The Laws of Death
Imam Ali al-Hadi (peace be upon him) has said: “Remember when you are on your deathbed and your body is lying before your family members, then there is no physician to prevent you (from death) nor a friend to avail you.” (Bihar al-Anwar) When most of us are around a dying or deceased person, whether it is someone we love and feel close to or perhaps somebody we may not be so familiar with, we are overcome with a sense of confusion, shock, nervousness, and fear. It is unfortunate that during this time, the people surrounding the near-death person often forego some of the obligatory and recommended acts and supplications. According to the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them), if these acts are performed correctly for the sake of Allah, not only is there reward for the persons who carry out those funeral rites, but there is also great potential for the deceased to be rewarded with a better final destination, insha’Allah.
On the Deathbed
A Muhtadir is a dying person. A person becomes Muhtadir when death becomes apparent to one, and for example, is told that (s)he only has an hour or so to live and is nearing the final breath. At this stage, there are certain Islamic laws and rulings which become obligatory in regard to the Muhtadir.
Editor’s Note: The jurisprudential issues mentioned in this article are based on the rulings of Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani. The rulings referenced are from his book Ahkam al-Amwat (Rules Relating to the Deceased), translated into English by Shaikh Saleem Bhimji and available online.
Obligatory Rules Relating to a Person in the State of Ihtidar
Asking for Forgiveness: Regardless of how pious and God-fearing one may be, asking for forgiveness for sins is an act which even the sinless and infallible Ahlul Bayt would practice. Imam Sadiq (peace be upon him) has said: “When a believing Muslim frequently asks Allah for forgiveness, his record (of deeds) will ascend while it will be glowing.” (Makarim al-Akhlaq)
The Will Relating to the Rights of Others: Imam Sadiq has said, “One who dies without a will dies the death of one during the Days of Ignorance (pre-Islamic age).” (Wasail al-Shia) In addition to the specific rules governing an Islamic will, it must be noted that if the Muhtadir has any property or trust in his/her possession which rightfully belongs to someone else, or if the Muhtadir owes something to someone and is not able to fulfill the trust or pay back that which he owes, then this must be informed to those around the dying person. (Ruling #7) Imam Sadiq has said: “In no way is Allah worshipped better than by fulfilling the right of a believer.” (Al-Kafi)
The Will Relating to the Wajib Actions that Have Become Qadha: If the Muhtadir has not performed any obligatory actions in his life (for any reason whatsoever) and they have now become delayed or Qadha, this should be written in the will or at least others should be informed. For example, a person’s will may include the following: one year of missed Salat, five missed fasts due to sickness, one month of fasts voluntarily missed (and any Kaffara on fasts), Hajj not performed, $200 of unpaid Khums, $1000 of unpaid Zakat, etc. (Ruling #8)
Rules Relating to People Around a Person in the State of Ihtidar
Lay the Dying Person Facing the Qibla: It is obligatory upon every Muslim to lay a dying person facing the Qibla (on his/her back with the soles of the feet facing the Qibla), and if the dying person consents to it, there is no need to seek permission from the guardian. Otherwise, the permission must be sought. (Ruling #35, 37) Once while visiting a Muhtadir person, the Holy Prophet said: “Make this man face towards the Qibla, because if you do this, then the angels will turn their attention towards him, and Allah will also turn His attention to him until he leaves this world.” (Thawab al-A’mal)
The Recommended Rules: The shahadatain of Islam (testimony in Allah and His Messenger), the acknowledgment of the 12 Imams, and the other tenets of faith be repeated to the dying person in such a manner that he or she would understand them. It is also recommended that these things recited to him are repeated until the time of his or her death. (Ruling 38) The Infallibles have taught us, “At the time of death, one should recite La Ilaha Illallah to the dying person, since whoever’s last words are the La Ilaha Illallah will go to Paradise.” (Thawab al-A’mal) The Muhtadir should be carried to the place where (s)he used to offer prayers, as long as doing so would not cause pain to the person. (Ruling #40) For a person in the agony of death, it is recommended to recite Surah Ya Sin, Surah as-Safaat, Surah al-Ahzab, Ayat al-Kursi, the 54th verse of Surah of al-Aaraf, the last three verses of Surah al-Baqarah by his side, and as much as possible from the Holy Qur’an. (Ruling #41)
Recommended Du’as to be Recited: Recitation of the following du’a to the Muhtadir in a way that (s)he may understand it is recommended: “O Allah! Forgive my sins, which are many, and accept the little I have done in Your servitude. O the one who accepts the little (good deeds) and forgives the many (sins). Accept from me the little (good deeds) and forgive the many (sins). Truly, You are the Forgiver and the Merciful. O Allah, have mercy on me, truly You are the Merciful.” (Ruling #39) The recitation of Du’a Adeela is recommended, as well as recitation of a number of short supplications in which the shahadatain is repeated, Allah is acknowledged as the ultimate guardian, the Day of Resurrection is mentioned, and prayers are made for acceptance of good deeds and mercy.
Preparing the Body for Burial
Once the person has departed from this world, it is recommended to shut the eyes and lips, close the mouth, straighten the hands and feet, and spread a cloth over the dead body.
Obligatory Rules While Preparing the Body for Burial
The Wajib actions while preparing the body for burial become the obligation of the rightful guardian of the deceased, and if there is no guardian, then all surrounding Muslims become responsible. If any one person takes up the responsibility, then all others will be relieved of the responsibility; however, if nobody attend to the dead body as prescribed, then all will be considered sinful. Please refer to Ahkam al-Amwat for detailed information regarding this responsibility.
Ghusl al-Mayyit: Ghusl al-Mayyit is the obligatory bath for the deceased consisting of three washes/Ghusls. The first bathing should be with water mixed with “Sidr” (Beri) leaves. The second bathing should be with water mixed with camphor. The third should be with unmixed water. (Ruling #52) For full details, please refer to the Ahkam al-Amwat link mentioned above. Imam Sadiq has said: “There is not a single believer who gives another believer the Ghusl (after his death) and while shifting, the body says: ‘O Allah, this is the body of your believing slave. You have taken his soul from him and separated his soul from him, so forgive his sins, forgive his sins’ except that Allah forgives that person (who is performing the Ghusl) his sins for one year, except the major sins.” (Ahkam al-Amwat)
Kafan and Hunut: Kafan is the obligatory three pieces of cloth used (loin cloth, a shirt or tunic, and a full cover) to dress the deceased after the obligatory Ghusl al-Mayyit. Hunut is the obligatory application of camphor powder to the forehead, both the palms, both the knees, and both the big toes of its feet after the Ghusl has been performed. (Ruling #100) Imam Sadiq said: “My father (Imam Baqir) recommended me that I should provide a (good) Kafan for him, since the deceased will have pride over one another according to the type of Kafan that they have.” (Wasail al-Shia) It is in fact highly recommended for one to purchase and keep his/her Kafan in his/her lifetime. For full details on how to properly execute the Kafan and Hunut, please refer to the Ahkam al-Amwat link mentioned previously.
Salat al-Mayyit: It is obligatory to offer Salat al-Mayyit (funeral prayers) for every Muslim, as well as for a Muslim child if it has completed 6 years of its age (or a younger child who was aware of what prayer is). Salat al-Mayyit should be offered after the dead body has been given Ghusl, Hunut, and Kafan. The intention for the Salat al-Mayyit and the recitation of the five Takbirs will slightly differ depending on the type of deceased person, the detail of which can be found in Ahkam al-Amwat. The followers of the Ahlul Bayt recite five Takbirs in Salat al-Mayyit, while the non-Shias recite only four Takbirs. When Imam Sadiq was asked about this difference, the Imam replied, “Since Islam is built on five strong pillars, which are Salat, Zakat, Saum, Hajj, and the Wilayat of us, the Ahul Bayt. Therefore, Allah designated that one Takbir be recited for each of these pillars (of Islam), and our Shia have confirmed their belief in each of these five pillars of Islam, while those who are opposed to us do not believe in our Wilayat, the fifth pillar; thus, they only recite four Takbirs, and the Shia recite five.” (Wasail al-Shia)
Transporting the Mayyit: While the deceased is transported from one place to another, a coffin is traditionally used. A short du’a admiring the greatness of Allah should be recited.
Procession: The procession is when the body is carried from the place of Ghusl to the graveyard. Those accompanying the procession should recite a short du’a that asks Allah to pardon the deceased while testifying one’s belief in the Ahlul Bayt. The body should be carried haltingly, that is, the coffin should be placed on the ground and carried three times, such that the fourth halt is by the grave.
This is when the deceased is laid to rest in a grave in a Muslim graveyard on his/her right side facing the Qibla. The grave must be deep enough that its smell does not come out, nor does it allow beasts of prey to dig it out.
Recommended Acts of the Burial
Talqeen: Talqeen is usually performed before closing the grave. (Please note that the Talqeen may be performed at various stages while preparing the body for burial, i.e. while preparing the Kafan, etc.) Talqeen is performed by the person laying the deceased in the grave. (S)he should perform Talqeen by way of holding the right and left shoulders of the deceased and shaking them gently while speaking into the deceased’s ear. Talqeen is performed to remind the deceased of the answers to the questions which angels will ask during interrogation in the grave. These questions include: Who is your Lord? Who is your Prophet? What is your religion? What is your book? Who are your Holy Imams? For the complete Talqeen to be read to the deceased, please click here.
It has been narrated that the angel of death watches which people offer their prayers on time and which people take their prayers lightly by not praying on time or not praying all together. Accordingly, those who had weak faith and didn’t pray will forget the answers to the questions in the grave (even if Talqeen is performed), whereas one who had strong faith and always prayed as soon as the time set in will be reminded of the answers by the questioning angels. So if there are any outstanding missed prayers of a believer as outlined in the Will or told to others, they should be performed as soon as possible to benefit the deceased. (Manazil-e-Akhira)
Jarida: Jarida is to place two pieces of fresh, green leafless twigs in the grave with the dead body. One twig should be placed below the armpit and the other twig should be placed above the armpit. (Ruling #108) The Ahlul Bayt really emphasized the importance of Jarida, as they said that as long as the twigs remained green and fresh, the deceased will be free from the squeezing of the grave.
It is also recommended to place some Khak-e-Shifa (soil from the grave of Imam Hussain) inside the grave and apply it to the forehead, palms, knees, and big toes, as this will protect the dead from chastisement of the grave.
Recitation of Surah Fatiha while facing the Qibla and gifting the reward to the dwellers of a graveyard is one of the easiest things to do. This can be performed from anywhere.
Salat al-Wahshat: Washa al-Qabr means “terror of the grave”. The first night after the person is buried is known to be the most difficult. According to scholars, performing Salat al-Wahshat for the deceased person is a way of relieving him/her of the terror faced in the grave. The more people that offer this prayer for the deceased, the better it is. This prayer is performed after the Isha prayers. In the first rak’at, we recite Ayat al-Kursi after Sura Fatiha. In the second rak’at, recite Sura Qadr ten times after Sura Fatiha. Then we say, “O Allah, bless Muhammad and his Family, and give the reward of this prayer to [name of deceased].”
Visting the Graveyard: Although visiting the graveyard may be like sprinkling salt on open wounds, our Imams have told us that doing so comforts the grave dwellers and is highly recommended. When Imam Ali al-Ridha was asked, “Does a believer who has passed away know those people who visit the grave?” The Imam replied, “Of course, he is acquainted with those who visit him as long as they are sitting beside the grave. As soon as they get up from his grave side and leave, the fear takes over the person in the grave because of his leaving.” (Wasail al-Shia)
Rights of the Grieving Family: We should offer condolences to one who has lost someone. However, if the time lapse between the death and when one is able to offer condolences is long and will bring up sad memories to the family of the deceased, it is obviously not recommended to offer condolences. The Holy Prophet has said: “Whoever offers condolences to one who is grieving will be clothed with a beautiful and respectful robe on the Day of Judgment.” (Thawab al-Amal)
Although we may like to spend most of the first few days with the family of a deceased person, it is best to avoid eating a meal with them for the first three days. Imam Sadiq has said, “Eating food with the members of the family of the deceased is one of the actions of the people of Ignorance. However, the way of Islam is that food should be sent to their house, just as the Prophet did after the passing away of Ja’far ibn Abi Talib.” (Wasail al-Shia)
Despite Islam’s emphasis on constantly remembering death, it is a topic considered taboo in the West. As true believers, death is something we must constantly think about and in fact look forward to. In the words of one scholar, death is nothing but reunion with the Beloved.
Shaikh Abbas al-Qummi mentions in Manazil-e-Akhira:
“At the time of death, the Holy Prophet and the Ahlul Bayt come near the head of the dying person, who is able to see them. It is narrated in Bihar al-Anwar that once Imam Ali al-Ridha (peace be upon him) went to meet one of his companions who was about to die. He looked towards the Imam and said, ‘I see the radiant faces of your Grandfather (the Holy Prophet), Your Father (the Commander of the faithful), Your Mother (Hazrat Fatema), and the other Imams in your ancestry. I also see your luminous face along with them.’ It is a fact that every dying man has a glimpse of the Ahlul Bayt according to his love for and knowledge of them. For a believer, their sight is a blessing from Allah, and for a hypocrite and disbeliever, it is a sign of Allah’s wrath.”
Author: Zara Syed