“An Islamic Perspective on Death”
The Ismaili Muslim community comes together at times of sorrow and grief. There are a range of ceremonies we associate with mayyat or passing away of a soul from this world. When we hear news of someone’s death, as Muslims, we recite Ayah 156 of Sura al-Baqara: Inna li-llahi wa inna ilay-hi raji’un, meaning “Surely we belong to Allah and to Him we shall return“. The acceptance of eternal life of the soul and the absolute Will of God is best reflected in the above Surah.
The ayats before and after this verse (ayah 155-157) offer additional understanding of death in Islam, as under:
“Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil) but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere who say, when afflicted with calamity: to God we belong and Him is our return. They are those on whom (descend) blessings from God, and mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.”
While we might not always understand God’s Will or His Intent for us, we recognize the temporary nature of our existence in this world and that only our souls are eternal. In uttering this phrase from the Holy Quran we confirm two truths. First, that we are all created by the same God, al-Khalik (the Creator) and, therefore, we are united as brothers and sisters in humanity. The second is that there will come a day when we are no longer a part of this world and we will return to our Creator.
While death is a sad time, it is also a soul’s re-union with the Divine. The Muslim mystics to the death of an individual as his wedding night, for it is at this time that she/he is united once again with the subject of their Divine Love. Even though we may not recognize this immediately, we are accepting of this when we say “Shukr” to those close to the deceased in essence we are saying “Shukr Al-Hamdulillah,” recognizing that God has taken one of his creatures back into Himself.
It is in this understanding of return to God that one finds consolation and solace at a time of severe loss and significant grief. Weeping and feelings of sadness are certainly considered normal, as these are signs of tenderness and compassion in the heart; however, indulgence in excessive expression of unrestrained grief is discouraged. Believers are urged to bear pain and affliction with patience, seeking God’s Mercy for strength and courage in the face of calamity.
As a community, we support each other in important ways at times of difficulty, sorrow and tragedy. One of these occasions is at times of death. We get together to prepare the body of the deceased, perform the final rights and pray for the soul of the deceased. We also ensure that the departed’s family members are looked after at this time of need so that their burden/sorrow is minimized. In many of the older documents of the community from the early 20th century, show that at least one member of each family was highly encouraged to attend funerals and pray for the deceased. Many community members still observe this tradition and attend funerals even if they do not know them or are not related to the deceased. On these occasions, our best selves emerge as we demonstrate our support and care for the grieving family. Our thoughts and prayers for the deceased also remind us of this transient world and the journey of our own souls.
“Astaghfir ullah Rabbi, Wa’ata’ubu ilay-hi” is recited for the benefit of the ruhani, meaning “Verily, I seek forgiveness from Allah, who is my Lord-Sustainer, and I return towards Him in repentance”. In reciting this phrase, we pray to God on behalf of the deceased while reaffirming our own shortcomings and asking for forgiveness. At this moment, the individual and community exist at the same time.
The austere, subdued burial is observed in line with Islamic tradition that all people – even Kings – are equal in death before God.
Pir Shams’s Garbi (poetry) in Gujarati, chapter 9 verses 19-21, state:
Bhai eklare uthkar jaengere lol. – O’Brother! You will have to go alone.
Kuchh dharam liyo tame sathiyare lol. – Take some good deeds with you.
Em ginan gur bolyare lol. – Pir Shams (r.a) says in the ginan.
Death comes to all human beings. In religious traditions, the event of death is understood within a larger framework of human destiny and purpose. Just as life is viewed as meaningful, so too is death. Many religions see death not as the end of human/physical life, but as a transition to a life beyond death.
Death, like birth, is a transitory event in human life: one marks our entry in the world, while the other marks the end of our earthly life. In many societies death is marked by rituals that form the “rites of passage”, reflecting their beliefs, traditions and culture. When a person is near the point of dying, rites help that individual and his family to prepare for death. Rites are also performed during the funeral. After the funeral, other rites assist the family and relatives to resume normal life after a period of grieving.
The rites of death serve many purposes. Socially, they bring people in a family and community together during a difficult time. The family members of the deceased receive support and consolation from the people around them to help see them through a stressful period. Psychologically, these rites help individuals to come to terms with the fact of death and provide inner strength through which people begin to accept the loss of a family member or friend.
In religious traditions, rites that accompany death express the belief that life on earth is followed by life in the hereafter. The form that life after death takes is understood differently in different religions. We find a wide range of beliefs that refer to the experience of death and what happens in the hereafter. Symbolic language provides human beings with a creative means to engage with death as one of the great mysteries of life.
In the Qur’anic vision, human existence is part of the fabric of divine creation. Muslims understand life on earth as a short passage in eternity where the soul is given human form. Physical life on this earth is limited in time, but the life of the soul, that is, the spiritual life, is eternal, and the soul yearns to return to God. Muslims accept the gift of life as an “Amanah” – a trust and an opportunity – bestowed by God. Like birth, death is also accepted as the Will of God.
The Ismaili Muslim Tariqah has practices that are specific to our Tariqah, and those that are part of the Sharia, common to all Muslims. It is therefore noteworthy that burial ceremonies of Ismaili communities living in various regions of the world also reflect rites which are indigenous to their cultural traditions as well as those that are common to all Muslims.
When a Muslim passes away, prayers are recited during the funeral ceremonies, known as Namaz-i Janaza or Namaz-i Mayyit (‘prayers for the deceased’) and Fatiha which includes praying for forgiveness for all believing men/women and also the deceased, along with recitation of selected chapters and verses from the Holy Qur’an which include Surat al-Fatiha and Surat al-Ikhlas. At the burial site, we recite Fatiha twice – once for the deceased and a second time for all other deceased souls. Also recited are the takbir (‘Allahu Akbar’), the shahada, and the salawat, invoking blessings for the Prophet and his progeny. In Ismaili communities another rite is performed for the deceased on the same day in the evening during daily congregational prayers, which, like the Namaz-i Mayyit, includes recitation of selected verses from the Qur’an, as well as the salawat.
We come to Jamatkhana in the evening, as a community to participate in Ziyarat, Samar and Tasbih. The word Ziyarat means “to visit” or “to go on a journey” while Samar refers to the package (of prayers or good deeds) for the journey. Here the journey is of the soul towards eternity.
Another example of a burial rite in the Ismaili Tariqah is Chiragh-i Rawshan, a practice that is observed by Ismailis from the Da’i Nasir-i Khusraw tradition. Chiragh-i Rawshan means ‘luminous lamp’. It is one of the oldest surviving Ismaili traditions of the Central Asian region, in which when a person passes away, a gathering of believers is held in the home of the deceased, where a lamp is kindled, and selected verses from the Holy Qur’an are read, prayers and devotional poems are also recited. At the heart of this ceremony is glorification of God, praise for His Prophets and Imams, and prayers for divine grace and help. Prayers are offered for the eternal peace of the departed soul, as well as for the well-being of those who are alive. Here is an excerpt of a prayer recited during the Chiragh-i Rawshan ceremony:
“O Allah! O our Mawla! We have remembered, and we seek support for the departed soul and all the souls that have departed with the light of faith.”
Many Ismaili pirs and da’is, have used beautiful symbols and allegories to help us better understand the relationship between Mayyit and Bay’ah in light of the murid-Imam spiritual bond. Pir Hasanshah (1341-1449) calls upon his bay’ah to the Imam by asking him to become his “taaran-har”. One who comes to murids’ rescue in “duniya” and in “akhira”, the hereafter. Another beautiful example is the Gujarati poetry Darshan diyo mora nath by Syeda Imam-Begum (1785-1866), where she lovingly calls upon the assurance of her bay’ah, her permanent spiritual bond, to beseech the Imam with the following tender words:
“When the immaculate Lord comes to be the groom, He will be the consort of the universal bride.
On that day my Lord, summon me by your side.
Be sure, my Lord, to take my hand in yours.
Says Imam-Begum: listen, my Lord, do I ask of you, my Lord.”
A community is made up of its members. Each and every one of us, regardless of our differences, contribute to the well-being of the whole. While sometimes we might forget this, prayer and care are important aspects of a community’s well-being. In demonstrating this care, in providing comfort and praying for others, we come together as a stronger community, enveloping each and every one of us in our compassion, in our love and in our good wishes.
Muslims are encouraged to pray for forgiveness and mercy for the departed soul and to focus on the spiritual journey rather than the physical. The prayers and rituals aim to emphasize hope and inspiration for the believers. This emphasis stresses both the boundless Mercy of God as well as God’s prerogative as the sole Judge – Malik-i-Yaum-id-din – the Lord of the Day of Judgment.
Finally, this is also a time when the community comes together around the grieving family to provide comfort and solace. The community provides support and plays a key role in ensuring that the final rites are observed with dignity and compassionate care. In the Muslim tradition, it is considered a privilege to reach out to the family and participate in the rites of passage for the deceased.