When we lose someone special to us, we often turn to our respective faiths for strength and guidance. Religious texts provide us with instructions and rituals to follow when laying our loved ones to rest. But religion also has a powerful way of offering comfort and support while helping us process the circle of life.
In Islam, Muslims worship God (Arabic-speaking Muslims and some English-speaking Muslims use Allah, the Arabic word for God) and believe in life after death. The Islamic faith holds the belief that after someone passes, God (Allah) will determine whether they enter into Jannah, a paradise-like afterlife, or Jahannam, a place of punishment. God (Allah) is compassionate and merciful, so seeking forgiveness of those who have passed plays a significant role in Islamic funeral rituals.
As a Muslim or someone with Muslim friends and/or family members, you may be interested in learning more about Islamic burial practices and customs. Our guide provides insight into how Muslims honor those who’ve passed, but we also answer some frequently asked questions regarding etiquette to consider when offering your condolences. With this information, you’ll have a better understanding of Islamic bereavement customs.
The information below was reviewed by Andrea Stanton, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Denver.
The complete Islamic burial practices guide
When it comes to practicing Islamic burial procedures, Muslims turn to sharia, Islamic religious law, for guidance. Based on the Qur’an, sharia outlines customs for the burial, funeral, and mourning process. While the following are some of the most traditional Islamic funeral customs, they’re subject to regional variations and community interpretations.
Customs for preparing the body
Upon first hearing the news of someone’s passing, it’s custom for Muslims to recite a verse from the Qur’an that translates in English to, “truly we belong to God and to Him we shall return.” This recitation is intended both to comfort the grieving and to remind everyone, including the speaker, of humans’ relationship with God (Allah).
When it comes to funeral arrangements, sharia determines that the burial process must begin as soon as the person passes, typically within 24 hours of the death. One reason for this is to help alleviate the pain and minimize the grief process for the family. Another reason is to protect the living from potentially unsanitary conditions.
One important Islamic burial practice regards preparing the body for burial. The deceased’s spouse and family members or community members of the same gender as the deceased begin the full-body ritual purification process called ghusl al-mayyit in Arabic. They wash the body with warm water at least three times, following a specific cleansing order. Ensuring the deceased’s body is clean and pure is of utmost importance.
The relatives or community members performing the funeral ghusl then close the deceased’s eyes and mouth, face them in the direction of Mecca, and begin shrouding the body. Known as kafan, this process involves wrapping the deceased in a simple, white cloth for burial. It’s tradition to use three pieces of cloth for men and five pieces for women and then secure the kafan with strips of cloth torn from the larger pieces for transportation to the funeral site.
In the Islamic faith, there is no wake or viewing of the body before the funeral.
Islamic funeral customs may vary depending on the loved one’s sect of Islam or their family’s wishes. However, relatives, friends, and members of the Muslim community often gather at a mosque to attend the funeral services.
An Islamic prayer leader, imam, will oversee the service as funeral attendees gather in the mosque’s prayer room, study room, or courtyard to pray, forming at least three lines facing the qibla. The reason that Muslims face this direction is that Mecca is the holy city, and praying in the same location helps connect Muslims around the world.
Attendees will then recite funeral prayers, or Salat al-Janazah, to seek forgiveness for the deceased with the hopes that God (Allah) will excuse their sins and invite them to Jannah. This is not a prayer to the deceased but rather a prayer for them.
Islamic funerals are usually fairly short, lasting 30 to 60 minutes. These services are considered a quiet affair, in which attendees are discouraged from speaking or mourning loudly. While grieving is permitted, mourners are expected to do so in a reserved and dignified manner.
After the funeral service, attendees gather at the burial site as four men carry the body to the grave. Depending on the sect of Islam, women may or may not attend. As for the location of the gravesite, it’s an important Islam burial rule for it to be perpendicular to the qibla or to the direction of Mecca.
The Islamic faith doesn’t allow coffins or burial caskets. Instead, those burying the body will place stones or wood at the bottom of the grave to prevent the body from contacting the soil and gently lay their loved one on top with their right side facing the qibla. The person laying the body to rest will likely recite a prayer that translates to, “In the name of God and according to the religion of the Messenger of God.”
Afterward, they’ll place another layer of stones or wood on top of the body to protect it from the soil. Each mourner then tosses three handfuls of soil on top to further fill the grave followed by a collective prayer.
Islamic customs prohibit elaborate tombstones or structures over burial sites. To recognize the location, it’s appropriate to leave a small, simple marker or wreath over the grave.
Typically, there’s a three-day mourning period reserved for close relatives, but it can be longer. During this time of bereavement, the mourners stay home, refrain from wearing jewelry and elaborate clothing, and do not engage in household duties. Members of their community visit them, bringing food and offering their condolences. As with the funeral service, loud wailing or grieving is discouraged at this time.
In some instances, a wife who has lost her husband will engage in a four-month and 10-day waiting period, called iddah. According to custom, the widow must wear black, stay at home, and avoid interacting with any mahram (men they could potentially marry). However, this extended stretch of mourning doesn’t pertain to husbands who have lost their wives, as they follow the three-day mourning period.
Frequently asked questions about Islamic funeral customs
There’s etiquette to be mindful of when mourning a member of the Islamic faith. Our answers below provide further insight and guidance on customs and traditions.
Can anyone attend the funeral services?
It depends. Non-Muslims are usually welcome (and encouraged) to attend funeral services. However, some sects only permit men to attend funeral services and burials. Before showing up to the service, inquire with those organizing the funeral to ensure you respect their traditions.
What should I wear to an Islamic funeral?
In general, men dress in pants and shirts, while women wear ankle-length dresses or skirts, long sleeves, and headscarves. Modesty is key, so avoid anything form-fitting or see-through. In some regions, funeral attendees dress in all white as a sign of humility, but somber colors like gray, brown, and black are usually acceptable, too. Again, you may want to ask the service organizer about appropriate funeral attire before attending.
How should I offer my condolences?
The three-day mourning period is a welcome time to contact the deceased’s friends and family to offer your condolences. Send a sympathy message, visit their home, or bring them food that aligns with any religious dietary restrictions they may practice. As for sending flowers, some Islam sects don’t find flowers suitable funeral gifts, so again, speak with a member of their religious community to see if it’s an acceptable form of expressing your sympathy.
As a Muslim or someone with Muslim friends and/or family members, it’s important to honor traditions when it comes to laying a loved one to rest. If you’re ever in doubt when it comes to proper etiquette, always ask for guidance.