Is it necessary to bury Muslims?
In Islam, conducting the funeral rites of a deceased Muslim is a collective obligation (al-wājib al-kifāʾī) upon every Muslim. The funeral rites include washing the body (ghusl) of the deceased, shrouding (takfīn) it, and performing the funeral prayer (ṣalāt al-janāza) over it. All Muslim jurists assert that it is obligatory to respectably lay to rest the deceased body through the method of burying it in the ground. However, there may be times when it is not possible to bury in the ground due to several reasons, including the availability of land space or due to certain environmental or medical/ health related factors that can impede the process of burying in the ground. The question that arises is that does the Sharia permit alternative methods of burial that does not involve burying a deceased body in the ground?
Muslims must lay to rest a deceased body through any appropriate form of burial that includes respectably concealing or covering it. If due to certain impediments it either becomes impossible or causes hardship to bury a deceased body in the ground (or in a grave), then a Muslim can opt for alternative methods of burial, such as burial at sea or above the ground.
1. Although there is no explicit verse in the Quran commanding Muslims to bury a deceased body in the ground, the Quran does suggest that burial was a custom that preceded Islam. For instance, the apparent indication of Quran 5:31 describes the method of burial in the story of Hābīl and Kābīl:
“Then Allah sent a crow digging [a grave] in the ground [for a dead crow], in order to show him how to bury the corpse of his brother. He cried, “Alas! Have I [even] failed to be like this crow and bury the corpse of my brother?” So he became regretful.”
Additionally, the apparent indication of Quran 102:1-2 specifies that the method of burying a dead body in the ground (i.e., in a grave) was a common societal custom of non-Muslims. It reads:
“Competition in [worldly] increase diverts you until you end up in [your] graves. And do not ever offer [funeral] prayers for any of their dead, nor stand by their grave (qabr) [at burial], for they have lost faith in Allah and His Messenger and died rebellious.”1
The Quran endorses burial in the ground as an acceptable method of laying to rest a deceased body. For instance, this can be found in the following verses:
“The Trumpet will be blown [a second time], then—behold! —they will rush from the graves to their Lord.”2
“And certainly, the Hour is coming, there is no doubt about it. And Allah will surely resurrect those in the graves (qubūr).”3
“From the ground We created you, and into it We will return you, and from it We will bring you back again.”4
Although the Quran mentions the societal custom of burying a deceased body in the ground, it does not explicitly command that this method is the only acceptable method of laying to rest a deceased body. As such, the Quran allows scope for accepting alternative methods of laying to rest a deceased body.
The pre-Islamic custom of burying a deceased body in the ground is also endorsed within the Sunna of the Prophet. However, like with the Quran, the Sunna does not explicitly convey that burial in the ground is the only acceptable method of laying a deceased body to rest. Accordingly, there is not a single report of the Sunna that directly commands the obligation of burying a dead body in the ground. In fact, there are reports that indicate on the permissibility of laying to rest a deceased body through the method of sea burial (as opposed to burying it in the ground). For instance:
It is reported from Imam al-Ṣādiq that he said that Imam ʿAlī stated:
“If a person has died [whilst] at sea, then you should wash him, shroud him, embalm him, pray over him, then weigh his legs down with stones [or something heavy] and throw him into the water.”5
It is reported from Sulaymān bin Khālid that he said: Abū ʿAbd Allāh [Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq] asked me:
“What did you do with the body of my uncle Zayd?” I said: They [the opposition army] were watching over the body and when most of the army left, we took his body and buried it at the edge/border of the shore/coast of the Euphrates River. Then in the morning the army searched for his body, they found it and burned it. So, the Imam said: “Why did you not make his body heavy with iron [ i.e., tie his body down with iron] and then drop/submerge it into the Euphrates? Peace be upon him [Zayd bin ʿAlī] and may Allāh remove his mercy from his killers.”6
It is clear from the abovementioned reports that the Imams accepted alternative methods of burial. Additionally, there are other reports that explicate the wisdom behind laying to rest a deceased body.
For instance, Faḍl bin Shādhān reports that Imam al-Riḍā said:
“It is only commanded to bury the dead so that the decomposition of the body is not visible to the people, and the ugliness of the decomposition as well as the repugnant smell that protrudes from it, and any disease and decomposing that the body undergoes does not disturb other people. Also, that the body may be out of sight of both friends and foes, so a foe does not gloat on account of it, and a friend is not grieved by it.”7
It becomes apparent from this report that Sharia requires a deceased body to be laid to rest so that it is respected, insofar as its decomposition is not visible and disturbing to others. The wisdom behind laying to rest a deceased body can therefore be achieved through any respectable method of burial, so long as the deceased body is respected, and its decomposition is not visible and disturbing to others.
2. Despite the lack of a clear command from the Quran and the Sunna, Shīʿī jurists maintain the obligation of laying to rest a deceased body through the method of burial in the ground. For instance, al-ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī is one of the major proponents of this claim. He admits that there is no explicit indication in the Quran and Sunna that supports this obligation. However, he claims that based on the widely accepted custom of the Muslims (ever since the time of the Prophet), there is a consensus amongst Shīʿī scholars that burying in the ground is obligatory8 (or al-ḥukm al-awwalī) and that alternative methods of burial are only permissible in exceptional circumstances (or as al-ḥukm al-thānawwī).9
It is important to know that scholars such as Sayyid Muḥammad Kāẓim al-Ṭabāṭabāʿī al-Yazdī (d. 1919) and Sayyid Abū al-Qāsim al-Khūʾī (d. 1992)10 claim that burial in the ground is obligatory based on narrations from the Prophet and Imams which specifically address instances of mutilation, miscarriage, and martyrs. For example,
“The martyr if he has just taken his last breath [i.e., his body is still warm] then he should be washed [ghusl], shrouded [takfīn], embalmed [taḥnīṭ], and prayed upon. And if this is not the case [i.e., the body is cold and rigor mortis has set in] then he should be shrouded in the clothes he is wearing.”11
“If a woman has a miscarriage and the baby is fully formed then you should wash it, embalm it, shroud, and bury it, if the baby is not fully formed then there is no need to wash and bury the body.”12
“And what is mentioned about the remaining limbs/organs of the body of the deceased is that they should be washed, shrouded, prayed upon and then concealed.”13
Both scholars admit that although the abovementioned narrations are addressing specific instances of mutilation, miscarriage and martyrs, their indication can be extended to cover all deceased Muslims regardless of martyrdom, miscarriage, or mutilation of limbs.
Yazdī in al-ʿUrwat al-wuthqā, explains that the obligation of burial in the ground is because of two reasons; firstly, burial in the ground protects the body from wild predators; secondly, burial in the ground conceals the smell and the decomposition of the body from human onlookers/relatives.14 Yazdī moves on to explain that if there is a place where both humans and wild animals are not found, then covering a deceased body is sufficient and there is no need to bury it in the ground. The implication of Yazdī’s view highlight that (for him) burying in the ground is only obligatory because of two aforementioned reasons. If these two reasons are fulfilled through other/alternative means then the obligation of burying in the ground is lifted.
3. There are numerous juristic maxims (qawāʿid al-fiqhiyya) that are derived from the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet and the Imams which indicate that in certain circumstances, alternative means to burial in the ground are necessary. For instance:
a. The juristic maxim of nafī al-ḍarar (‘eliminating harm’) stipulates that causing any harm to oneself or to others is prohibited. If burying in the ground causes any type of harm, such as contamination or pollution, then alternative means to burying in the ground can be considered such as concealment in a slot/container in a high-rise apartment building,15 burial at sea etc.
b. The juristic maxim of nafī al-ḥaraj (‘eliminating hardship’) stipulates that no Sharia obligation should cause hardship. If burying in the ground causes any type of hardship, such as a lack of availability of land space or excessive costs, then alternative means to burying in the ground can be considered such as concealment in a slot/container in a high-rise apartment building, burial at sea etc.
In essence, it becomes apparent from the Quran and the Sunna that alternative methods of burial in the ground are permissible within the Sharia, so long as the deceased is protected from wild predators and its decomposition is concealed from onlookers/relatives.
1. This can also be found in Quran 9:84.
2. Quran 36:51.
3. Quran 22:7.
4. Quran 20:55.
5. Wasāʾil, 2:206 hadith no. 4318. There are three other reports with the same connotation in regard to sea burial in this chapter.
6. Wasāʾil, 3:208 hadith no.2422; there is also another hadith (no. 2421) with similar wording.
7. Wasāʾil, 3:141. Furthermore, based on the aforementioned reported tradition of Imam al-Riḍā, what is conveyed from this is that the obligation of burial has 3 rights/conditions: (1) The right of the dead body is that if its not buried - It will create an ugly scene and the decomposing of the body for others to see. This is not just obligatory (wājib) for the friends of the deceased but for every Muslim, for the purpose of protecting the honour of the deceased, his/her body is buried. (2) If the deceased is not buried, people will be disturbed by the smell and decomposition. (3) The third condition is shared by the deceased and the people. This is a spiritual/divine instruction that the Divine Lawgiver has stipulated from the aspect of His wisdom, that the foes do not gloat over the state of the dead body and the friends are not grieved by its sight.
8. Abū Manṣūr Jamāl al-Dīn al-Ḥasan b. Yūsuf b. Muṭahhar al-Ḥillī, al-Muʿtabar, (Qom, 1407 HQ), 1:291.
9. The main issue with this view is that the jurists have presumed that the word dafn (burial) means to bury the body in the ground – however, there is no specific narration that indicates that burial means to bury the deceased in the ground.
10. Sayyid Abū al-Qāsim al-Khūʾī, Mawsūʿat al-Imam al-Khūʾī: al-tanqīḥ fī sharḥ al-ʿurwat al-wuthqā (al-Ṭahāra), (Najaf: Muʾassasat al- Khūʾī al-Islāmiyya. 1437 HQ), 9:293; Sayyid Muḥammad Kāẓim al-Ṭabāṭabāʿī al-Yazdī, al-ʿUrwat al-wuthqā, (Qom, 1419 HQ), 2:113
11. Wasāʾil, 2:506, hadith no. 2726.
12. Al-Kafi, 3:210.
13. Wasāʾil, 3:134, the chapter on the funeral prayer ch 38.
14. al-Yazdī, al-ʿUrwat al-wuthqā, 2:113.