Short Answer: The burial rites for Muslims are complicated, but all of the rituals are intended to respect the body as much as possible, knowing that this person will soon be presented to God. Our expectation and hope is that God will place our dead loved ones in Paradise, rather than in the Hellfire. So, since Hell is associated with fire, we don’t want anything to do with fire touching this human person.
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Dr. Shabir Ally from Let the Quran Speak addresses this question in the video below.
Aisha Khaja: So, Dr. Shabir, the question today is about cremation, and what is the position of Islam on cremation. So, maybe let’s start with what is cremation.
Dr. Shabir Ally: Well, cremation, generally, as I understand it, refers to the burning of the corpse as a way of disposing respectfully of the dead body.
In Islamic tradition, this has not been a practice.
Normally, in Islamic tradition, the practice goes back to the earliest generations, hopefully to the life example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as well.
So, we follow reports that indicate how burial was performed.
And it is usually burial, as far as possible.
Of course, sometimes the body is not available for burial. The body could be, theoretically—God forbid—somebody who could be eaten up by lions, let’s say.
Or someone has drowned at sea and his body is not found.
Or in unusual cases, let’s say, that people were in a sea journey, and it would be unreasonable for them to turn back, somebody dies at sea; So, that body will be respectfully lowered into the sea itself, as a form of disposing respectfully of the body.
Aisha Khaja: So, where did cremation actually originate from? Because I think they do it in the Hindu tradition, right?
Dr. Shabir Ally: Yeah, this I have not studied.
But to answer from the Islamic perspective, why it does not seem to be something that has [been] picked up among Muslims, and generally it is… I mean we have the understanding that there is heaven and hell. And hell is a fiery place and that’s the place we do not want to go to.
So, when we’re disposing of the remains of a departed person, we want to do that in the most respectful manner as possible.
We accompany this with rituals, involving praying to God asking God to have mercy on this person.
And of course, part of that is our expectation that God will place this person in paradise rather than in the other, in the unfortunate place.
So, since that place is associated with fire, we don’t want anything to do with fire, you know, touching this human person.
Aisha Khaja: Maybe, what are the specific rituals associated with the body, as you … when it comes time for burial?
Aisha Khaja: Anybody can wash the body or, is it … ?
Dr. Shabir Ally: Usually the relatives and persons who were close to the departed person, usually of the same faith would be there to wash the body, and in the manner in which we would ritualistically wash our own selves to prepare for prayer, we’re washing this person.
Because we’re going to perform a prayer on behalf of this person or for this person, so we want that person to be in the best and cleanest manner possible, and dressed in clean clothing.
Usually the clothes that are prescribed for the Islamic burial are unstitched pieces of clothing,
Sometimes three, sometimes five pieces, an odd number, usually supposed to wrap the body in a respectful and present in a respectful manner.
And to present the body in a respectful manner, knowing that this body is now being presented to God just as we will wear something neat and clean for our own prayers or presenting this person as part of the prayer that we’re going to perform.
Then usually we would line up either in a mosque or in some other facility, and we would beseech God to forgive this person and by extension to forgive all of the believers as well.
Aisha Khaja: Is there also a process that I’ve seen where you actually are supposed to go see the body and say a prayer of some sort?
Dr. Shabir Ally: It is not necessary actually to see the body.
But usually as part of the prayer ritual, the body is brought in front of the gathering and the leader in prayer stands close to the body and others behind the leader and they all pray together.
And then of course, the body will be taken to a burial plot and they are lowered respectfully into as a hole that is dug for this purpose, the grave.
And the grave would be covered with dirt in respectful manner, as much as possible.
And sometimes more prayers are recited there in an informal manner.
Passages from the Quran may be recited and again the gathering will beseech God to forgive this soul and make it easy for this person to pass the next stages of trial, answering the questions correctly that would be asked about his or her faith.
I hope this helps answer your question. Please keep in touch.
(From AboutIslam’s archives)