My father was a man who lived his life with ideal love in his heart; love of god and spirituality was a great part of that; Hafiz had a great deal of influence on him because Hafiz poems always speaks of love and love of god. Even when my father was in the hospital he kept his Hafiz pocket book under his pillow close to him and he read from the book especially when he was in a good mood. My father died of cancer at age 59 in 1986. In this essay I will try to share with you the experience of my father’s death and all the funeral procedures and Islamic rituals that I witnessed after his death.
We are seven brothers. As children when we were growing-up; our childhood in Afghanistan cannot be compare to life in America. He represented some of a different person to each of us. We all love him dearly even today after so many years have passed and we still cannot really talk about him, as though he is not here with us. We still feel his presence.
My mother was devastated after my father’s death; she had lost her life partner. My mother wrote about my father’s death: “Sadly, just as everything seemed together and fine, my husband became ill (it was later known that he had cancer) and he passed away within a year. He left a void in me and our lives forever.”
Death in Islam
This paper is about the death of my father and the rituals and ceremonies related to his death, being a Muslim our funeral and burial is quite simple. Death and dying in Islam are not separate death is a transition, as in Quran it is stated: “Verily, unto Allah do we belong and verily, unto Him we shall return.” (Quran 2:156)
As a result life for any Muslim is a stage where all his actions are acted out and he or she is judged for his or her stance on good and evil, the degree of his or her involvement in different actions. According to Quran, good and evil is present in all the individuals and even in the society one lives in, so the objective for any Muslim should be to act in a righteous manner and to stay away from all that is so attractive and harmlful and to keep one self clean. I remember my own dependence on alcohol which led to my near death experiences; I finally realized why I had to abstain in order to lead a full and healthy life.
We have ordained death among you, and We are not to be overcome, so that We may change your state and make you grow into what you know not. (Quran 56:60-61) Death is described in a very clear and unambiguous tone in Islam, and since it is a very important concern for all humans Quran has very clearly portrayed the stages of death and the life after death. Death is depicted as sleep and the Holy Prophet often discussed death and the ignorance of people who forget about death and do not prepare for their death and afterlife in this world.
And spend something in charity out of the substance which We have bestowed on you before death should come to any of you and he should say, “O my Lord! Why didst Thou not give me respite for a little while? I should then have given) in charity, and I should have been one of the doers of good.” But to no soul will Allah grant respite when the time appointed (for it) has come; and Allah is well-acquainted with (all) that ye do. (Quran 63: 10-11)
The world is something which is regarded as very temporary as the time spent in this world is an opportunity to do something for the eternal life. People have a choice to either be wise and save something for the next life or to just ignore the warnings and indulge in all the attractive yet prohibited things that life has to offer. It is sort of a test for people who choose. Remembering, reflecting and discussing death is very important in a Muslim’s regular life death is treated as a fact which cannot be ignored. In addition, attending the funeral of individual Muslims, whether they are strangers or from one’s own family or social circle, is encouraged. And if someone does attend a funeral there is a reward for the attendee.
Prophet Mohammed told his followers not to ignore death but to discuss it frequently so that things were kept in perspective. Westerners may regard it as a very dark side of Islam, however it makes death more of an eventuality where one becomes resigned to the belief of Ajal or one’s time in this world. An individual’s time in this world is predetermined by God one cannot escape from it since it is inevitable and preordained. Therefore only when God wills it does a person’s time come to leave this world and travel to the other life. And it is only on the appointed time that a person can die neither before nor after.
My Father’s Ordeal
While life is regarded as temporary however Muslims are encouraged to live their life to the fullest living within the laws prescribed to them, therefore life is a celebration and God in Islam has not given anyone the right to end his life—suicide is prohibited by our religion.
“No one can die except by God’s permission, the terms being fixed as by writing.” (Quran 3:145) In Islam the Sanctity of life is very important, it is sacred:”Do not take the life which God has made sacred except in (the course of) justice.” (Quran 6:151)
My father lived a full and eventful life from his time in the government to running his small retail store and raising seven boys with my mother, he was not only happy but thankful, even when he was uprooted and had to migrate to the United States as a refugee to escape the bloody war in Afghanistan. My father’s health deteriorated very quickly in a matter of a year, from the time of the diagnosis till when he actually died. He was a chain smoker and two packs a day of cigarettes had destroyed his lungs—he suffered from lung cancer and the whole family was devastated.
Initially it was very hard for us to understand much less accept the fact that so many years of constant smoking had led him to be so severely sick. There was nothing much that could be done for him other than making him comfortable so that the last days of his life which were full of so much pain could be made easier. However his pain and suffering was so intense that in his death I believe he found peace and was not suffering anymore. In addition our belief in the time that he was given in this world made it easier for us to accept the great loss.
My father passed away quietly at home. We knew that he had very little time so the family set up a vigil by his bedside to comfort him and to support each other through this ordeal that we were going through. We prayed constantly supplicating to Allah to ease the process for him and reading verses from the Holy Quran. In the end it is always advisable that the dying person is made to reiterate his commitment to God and my father till he lost consciousness kept on doing that. The family members have to prompt the dying person and this is called Talqeen; this is done to ensure that one day the dying person would enter the paradise. (Abu Aisha Para 2)
It is said that when the spirit leaves a person’s body then the eyes of the dead person should be closed. When we finally realized that our father was no more with us, we closed his eyes reciting the Shahada constantly and covered my father’s body with a sheet.
The funeral of a Muslim is the United States is not much different then anywhere else however there are certain things which have been taken into consideration keeping in mind that this is a western society. The first thing we did after my father’s death was to contact some of our friends and relatives. Then one of my brothers contacted the local chapter of the Muslim Community Center. There are burial committees, and people heading the committees are always present to assist other Muslims during this hour of their need. There are several steps involved in first preparing the body for burial:
Washing of the body
According to Islam the body of a male is bathed by a male while a body of a female is washed by females and that of a minor can be washed either by males or females. My brothers and I took part in the washing where the whole body was first placed on a table designed to perform this specific task. All the private parts of the body were covered and while keeping it covered the other garments of the body were removed. First the stomach was cleansed by pushing gently on the stomach so that all the excretions came out of the body and it is wiped with a piece of cloth. The body was then cleaned with hands or a piece of washing cloth. The water had to be warm and clean. Each part was washed three times; there is always an odd number three, five or seven.
We had to turn our father’s body left so that the right side could be washed we used warm water and soap. Then the body was turned to the right side to wash the left side. Since my father’s hair was short we just washed his hair, whereas for women it is recommended that the hair be braided leaving the ends loose. For the final washing some non-alcoholic perfume was added to the water. This was followed by performing ablution or wudu which is performed before praying. His nose and teeth were also cleaned at this stage. At the very end non-alcoholic perfume was again applied all over the body including the private parts and nostrils.
Wrapping Body in Kafan
We were told that there were supposed to be three pieces of clean cotton white fabric for men, and each cloth was supposed to be large enough to cover the body. My father’s body was wrapped in these pieces and then the two ends– the head and the feet were tied with small string like pieces of cloth tying different knots so that the head and the feet could be identified.
The Janazah Prayer
Before the actual burial the Janazah prayer was performed. The body of my father was put in front of the prayer leader or the Imam who faces the Qibla or the Kaba in Makkah; all other participants stand behind the Imam in three equally divided rows. The whole Janazah prayer was recited standing up.
The Funeral Procession
In the funeral procession after the Janazah prayer is recited, usually the coffin is carried out on the shoulders of men as they hold it on their shoulder and walk with it to the graveyard. In America my father’s body was taken in a car. What was most difficult was placing the coffin in a casket, which is not Islamic, but due to the state regulations we had to follow the rules. In addition the grave is traditionally dug six feet deep while here it was usually five feet deep. Living here we have adapted to the rules of the dominant society.
It was a uniformly dug grave. My brothers got down into the grave to lower my father’s body into it. Gently, almost reluctantly, we had to leave him there; his head was raised slightly with his face towards the Kaba. A roof was made with a slab over his body and then all the people accompanying us in the burial started pouring three handful of soil over him, all the time praying and reciting verses.
Reluctantly we went home to our mother to console her the best way we could though we knew that she could not be consoled. These few days were strange in that they brought the brothers even more close as we shared a collective loss. However as our religion so rightly states, there was no hysteria or depression as we had come to terms with the inevitability of death and though we grieved, we knew that all of us would eventually also go through the same process when our time was up.
Grief and Learning
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has identified the five stages of dying of which many terminally ill patients progress through when they are told about their illness. The stages go in progression through denial, isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages may exist side by side or one may experience any number out of the five and lasts for different periods of time. The one thing though that usually persists through all of the stages is hope (Ross 142).
My father was neither sad nor was he angry at his fate, he was very calm and resigned to his fate as he knew as we all do that one day he had to go, being a Muslim this acceptance is part of our attitude towards life and death, therefore we do try to cure a disease but do not fight our fate.
For me on the other hand was very difficult, maybe my western sensitization made me go through a lot of stages like isolation, anger and depression after my father’s death and burial processes and still so much time after his death. Sometimes still do so today when I have to take some decision I start missing my father and get depressed when I realize that he is not anymore with us. I used to take my father’s opinion in every task I had to take. During the early stages of his death, I was experiencing the isolation stage.
I used to sit alone in my room or walk away to a nearby park and used to lie there on the grass for hours thinking about my father and the moments we spent together. Everything started rotating around my mind like a movie. Sometimes I felt so much depressed that tears used to come out of my eyes.
The whole process of death from the time my father passed away till the time we buried him in his grave, one thought was in my mind—this was a goodbye which is necessary so that somewhere deep down you know your actions are therapeutic and are a part of the healing process. One thought that kept racing through my mind while we were bathing and shrouding him was that how different it would have been had we been in Afghanistan at least he would not have to bury him in a casket, but then living here we have resigned us to the limitations on our practices.
Many Muslims in the Americas are strongly familiar with the literature on Islam in America; few are familiar with related research findings beyond the Islam in America literature. This is significant because findings beyond those of mainstream Islamic sources often offer less biased and more detailed accounts of Islam in America. I think when you experience something in life it helps you understand it very well. Same was the case I had to experience at my father’s death. I did not have so much detailed knowledge about the funeral and burial processes before.
Overall the experience of my father’s death brought many sorrows for me and my family but it also helped me to understand my religion well and to understand the basic rituals one should follow at this occasion. His death also drew me closer to my religion as I drew strength from my local community which helped my family in our hour of need. As an immigrant Americans opened their arms to us, but I think now which the changing political climate being a Muslim here is difficult. In addition I feel that we should be allowed to practice our customs as is recommended in Islam.
- Abu Aisha, Bilal. Funeral Rites and Regulations in Islam. Mission Islam. http://www.missionislam.com/knowledge/funeral.htm
- Kubler-Ross, E., On Death and Dying, Tavistock Publications, 1973, reprinted (1981) The Holy Quran Translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali http://www.harunyahya.com/Quran_translation/Quran_translation_index.php