2nd Ramadan 1439
Women and Janazah (Funerals)
You are obsessed by greed and competing with each other for worldly possessions
حَتَّى زُرْتُمُ الْمَقَابِرَ
Until you reach your graves.
(Surah al-Takathur, Chapter 102, Verses 1 and 2)
During the blessed month of Ramadan, janazahs or funerals are generally better attended than at other times, because the sa’imun (the fasting worshippers) are more conscious of death and the life hereafter, and many remember their deceased love ones more intensely through supplications (du`a) and charity (sadaqah). Furthermore, Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim record a famous hadith (prophetic tradition) narrated by the companion Abu Hurayrah in which the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him) is reported to have said:
إِذَا دَخَلَ شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ فُتِّحَتْ أَبْوَابُ السَّمَاءِ وَغُلِّقَتْ أَبْوَابُ جَهَنَّمَ وَسُلْسِلَتِ الشَّيَاطِين
The precise import and meaning of this hadith has intrigued scholars of every age. Some scholars have deduced from this hadith that the Grace of Almighty Allah will safeguard the one, who passes away in the sacred month of Ramadan, and s/he will be granted salvation in the life hereafter (fatawa mahmudiyyah 1/630). This view is illuminated by a complementary hadith recorded by Imam Ahmad narrated by the companion Abu Hadhayfah in which the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have said:
Whoever fasts a day seeking the pleasure of Allah and happens to pass away in that state will enter paradise (Musnad of Ahmad)
May Allah, the Creator of Death and Life, pardon all of those who pass on during this blessed month of Ramadan, have mercy on their souls and grant them repose and salvation in the life hereafter. Allahumma Amin.
Context of Khutbah Topic
On Thursday 29 March 2018, one month before I returned home from my annual four-month teaching stint in the United States of America, a dear friend and well-known anti-apartheid activist, Faiza Desai, passed away after her arduous struggle with cancer. At her janazah (funeral) her daughter, sister, nieces and a few other women not only attended the masjid for the funeral prayers, but also accompanied the funeral procession to the maqbarah (graveyard where she was placed to rest). This was an extraordinary occurrence in our local Cape Muslim culture and generated lots of debates about its permissibility both on social media and in e-mail queries to me.
Coincidentally, just a few days before Faiza Desai’s passing I was confronted with exactly the same question (mas’alah) from members of our congregation, after a janazah course hosted by the Claremont Main Road Masjid (CMRM) in March 2018 for women. At the CMRM janazah course, it was suggested that it is not permissible for women to be present at the graveyard during the janazah proceedings, although they could go the next day.
On both occasions, which happened shortly after each other, I restrained myself from offering my viewpoint on the issue since I wanted to take the time to research this matter more thoroughly and offer a more substantive legal (fiqh) opinion on the matter. I would like to take this opportunity to answer three interrelated questions:
1) Why are most women in Cape Town not performing salat al-janaza (ritual funeral prayers) when their beloved parents, spouses, children, siblings, relatives, close friends or neighbours pass on?
2) Is it permissible (ja’iz) for women to accompany the funeral procession?
3) And last but not least, is it permissible (ja’iz) for women to visit graveyards?
Women Praying Salat al-Janazah (Ritual Funeral Prayers)
It may be that some people erroneously believe that women are not allowed to perform salat al-janazah. However, there is absolute consensus (ijma`) among Muslim scholars that it is permissible (ja’iz) for women to perform the ritual funeral prayers on the deceased.
In fact, according to sound and authentic Islamic texts it is one of the best ways of expressing our love and compassion to a deceased loved one. There are many prophetic traditions (ahadith) which underscore this position. For instance, we read in Isma`il Ibn Kathir’s (d.1373) famous book al-Bidayah wa an-Nihayah that the salat al-janazah was held for the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) inside the home of `A’ishah, his beloved wife. It was there that the Prophet (pbuh) breathed his last, and it was there that he was buried. The funeral procedure was described in a report by the companion `Abdullah Ibn `Abbas as follows:
When the body of the Prophet (pbuh) was prepared for burial by bathing and shrouding, it was placed on a bed. (Since the room was too small to accommodate the throngs of people, they entered in small groups): First groups of men entered and performed the Funeral Prayer; they were followed by groups of women who likewise prayed; then children entered and prayed (Sunan Ibn Majah)
The above report of Ibn `Abbas has also been confirmed by similar reports from other Companions of the Prophet. These reports make it abundantly clear that women did participate in the funeral of the Prophet (pbuh) along with men and this was the practice during his lifetime.
Moreover, there are a number of additional authentic reports that ‘A’ishah and other wives of the Prophet (pbuh) performed the salat al-janazah on the bier of Sa`ad ibn Abi Waqqas. In a narration of Imam Muslim, Abbad b. ‘Abdullah ibn Zubair reported on the authority of ‘A’isha that when Sa’d b. Abu Waqqas died, the wives of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) sent message to bring his bier into the masjid so that they should offer salat al-janazah for him. They (the participants of the funeral) did accordingly, and it was placed in front of their apartments and they offered prayer for him. It was brought out of the door known as bab al-jana’iz. Subsequently the news reached the wives of the Prophet that the people bad criticised this (i. e. offering of funeral prayer in the masjid) saying that it was not desirable to take the bier inside the masjid. This was conveyed to ‘A’isha. She responded by saying: How hastily the people criticise that about which they know little. They criticise us for carrying the bier in the masjid. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) offered the funeral prayer of Suhail b. Baida’ in the innermost part of the masjid
Given this unequivocal and strong evidence that it is clearly permissible for women to perform salat al-janazah. The question arises why don’t they perform it? And why are they not encouraged to do so? It is palpable that what is preventing women from doing so, are patriarchal local cultural traditions which are inconsistent with the authentic teachings of Islam. Many women have internalized this cultural patriarchy and therefore engage in feasting and social activities at funerals while the men folk perform the solemn acts of salat al-janaza and the burial.
Women Participation in the Funeral Procession
The majority of Muslim jurists hold that it is not haram (prohibited) but makruh (disliked) for women to participate in the funeral procession. The evidence for their position is based on a few conflicting ahadith reports. These disparate ahadith evidences have led to divergent positions among the various schools of Islamic law. The Hanafi School takes the most severe position and regards women following funeral processions as makruh tahrimi i.e. strongly disapproved. In contradistinction, the renowned Shafi’i scholar and hadith expert, Imam al-Nawawi, argues that women following funeral processions is mildly disliked (makruh tanzihi), and that it is not something important that should be forbidden. Even more affirming, Imam Malik believes that it is lawful for women, especially elderly women, to join the funeral procession. This was also the opinion of Ahl Al Madina (inhabitants of Al Medina in the era of Malik). The evidence for the lawfulness is the hadith narrated by Ibn Abu Shaibah from Abu Huraira that “the Prophet was attending a funeral when `Umar saw a woman and shouted at her. The Prophet (pbuh) told him to leave her ….” [Ibn Majah and Al Nasa’i]. Because of the contested nature of the evidences some classical scholars such as Abdurrahman al-Awza`i (d.774) and Ishaq ibn Rahwah (d.853) assumed that it is permissible for women to participate in the funeral procession and thus argued that if women are present then the men should walk in front of the bier to allow women to walk behind the bier. (al-Mawsu`at al-Fiqhiyya Jana-iz, Volume 17, pps. 13-15, Kuwait Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs).
Last but not least, Muhammad ibn Hazm (d.1064) one of the leading scholars of the Zahiri law school (madh-hab), contends that it is permissible for women to accompany funeral processions. He argues as follows:
We do not disprove of women attending a funeral procession, nor do we prevent them from doing so. The hadith traditions reported on this subject which disapprove of women attending funeral processions are not authentic. They are either mursal i.e. not reported by a companion of the Prophet or majhul (unknown narrators) and cannot be presented as an argument.
The famous late eighteenth and early nineteenth century hadith expert (muhaddith) Muhammad al-Shawkani (d.1834), usefully reconciles the disparate prophetic traditions as follows. After citing the renowned Qur’anic commentator and legal expert Abu `Abdullah al-Qurtubi (d.1273) who argued as follows:
If one can be assured that the woman’s following of a funeral bier will not result in the loss of the husband’s rights, or the indecent exposure of the woman in public, and undue wailing, then there is no impediment to permit a woman to do so.
Shawkani then goes on to present in his own view and says the following: “This statement by Qurtubi ought to be the standard position since it reconciles between the conflicting ahadith. (Fiqh al-Sunnah, Funerals and Dhikr, As-Sayyid Sabiq)
Women and Visiting the Graveyard (Maqbarah)
Here again there is no consensus (ijma`) among Muslim scholars, with the majority, especially the Maliki law school, holding the view that it is permissible for women to visit graveyards if they observe Islamic etiquette (al-Fiqh `ala Madhahib al-`Arba`ah, Shaykh `Abdurrahman al-Juzayri).
An inspirational and empowering hadith recorded in the collection of Imam Tirmidhi informs us that the beloved wife of the Prophet, ‘A’ishah said that the Prophet (pbuh) not only gave her permission to visit graves but he taught her exactly how to do so and what to recite at the maqbrah. When `A’isha visited Makkah from Madinah, she asked, “Where is the grave of my brother?” Then she went to the grave and prayed for her brother `Abdurrahman ibn Abubakr, a month after his death. When `Abd Allah ibn Mulayka saw `A’isha visiting the grave of her brother he said to her: “Did not the Prophet (pbuh) forbid this [visitation of graves]?” She replied: “Yes, he had forbidden it. Then he ordered to visit them.” (reported by Al-Hakim and Al-Bayhaqi) Ibn `Abd al-Barr mentions that Imam Ahmad adduces this report as proof that women are permitted to visit the graves.
In another prophetic tradition Anas reported that: “The Prophet (pbuh) saw a woman crying by the grave of her son, and said to her, ‘Fear Allah, and be patient.’ She replied, ‘What do you care about my tragedy?’ When he went away, someone told her, ‘Indeed, that was the Messenger of Allah (pbuh).’ The woman felt extremely sorry and she immediately went to the Prophet’s house, where she did not find any guards. She called out: ‘O Messenger of Allah! I did not recognize you.’ The Prophet (pbuh) said, ‘Verily patience is needed at the time of the first affliction’.” (Bukhari and Muslim) This supports the argument in favor of the permissibility of women visiting graves, for the Prophet, peace be upon him, saw her at the grave and did not show his disapproval of it.
On the basis of the evidence, renowned classical hadith specialists such as Al-Bayhaqi, Ibn Hajar and al-Nawawi, conclude that it is permitted for women to visit maqbarahs or graveyards as long as the proper Islamic eitiquette is observed.
In light of the foregoing legal opinion on the question of women’s participation in janazahs, I would like to conclude with some concrete advice as to how we may change and transform a culture of exclusion.
First, it is critical to recognize that because it is a cultural challenge, not a fiqh (Islamic legal) restriction and impediment, it will require deliberate, but gradual interventions.
Second, there is a great need for education of both women as well as men about the diversity of legal opinions among the different legal schools (madhahib) on the question of women’s participation in the janazah and how expert scholars of hadith have reconciled conflicting prophetic traditions on the topic.
Third, we should be robust in encouraging women to perform salat al-janazah since this is not something which is controversial in the shari`ah. Women could be encouraged to perform the funeral prayers either at home or at the masjid and ensure that there are facilities for women to do so.
Fourth, since it is not haram (prohibited) for women to follow the funeral procession or attend the maqbarah for the burial, it is the prerogative of the family of the deceased if they are so inclined, to encourage women in the family to both participate in the funeral procession as well as to attend the burial at the graveside. Those who feel less inclined to this fiqhi position have a choice not to join the funeral procession or attend the graveside for the burial if women are present. If, however, they decide to attend while women are present they should respect the prerogative of the family who have made the decision, and not intervene or spread controversy (fitnah).
Last but not least, those of us who advocate for greater women’s participation in janazahs should do so with the prophetic methodology of tadrij (gradualism), great patience (sabr) and respect for family and community members who may not yet be ready to embrace this cultural change (adab-al-ikhtilaf). We should maintain such a dignified position even in the face of great intolerance and intimidation by those who wish to impose their views on us, despite knowing that there is no ijma`consensus among Muslim scholars on this issue.
In conclusion, according to the teachings of Islam it is a social obligation (fard kifaya) to show our last respects to deceased human beings by participating in their funeral proceedings, even if the deceased individual was not an acquaintance. Moreover, in order to encourage greater participation in funeral rites the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught that the one who attends the funeral rites until after the deceased is buried will have a greater reward than the one who only performs the funeral prayers (Bukhari and Muslim). Islam, furthermore, teaches that our participation in funeral rites is not only a means of displaying our last respects to the deceased but is also an opportunity to remind ourselves of our own mortality, thus encouraging virtuous living. Such teachings are certainly not limited to men, since the latter are by no means in more need of this reminder than women.
An instructive Qur’anic verse which clearly establishes the full equality and dignity that Allah, the Lord of Compassionate Justice, wills for both females and males is verse 35 of Surah al-Ahzab, chapter 33. This verse is the lens and hermeneutical key through which all other verses pertaining to gender relations in the Qur’an should be interpreted. The verse affirms that there is no place or context that we should tolerate where women should be made to feel lesser human beings, or where the dignity of women is violated or undermined, or where women are marginalised and excluded because of their gender.
Let us pray that this Ramadan will be the beginning of renewed commitment to the gender jihad – i.e. the struggle for equal dignity and inclusion of men and women, not only in fully participating in funeral rites but in every sphere of our religious and social lives. May Allah through the great blessings of this sacred month of Ramadan grant that our fasting and all of our increased acts of sincere devotion will serve as excellent provisions when we have to confront our own deaths whenever this inevitability visit us. May Allah grant all those of our deceased loved ones and friends salvation in the hereafter.
O Allah, pardon them, have mercy on their souls and grant them paradise.