Ash-Sheikh Shihan Jawad
It is a universal fact is that those who are born will experience death. However, there are different rules and regulations between religions and communities on the funeral rites of the dead. Some cremate the dead body in the fire while many bury them in the ground. These methods are practiced based on people’s religious beliefs and cultural traditions. This is reflected in the guidance given by the World Health Organization (WHO) on the cremation or burial of those who died due to COVID-19 (COVID-19 deaths. These two methods are followed in all countries. However, in Sri Lanka, the government made it compulsory for all COVID-19 deaths to be cremated regardless of what the family of the deceased might want. This decision goes against the faith of Muslims and Christians.
In this context, it is important to seek answers to the questions: Why do Muslims in particular bury their dead? Why don’t they want to be cremated? How is burial placed in their religion? What are the benefits of conducting a burial? In a pluralistic country like Sri Lanka, non-Muslims also need to understand the rationale and wisdom behind burials. Such an understanding helps communities to strengthen the harmonious coexistence in pluralistic countries. Everyone has the freedom and the right to live according to his or her religious beliefs. This article seeks to explain why Muslims treat the dead well and what personal and social benefits they expect from burials, with the help of authentic sources in Islam.
To begin, we can compare Islam to a perfect building. If you want to know about a certain part of something, you must look at it as part of a whole, without removing it from its whole form. One of the main reasons why people misunderstand Islam is that they seek to separate a part of Islam from the ‘building of complete Islam’ and try to analyze it in isolation. For example, when a part of a machine is removed from it, it may seem useless on its own. Rather, it can be observed that its value is most accurately known when it is put in its proper place. This is how the ‘building’ of Islam works. Each element rises from its base. Each area contributes to the building. Therefore, in order to understand any aspect of Islam, it should be analyzed from its overall form. Burial of the dead is therefore related to the basic tenets of Islam and should be understood within that perspective.
In this context, it is necessary to first explain some of the basic guidelines put forward by Islam before moving to explain the position of Islam regarding the burial of bodies.
Islam grants its followers the freedom of belief and emphasized their rights to practice their religion. “There is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2: 256). “For you your religion, and for me my religion” (Quran 109: 6).
Islam never approves of blaspheming against another religion or religious affairs. “And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah” (Quran 6: 108). The Qur’an also states the following as one of the most essential grounds: “and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness” (Quran 5: 8).
The Qur’an calls on society to follow these principles. In Islam, those who violate these limits are considered as committing an offence.
Through the Islamic viewpoint, man is considered the most sublime creation. The idea put forward by the Qur’an is that he stands as the leader, administrator and representative of God on this earth, “And [remember, O Prophet], when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a representative” (Quran 2:30).
No other creature has the same dignity and status as man on this earth. What the Qur’an mentions about this is important: “We have certainly created man in the best of stature” (Quran 95: 4), and in another verse, “Surely we have honoured man” (Quran 17:70).
The Qur’an also indicated that all other creatures were created for man and are subjugated to him. “Allah has made for you everything in the heavens and everything on earth. Indeed in that there is a sign for people who give thought” (Qur’an 45:13).
The scholar Mohammed Iqbal states that the main purpose of the Qur’an is to create in man a higher consciousness of the various relationships between man and his Creator, and the universe.
The most important point here is the position of man in Islam. His body and organs are as dignified as the man himself, and they are to be protected. Therefore, Islam condemns any type of harm to the human body or its organs. Human beings are considered dignified beyond all differences. For example, Islam insists that the life and limbs of a weak, sick man should be protected, even if he is seen as a burden to others and is of no use to the society. In the Qur’an, it is stated that killing one man is like killing the entire human race whereas saving one man is like saving the whole human race.
Islam, which has such an honourable view of the human being, also guides on how man should have his final acts after death. Each religion, ethnic group, and community has its own final rites. They are all to be respected. They may be based on the religion or fundamental principles followed by the respective communities, a tradition or a religious practice based on doctrine, or both. Hence, the Muslim community too has a unique system, which is based on the guidance of Islam that requires four duties to be fulfilled on a dead person. The first is to bathe the dead body. The second is to cover the deceased completely with a white cloth (kafan). Third, prayers should be offered for the deceased. Fourth is to bury him in a grave. These four obligations should be fulfilled without delay, except when there is a valid reason.
In the view of Islam, giving a burial place (grave) for a man is an honour bestowed on him. The Qur’an says, “He (God) created man from a drop of sperm and determined everything that belongs to him. Then he made the path easier for him. He then made him die and made a grave for him” (Qur’an 80: 19-21). A burial place is evidence of a person’s existence in the world.
In the Qur’an, there is reference to the historical event of how the world’s first dead man was buried. For the first time in the history of the world, when a man killed another man and did not know what to do afterwards, Allah sent a crow and made it bury another dead crow in the ground, which taught man to bury the dead in the ground (Quran 5:31).
According to Islamic guidance, burying the dead in the ground is as important as attending funeral ceremonies and visiting graves for many reasons. There are two types of obligations in Islam: individual obligations and social obligations. Individual duties must be done individually, even when they cannot be done collectively despite having collective obligations. An example of this is the daily prayers. Although ideally it has to be done collectively, in today’s environment, we can see many people observing their prayers alone. On the other hand, in terms of social obligations, they must be fulfilled by an individual or a group of members of the community. Performing the rites of the deceased is a social duty. Participating in these social duties benefits every individual, which is why many people participate in the funeral process when a Muslim dies.
In the view of Islam, death is not the end of a human life, but a bridge that connects with the hereafter. That is the whole point of the human life. The belief of Muslims is that the man who stands as the representative of God in this world receives the reward for his worldly activities in the afterlife. This belief plays a major role in shaping the worldly life of man. Therefore, attending a Muslim’s funeral is a great opportunity for a Muslim to reflect on his own life and think about whether he or she is doing well in this world. The Prophet Mohammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was once asked by his companions, “Can human hearts be corroded and polluted like metals?” To this he answered, “There are two things that purify the soul. One is to read the Quran. The other is to remember death.” So, man has two ‘preachers’, one is the Qur’an and the other is the unspoken preacher: death.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) have emphasized on the frequent remembrance of death. “Visit the places where people are buried; It will remind you of your death” (Tirmidhi 2307). Surely the hearts who are reminded of death are softened” (Muslim 976).
Thus, it is customary for Muslims to go to cemeteries in general and especially to the places where their close relatives are buried to achieve such spiritual benefits. Death and burials thus regulate the life of a Muslim.
Every Muslim wants a burial ground for his dying father, mother or relative. This is because it is customary for Muslims to stand and pray near the graves of their relatives after death. In the eyes of Islam, those that can benefit a person after death are the children who pray for him. Islam has guided us not to forget our parents and relatives even after death, by mentioning that the status of a dead person’s soul rises in paradise through the supplications of their children.
Therefore, in the view of Islam that honours the human body and its organs, burial of the deceased intact in a specific place in the ground is an act of paramount importance.
*The fact that burial rites are an integeral part of the Islamic faith is central to the argument that forced cremations carried out by the Government of Sri Lanka violate the human rights of the Muslim minority community in the country. This article attempts to examine the issue of burial rites from an Islamic perspective and establishes that it is a fundamental and integral part of the religious belief system of the Muslims.
The author, a native of Hemmathagama, Sri Lanka is a lecturer at Naleemiah Institute of Islamic Studies (NIIS) and a graduate of the same institute. He completed his Bachelor of Arts in Arabic and Islamic Civilization at the University of Peradeniya in 2008 and obtained his Master of Arts in Islamic Civilisation from the same university in 2013. He is currently reading for his Ph.D. at the International Islamic University, Malaysia. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect PRG’s position or view.