Honoring One’s Ancestors Under Islam
To a believer, the proof of one’s belief is total obedience and devotion to Allah the Absolute. Accordingly, believers look upon the messages (Ayah) from Allah the Absolute as the legal standards for their daily lives, and conforming to those standards is the basis for their actions. This is because they are convinced that sometime after one’s death, although when is yet to be determined, there will come a day (the Day of Judgment) when there will be an account taking to the entrance to the next world, and the extent to which a believer accumulated deeds in line with the messages of Allah will be determined.
While believers may conform to the revelations of the Qur’an, it is their following the example and the practices of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) with respect to the events that occur in daily life that serve as a more practical moral indicator through a believer’s life. It is from this standpoint that I will look into the matters related to our theme.
The funeral prayer (Salat Al-Janazah) is performed at the funeral service for the deceased. The body is washed according to the prescribed method and wrapped in a seamless shroud and then transported to a mosque. After the service has ended, the congregation offers memorial prayers (Dua) led by the imam, and the body is then interred into the ground. The Prophet (peace be upon him) has said with regard to attending funerals: “A person who follows a funeral procession and offers the prayer for the deceased shall have the reward of one Qirat, and if he also attends the burial he shall have a reward of two Qirats. A Qirat is as great as Mount Uhud (a mountain in the northern part of AI-Madina, Saudi Arabia).”
Furthermore, if 100 of his brothers say prayers of intercession for the deceased, the prayers will be answered. The prayers of the intercession of even 40 of his brethren will be answered. In other words, according to tradition, Allah’s intercession will be granted to the deceased if a large number of believers participate in the funeral.
The following is enjoined regarding grieving and wailing for the deceased:
“O you who believe! protect yourselves and your families against a fire whose fuel is people and stones” (Qur’an, 66:6), and “A person who bears a burden (sin) may not bear another’s burden. If a person who is burdened calls upon another to bear that burden, not even a portion of it can be borne by the other, not even by a near relative.” (Qur’an, 35:18)
The meaning of these passages from the Qur’an becomes clear when one considers the following Hadith, which counsels that one must exercise self-control in coping with tragedies:
“The deceased is punished because of the wailing and lamentations of his family.”
As to the services at the grave after the burial, it is reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) would say prayers at the grave of the deceased after burial. It is said that he would repeat “Allahu Akbar (Allah is great)” four times for the deceased.
As for visiting the graves, it is said that in the early period of his mission, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) taught that visits to graves should be avoided. Later, the Prophet (peace be upon him) encouraged his followers to visit graves as a means of confirming that a believer’s full life has been lived in this world without regret so that one can be prepared for the next world. According to a tradition, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said. “I beseeched my Lord for forgiveness for my mother, but He did not grant it. I then asked my Lord if I could visit the grave of my mother. He granted that wish. So all of you should visit graves as well. Truly they will remind you of the dead.”
Not only at the burial of the deceased but also when at a cemetery to visit graves, the following prayers are recited for those in eternal slumber: “May peace be upon you, you dwellers of the abode of believers and Muslims” and “May Allah show His mercy upon those who went before us and also upon those who follow. Allah willing, we will join you.”
Depending on the school of thought one follows, practices for visiting graves will differ, but 1 believes that in essence, it is the relationship between Allah and His slaves that takes precedence over all else. Consequently, although public grieving over the deaths of others or following certain customs that have become general practice may make everyday life more colorful, this will not assure one’s high ranks in the next world.
Be that as it may, when the Prophet (peace be upon him) was asked about the fact that he had shed copious tears when his grandson became critically ill, his response was, “This is because of the compassion that Allah has placed into the human heart. Allah is compassionate to those men who have merciful hearts.”
As to a 40-day period of mourning in Islam, in many parts of the world, this is the established practice. According to one theory, the time that will elapse between the first sounding of the Horn, as mentioned in the Qur’an, announcing the hour of the Resurrection when all living things will die, and the second sounding of the Horn that will announce they’re coming back to life, will be 40. But the Hadith narrator Abu Huraira, when asked about this oral tradition and whether it would be days, months, or years between the two soundings of the Horn, replied. “I can say nothing.”
Consideration must be given not just to one’s relationship with God, but also to one’s immediate family, which is the main pillar of human relationships, and moreover to one’s relatives and friends as well. Although Islam, which entrusts everything to Allah both in this world and alter death, does not consider the visiting of graves to be a form of worship, there are certain sects within Islam that observe anniversaries of deaths and hold memorial services the way other religions do; these can better be said as following the local customs.
While observing the usual practice as taught by the Prophet, one must focus one’s attention on one’s parents and family as far as possible. The Qur’an says the following about the relationship between parents and children:
“And your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him. And that you be dutiful to your parents. If one of them or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of disrespect, nor shout at them but address them in terms of honor. And lower unto them the wing of submission and humility through mercy, and say: “My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy as they did bring me up when I was young.” (Qur’an, 17:23-24)
That is the teaching in the Qur’an regarding the treatment of one’s parents. A Hadith further stresses the filial duty after the death of one’s parents: A Companion is reported to have asked the Prophet, Messenger of Allah! I have been dutiful toward my parents. Are there any duties I owe them after their deaths? The Prophet said, “Yes, to pray for them, to ask forgiveness for them, to accomplish for them those things that they were not able to accomplish in their lives. Also, deepen your friendship with those persons with whom your parents had blood ties, and honor the friends of your parents.“‘
In addition to visiting graves, it is recommended that one should carry out obligations to perform meritorious acts on behalf of one’s parents that they had left undone. Let us look at one or two examples of performing unfulfilled obligations on behalf of one’s parents.
The Hadith speaks about discharging the duty of Fasting and Zakah, the third obligatory act among the Five Pillars of Islam, in this way: “A woman came to the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) and said, ‘My mother has died, but she still had a month’s fasting to complete.’ And the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Surely you know that if she had a debt then you must pay it off.” To this, she said, ‘Yes, I know, Carrying out obligatory acts that are owed to Allah takes precedence over performing other obligatory acts.’
Because the fasting and Zakah during the month of Ramadan last for an entire month, if a blood relative dies during that time, in addition to a parent’s debt being paid off, any obligatory acts they have left undone must be carried out.
If one or both of one’s parents depart this world before being able to make a Pilgrimage to Makkah which is the fifth duty among the Five Pillars of Islam, even though it was their intention to do so, a substitute may carry out his obligation if he or she has performed even one pilgrimage to Makkah.
As described above, followers of Islam are engaged in a continuing endeavor to accomplish the obligatory deeds demanded of them (the true meaning of Jihad) in an environment that encompasses individuals – parents, family and close relatives – and furthermore, while ancestors are being commemorated, succeeding generations become more conscious of their obligations.
“Every soul shall taste death.” (Qur’an, 3:185)
– The writer is the Deputy Chief of Muslim Society of Japan.