Death in South Asian Muslim culture II – burial

December 9, 2009 at 12:30 am (Islam, South Asia)

In Pakistan, once someone dies, relatives (who usually are around if the person was expected to die shortly, if not they converge quickly) take and body and bathe it. It is given the ritual washings of wuzu (ritual ablutions) and ghusl (bath). The body is often scented. It is then wrapped in shrouds – five for women, three for men. Pieces of cloth are used to bind the body around the elbows and feet. The nose and mouth are filled with cotton. The deceased wear no other clothing or vestments.

The people who perform this are usual close relatives of the same sex. Strangers or non-relatives may be used as needed. To be able to bathe the body of a dead person is considered an act of great merit.

Once wrapped in shrouds (often one can part of the top-most shroud to uncover the face), the body is moved to where mourners are. While awaiting for people to gather for the funeral prayers to be said, people recite the Qur’an and pious texts.

At the appropriate time, people gather for the funeral prayer (namaaz-e janaazah). It is considered to be of great merit to participate in a funeral prayer, whether for someone one knew or for a stranger. The funeral prayer contains a number of takbeeraat (“proclaiming ‘Allaahu akbar’ with certain gestures of the hands and arms”) along with short prayers for the dead person: that their sins be forgiven them, that they go to Heaven.

After the funeral prayer, the bier is lifted and carried. There are no pallbearers – everyone (all men, of course) are encouraged to do what in Urdu is called kandha dena (lit., “give the shoulder”) which means to carry or transport the bier. How it works is sort of complicated – people revolve in a clockwise pattern, then make room for others to take their place. I remember when my maternal grandfather died and his bier was taken in a bus, the bier was passed back and forth, back and forth the entire time. One often says the shahaadah whilst doing this or close to such an activity.

The bier is then carried to the grave. Depending on the locality, the body might be lifted from the bier, head facing Mecca, and laid in the grave. Each person there throws in three fistfuls of dirt, then the grave is filled. A simple stone is placed at the head, and certain portions of the Qur’an are recited. More supplications are made for the forgiveness of the deceased’s sins and that he/she will go into Heaven.

In the US, what I have noticed is that the bier is lowered into an open concrete box, and a slab is placed over it. Dirt is thrown over the box, then the grave filled. Sometimes people are buried in the concrete box in a simple coffin, sometimes not.

This usually happens within 24 hours. When my maternal grandmother passed away (she passed away in Pakistan), she was buried within 4 hours. When another person I knew passed away here, she was buried within 18 or so hours. (They were waiting for some of her sons to fly in, and wanted to have her namaaz-e janaazah after the afternoon prayers.)

All in all, it’s quite simple. No undertakers, no funeral homes, no elaborate presentations. Very simple.

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Death in South Asian Muslim culture I – death

December 8, 2009 at 9:39 am (Islam, South Asia)

I knew there was something I forgot to do last night.

In the past month, there have been two deaths of people close to me. One very close, one a little less close. The first was my maternal grandmother (she passed away December 4) and the other was someone who was like a grandmother to us (she passed away November 15).

This gave me an opportunity to observe and experience death and mourning up-close, which I will write about this week.

Many people who die of old age, or causes incident to age, often die surrounded by loved ones. If it’s a sudden death, then that may not be the case. Nevertheless, because social interaction is quite strong in the South Asian community, few old people are alone. My like-a-grandmother died surrounded by people (literally – people almost filled her hospital room as she lay dying). My grandmother was surrounded by people too – mainly my mother, my father, and other people in the house. When my grandmother had difficulty breathing, she was immediately surrounded by people and caretakers trying to solve the problem.

When a person is dying, relatives often come and read the Qur’an and other pious books for aisaal-e sawaab (transferring the merit of these pious actions to someone else, in this case the dying person). A dying person is not to be left alone. If I understand it correctly, there must be someone of the same sex present if possible (for post-death rites, which will be discussed tomorrow).

Once a person has died, various things happen. What exactly happens depends on the location a person died (things in Pakistan are a bit different from here). But, generally, the body is washed and wrapped in shrouds. People should accompany the body at all times, often reciting the Qur’an and other pious books or texts (for the same reason as before). Upon the announcement of death, relatives and friends converge to help and console the mourning family.

Traditionally, the stove is not turned on for three days (more on this on Friday), so people will often bring food. It’s considered a major act of merit to visit someone in mourning to comfort them; conversely, many people reach out to relatives for support and company. The social network is strong and translates into a lot of potential support and help if needed.

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Coming tomorrow!

December 7, 2009 at 3:50 pm (Blogs)

Today’s post will appear tomorrow.

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Answers to Questions on Islam: Part VI of VI

December 4, 2009 at 12:30 am (History, Islam)

The issues raised have been answered.

Let us expand a bit. Comparisons are what many people do. Comparing Islam’s past to today’s values isn’t necessarily valid. It’s a form of presentism, and ignores the milieu (local or global) of people back then, which explains, to some degree, what they did and why. But justifying Islam’s present based on past attitudes doesn’t cut it either. And it’s plain wrong, frankly, to assert that Islam is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. One of the ironies is that the Salafis want to bring Islam back to its pristine state, back to the Islam of the earliest generation of Muslims. The irony is that the Islam they preach, envision, and enforced never existed. How Islam is envisioned and how it existed are very different. This makes it very dangerous to establish Islam based on past attitudes and practices because those attitudes or practices may never have existed. The corollary to this is that Islam has always been changing. And it always will. To staunch this, to stop this is idiocy. The very act of restoring pure Islam is in itself a major change. Thus, the changing nature of Islam should be recognized, embraced, and dealt with responsibly.

And so it is perfectly fine to analyze Islam today based on modern values and perspectives and practices. But we should never forget that doing so will reveal the cause of all this suffering in the Islamic world: the Islamic world’s confrontation with modernity. (People blame illiteracy and poverty, but I would submit that these two become issues due to the Islamic world’s confrontation with modernity. This confrontation is the fuel that keeps burning a conflagration of immense proportions, but which people don’t talk enough about. The solution, then, isn’t education or employment or money – it’s helping the Islamic world confront and deal with modernity.)

We see this in the transition from the Caliphate to republics. It was assumed for centuries that the Islamic polity would be organized under the caliphate, a united people (ummah, as in Arabic) with distinct minorities (milletler, as in Turkish). All Muslims owed their allegiance to the legitimate Muslim ruler – whether the Ottoman sultan, the Persian shah, or the Mughal emperor. They were united by religion, not ethnicity or nationality or language or whatnot. Then came the revolution that overthrew the caliphate and instituted in its place a large number of nation states which never existed before. (Some were, in fact, artificial constructs by European powers to mollify Arab leaders, if not win their allegiance. Why else would Hashemites rule Jordan and Iraq, away from the Hijaz?) The whole mindset, expectations, and vision of Muslims changed almost overnight (with the abolition of the caliphate by Mustafa Kemal Atatuk, literally overnight).

It is this confrontation, and Islam’s apparent failure, and attempts to help Islam deal with moderniy, that cause the turmoil we see. Unfortunately, this internal turmoil takes an external character, what with terrorism and international interdependence and interrelation. Hence, the importance to understand this issue.

I will take one week to discuss something from the Qur’an, then I will do a series of posts to address the issue mentioned above, to provide some background to answers or solutions to Bernard Lewis’s question, which is also the title of a book that seeks to answer this question: What Went Wrong?

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Answers to Questions on Islam: Part V of VI

December 2, 2009 at 12:30 am (History, Islam)

Issue six:

And in the end, when all is said and done, does Islam have to be eradicated from the hearts and minds of one billion Muslims for them to live peacably? Or can Muslims modernize by critical reevaluation of texts and a mass movement to reject Islamic literalism?

To answer your question: it is the latter. One cannot solve a problem posed by a people by wiping them out. It never works. Christianity is almost 2,010 years old; Judaism is far older. Islam is just 1,430 years old. When Christianity was 1,430 years old, it was also crude and violent and uncouth, compared to today’s standards. Indeed, one may say Islam is further at 1,430 years than Christianity was at 1,430 years. So, on the one hand, one may say that we need to give Islam time to mature and thus become as open to change and reform as Christianity and Judaism have become (and in both, this openness came after a long time of existence). On the other hand, one can argue that internal forces in Islam will prevent any such openness.

I, personally, am of the opinion that no such mellowing will occur. I think it is a fallacy to believe that humanity will, of its own accord, evolve into peaceful beings. While this has happened to large degree in the West, outside the West the world hasn’t changed much. Consider the Hindus, for example: they have been around millennia more than Christianity, and yet their fundamentalists can be just as bad as Muslim fundamentalists. I don’t think it is realistic to expect that the world’s people will live in peace. War and violence and conflict are facts of life, and we should recognize this rather than anticipating some utopian vision of worldwide harmony. This isn’t to be negative but rather this should force us to focus on what matters: in a world full of evil and violence, we should embrace our differences and work on cooperating, respecting our differences.

That said, I do envision two forms of Islam. One influenced by the West, and one that is more extremist. The former will be far more compatible with the modern world, with a pluralistic society. The latter will not be. Both will exist side-by-side, with a tumultuous relationship. The more Muslims feel threatened by the modern world, the more they will cling to the fundamentalist interpretation. The more the fundamentalists disgust them and make like difficult for them, the more they will support the modernist interpretation.

People have been calling for a reform of Islam. Problem is that there is a reform in Islam: it’s the fundamentalist, Salafi movement (also known as the Wahhabi movement). What people need to call for is a modernizing of Islam. A reform works only if it makes Islam more extremist: a modernist reform will never catch on because it is viewed as perverting and rejecting Islam in favor of non-Islamic (if not anti-Islamic) ideas. What is needed is to reinterpret Islamic rules by Islamic experts on Islamic terms. There are some experts that are doing this, and doing a wonderful job of it.

I see it in my own family. Some relatives will speak in whispers about “real Islam” – simple, focused on good deeds, not ostentatious, independent of clerics, tolerant, rejecting fundamentalism and extremism. Other relatives will loudly denounce perversions in Islam, enemies of Islam, and call all Muslims to defend Islam by adhering to a more fundamentalist (if not extremist) interpretation. The argument can get very heated.

And this, I believe, is the future of Islam.

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