Muslim traditions in mourning and grief

9 min read

Islamic funeral traditions and beliefs

  • It is the responsibility of the family to usher the soul into the next stage of existence quickly, and so funerals are held as soon as possible.

  • The body is ritually prepared for burial, and autopsies and embalming are not permitted.

  • Simple coffins or often none at all are used.

  • The entire community is expected to attend a funeral, and everyone will put three handfuls of earth in the grave.

  • Modest dress is traditional at a funeral, and excessive crying or wailing is discouraged.

What happens after we pass away? The answers of various religions to this universal human question are core to how their adherents deal with loss and grief, and to the traditions that surround them.

In Islam, it’s believed that there is no end, no final passing away from life, only a continuation through stages of eternity. Life itself is primarily a temporary stage, a test for the soul, and a vehicle for salvation. Islamic funerary and mourning traditions are thus based on the idea that death is only frightening to those without good works and faith. If one is granted the ultimate reward it will mean a true resurrection and reawakening of one’s original earthly form. But first, a soul must be made to account for its life, a process that can only begin after burial. 

Islamic funerary rituals are driven by a desire to provide safe passage to the individual who has passed away, but they also help guide the community as it grapples with a death. Islamic tradition provides a script that explains how to prepare the body, what to do and not to do at the funeral, and how the burial will unfold. Equally important, these rituals serve to bind people together to support the bereaved.

Almost a quarter of the world’s population is Muslim, spread across vast regions. Traditions and beliefs obviously vary between areas and religious communities, but here is a guide to what you can usually expect should you ever find yourself in the role of friend, family, or mourner after the passing of a Muslim loved one.

Passing from this life

Immediately after a person passes away, it’s believed that the angel of death retrieves the soul, taking it to Jannah (heaven) to discover its ultimate fate. If the person is rewarded with eternal life in paradise, they visit all seven levels of heaven. If the person is condemned to Jahannam (hell), the gates of heaven remain closed, and the soul is cast back into the depths of the earth. Islamic thought offers a couple of different perspectives on what happens next.

Many believe that, after the revelation of its fate, the soul is returned to something resembling a physical experience inside the grave. This can only happen after burial, so the body must be interred quickly. Once back in the grave, two angels ask the person questions to account for their actions in life. After the soul has answered the final questions, it enters barzakh life, a period of waiting for the Day of Judgement, Yawm al-Din, when all the dead will be resurrected and ascend to Jannah or descend to Jahannam. Here, the condemned have a chance to be redeemed, and in most cases they will be forgiven.

Barzakh is a second life that transpires either metaphorically or literally in the grave, experienced by the person who has died as a kind of dream. During barzakh, the grave becomes either comfortably large and pleasant or painful and crushing, depending on the quality of the answers the soul provides when called to account. Either womb-like or vise-like, it offers the person who has died a chance to enjoy the fruits of their life’s faith and deeds, or atone for them. The possibility of “the punishment of the grave” is a strong motivation to avoid even forgivable sins.

Barzakh is not mentioned in the Quran, and some Muslims believe that the soul ascends or descends directly after the body dies, with only a short liminal state wherein judgement is delivered.

An urgent responsibility

Because it’s the sacred duty of the family to speed the soul on its journey, burials are held quickly, and people are laid to rest in as whole a state as possible. Ideally, the funeral and burial happen on the day of the person’s passing. This isn’t always practical, so the rites may take place within three days.

Life itself is considered primarily a temporary stage, a test for the soul, and a vehicle for salvation.

It’s believed that cremation, embalming, and, in most cases, autopsies are practices that defile the sanctity of the body, so they’re prohibited. In practice, however, a high priority is placed on adherence to local laws, which might require that one or more of these rules be broken. In addition, organ donation is generally allowed because of the basic Islamic imperative to preserve human life.

Preparations for the journey

Personal care of a loved one after their passing is entrusted to family members, who perform the elaborate, careful rituals of ghusl (bathing, perfuming, and grooming) and al-kafan (shrouding in a plain white kafan). Professional funeral arrangements are not customary in Muslim countries, where the family and community retain custody of the body and are jointly responsible for preparations after a death. There are detailed rules about precisely how these rituals need to be completed, but it’s usually up to the family to decide where will best allow for a properly completed ghusl. This may mean at a mosque, but it can also be in the home or at an open-air location, if privacy can be maintained.

In the U.S., state laws can often necessitate flexibility in observance of these rites. Many states require embalming or refrigeration if the body will not be buried within a certain time frame or in the case of transmittable illness. Several states require that a funeral director be involved in certain aspects of the burial. This can be complicated for Islamic families in areas without Muslim funeral homes or cemeteries. However, all states allow for home burial on private land, though special permits may be required.

Funeral and burial

Because of the importance of shrouding rituals and the prohibition on embalming, viewings are not usually a part of Islamic memorials. After the family enshrouds their loved one, close friends or family members may be invited to spend time with the person before the funeral ceremony. Then the body is transported in a simple coffin or on a bier to the site of the funeral. The service itself ideally takes place in an open community gathering space at a local mosque, but may be held in a funeral home.

The entire community is invited to the funeral, and all are expected to come if they can. The ritual itself strictly follows the Salat al-Janazah, a set of prayers and an order of ceremony. The body is set before the imam, the holy leader, at the head of a crowd that is divided by gender and age.

After the Salat al-Janazah is complete, the male members of the community take the body to the gravesite, where family members carefully place their enshrouded loved one directly on the soil, whenever possible. They then turn the body onto its right side, facing Mecca. After this portion is complete, each person in attendance tosses three handfuls of earth into the grave.

Simple grave markers are used to protect the grave from being walked on, but ostentatious monuments are usually forbidden.

Because death is not believed to be the end of life, expressions of grief are generally subdued.

Support for the bereaved

The community does more than just attend the funeral to mourn. People come forward to take care of logistics, sometimes in the form of groups and committees and sometimes less formally, while the bereaved prepare their loved one for a speedy burial. Then the community continues to feed and care for the family throughout the traditional three days of mourning, and longer if needed (up to 40 days). Excessive mourning is discouraged, however, in recognition of the fact that the soul has simply continued on, and death is not final.

If the person left behind a widow, the larger group is also responsible for helping her observe four months and 10 days of mourning. During this time, she’s expected to only leave the house for necessary duties, like work, doctor’s appointments, and errands. The widow avoids contact with anyone she might marry, in honor of her husband and any unborn children he might have parented.

Modesty in grief

While there is no specific color of mourning in Islam (apart from the white of the shroud), one should wear modest, loose-fitting clothing to the funeral that covers the arms and legs. For women, head coverings are required. Beyond this, it’s important to aspire to simplicity of dress, in keeping with the simplicity expected of funeral rites. A person is meant to leave this world in a state as simple as that in which they came.

In a bigger sense, displays of grief should also be modest. Food is a welcome donation, but flowers or extravagant gifts to the bereaved are generally discouraged. Again, because death is not believed to be the end of life, expressions of grief are generally subdued in order to show strength of faith. Crying is more than accepted, but wailing, calling out, screaming, or otherwise loudly emoting is not considered appropriate in the context of an Islamic funeral.

Reverence for Allah

Islam is a way of life that connects believers with Allah at least five times a day in prayer. Awareness of God and alignment with edicts of the faith are constants within the Muslim experience. Understandably, the period after a passing is a time of heightened spirituality and observance. So, when speaking with mourners at a funeral or in their homes during the mourning period, keep in mind that this is not a good time to share views that are out of alignment with belief in God and eternal life. While it’s by no means required, you may also wish to avoid wearing or carrying Christian symbols in order to show deference to the faith of those who grieve.

There’s an enormous variety in how these guidelines are followed, so make sure to verify with local Muslim community members and leaders if you find yourself called upon to grieve or bury a loved one of the faith. Overall, such detailed rituals and clear expectations can provide a solid framework within which grief is carried as a shared burden.

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