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An Islamic perspective on Cremation

Abbas Di Palma explains why the growing practice of cremating the dead is not permissible in Islam

The ancient Muslim cemetery across from the mosque in Kairouan in Tunisia on a sunny day

Cremation is an ancient practice involving the reduction of a dead body to ashes by fire. It has been a common practice in Hindu culture for centuries as well in other ancient cultures usually rooted in pagan customs. Islamic teachings however never promoted such practices and always emphasised the burial of the body in a place specifically consecrated for that purpose: the cemetery.

The Qur’an states that “He is Who created death and life…” (67:2). In this verse death is not simply ‘the end of something’ but rather it is a creation of its own, a specific reality worthy of mention even before life itself. It is, therefore, the continuation of a specific path and the place of ripening the fruits whose seeds have been sown in a previous stage. One important point to bear in mind is that the way the soul moves forward in the Hereafter depends also on how its relationship was with the body in its worldly stage. That is why consideration of the body is very important as it shapes our future and eternal abode. Repeatedly the Qur’an focuses on “those who believe and do good deeds; faith is therefore extremely linked to action and there would be no action without its bodily role. So even in the moment of the soul’s departure, the body should be cared for in the most attentive way as the body is the tool by which the believer may or may not have reached his lofty aim.

In the hadith literature, we find many details on how the depth of a grave should be, its form and its extension, in addition to the rule of adorning and washing the body, all of which directly or indirectly point to the religious concern for the body as well.

It is interesting to note the fact that according to Islamic teachings the body should be washed thrice: the first washing with water and sidr, the second with water and camphor and the third with pure water.

The Qur’an explicitly states that “We created every living thing from water” (21:30). The ritual washing could, therefore, be symbolically seen as a pure and new start for the believer towards a new dimension of his being. On the contrary marking and destroying the body with fire may be considered an inappropriate and uncomfortable ritual as fire in Islamic scriptures is generally found in the underworld rather than in the celestial realms. The Qur’an also mentions the story of Cain and Abel where the latter murdered the former and as a consequence is described to be “amongst the losers” (5:30).

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Then, in front of his brother’s corpse, he started panicking with no knowledge of what to do, so God sent a crow to show him how to deal with dead bodies. This is the first recorded case in human history of the burial of a person.

Some Muslim scholars have supported the prohibition of cremation with the following hadith of the Prophet Muhammad(s), peace and blessings upon him and his family, who has been reported to have said: “Be wary of mutilation even to a mordacious dog” (Mustadrak al-Wasa’il, vol. 18, p.256). According to this opinion, cremation is considered a form of mutilation of the body that Islam severely condemns. As no reference has been made between a dead or alive body, the hadith has been interpreted in its comprehensive sense encompassing both cases.

Another point worth mentioning is related to the belief of the bodily Resurrection. This theological tenet is also emphasised in both Orthodox and Catholic Christianity. Therefore cremation is not authorised by religious tradition as the bodies will be resurrected on the Last Day:  by being cremated the individual symbolically rejects this fundamental principle of faith as the voluntary annihilation of the body of the deceased would represent the rejection of faith in the Afterlife or at least an implicit challenge to the will of God.

Not surprisingly cremation has sometimes been considered an atheistic or secular ritual. It could be used to support the affirmation of being against any illusion of survival after death and it may be a “coherent conclusion” of a profane life carried out outside lofty spiritual boundaries and the religious system. Consequently, it may express the negation of the existence of God, the rejection of the eternal life, or more simply, it could manifest a detachment from “clergies and holy meanings” considering them the usurpers of a “free” sense of life devoid of sanctity. However, according to holy perspectives, the body cannot be treated as a cumbersome object reducible to nothing by a voluntary act. The burial of the deceased expresses the sweetness of the progressive return of the body to the earth from which it came, starting in this way a new phase of the journey towards the Lord of the worlds in a new and totally different abode.

It may be argued that the Qur’an does not explicitly forbid cremation and it does not even mention it. However, the believer’s satisfaction to follow divine instructions, especially those taught and practised by the Prophet of Islam who is “an excellent example” (33:21) possessing “mighty virtue” (68:4), is what suffices him for his happiness and everlasting joy.

The washing, the shrouding, the prayer and the burial are all fundamental elements of the prophetic praxis learnt by the Prophet from the Almighty Lord and subsequently taught to the members of his community. As “he does not speak from desire, he is just a revealed revelation” (53:3-4), this is the ritualistic and canonical form that has been preserved by Muslims down the centuries.

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