German philosopher Jurgen Habermas wrote a paper titled An Awareness of What is Missing. At the start, he describes a friend’s funeral. His friend had been an atheist, and the funeral was non-religious. He goes on to say that the Amen was missing. In my experience, Muslim funerals feel the same way to me. The lack of profundity seems as if the Amen is missing. In all my dealings with Islam and death, I find that it treats what should be the most solemn ceremony and converts it into a rote ritual without any care for the memory of the deceased or any comfort for the bereaved. Instead, it offers 7th Century rules designed to disenfranchise women, glorify proselytising and conversions as functions that are appropriate and desirable, and an unhealthy urgency to bury the body that overrides any and all concerns. Consolation, when faced with death, is one of the main functions of religion, and the ceremony that is supposed to be a soul’s conduit to the afterlife should be treated with some measure of respect and profundity; in this Islam fails its followers.
One of the reasons that people give for following a religion is that it provides comfort during the death of a loved one. In my experience, Islam fails completely in that respect. I have experienced this comfort four times personally. Twice at funerals of immediate family and twice after deaths in my extended family.
At their root, all religions are basically about death and what happens after it. All the rules and restrictions placed upon the pious are designed to direct them toward the correct afterlife. Islam, in my view, fails at this most basic responsibility common to all religions, by completely disregarding the significance of mourning rituals. It instead seeks to glorify the hereafter, Allah’s will and a fatalistic attitude towards life.
I have been to funerals held in the Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Hindu, and Jewish traditions and can compare them to my experiences in mosques. To my surprise, I found there to be a marked difference between the solemnity and profundity of the non-Muslim ceremonies when compared to the Muslim ones.
At funerals held in churches, mandirs, and synagogues there was a respect shown to the dead and the grieving that I would not see in the mosques. In the non-Muslim ceremonies, there was a celebration of the life of the departed and the appropriate emotional consolation to those left behind. I became aware that the Islamic ceremonies I was attending seemed to be missing this essential piece.
I was working in Bosnia when my father died. I had spoken to both my parents, just before going on leave, and they had told me that my father was going to the hospital for pneumonia. I offered to change my leave and come home, but my father insisted that all was well and that I would see them the following March when I was scheduled to come home for a visit. My father was admitted to the hospital a second time on November 30th, and again I said I would come home, but they insisted everything was fine. In the early morning of December 9th, his 64th birthday, my father died due to late-stage lung cancer. I flew home right away, and the funeral took place the day after I arrived. It was at this funeral that I stopped referring to myself as a non-practising Muslim or cultural Muslim and started using the label of atheist to describe myself because I no longer wanted to be associated with a faith that treats one its most important rites so disrespectfully. At the time of my father’s death, I had been a nonbeliever for 18 years.
My father had always been a pluralistic person. Growing up in India he had friends from all faiths and treated people with respect based on who they were and not on what religion they were. After my family had moved to Canada, he continued to be the same way. Therefore at his funeral, about half the people in attendance were non-Muslim and came to pay their respects to my family. After the prayers, the Imam gave a political sermon about how Islam was spreading in Quebec and then he proceeded to proselytise to the non-Muslims at the funeral. I was disgusted to see this, and at that moment I decided I would no longer refer to myself as belonging, even culturally, to a faith that treats death with such little respect.
After the service and the shameful actions of the Imam, it was time to take my father’s body to the cemetery. I was walking to where my father was lying in his coffin, to be a pallbearer, and suddenly I noticed a crowd, running towards the coffin, pushing each other out of the way, fighting to lift the coffin as if this honour was a prize to be won. People pushed me out of the way, and at one point the coffin was almost dropped. I was told that this is because everyone wants to touch the coffin but no other reason was offered as to why. The stampede towards the coffin was emblematic of the chaos and meaninglessness of the Islamic rituals that fail to honour the memory of the dead and fail to offer comfort to the survivors.
My brother died in November 2015. He lived in India but was in Mexico for work. His employer contacted me early the following morning, and I made arrangements to fly to Montreal to be with my mother. Other members of the family, including my sister, were also traveling to Montreal. I had spoken to my sister-in-law and mother, and they requested the body be repatriated to India. I passed this information along to his employer since they were making the arrangements. When I arrived in Montreal that evening, I found out that it would take 6 to 8 weeks to have the body sent to India and one week to bring it to Canada. I told my sister-in-law, and she said that she would rather have the body returned to Canada as she did not want to wait six weeks.
After getting home and talking with my mother, there was a phone call from my Aunt in India. She asked what had happened and I proceeded to tell her. When she learned that we were waiting a week for the body to be returned, she went off on a tirade on how we were bad people and that in Islam the burial has to be done right away and that I should fly to Mexico and bury him there. This was one of the many things that outraged me about how Islam deals with death.
Since we had a week to do some planning I wanted to ensure the chaos that had happened at my father’s funeral would not repeat itself here. I brought this up with my uncles who were helping me organise the burial with the mosque. When I mentioned that I did not want the Imam to make a statement similar to what had been said at my father’s funeral they were shocked. In their opinion, converting people to Islam during a funeral was an auspicious occurrence. I also made plans to have designated pallbearers to avoid the mad dash that had happened at my father’s funeral. Every single one of these requests was a battle, and the main obstacles were largely either due to custom or religion.
At my father’s funeral, the women were not allowed to go to the cemetery. This segregation is a common practice based on the ridiculous belief that women are impure and will profane the ceremony. As a result, my mother was forbidden from attending her husband’s burial. At my brother’s funeral they allowed women to attend but only up to the gates, and they could not approach the grave. And so wife, mother sister, and female friends and family were not allowed to attend the burial, in Canada in 2015, due to arcane beliefs that neither provided them with comfort or solace.
In 2002, my sister-in-law had given birth to a son. My nephew died less than 24 hours after birth due to a heart defect. My brother had buried his son the next morning while my sister-in-law was still in the hospital. Had she been well enough to attend, she would not have been allowed to go to her own son’s funeral. Again this is such a common practice that it is followed without question in most Muslim communities.
My maternal uncle died earlier this year. He and my mother were very close, talking daily and so when he died, she needed a space to mourn, to remember him and attend his funeral. Since my uncle was in California, she could not attend as they decided to hold the funeral that same day. In Islam, the funeral has to happen as soon as possible after the death and never past three days. His son, my cousin, was in Europe and so his father was buried before they had a chance to inform him. I am not asking for weeks of waiting but a short time to get things organised and allow family and friends to come and pay their respects is the appropriate practice. The tradition of swift burials may have been appropriate in a nomadic culture with no means of preserving the body, but in the modern era, it serves only to cause more pain and suffering to those mourning their loved ones.
During the week I was waiting for my brother’s body to be repatriated, I was able to experience the kind of condolences that were given. It was mostly about how this was Allah’s will and nothing about how he was in a better place (even though I don’t believe in an afterlife) that might provide some measure of solace to a grieving mother. At my father’s funeral, one of my uncles admonished my mother and sister for crying, and he did this because of a hadith, Sahih Bukhari 375, that says that you shouldn’t wail at a funeral. He chose to prioritise edicts of the Hadith over the grief felt by his wife and sister-in-law.
In 2015 Farkhunda Malikzada was torn to pieces by a mob in Kabul because she had been accused of burning a Quran. The next day her female friends took her body to the cemetery and buried her themselves while protected by young men who encircled the girls to ensure no one would harm them while they laid their friend to rest. These women were trying to provide Farkhunda with some measure respect in her death that she most certainly wasn’t given in her last moments and probably not in her whole life. If the Mullahs and the mosques treated death with the same respect, these young women and men did then I would say that Islam at least does provide some succour to the living after a tragedy like the death of a loved one. Until Islam changes the way it treats death and the ceremony that is meant to transition you to the afterlife I will find it wanting at providing comfort, and the Amen will be missing.