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.