Without wishing to make any judgment, the way a person is buried does not change anything about his faith or his standing on the day of judgment. What is more important is that no serious dispute should be allowed to develop between two communities over the issue. I hope the matter has been amicably resolved.
• Death: Expressions of sorrow that displease God
Back home people organize functions after the death of a person. They also mark the anniversary of the death each year. Are such practices allowed in Islam?
A Muslim accepts the death of a person who is dear to him as an act of God’s will, and he resigns himself to missing that person, hoping that he or she will receive God’s forgiveness and be admitted to heaven. He prays for the deceased person’ and requests God to forgive him or her and to bestow His mercy on them, and he may offer the pilgrimage, or Umrah, and pay money to poor people or to charities on their behalf. All this is acceptable and is bound to benefit the deceased.
The functions you mentioned at anniversaries or after certain days of the death of a person are of no value. Indeed they may be less than valuable if they included practices or statements that displease God, such as saying words or sentences that imply some sort of objection to God’s will. An example of that is when people say that a certain person has died too early, or before he completed his life, or that he has left young children with no one to care for them.
• Death: Forgiveness by coincidence
A woman who led a life that paid no attention to religious teachings, used to drink and was even thought of as a prostitute, died on the 27th Ramadhan. Some people argued that because of this she may be forgiven all her sins, as her death occurred on a night of grace in a month which is full of grace. However, the community did not allow her body to be buried in the Muslim graveyard. She was buried in the public ground. Please comment.
That this woman may be forgiven all her sins is a possibility which only God determines. It is not for any human being to decide whether this will happen or not. What we know for certain is that God may forgive anyone any amount of sins. He says in the Qur'an: “God indeed forgives all sin.” For any person to be forgiven, what is needed is genuine repentance and a resolve not to go back to sinning ways. If a person does that with honesty and sincerity, and he or she prays to God for forgiveness, then God may forgive him or her. God certainly knows whether a person is genuine in his repentance or not. He has promised forgiveness to those who repent sincerely. God always fulfills His promises.
So, if this woman had repented and turned to God with sincerity seeking His forgiveness, He may well forgive her. That her sins were numerous and of the cardinal type is no barrier to His forgiveness, provided her repentance was genuine indeed.
On the other hand, the timing of her death, on its own, is no reason for forgiveness. It is true that the night of 27 Ramadhan is likely to coincide with the night of power, which is described in the Qur'an as better than one thousand months, but dying on that night is of no significance, unless the person who dies then has been making the best use of the night by following the Prophet's advice and spending his time in worship. It is our actions which determine our position, not the circumstances of our death or birth.
• Death: From here to eternity
What is the Islamic view regarding the phase in which a human being passes between his death and the day of resurrection? Do we meet and recognize our relatives and children on the day of resurrection? What will our age be like?
Every human being knows that his existence is related to the presence of a "spirit" which makes all the difference between life and death. When a human being dies, his spirit departs from his body. The body remains as it is, but it has no life. A dead person cannot move, speak, see, feel or think. If he belongs to a Muslim family, he is buried. In other communities and faiths, something else is done. He may be cremated, thrown in the sea, or left to be eaten by the birds. Nothing of this affects his spirit because it has already departed from his body.
The question arises here: what is the spirit? How do we define it? What is its nature? It is useful to relate here that at the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him, the polytheists in Makkah thought of trying to establish whether the Prophet, peace be upon him, was truly a messenger of Allah or not. They sent a delegation to the Jews in Madinah to meet with their senior rabbis. They thought that the Jews, having a sacred book and being monotheists, may be able to give them some information by which they could determine whether what the Prophet, peace be upon him, said was right. The Jews suggested to them to put to the Prophet, peace be upon him, questions on three topics. If he gave them satisfactory answers on all of them, they would know that he was only a messenger of Allah. One of these topics was the spirit. The Prophet, peace be upon him, prayed to Allah to give him answers to all three questions. Answer in details to one of the questions is given in the surah entitled "The Cave." It relates to the histories of the group of young men who took refuge in a cave to hide away from their people who were polytheists. The second question concerns Thul-Qarnain, a man who traveled far and wide and was able to establish justice and monotheism. As far as the third question, which was on spirit, was concerned, the answer is given in a single verse in the Surah, entitled "The Night Journey" or "Al-Isr’a' ". It may be rendered in translation as follows: "They question you about the spirit. Say: (knowledge of) the spirit belongs to my Lord, and you have been given but scanty knowledge."
It is clear from this verse that Allah has chosen not to impart to us any detailed knowledge of the spirit. He has chosen to keep that to Himself. That establishes two points: that we do not need such knowledge of the spirit in order to fulfill the task entrusted to us of building human life on earth. Had it been necessary for us to acquire that knowledge, Allah would have not withheld it from us.
The other point is that since Allah has withheld such knowledge from us, hard as we may pursue it, we will not end up with the truth about it. There have been so many thinkers and philosophers in all ages who belong to all nations and all civilizations, and who have tried to know what the spirit is and what its nature is like. Some of them have come with different concepts and ideas. None of them, however, stands up to close examination. Some of their concepts are absurd that one wonders how can a man of any degree of intelligence come out with such a concept. Others have large and apparent flaws. None is truly convincing. Muslim scholars, on the other hand, have from one generation to another maintained that since Allah has not given us such knowledge, we do not waste our time pursuing it, because all our attempts will lead us nowhere.
Having explained that knowledge of the spirit and its nature have not been given to us by Allah, I should add that we have certain hints in the Qur'an and by the Prophet, peace be upon him, which give us some impression of the life of the spirit. One such example is the Qur'anic statement that martyrs who sacrifice their lives for the cause of Islam are not to be considered as dead; they are "alive with their Lord, and are given provisions." The Prophet, peace be upon him, likens the spirit of people to "soldiers in ranks: those of whom come to know one another establish intimacy and those who are unfamiliar with one another are hostile." This statement is understood to explain how believers get on easily with one another and soon establish intimacy.
Since we do not know a great deal about the world of the spirit, it is difficult for us to explain in detail what happens to the spirit after it departs from the body and until the day of resurrection. We know, however, that the Prophet, peace be upon him, has taught us to pray Allah to spare us suffering in the grave. He himself used that prayer, although he knew he would not be exposed by Allah to such suffering. He did so in order to teach us what to say in our prayer. This prayer, however, tells us that some people are punished and tormented in their graves. It is reported that the Prophet, peace be upon him, has described the grave as either "a piece of the garden of heaven or a pit of fire." This description shows that some people, i.e. good believers, will be happy in their graves, while others, the disbelievers, have much to suffer. It is needless to say that this suffering is not physical. The body of a buried person will soon decompose. One who is cremated is reduced to ashes. Nevertheless, the torment referred to by the Prophet, peace be upon him, as being suffered by the dead people in their graves is real and applies to all those whose actions in life make them liable to such punishment. It is reasonable, therefore, to assume that this torment is spiritual, rather than physical.
When the resurrection takes place, every spirit is reunited with its body. We are raised in the same state in which we were at the point of death. We will face the reckoning on the Day of Judgment, when our actions are either credited for us or recorded against us. If our good actions are weightier, we are given our book of account in our right hands. That in itself is a signal of Allah's pleasure with us and we feel so elated that we want to show our book to all around us. Those who are given their books of account in their left hands, realize that they are doomed. They wish they had never been given anything.
The question may be asked here: How does the spirit recognize the body after it has decomposed, been cremated or even eaten by birds? This is all related to the very concept of resurrection. As Muslims, we believe that every human being will be raised to life again and that all human beings in all generations will be gathered together on the Day of Judgment. What has happened to the dead body of each person does not constitute a major point of worry for us, because we know that Allah is able to accomplish His will and do whatever He wants. It is sufficient for us to know that it is only through His ability that we have been created the first time. That is how we have been brought into this life after we are nothing. Can anyone of us imagine what sort of life did he have before his mother produced the egg which was fertilized by the sperm of his father and the conception led to the pregnancy which culminated in his birth? This creation is indeed enough proof to us that He who has created us in the first instance is able to bring us back to life after we die. That He brings us back to life in the same state which witnessed the end of our first life constitutes no difficulty to Him.
As for recognizing our relatives and friends, we certainly do. In the Qur'an, Allah tells us that on the Day of Judgment, every one is preoccupied with his own fate. He runs away from his parents, brothers, sisters and children. He will not run away from them if he does not recognize them.
As for our age in Hereafter, I can refer to the Hadith when an elderly woman companion of the Prophet, peace be upon him, asked him to pray to Allah to admit her in heaven. The Prophet, peace be upon him, joked with her and said: "No elderly woman is admitted into heaven." The Prophet, peace be upon him, said this in jest, and we have to explain here that the Prophet, peace be upon him, always said the truth, whether he spoke seriously or in jest. Tears sprang to the woman's eyes, because she was elderly. The Prophet, peace be upon him, smiled and explained that this does not mean that all elderly women will be turned away from heaven. Certainly good women, of all ages, will be in heaven. The Prophet, peace be upon him, told her that every woman who goes to heaven will be back in her prime, as a youthful girl, full of vigor.
• Death: From hunger
I have been asked to put this question to you: While Allah has promised to feed each and everyone born in this world, why do hundreds and thousands of people die of starvation in Africa and other parts of the world? What about their promised provision?
Yes, Allah has guaranteed that every living creature will have his, her or its provisions. He says in the Qur'an: "Every living thing on earth will have its provisions given by Allah." (11;6). But what does this promise mean? Does it mean that what is assigned to every creature will come to that creature wherever he is and whether he works or not? To believe so is to be exceedingly naive. With the population of the world now exceeding five thousand million, it will take a planet which is hundreds of times bigger than ours to provide all these people with their sustenance, let alone what animals and other creatures will need. Besides, what would be the point to provide all these creatures with their sustenance if they do not need to work for it? The least that can be said is that it would transform human beings to lazy creatures who expect to be fed without making an effort. The whole purpose of human existence, which is building human civilization on earth, would be totally negated. But Allah tells us in the Qur'an, referring to the earth that He "has apportioned in it provisions (for its living beings)." How can we link the two aspects together?
The Islamic view is that Allah has given the earth the potential, enough agricultural and animal resources to feed all those who live on it comfortably. People need to work in order to get what the earth can give. Everyone realizes this. If we were to leave fertile lands without proper cultivation, irrigation and general agricultural attention, we will make of them either barren land or land which produces wild plants, most of which are inedible. When a farmer takes good care of his fields, pulling out the weeds, using proper fertilizers, using good seeds and ensuring adequate irrigation, he gets a good harvest. He is able to sell his produce to his fellow countrymen or export it abroad. The same applies to every aspect of agriculture and animal resources. British fishermen, for example, are renowned for the way they preserve their fisheries to ensure continuous supply of fish throughout the year. Other countries which do not follow a similar pattern, have their fishing resources depleted or at least experience sharp seasonal fluctuations in their catch of fish.
We often hear that the population explosion will bring an unparalleled disaster for mankind. Predictions that the earth will not be able to support those who live on it are heard very often. Such predictions are short-sighted. They are similar to predictions that were made two centuries ago, when the population on earth was perhaps one fifth of what it is today. At that time, people tended to think that the earth would not be able to support many more human beings. How was it able to support five times that number? The fact is that man has been able to tap more resources by using new discoveries, such as electrical power and innovative methods. I am not suggesting that population increase should continue unchecked, but I am saying that the earth has far more untapped resources than what human beings now utilize. For this reason, man can enjoy a far greater degree of affluence, if only he would care to tap these resources and put them to proper use.
Let us consider the following two examples. When the population of Egypt was in the region of 15 million, in the late forties and early fifties, the country's agricultural produce was sufficient to feed all its people comfortably. Now, the same agricultural land has to feed more than treble that population. Although Egypt has the Nile running the whole length of the country, it relies for its agriculture on a very narrow valley extending all the way from its southern borders to Cairo and on the Nile delta. Yet the Nile waters can be used to reclaim vast desert areas. Besides, Egypt has a wealth of underground water. There have been some attempts to reclaim desert land particularly in Sinai which has now good agricultural produce in certain areas. Moreover, a fantastic project of drawing Nile water to irrigate Sinai desert land has already started to pay good dividends. Much more can be done in this area and Egypt can easily treble or quadruple its agricultural produce.
Until recently, Sudan was considered a country with enormous agricultural and animal resources. It has abundant water resources in the Nile and the Blue Nile provides an easy, cheap method of irrigation. Only recently there were projects which aimed at making Sudan the breadbasket of the Arab world. Nevertheless, now why Sudan suffers this miserable state of affairs is not for the lack of resources, but the mismanagement of these resources. There are many more examples like this.
If we add to such examples causes like ill-advised policies, based on wrong priorities, dictatorial governments which allow corruption to spread, wide-scale mismanagement and the work of these forces which want to preserve the present situation which concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, you have an unfailing prescription for continued poverty in potentially rich countries.
If we look at the world situation, we find far too many situations where potentials are not realized and people continue to suffer as a result. What we conclude from this is that Allah has given us the means to feed ourselves properly, but we have not used those means in the right way to benefit by the potentials. The fault is with man and not with Allah. Many people ask why does Allah allow people to perish of starvation in Ethiopia? If we look at the situation in Ethiopia over the last sixty years, we find that the miserable dictatorship of the former emperor has been replaced by the Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu. It is the policies of these governments that had brought Ethiopia to the point of collapse. It may be asked why people should be left to suffer if the government is not following proper policies. The answer is that the people are also responsible for allowing such a government to continue without trying hard enough to either cause the government to reform its policies or bring in a different sort of government.
Islam does not only make it an essential part of man's role on earth to realize the potentials of the planet on which man lives, but also to ensure fair distribution of wealth. Its system which regulates the use of agricultural produce, the break up of wealth through inheritance, help to the poor through the zakah system, are just few aspects of the Islamic system which bring about justice for all and guarantees everyone a decent standard of living when it is properly implemented. Man, however, must work to implement the Islamic way of life. Otherwise, injustice will continue and man's suffering will be perpetuated. Without hard work man cannot expect to reap any fruits. We cannot blame Allah for our lack of efforts. He has given us the means to increase human wealth, but we have to utilize those means. Unless we do that, the present ills of human society will continue.
• Death: In infancy
You have in the past quoted a Hadith which states that children who die in their infancy try to get their parents admitted into heaven. May I ask how about parents who deliberately kill their children, either through abortion or some other way. Also what about the children of non-Muslim parents?
I have mentioned some of the Hadiths which clearly state that those who die in infancy will be of great help to their parents on the Day of Judgment. One Hadith suggests that such children will look for their parents among the masses of human beings who are all gathered on the Day of Judgment. When they find them they will lead them by the hand until they get them into heaven. They will entreat Allah on their behalf and will say to Him that their parents were deprived of the happiness and pleasure of having them when they were young. The children want their parents to have that happiness in the life to come.
Another Hadith mentions that when children who die in their childhood are commanded to go into heaven, they will stop at its gate and make loud noises. They will protest that they will not enter until they have their parents with them [because whatever of pleasure of being together that either of them missed in this life was for no fault of theirs]. Allah will bestow His grace on both parents and children and order all of them to enter heaven together.
These Hadiths which speak of the Day of Judgment are to be understood within the general framework of the fundamental Islamic principles. A non-believer cannot be admitted into heaven, because Allah has so willed that heaven will be the abode of those who believe in Him. Therefore, even if a non-believer loses a child or more in infancy, his children would not be able to earn him reprieve. The children themselves will not be accountable, since they have died before they reached the age of accountability.
Similarly, if a parent has killed a child of his, the two will stand in front of Allah to judge between them. They will be opponents, since the child will have a grievance against the parent who had killed him. We know that Allah is the most Gracious and Merciful. But we also know that He does not allow the right of anyone of His servants to be wasted. Hence, He will judge between child and parent and will pass His fair judgment.
• Death: Janazah prayer for a child
In the case of a child’s death, from what age will it be required that the janazah prayer is offered for the deceased?
The janazah prayer should be offered for any Muslim who dies. It is a short prayer offered just before the body of the deceased person is taken for burial. It is a collective duty, which means that it is obligatory on community.
If a group of the community, or even one person offers it, the duty is deemed to have been fulfilled. If none does, then the whole community is at fault and will have to answer for its failure. This prayer may be offered at any time when the burial is about to take place, either in a mosque, or when the body is taken from the person’s home, or from the hospital. It should be offered in the same way for a deceased man or woman or child.
Any child who dies, whatever the age, should have the same prayer offered for its soul, regardless of its age. The janazah prayer should be offered even for a stillborn child.
• Death: Life after death
Could you please explain what happens to believers and non-believers when they die?
Death is a stage which occurs when the spirit departs from the body to make it lifeless. As Muslims, we believe in the resurrection when the body and the spirit will be reunited in the hereafter. This life is a stage for action, but the life to come after the resurrection is a stage of reward. Human beings will either be in pure happiness or in total misery. It is part of the basic Islamic beliefs that after resurrection, we will account for our deeds and we will be judged accordingly. Those on whom Allah bestows His mercy will be in heaven, while those who are denied it will abide in hell, the place of absolute misery. It is also clearly stated by the Prophet that the deeds of even the best person will not be enough to send him to heaven without Allah's grace. Allah's grace is guaranteed by none other than Allah Himself to those who believe in Him and do well in their lives.
However, the time between a person's death and resurrection is an intermediate stage of life of "barzakh", which means intermediate stage. Relying on authentic Hadiths, scholars mention that angels are sent to people in their graves to question them about their beliefs.
In a Hadith related by Imam Ahmad, the Prophet tells us that when a believer is buried, his prayers sit over his head, fasting to his right, zakah to his left and other good deeds are positioned below his feet. Each prevent any harm from coming to him from that direction. He is then sat up and asked about his view of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. A believer will say: "Muhammad, peace be upon him, I believe that he was Allah's messenger who came with the message of the truth from Allah." He is then reassured of his fate by the questioning angels and his place is pointed out to him. A wide expanse is opened to him in his grave and he is given light. His body is then returned to its state.