How Muslims Don’t Express Condolences

I’ve always had an awkward relationship with death. I didn’t attend my first funeral until after I became Muslim. I’m still not comfortable and don’t feel competent in expressing condolences to someone grieving the loss of a loved one. I’ll often say the common Muslim phrase about how how we all come from God and will eventually return to him and a prayer asking God to have mercy on the loved ones left behind.

If I meet someone mourning, my tongue becomes knotted and my chest constrained. I want to offer a word of comfort but am never quite sure what to say. I remember in high school, the husband of my Spanish teacher committed suicide. So she took a leave of absence for a few weeks and when she returned, I wanted to say “I’m sorry” or express some compassion but no one mentioned her loss and I didn’t want to put my foot in my mouth or make it worse. So I didn’t say anything.

Since becoming Muslim, my anxiety over how to offer condolences has only increased. I’ve been taught that as a point of theology, we can and should pray for everyone while they are alive but that it is improper for Muslims to ask forgiveness or pray for a person who died as a non-Muslim.

In the Muslim tradition, the Prophet Abraham’s father was not Muslim but out of his mercy and gentle disposition, Abraham continued to pray for his father’s forgiveness even after his death. Although, it is later said that Abraham eventually gave up these prayers for his father.

It is narrated that the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) asked God to visit the grave of his mother, who had died while he was very young, and to pray for her forgiveness. He was granted permission to visit her grave but not to pray for forgiveness.

Along with other evidence, the dominant opinion in Sunni legal orthodoxy appears to be that a Muslim should not pray for a non-Muslim person after their death. Some will even argue that saying a phrase like “rest in peace” is also prohibited.

Thus, I’ve tried to be careful and conscientious in adhering to this legal opinion even as I sometimes still find myself out of a habit that flows from an emotion in my heart wanting to say a word of gentleness and comfort or “rest in peace”  for the deceased. But then I quickly catch myself and ask, “Am I supposed to say that?” or “Was that a prayer?” If it is I try to internally disavow that statement and reword it as a prayer for the person’s living loved ones.

I do find it challenging to understand this edict. And I can’t help thinking about my own family, none of whom are Muslim, yet. I can’t imagine how painful it would be to lose one of them and to not be able to pray for them after their death.

In the Islamic tradition, one of the most praiseworthy acts is to continue to honor your parents after their death either by your own good deeds or by praying for them. For many converts with non-Muslim parents, the reality that this path of goodness is cut off for us is very painful.

I’m a little envious of the outpouring of prayers easily offered up by my fellow Muslims upon hearing of the death of another Muslim even if they didn’t know the person. And I wonder what will be said or more likely what won’t be said when my own family members pass away.

In the last few months, several non-Muslims that inspired and continue to inspire me have died and I’ve been at a loss for words. I pray for their remaining loved ones. As for the deceased person, I just feel a gap in my heart due to their loss. Tobias Ekeze, Wangari Mathaai, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Steve Jobs and others.

I don’t feel there is not much guidance offered to Muslims coping with the loss of a loved one who happened to be non-Muslim. I don’t want else I’m looking for. Some might say, it should be enough for me to take the Prophet as an example. The Prophet (peace and blessing of God be upon him) once said to a man, “My father and your father are in the hellfire,” which is stunning statement but cold comfort.

I’m not arguing about the theology of it, but I can’t help wondering if there are other equally valid opinions out there. When the Prophet’s son Ibrahim died, he cried profusely and it is narrated that he said, “the eyes shed tears and the heart feels sorrow but we will only say what pleases our Lord.”

I don’t know what to say so more often than not, I don’t say anything at all. I cringe at the arrogant, tactless, insensitive, and dismissive comments made by some Muslims upon hearing of the death of a non-Muslim. That’s not from our tradition. The Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) would stand out of respect for a Jewish funeral procession. He was questioned about it and defended his actions by saying, “Isn’t it a soul?” Our theology might be different but that doesn’t make anyone less of human being.

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Author: Ify Okoye

Muslim woman, RN, & rebel with a cause.

36 thoughts on “How Muslims Don’t Express Condolences”

  1. I think your last reference gave the best example; it certainly isn’t an easy thing to grapple with, May Allah SWT guide the families of all our brothers and sisters.

    It goes without saying that Abu Talib was very much attached to Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) . For forty years, Abu Talib had been the faithful friend — the prop of his childhood, the guardian of his youth and in later life a very tower of defence. The sacrifices to which Abu Talib exposed himself and his family for the sake of his nephew, while yet incredulous of his mission, stamp his character as singularly noble and unselfish. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) did his best to persuade his octogenarian uncle to make profession of the true faith, but he remained obdurate and stuck to the paganism of his forefathers, and thus could not achieve complete success. Al-‘Abbas bin ‘Abdul-Muttalib narrated that he said to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) “You have not been of any avail to your uncle (Abu Talib) (though) by Allâh, he used to protect you and get angry on your behalf.” The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “He is in a shallow fire, and had it not been for me, he would have been at the bottom of the (Hell) Fire.” [Bukhari 1/548]

    Abu Sa‘id Al-Khudri narrated that he heard the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) say, when the mention of his uncle was made, “I hope that my intercession may avail him, and he be placed in a shallow fire that rises up only to his heels.” [Bukhari 1/548]

    The Sealed Nectar

    1. W, ameen. Thank you for sharing these sources, I’ve been meaning to read The Sealed Nectar for a number of years but haven’t yet gotten around to it.

      The Prophet’s story is full of incredible emotion and humanity. His life can serve as an example for so many. Reading about the lives of the early Companions who were of course also converts can be a source of comfort.

      I once heard someone complaining about a fellow train commuter who disturbed them by their sneezing or coughing next to them. I asked if they had offered a prayer for the person’s health and was told no, “because they’re not Muslim.” I was stunned and challenged the person on that belief because I don’t subscribe to an expression of Islam devoid of compassion for people simply because they’re not Muslim. I’m reminded of a warning from one of my teachers, “Don’t be more religious than the religion itself.” It can be hard to find the balance, also challenging to not become less “religious” that the religion.

  2. I am a little outside of the debate but as someone who has been recently bereaved I would tell you to say something, no matter how awkward or tongue tied, even if it is just ‘I don’t know what to say’. At times I was a little hurt by clumsy words but I was much more hurt by silences, by those who stayed away for fearing of not knowing the right words.

    1. Dear risingontheroad,

      Welcome, I do greatly appreciate your comments and will try to keep them in mind when I’m debating internally what to say if anything. I know when my grandmother died, some Muslims did try to offer words of comfort, some prayed for her because they thought she was Muslim, but it did hurt me to see those who visibly recoiled and held back from saying anything because she wasn’t Muslim. I remember appreciating the words and expressions of support from my non-Muslim colleagues at work.

      Recently, one of my coworkers lost a family member and I took what for me is a major step and called him to express my condolences. Gotta do it more often.

      I do hope and pray that God in his infinite mercy and compassion showers you ease and comfort and lightens your heart. All the best.

  3. Asalaamu alikum sis,

    I too find it difficult to say the right words, this is the problem for me, I don’t want to just say anything the death of someone is something major and I like to find words befitting the moment. Usually for Muslims I just say, ‘May Allah swt have mercy on him/her’ or ‘May they be granted Jannah’ for NonMuslims, I believe we can say ‘My condolences on the death of your……..’ I feel like there can be more I can say? But I’m not too sure what.

    1. Wa alaykum salaam, yes, condolences for sure, although it sounds a bit formal, don’t you think? I’m sorry flows more naturally for me.

  4. I’m not arguing about the theology of it, but I can’t help wondering if there are other equally valid opinions out there
    Upon the understanding of the shafi’i ulama of Malaysia and Indonesia, by way of the scholars of Hadhramaut, it is not correct to assert that the parents of Nabi Muhammad (saws) died in a state of unbelief. I cannot argue the position myself, but the matter was recently explained in length in a Malaysian national newspaper by a state religious official. It is here in Malay but Google translate may give the gist: http://bahrusshofa.blogspot.com/2010/05/utusan-malaysia-7-mei-2010.html Suffice it that there are other valid opinions out there on that point at least.
    With regard to our own non-muslim parents and ancestors, I comfort myself with the notion that no one knows in what state a person dies, and the last breaths can be extended by the will of Allah to an infinite degree in the way we can sleep for a moment but dream a dream of great length. I also cannot see why we cannot pray to Allah to count our deceased parents and ancestors among the believers, and it is within His (swt) Power and Mercy to count them so. Allahu Alim.

    1. Indeed, Allah knows best. Will have to take a look at that link, thank you. And it’s true we don’t really know what state anyone passes away in and that is a comforting thought.

  5. Salamu `alaykum,

    Just to point out that the prohibition of asking for the forgiveness of non-Muslims after their death is Qur’anic (9:113-114).

    Also, salamu `alaykum bingregory: from my limited understanding, the Imam of the Shaf`i Madhhab an-Nawawi was indeed that the parent of the Prophet (salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam) is in the Hellfire (Cf. Sharh Muslim) so the Haba’ib’s opinion cannot be the going one in the school.

    As for other non-Muslims, many of them never even heard of the Prophet (salAllahu `alayhi wa sallam) so God only knows what their state is.

    1. Wa alaykum salaam Anon, as in many things, simply quoting a verse or hadith only tells part of the story. What defines …”after it has been made clear to them…” Perhaps, it’s not so clear at all.

  6. Can’t you say you feel sorry about his or her loss, and you offer them your condolences?

    As for not praying for a non-Muslim, can anyone truly know what state a person is when he or she dies?

    1. Yes, no doubt Mezba, I do say I’m sorry, but sometimes the moment is just so awkward, which makes me want to retreat inward and not say anything.

  7. Salamu `alaykum bingregory,

    True, I was only pointing out that the opinion of the Haba’ib is by no means the authoritative opinion of the Shaf`i madhhab.

  8. wa alaykum salam. I don’t cede the point. It may be, or it may not be, in the case of this particular issue. I don’t know what value you are trying to add to a discussion that is ” not arguing about the theology of it, but … wondering if there are other equally valid opinions out there.”

  9. Well, for whatever stand other scholars have on this issue, I made it a point to remind myself that the deeds of an individual, Muslim or otherwise, is between said individual and Allah SWT.

    When I hear of non-Muslim passing, I will convey my condolences to the bereaved, somewhere along the lines of, “My deepest sympathies on your loss. I hope that God will give you the strength to work your way through this trying period.” Even if that person is an atheist, I don’t think he/she would mind if you wish him/her comfort during the grieving period.

    When there is a loss, giving comfort to the bereaved is considered a form of ehsan, no? Does it matter if the bereaved is a Muslim or not; the pain is just as sharp. And if your comforting words and kindness can help the non-Muslim appreciate the beauty of Islam, all the better.

    Personally, I don’t think it is wrong to pray for non-Muslims; especially those who are family or close friends. If our prayers can help ease things, for them, why not? Allah SWT is the All Merciful, All Knowing, the Supreme Bestower and All Loving. He giveth where He wishes, taketh where He will. We can ask from Him all the things we want because the one who can answer our prayers is He and He alone. It is better than not praying/asking and tormenting ourselves with what will be the fate of our loved ones who are not guided towards the path of righteousness. Pray, InsyaAllah He will answer.

    1. Snuze, lovely comments, thank you, you seem like a gentle soul, and offering kind words of comfort is a skill some of us do beautifully and I’m sure is appreciated by those receiving them.

  10. This is a challenging topic. When i was in high school, a girl that had been in my classes for almost 10 years lost her father. I didn’t know what to say, so I just walked up to her and said, “I’m sorry about your father.” and then quickly turned away, while she thanked me profusely. I felt very awkward, but if i had considered her feelings a bit more, i would have been more sympathetic. I think that we sometimes underestimate the ability of others to understand our feelings when we have difficulty expressing them, and this doesn’t just apply to feelings of sympathy at a time of bereavement – I have a feeling that this applies to all sorts of feelings (nice and not-so-nice) at all sorts of occasions. If we take the tiniest step to share our feelings, we can help to shoulder the burden of another who may be feeling awfully alone at a very vulnerable time.
    Another thing to consider is that the feelings that a person has for a loved one do not die, so it is never appropriate to ignore the fact that someone has just gone through a life-altering event, just because the funeral was last week. What to say? I always believe actions speak louder than words. Show up, well-dressed and prepared to help with food, cleanup, and elbow grease, and you’ll probably end up expressing more than you could have with a few mere words.
    Also, I think the only people we can be sure of that will go to hell are the ardent rejectors of any kind of faith, unrepentant sinners, and polytheists.

  11. Asalaamu alaikum,

    Some of my husband’s family is not Muslim. When his aunt died, nobody came to our house to offer condolences to my husband – because she was not Muslim. I had a hard time accepting that and still do. To me, it makes no sense that one is not permitted to pray for another after death. After they pass on, who prays for them but the living?

    1. Exactly! If we believe in Allah SWT and His Infinite Mercy, we should pray for those we love, Muslim or otherwise, no? It is up to Him to accept our prayers in which ever way He wishes; but at least we made the effort.

      My condolences to your husband on the loss of his beloved aunt. May Allah SWT shower his Mercies upon her soul.

    2. Wa alaykum salaam Tasmiya,

      That’s incredibly difficult and I’m very sorry for her loss, which undoubtedly was acutely felt by both of you. I wonder if people shied away simply because they weren’t sure of what to say or how to say it?

  12. i have been following the discussion on the issues of offering condolences to a bereaved non muslim, In my experience, I felt more awkward and with guilty conscience when I didn’t express a word in such situations. I made up my mind to always say something good and satisfied that I haven’t hurt one’s feelings rather I have helped. I was just wondering if that would not be a better approach since one is so unsure of anyone state of mind when he/she leaves this world. At least saying it can bring more peace than harm to ourselves.

    1. IJ, I think that’s a beautiful approach, one that I’m learning and trying to implement. Offering a good and kind word seems to be the most beneficial way in so many aspects of life but especially in times of difficulty and grief.

  13. I am also at a loss of words when I encounter a grieving person, muslim or not. I often feel that my words will do very little to actually comfort anybody. So I’m left feeling awkward and useless. As a muslim, I’ve felt inadequate with my dua’s (some are so eloquent), so I would offer little more than the standard words expressed when passing on.

    Lately, I’ve been offering ‘I’m sorry for your loss and my thoughts are with you and your loved ones’ or some variation of it. It seems to be a nice catch-all for my needs..

  14. Very sad that you’re faced with this inner conflict, and very humane and kind-hearted of you to wonder what to do. As Catholics we are continually reminded to pray for persons of all faiths, of course including Muslims, so we don’t have that same inner conflict in the event of the loss. Thanks for reflecting.

    1. Canadian,

      I think that is a beautiful teaching in your faith. I am less troubled now than before. I am more secure in my faith and open to other interpretations than the very conservative ideas I have been led to believe are “Islamic.”

  15. As-Salaamu Alaykum Dear brothers and sisters!

    As new Muslims, we can sometimes fall into the ‘convertitis’ trap of being Extreme and know it ALL. I know very, very little in comparison to others and may ALLAH, the All-Knowing; increase us ALL with Iman, Ihsan and knowledge of ISLAM. I also ask ALLAH to cleanse our hearts and humble them towards pleasing him and doing what is right towards our non-Muslim brothers and sisters, because they too have rights over us. Thus of course we should strive towards the best manners in speech and actions and they should not contradict each other. May ALLAH guide us all onto the straight path. ‘Amin’.

    As a new Muslim of 5 years (alhamdulillah) I too came across the moment of how I should deal with this. Among the brothers in the Masjid I attend, they would say ‘from ALLAH we have come and to Him we shall return’. I feel great comfort from these words as a Muslim, but for my non Muslim family, I felt a moment of despair and haste to try and think of how I could deal with it! I Over time, the feelings subsided and I came to the conclusion that we have to try a great effort to show much kindness to as many people as possible, so when we meet them in their sad moments, that they know us as kind, compassionate, loving people and thus our ‘smile’ and kind actions can too be enough for them, without feeling guilty or awkwardness.

    “Actions speak louder than words”. Bake a cake, cook some food and offer it as a gesture of sympathy not stepping over the boundaries of our beliefs but towards kindness that will hopefully have a long lasting effect on our non-Muslim families, friends and neighbors. Some people associate food with celebration, but don’t we sometimes go to the fridge in times of sadness to see what we could eat to subdue our emotions! We are human, this is our nature whether we are Muslim or not. Our human’ness unites us all in humanity and this is how we can reach across many people and they can too still relate to us. Don’t we all like to receive in times when we need support! ALLAH is the Sustainer, the Loving One; let us show support and kindness to those who need it and do not shy away with guilt and awkwardness. Connect with the beautiful names of ALLAH and get closer to ALLAH!

    We also have to remind ourselves that ALLAH chose us to be Muslims and chose us to be tested in these moments, awkwardness and see how we would deal with it. May ALLAH grant us a heavy reward by His Mercy in the Akiraah and grant us the opportunity to meet Him in all humility and pleasure.

    Warm their hearts with kindness and patience, so that they can easily receive and accept your words. in sha ALLAH.

  16. Well, may be my reply help all of you to lessen ur confusion about this. Yes we can pray for non-muslims when they are alive, like we can wish for their health, success, good career and happiness. But when it comes to condole on their death, it’s quite a different matter. Because as all of you know, Allah clearly mentions in Quran that He can forgive any of the sins committed by us except “Shirk”, so we all know that almost all the non-Muslims commit Shirk, (Shirk= resembling someone to Allah, worshiping someone or something other than Allah, like idol worshiping, or a worship of a human being. calling someone son/daughter/wife/father of Allah.) That’s why it’s assumed that those who have committed this sin (Shirk), even though they had many good qualities, nice and polite character during their life period, but only due to committing Shirk, Allah will not grant their souls the peace, and that’s why Allah has prohibited us to pray for their forgiveness after they died. And that’s why it’s not preferable or allowed to say R.I.P to a non-muslim. But yes, we can express our condolence by saying many other things, like, “we’ll remember him always, he’ll never be forgotten, he was indeed a good human being, etc etc.”. And I personally think that we should make this thing very clear to our non-muslim brothers and sisters that why we’re not allowed to say R.I.P for a non-muslim, We should explain them in a very logical and sensible way, so that they may know that we Muslims equally feel sad, even we cry a lot when any of our close non-muslim friend or a personality or celebrity dies.

    Like just now Paul Walker passed away, and I can’t tell that how much I’m grieved on his death, whenever I see his photos, I want to cry, but still I won’t say the words Allah doesn’t like.

    1. wait wait wait. how do you know that they are committing shirk or have done so? you are not the judge of that. furthermore, if they did not hear the Message of Islam (and really, what kind of distorted message is getting to them these days) then they will not be held accountable. so let’s just hold our horses and think the best of all members of the Ummah of RasulAllah sal Allahu alayhi wasalam – including nonMuslims.

  17. As-Salam ualaikum ua Rahmatullahi ua Barakatuh, my brothers and sisters.

    Jazakkalahu hairan for all comments, ideas and advice you share here. As a very new Muslim (3 years), it was very useful for me to go throught your words in order to make up my mind, finally, about words of my condolense to my non-muslim collegue, whom with I share one office. Now I am certain that I should not be just silent, and should offer at least simple condolence words, such as “I am sorry “, or “My deepest sympathies on your loss. I hope that God will give you the strength to work your way through this trying period.” Do you think it is fine?

    1. Wa alaykum salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh Bauyrzhan,

      Welcome to the conversation. I think the suggestions you highlighted are an appropriate and express your friendship, concern, and empathy. We’re all human beings and we experience loss and grief in similar ways so offering words of warmth and comfort is a natural part of the human experience.

  18. salam
    happy to meet you here
    pls what part of Nigeria are from my sister
    your name sound like ndigbo masaAllah

  19. 14229: Offering condolences to Christians

    ——————————————————————————–
    From IslamQA

    Is it permissible to offer condolences to Christians, and if so, how is that to be done?.

    Praise be to Allaah.

    Yes, it is permissible to offer them condolences at times of bereavement, to visit them when they are sick, and to console them when calamity strikes. It was narrated that Anas (may Allaah be pleased with him) said: “There was a Jewish boy who used to serve the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him). He fell sick, and the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) came to visit him. He sat at his head and said, ‘Become Muslim.’ (The boy) looked at his father who was with him, and he (the father) said to him, ‘Obey Abu’l-Qaasim ( (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him)).’ So he became Muslim. Then the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) left, saying, ‘Praise be to Allaah who has saved him from the Fire.’”

    (Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 1356)

    And it was narrated from Anas that a Jew invited the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) to eat barley bread and other food, and he accepted the invitation. (Narrated by Ahmad, 13201, with a saheeh isnaad).

    It should be noted that if a Muslim does that, he should do so with the intention of calling them to Islam and softening their hearts towards Islam; he should call them in an appropriate manner and at an appropriate time.

    It should also be noted that whilst consoling them he should not pray for forgiveness or mercy or Paradise for their dead, because Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning):

    “It is not (proper) for the Prophet and those who believe to ask Allaah’s forgiveness for the Mushrikoon, even though they be of kin”

    [al-Tawbah 9:113]

    Rather he should pray for them in a way that is appropriate, encourage them to be patient and steadfast, and remind them that this is the way of Allaah with His creation. And Allaah knows best.

  20. For the person that said that 9:113 was quranic evidence that you cannot ask for forgiveness of non muslims after their death, I am sorry but the translation of that verse I read says the “polytheists” which is different from non-muslims of today. Where else is this in the Quran that we cannot pray for non-muslims? I cannot imagine the sense of God allowing a muslim man to marry a Christian woman but not to be able to pray for her?

  21. Greetings dear sis!

    I’ve stumbled across your blog while searching about praying for non-Muslims after their death. I’ve found so many different opinions including most of those mentioned here, but I also wanted to add a few more that I’ve found online. First I would like to mention that I am not a Sunni, I am a Shia, but I don’t think that this makes much difference to the matter at hand.

    I’ve found this series of posts that say that if a person died as an obvious enemy of Islam it’s prohibited to pray for them after their death, but that the state of the person is unknown (or that they weren’t an obvious enemy of Islam) then it’s permissible and their fate is ultimately up to God: http://eshaykh.com/tag/praying-for-non-muslims/

    There is also this one that says much of the same thing but in great detail: http://www.islamicity.org/2648/praying-for-non-muslimsan-islamic-perspective/

    This is a topic I’ve struggled a lot with and been confused on so often considering that my best friend Richard died in 2013 and to this day I miss him incredibly. Back then I was not religious, in fact I had no concept of God or religion at all, and I too was hurt quite a bit when some people told me that I couldn’t pray for him and basically implied that he’d gone straight to hell so I decided to research this myself and found several different perspectives on this issue. To the best of my knowledge Richard did not hate Islam or God or any other religious people so how could he be considered an enemy? I don’t know if he’d heard about Islam or not (I hadn’t at the time) but some more of my research indicated that he might be one of the people questioned on the Day or Resurrection and that there is no actual harm in praying for him. If it doesn’t help him it most certainly doesn’t harm him.

    That’s just my two cents to the best of my understanding. Before I go I just wanted to say that your blog is very enlightening sis 🙂

    Mila

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