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. Continue reading “How Muslims Don’t Express Condolences”

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African Women | Nobel Peace Prize Winners | Role Models of Courage and Grace

I’ve grown up surrounded by strong successful African women (and men). Many of these women including my own mother left their home countries to pursue education, marriage and family, and professional development abroad. They sought and the many that have come after them continue to seek greater opportunities than were available to them at home.

Wangari Mathaai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize passed away last week in Kenya. She founded the Green Belt Movement and stood up to the authoritarian government of Daniel Arap Moi to advocate for improvements in society and for the protection green-space so vital to the livelihoods of many Kenyans.

She and the countless other courageous women who joined her made the simple act of planting trees a powerful symbol of resistance. A protest against the prevailing politics of short-term greed and self-interest that is common in many lands. Despite arrests and other abuse, she was unbowed, and determined as ever to continue the struggle for what she was right.

Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said about her that, “She will be remembered as a committed champion of the environment, sustainable development, womens’ rights, and democracy.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia and the first African woman elected as head of state has long been a role model of mine. Since moving to Maryland, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to meet, work with, and befriend a large number of Liberian women. I am amazed by their strength as many of them lived through untold hardship during the recent war there, but they remain fiercely proud to be Liberian and are as committed as ever to a lasting peace and seeing their country develop and prosper.

It’s not surprising that part of the Peace Prize was awarded to another Liberian woman and anti-war activist, Leymah Gbowee. She’s a fiercely independent woman, I love and admire her strength and courage. Hearing her Liberian accent evokes memories of all the strong Liberian women in my life that I am thankful to know.

Gbowee refused to be marginalized and in 2003 confronted then President Charles Taylor directly offering sharp words of rebuke to a man not used to being criticized so publicly to his face. You can hear her speak about it here on NPR’s Tell Me More program (about 5 min 30 sec in) or below:

Any thoughts of fear were pushed aside by her anger witnessing the turmoil and suffering experience by ordinary Liberians. She used her intelligence, courage, and tenacity to unite Liberian women, both Christian and Muslim, for peace.

At the end of the interview with Michel Martin, Leymah Gbowee left some words of wisdom for other activists: 

“Never despise a humble beginning, no matter how small. If you have a conviction that this is something that will change your community, if you have a conviction that this is something that will change your family, if you have a conviction that this is something that will do some good, step out and do it.”

To my mother and my other African mothers, Wangari, Ellen, Leymah, and the others, I am proud to follow in your footsteps as I too am stepping out.

And a shout out to our Arab and Muslim sisters and Tawakkul Karman, the Yemeni activist, who also shared in the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.