embalming fluids are believed to taint the purity of the deceased.

Muslim Method of Body Disposition

All Muslims must be buried as soon as possible following death. Ideally, burial should occur before the next sunset, or within 24 hours. Any other type of disposition is strictly forbidden.

Body Preparation for Muslim Funerals

Washing and shrouding are the two main components of Muslim body preparation. These steps must be completed with haste, due to the brief timetable from death to burial.

Washing (Ghusl)

Ghusl is the name of the Muslim washing ritual performed on the deceased, generally by family members of the same gender. It can be done at a mosque or at a family home. First, the body is placed on a high table while the oath, “In the name of Allah,” is spoken. Next, the corpse should be cleansed using wet cloths soaked in clean water. This washing should be done methodically in a top-to-bottom, left-to-right manner. A full cleanse must be given at least three times. If further washing is needed, it should be performed an odd number of times (e.g. five or seven). Additionally, women’s hair should be fashioned into three braids.

Enshrouding

The deceased should now be wrapped in white cotton (or linen) sheets that are clean but inexpensive. Men are still naked at this point, but women should be clothed in a sleeveless, ankle-length dress and a head veil. With the hands crossed over the chest in a prayer position, three sheets should be wrapped around the body. The shrouding is then secured with four ropes – one above the head, two around the body, and one below the feet.

What to Wear to a Muslim Funeral

Mourners should wear modest clothing to Muslim funeral events. This could mean a simple dress shirt and pants for men, and an ankle-length skirt and high-necked top for women. A headscarf (e.g. a hijab or burqa) is also essential for women. Shoes need to be removed when entering Muslim mosques. Therefore, mourners should take care to wear clean and respectable socks to funeral events.

Muslim Views on a Funeral Wake

Islamic funerals do not have an official wake component that takes place before the funeral service. This is primarily due to the fact that the body needs to be buried as soon as possible. However, if there is some time to spare, mourners sometimes do visit the enshrouded body before the funeral service to pay their respects.

Muslim Funeral Services

The funeral service takes place at a local mosque. It is important to note that it cannot take place in the formally designated masjid section of the mosque, reserved for prayers specific to Allah. Whether inside or outside the mosque, mourners stand in three horizontal lines facing toward Mecca: men in the front row, children in the middle row and women in the back row. The imam, a professional or layman spiritual leader, stands with his back to the assembled group and leads it in prayer. The service begins with a silently-recited funeral prayer known as the Salat al-Janazah, in which mourners individually pray that Allah will have mercy on the deceased, and on all other dead Muslims. This is followed by a silent reading of the Al-Fatiha, the first chapter of the Quran. At a traditional muslim funeral service there are four more prayers that are then spoken aloud.

First comes the Tashahhud, a prayer to the prophet Muhammad. Then three personal prayers are spoken. Before each of these prayers, attendees say, “Allahu Akbar,” which translates to “God is good.” Funeral services are considered to be community events among Muslims. While family and friends make up the majority at most services, it is very common to see unacquainted townspeople there also, since Islam considers funerals to be profoundly spiritual events.

Muslim Burial Ceremony

A silent group procession to the cemetery follows the funeral service. Traditionally, several of the men would carry the shrouded body or casket on foot to the cemetery, but cars are often used for transportation in modern times. Traditionally, women and children do not attend Muslim burials, but they are allowed to in some communities. Muslim burials are simple affairs. Mourners dig a grave at the cemetery and lower the enshrouded body into it. Those lowering the body should recite the line, “Bismillah wa ala millati rasulillah,” which means, “In the name of Allah and in the faith of the Messenger of Allah.” The body should be laid on its right side and face towards Mecca. A layer of wood or stones is placed on top of the body and then the hole is usually filled in with soil. Each person present ceremonially throws three handfuls of soil into the grave. When the burial is complete, a simple marker is erected on top of the grave. Elaborate gravestones are prohibited.

Muslim Funeral Reception

After the funeral is over, the immediate family usually gathers at home and receives visitors. Visitors should do their best to console the family and help them cope with their loss.    

Extended Islamic Mourning or Memorial Traditions

There is a traditional Muslim mourning period of 40 days, but this period is often shorter in modern times, depending on how devout the family is. The community traditionally provides food for the family during the first three days of mourning. The Muslim mourning period is marked by increased religious devotion, modesty, and the frequent reception of visitors at the family home. The offering of help and condolences to the mourning family is an essential part of the Muslim grieving process. Female widows observe an extended mourning period of four months and 10 days known as iddah. During this period, female widows cannot remarry, move away from her home, or wear decorative clothing or jewelry.