Muslim Funeral Traditions

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Muslims believe that death is not an ending, but a transition, and that there is life after death. The central religious text of Islam, the Quran, affirms death’s inevitability, noting “every soul will taste death.” For these reasons, the death of a loved one is expected to be faced with acceptance and dignity.  

For Muslims, funerals have profound significance, not just to the individual or the immediate family, but to the larger community, says Marcia Hermansen, PhD, director of the Islamic World Studies Program and a theology professor at Loyola University in Chicago. For that reason, Muslims are encouraged to attend any Muslim’s funeral, even if their connection to the deceased person is only tenuous or through several degrees of separation. It is common for people who may not know an individual personally to attend his or her funeral, especially because it often takes place at a prayer time when people are regularly in attendance at the mosque.

Although there are differences between sects and regions, most Muslim funerals follow the same specific rites: The body is bathed and shrouded in preparation for the funeral. A simple service is conducted at the mosque, often at the time of the noon prayer. Prayers are performed, while standing, and the body buried. Unless the cause of death is a mystery or requires further investigation, the body is typically buried within 24 hours of death. (If the person died before sunset, burial is usually performed the same day. If they died after sunset, they are buried the next day.)

What happens at a Muslim funeral?

As soon as someone dies, close family members will begin preparing the body for burial. This begins with bathing the body in warm water and wrapping it in a simple plain sheet (called the kafan). The body may be kept at home overnight, until it’s transported to the mosque. During this time, mourners may visit, to say good-bye to the deceased person and offer condolences to the family.

Before the funeral, the body may be placed in an unadorned casket. An imam or other authority leads the prayer, with congregants lined up in rows behind. Although kneeling is an integral part of prayer in Islam, the funeral prayer is offered while standing.

Traditionally, only male relatives and close friends attend the burial, though in some cultures, women may attend. While a casket may be used to transport the body, the body should be buried without a casket, if local law permits it, to allow the body to return to the earth. At the grave site, the body is lowered into the grave and the imam will say a few final prayers. Though customs vary, some traditions call on mourners to pour three symbolic handfuls of earth over the grave while reciting verses from the Quran. Family members may linger for quite some time at the grave site, as the grave is typically filled fully before mourners depart.

Afterward, the family observes a mourning period of three days (though this can vary significantly by family and sect). It is customary for close friends and relatives to visit the family during this time, bringing food and extending support. Widows may observe a longer mourning period, typically four months and ten days.

Planning a Muslim funeral

In Islam, the body should be buried as soon as possible after death, so funeral planning should begin immediately. Muslim mosques or affiliated groups can help families make arrangements in coordination with local funeral homes.

Frequently asked questions

Can Muslims donate their organs? 

Many Muslim scholars approve of donating organs for the purpose of saving lives or helping others. There is concern, however, with procedures that might be construed as desecrating the body, so when in doubt, consult religious leaders.

Can Muslims be embalmed? 

Embalming is not allowed unless required by law (such as when state law requires it to transport the body across state lines).

Can Muslims be cremated? 

Cremation is forbidden for Muslims.

What is the expected etiquette for guests at a Muslim funeral?

It is normally expected to greet and offer condolences to the family of the deceased. Male and female attendees are sometimes segregated, with female attendees talking to female relatives and male attendees talking to male relatives.

What is proper attire at a Muslim funeral? 

The dress code for men and women should be modest. This typically means a shirt and pants for men. Women attending a mosque are expected to wear long (ankle-length) clothing and a top with long sleeves and a high neck. Wearing a headscarf is a sign of respect when visiting a mosque. Shoes are removed before going into the prayer hall.

Is there a viewing, wake or visitation before a Muslim funeral?  

Typically there is no wake or formal visitation at a funeral home before a Muslim funeral. Viewing on the part of close friends and relatives often takes place right before the funeral prayer in a separate room of the mosque. If viewing takes place, males and females participate in separate sessions.

Are non-Muslims welcome to attend a Muslim funeral?  

Non-Muslims are welcome to attend Muslim funerals and to enter the mosque. They are not expected to participate in the brief prayer ritual.

Is it appropriate to send or bring flowers to a Muslim funeral? 

This varies depending on the family and local custom. In some countries or cultures, it’s customary to send flowers or food, while in others, a sympathy call is preferable. When in doubt, ask the family or local religious leader.

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