Mourning among South Asians

February 18, 2008 at 12:00 am (Culture, Pakistan, South Asia)

At about 7 pm CST, in Karachi, Pakistan, one of my father’s half-brothers suddenly died of a heart attack. He died en route to the hospital. (His family and ours became estranged when my then wife and I separated, which estrangement became permanent when we divorced. My ex was my uncle’s wife’s niece. Nevertheless, his son and wife spoke with us and were very pleased that we called. We called even though we did not expect them to talk to us. Turned out our call made a lot of difference.)

When someone dies, South Asian Muslims hold a Qur’ān khāni for the sake of the deceased. (There are a number of occasions when South Asian Muslims hold a Qur’ān khāni.)

In a Qur’ān khāni, the 30 volumes of the Qur’an (in Urdu: singular pārah and plural pāré; in Arabic: singular juz and plural ajzā) are set out. Guests come and read at least one volume, which are put in a separate pile. The goal is for all thirty to be read. If there are any remaining when the guests leave, the hosts will have to arrange to have the remaining volumes read (by others or themselves).

Associated with this is the dinner. It is customary for someone to bring food at a mourning Qur’ān khāni: the hosts, who are the chief mourners, should not have to worry about food at such a traumatic time. However, this does not always hold true, and dinner arrangements (whether someone will bring it or whether to be provided by the host) are finalized before the Qur’ān khāni. Some people, unfortunately, come only to such mourning gatherings to socialize and eat.

The choice of destination usually has to do with who and where the closest chief mourner is. Because my uncle died in Pakistan, someone closeby would have to be chosen. As my father is my uncle’s oldest brother around here, he became the chief mourner and so the Qur’ān khāni was held at our house even though a majority of our relatives live close to each other some distance away. And when they came, they offered their condolences first to my father.

It is believed that when the Qur’an is read or recited, merit accrues. This merit is like good points on one’s scorecard of deeds. In Urdu, this sort of merit is known as “sawāb”. The purpose of a mourning Qur’ān khāni is to transfer to the newly deceased the sawāb of a complete recitation of the Qur’an.

Dessert is not usually served at such an occasion. No one brings flowers either. Some will come dressed normally, others will be in black-ish clothes. Those very close to the deceased — spouse, children, and so on — wear simple, white clothes. Jewelry is usually not worn and make up is minimal if put on at all.

On a related note, those involved in the burial of the deceased (after prepared for burial) wear all white. In South Asia, white is the color of mourning. Nevertheless, black is considered inauspicious. (If someone dresses in all black to a joyous occasion, he/she is looked at with some trepidation: some may think he/she is trying to jinx the occasion.)

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