More Than Meets the Eye, True Stories about Death, Dying, and Afterlife covers many aspects of the dying and grieving process and sheds light on euthanasia, suicide, near-death experience, and spirit visits after the passing of a loved one. ___________________________________________

Friday, October 23, 2009

Death and Dying in the Islamic Culture

This essay is by Julie Mohr, an online student in the same college sociology class as me. I invited her to be a guest on my blog today because she offered such great insight in a well-written post as one of our required assignments. We were asked to describe the beliefs and practices of another culture in regards to death, dying, and afterlife. She chose to study death and dying in the Islamic Culture.

There is great diversity in the Muslim religion, which has people who practices it on every continent, and reportedly has as much as 1/5 of the world’s population as followers, less than 15% of whom are of Arab descent (There are significant numbers of people who follow Islam in Asia, Africa and Europe). The basis of the religion follows the beliefs and teachings of well-known Christian Biblical figures Abraham and Moses, and the prophet Mohammed writing the Quran as not a NEW religion, but as a clarification from God of rules and law. They recognize Judaism and Christianity (both Catholics and Protestants) as religions that worship the one God as they do, Allah is the name of that God for Muslims.

I have personally traveled to Turkey, which is 99% Muslim, and found it a country with a tremendous amount of openness and interest in us as travelers. I visited Izmir and then traveled to Istanbul, where I went to Topkapi Palace and saw the great Relics Room where they believe to have the staff of Moses and the cooking pot of Abraham, along with hairs from the beard of Mohammed. At the time I was surprised because I didn’t realize that Muslims believe they are an extension of Abrahamic faith. A Muslim sings the Quran in that room 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Since I didn’t know a lot about the religion, or Islamic rituals regarding Death & Dying, I chose it for the purpose of this assignment:

According to several websites I visited, there is broad cultural diversity in the Muslim world, so some of the rules are elastic and not nearly as set in stone as those of us in the West might be led to believe.

However, in death, there are very specific rituals to be followed. In a USA Today article about Muslim burials in the United States, Tahir Anwar, imam of the South Bay Islamic Association in San Jose, Calif. said little is known about how funerals were conducted in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam's founder.

"The bodies were washed, people did the (funeral) prayers, and they were buried. Those remain the three things we do today," he said.

Clothing, the role of women and a host of other issues vary widely from one country or continent to another. But despite these difference, and like Christianity or Roman Catholicism, there are rules of law. In the Islamic world are called the five “pillars” of Islam, on which most if not all Muslims follow and ties them together (I won’t list them here since none of them are relevant to the death & dying aside from mentioning that they are the five goals that make a Muslim a Muslim). After reading several websites, I found that Muslims believe there is life after death not all that much different than Christian and/or Jewish religions.

Afterlife/Judgment: Death in the Islamic tradition is similar to Catholicism in that the body ceases to live, judgment of the deceased is made, and they are laid to rest with the future belief that a final Day of Judgment/End of the World is coming, when all the faithful will be brought to heaven and those who are not will go to the equivalent of hell . Their description is less extreme than Christians, in that Muslims are taught that there is “paradise” and “chastisement”.

On, it says that “Muslims believe that death is a departure from the life of this world, but not the end of a person's existence. Rather, eternal life is to come, and we pray for God's mercy to be with the departed, in hopes that they may find peace and happiness in the life to come.” (also not unlike the Bible readings and prayers for the soul that many Christian religions offer up at a deathbed or during a funeral).

“The person who is dying is asked three questions as they are dying, and their answers provide Muslims with the idea that the person is going to either be in a comfortable grave, or if they will be “chastised.”

It is recommended, if at all possible, for a Muslim's last words to be the declaration of faith: "I bear witness that there is no god but Allah." (some websites had this or some variation of the same statement). ”

Ultimately, a person who has lived a good “sin-free” life with lots of Muslim’s praying for his/her soul gets to “rest comfortably” in the grave (waiting for Judgment Day), whereas one who hasn’t will begin an afterlife of chastisement beginning with their being lowered into the physical grave itself.

Death and Its Relevance to Muslims
Muslims see death as the most important part of life, in that it is something very important to prepare for. On it states that “Death is likened to sleep in Islam. Sleep in Arabic is called "the little brother of death." The Prophet spoke often of death, and the Quran is filled with warnings of the dangers of ignoring one's mortality and of not preparing for death before it is too late.”

After Death
When a Muslim dies, there are very specific rituals in caring for the dead body. A Muslim person who has been trained to prepare the body will wash it, shroud it, and sometimes perfume it. Often a family member or friend will do the washing and shrouding, and men always take care of men’s bodies, and women care for women’s bodies. Care is taken during the washing and shrouding to cover the person’s private parts.

The body is treated with gentleness and respect, “as we would want to be treated,” said one woman in an article about Muslim death rituals in USA Today. Here in the United States, funeral homes will provide assistance to Muslims only insofar as providing the appropriate permits or licenses to bury their dead. Most sites I visited also stated that they try to bury a person within 24 hours, so there is no need to embalm the body. (Some websites were very specific about men receiving a certain number of layers of shrouds vs. women, and what colors they had to be. This can vary from country to country, but it’s clear that it must not be decorative, and most choose white if they state a choice).

Washing is done in odd numbers only, but I couldn’t find a place that explained why, only that a person is washed 3, 5 or 7 times. The cloth is called 'kafan' and the process 'takfeen. Some websites said that autopsies are forbidden, but others said that they must be done with the least amount of violation of the person (the person should remain as intact as possible because on Judgment Day good Muslims are raised up to go to Paradise and therefore must be physically intact for that to happen). Cremation is generally forbidden.
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The funeral prayer is then performed, and the deceased is buried in a graveyard without a coffin, simply laid in the earth and covered. A person, usually a relative, informs the deceased of what is happening, as Muslims believe that the deceased can hear and understand what is being said.

Muslims believe the dead person is not always aware of the transition, and so the one giving instructions informs the deceased that he or she has died, is being laid in the grave, and that two angels known as Munkar and Nakir will soon come into the grave to ask three questions.

To the first question, "Who is your Lord?," the deceased is instructed to reply, "Allah." In answer to the second question, "Who is your Prophet?," the deceased should say, "Muhammad," and the correct response to the third question, "What is your religion?," is "Islam." If the individual passes this first phase of the afterlife, the experience of the grave is pleasant, and he or she is given glimpses of the pleasures of paradise. If however, the deceased does not pass this phase, then the grave is the first stage of chastisement.”


From The grave itself is aligned on a northeast to southwest axis, facing Mecca. The wrapped body is placed directly into the ground, without any kind of casket. The body is laid on its right side, with the head facing Mecca, and the shroud is removed from the face.

Mourning: three days is the normal mourning period. Widows observe an extended morning period, called “iddah”, which lasts four months and ten days. During this time, she is not to remarry, move from her home, or wear decorative clothing or jewelry.

When one dies, everything in this earthly life is left behind, and there are no more opportunities to perform acts of righteousness and faith. The Prophet Muhammad once said that there are three things, however, which may continue to benefit a person after death: charity given during life which continues to help others, knowledge from which people continue to benefit, and a righteous child who prays for him or her.

Some of the difference I picked up on were generally those that would take old rituals and clash with Western Muslims. For example, one of the websites talked about autopsies as being forbidden, and another mentioned that they could be done, but care should be taken not to disturb the body too much, and to do it as respectfully as possible as quickly as possible. This would be a variation on a previously forbidden practice allowing for the government/law enforcement in this and other countries who need to do an autopsies for the purposes of establishing a cause of death.

There were a number of interesting facts on, where you could read about Islam and its Biblical-Quran comparisons, some of the different religions and how they compared and contrasted.

“The Sacredness of Life - Islam has made human life sacred and has safeguarded its preservation. According to its teachings, aggression against human life is the second greatest sin in the sight of Allah, second only to denial of Him.”

Julie Mohr has lived in the Pacific Northwest most of her life, but she was born in Brazil to American parents. She is a former newspaper journalist who has worked at The Yakima Herald-Republic and The Seattle Times. Julie publishes a blog at and attends school part-time for the purpose of changing careers to nursing. Her personal experience in miscarriage and infant loss helped her decide to become a nurse, and guided her to several online groups where she helps support those going through similar experiences.



UAE dentists said...

the qur an is not written by prohet mohammed (peace be upon him). he was illitrate-if you get time i invite you to learn islam-if you do so you will have no way to turn face from accepting it.its is a beautiful religion of peace
thank u.
dr.shoukath ali-


You have an amazing post. I read it several times. Read a similar post in mine too! Death