Saturday, December 12, 2009

By Mark Walters

Islam teaches that death is simply a doorway into the third stage of someone's life and that when they are dying, their soul (ruh) rises in their body and collects in their throat. An angel called Malikul Mawt (Angel of Death) then arrives to remove the soul.

As the soul continues to live after death, it is important for Muslims to cleanse it prior to their death. For this reason, it is common to find friends and family members of a dying person around their death bed praying for Allah's forgiveness and mercy in relation to any transgressions that the dying person may have committed.

Visits and prays prior to death are just the beginning of a process that is implemented for every Muslim in the final stages of their life. There are a range of preparations and customs that must be adhered to in accordance with Islamic law, that involve not only the family and friends of the dying person, but also the wider Muslim community.

Upon death, those present normally close the eyes of the deceased, bind the lower jaw to the head and cover the body with a clean sheet. The family then wash the body in accordance with Islamic rites and, unless a spouse is present, males must wash males and females must wash females. This usually takes place privately three or five times using water, soap and a cloth and, after washing, the body is shrouded with white material. Embalming is prohibited, as is an autopsy, unless required by law.

The local community joins the deceased's family for funeral prayers (Salat-ul-Janazah), a collective obligation for Muslims, and people line up in rows, with the coffin on a stand in front of them. Often taking place outside the Mosque, at certain times of the day according to the sun's progression, the purpose of the funeral prayers is to request pardons for all deceased Muslims. The most closely related male leads these silent prayers, though the Imam, or another knowledgeable Muslim, may do so if necessary.

The burial follows the completion of the funeral prayers, and is required by Islamic law to take place within three days of the actual time of death. Only men are permitted to attend the burial, and chosen members of the attending group must carry the body to the graveyard at shoulder level. A coffin may or may not be used, and if one is used then it must be made of wood rather than steel, as the aim is to allow the earth to reclaim the body in as short a time as possible.

It is then customary for people to visit the deceased's family for several days after the funeral, bringing gifts of food.

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