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Muslim views of death


According to the Quran 45:26, "It is God who gives you life, then causes you to die, and then He gathers you all to the Day of Resurrection of which there is no doubt, though most people do not comprehend." This passage establishes that, as in Christianity, Muslim views of death begin with the premise that the eternal human soul is God-given and that after physical death there is an eventual resurrection (qiyamat) and day of judgment (yaum al din).

Between death and that time, the soul remains in a state reflecting the life the person lived. For the sinful dead, the grave before the final day is constricted, uncomfortable and difficult. For the pious and faithful deceased, the grave is expansive, comfortable and easy.


A person's eternal fate, either paradise or hell, is determined at the final judgment, when humanity will be sorted and God will determine their ultimate destiny. At that time, those whose "good deeds are heavy on the scales will have a pleasant life, but the one whose good deeds are light will have the Bottomless Pit for his home" (Quran 101:6-9).


After death, according to tradition, two angels come to question the deceased regarding her faith. Depending upon her responses, she will experience comfort or suffering in a measure correlating to her merits and sins. Whether this time purges or expiates sins before the last day is a matter of some debate. However, there are strong traditions that even after death, prayers on behalf of the dead may affect their circumstances.


There are many statements from the Prophet Muhammad recommending prayers for the dead and for the alleviation of their afflictions. It is not uncommon for Muslims to pray on behalf of their deceased loved ones, to visit their graves and even to perform Hajj for the benefit of another. These practices establish and maintain connections with the departed.


There are also strong traditions that the Prophet Muhammad will have the power of intercession on the final day and may supplicate to the merciful God on behalf of the people, securing them a place in paradise.


Ideally a Muslim will die either uttering the shahadah (testimony of faith "there is no God but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God") herself or hearing the shahadah from loved ones gathered around her. It is the shahadah that welcomes Muslim newborns into this world, and it is the same shahadah that marks their transition to the life beyond.


After physical death, the body is washed by a near relation, wrapped in a shroud and quickly buried, ideally directly in the earth. If the deceased was able to fulfill the Hajj pilgrimage, then the clothes (ihram) worn during that sacred journey will be used as the burial shroud.


The funeral prayer (salat al janaza) is completed at the gravesite, and in most cultures after three days family and friends of the deceased gather for another special prayer. A 40-day mourning period is usually observed, after which normal family activities may resume such as weddings or other celebrations.


(This column expresses the views of professors Omid Safi and Anna Bigelow. Safi is associate professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC-CH. Bigelow is assistant professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at N.C. State University





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