Death and Dying in the Middle East

Sami A. Hanna

Sami A. Hanna, “Death and Dying in the Middle East,” in Deity & Death, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 33–60.

Death and dying are universal realities for all creations in every country and cultural area. What makes death and dying so interesting is that its treatment varies from one country to another and from one culture to another. For example, if we take Europe as a whole, its people meet death and behave differently from the people of the Middle East.

We know something about the people of the Middle East, but we are not well acquainted with certain important cultural patterns of that area. When we go as Americans or Europeans, we focus our attention on movements, tourist attractions, etc., but we seldom care to see or investigate how the Middle Eastern people respond to death and dying.

Since this area is predominantly Muslim, our attention is focused on the attitudes and beliefs of the people of this faith. Most examples presented are derived from the Holy Qur’an, the Hadith, and other Islamic texts. Other basic sources are Hughes’ Dictionary of Islam, the Encyclopedia of Islam, and my own personal experiences and observations. I have relied on these latter books through this presentation, but I have not sought to cite page numbers in every instance, except when quoting from passages in the Qur’an.

First, however, I would like to share with you my impressions, as a Middle Easterner, of my first experience with an American funeral, which took place in Salt Lake City. The father of one of my very close friends died. I wanted, of course, to express my condolences to him but learned that such condolences are expressed in a mortuary. I located the mortuary and went there. I found myself in a large building with several rooms, each of which was reserved for a deceased person. A man ushered me into one of the rooms. When I entered and approached the family, I was utterly shocked. The family was standing in line, friends were also standing in line, so I stood in line. When my turn came, I expressed my sympathy to my friend. However, what was even more shocking to me was the spirit in which the family received me. “Look how nice he is. Doesn’t he look wonderful?” These and other things were said in a joyful spirit. To be honest, I expected to see the family of the deceased crying and screaming as in the Middle Eastern culture. But that was not the case. After viewing the deceased in his half-open casket, I returned home wondering how death in America, at least in this Mormon setting, could be received with such joy and happiness. When I asked my friend about this attitude, I was told that death is a transition—a bridge to a happy and everlasting life in heaven.

Such a belief caused me to ponder and to ask myself why we receive death completely differently in the Middle East than in the West? Why do we cry and scream for at least a year? Why do men wear black ties and women black garments? Why do we abstain from everything sweet, from food, from even listening to the radio? Why do the neighbors turn off their radios as a token of sympathy? Why do we remain in mourning for at least forty days?

Death among Muslims

Death in Arabic is Mawt; Wafat. It is clearly taught in the Qur’an, which is read by several hundred million Muslims all over the globe, that “The hour of death is fixed for every living creature.” There are many references in the Holy Qur’an about death. For example, in Sura xvi. 63, we find that:

If God were to punish men for their wrongdoing, He would not leave on the earth a single living creature; but he respites them until a stated time; and when their time comes they cannot delay it an hour, nor can they hasten it.

Also in Sura iii. 82:

Every soul must taste death, and he shall only be paid his hire on the day of resurrection.

Furthermore, in Sura 1. 17 we learn that death is not a single thing:

The agony of death shall come in truth, that is what thou didst shun.

According to the Traditions, as depicted by Hughes’ account, [1] Muhammed was taught that it is sinful to wish for death:

“Wish not for death, not even if thou art a doer of good works, for peradventure thou mayest increase them with an increase [of life]. . . . Not even if thou art a sinner, for which increase of life thou mayest obtain God’s pardon.”

According to Islamic tradition, one day the Prophet said:

Whosoever loves to meet God, God will love to meet him, and whosoever dislikes to meet God, God will dislike to meet him. Then ‘Ayishah said:

“Truly we all dislike death and consider it a great affliction.” The Prophet replied:

“Thou dost not understand me. When death comes near a believer, God gives him a spirit of resignation, and so it is that there is nothing which a believer likes so much as death.”

An interesting story about death is narrated by Al-Bara’ ibn cAzib, one of the companions of the Prophet:

I came out with the Prophet at the funeral of one of the assistants, and we arrived just at the grave, before they had interred the body, and the Prophet sat down, and we sat around him with our heads down, and were so silent that you might say that birds were sitting upon our heads. And there was a stick in the Prophet’s hand with which he kept striking the ground. Then he raised his head and said twice or thrice to his companions,

“Seek the protection of God from the punishments of the grave.”

After that he said, “Verily, when a Muslim separateth from the world and bringeth his soul to futurity, angels descend to him from the celestial regions, whose faces are white. You might say their faces are the sun, and they have a shroud of the shrouds of paradise, and perfumes therefrom. So they sit apart from the deceased, as far as the eyes can see, after which the ‘Angel of Death’ [Malaku’l-Mawt] comes to the deceased and sits at his head and says, ‘O pure soul, come forth to God’s pardon and pleasure.’

“Then the soul comes out, issuing like water from a bag, and the Angel of Death takes it; and when he takes it, the angels do not allow it to remain in his hands for the twinkling of an eye. But when the Angel of Death has taken the soul of a servant of God, he resigns it to his assistants, in whose hands is a shroud, and they put it into the shroud with perfumes, and a fragrance issues from the soul like the smell of the best musk that is to be found on the face of the earth.

“Then the angels carry it upwards, and they do not pass by any concourse of angels who say, ‘What is this pure soul and who is the owner of it?’

“And they say, ‘Such a one, the son of such a one,’ calling him by the best names by which he was known in the world, till they reach the lowest region of heaven with him. And the angels ask the door to be opened for him, which is done.

“Then angels follow it through each heaven, the angel of one heaven to those of the next, and so on till it reaches the seventh heaven, when God says, ‘Write the name of my servant in cIlliyun, and return him towards the earth, that is, to his body which is buried in the earth, because I have created man from earth and return him to it, and will bring him out from it again as I brought him out at first.’

“Then the souls are returned into their bodies, when two angels [Munkar and Nakir] come to the dead man and cause him to sit up, and say to him, ‘Who is the Lord?’

“He replies, ‘My Lord is God.’

“Then they say, ‘What is thy religion?’”

“He says, ‘Islam.’

“Then they say, ‘What is this man who is sent to you?’ (i.e., the Prophet)

“He says, ‘He is the Prophet of God.’

“Then they say, ‘What is your proof of his mission?’

“He says, ‘I read the book of God and believed in it, and I proved it to be true.’

“Then a voice calls out from the celestial regions, ‘My servant hath spoken true, therefore throw for him a bed from Paradise, and dress him in clothes from Paradise, [2] and open a door for him towards Paradise.’

“Then peace and perfumes come for him from Paradise, and his grave is enlarged for him as far as the eye can see. Then a man with a beautiful face comes to him, elegantly dressed and perfumed, and he says, ‘Be joyful in that which hath made thee so; this is the day which was promised thee.’

“Then the dead person says to him, ‘Who art thou, for thy face is perfectly beautiful.’

“And the man replies, ‘I am thy good deeds.’

“Then the dead person cries out, ‘O Lord, hasten the resurrection for my sake!’

“ But, “ continued the Prophet, “when an infidel dies and is about to pass from the world and bring his soul to futurity, black-faced angels [3] come down to him and with them sackcloths. Then they sit from the dead as far as the eye can see, after which the Angel of Death comes in order to sit at his head and says,

“‘O impure soul! Come forth to the wrath of God.’

“Then the soul is disturbed in the infidel’s body. Then the Angel of Death draws it out as hot spit is drawn out of wet wool.

“Then the Angel of Death takes the soul of the infidel, and having taken it, the angels do not allow it to remain with him even for the twinkling of an eye, but they take it in the sackcloth, and a disagreeable smell issues from the soul, like that of the most fetid carcass that can be met with upon the face of the earth.

“Then the angels carry it upwards and do not pass by any assembly of angels who do not ask whose filthy soul is this. They answer such an one, the son of such an one, and they mention him by the worst names that he bore in the world, till they arrive with it at the lowest heaven, and call the door to be opened, but it cannot be done.”

Then the Prophet repeated this verse: “The doors of the celestial regions shall not be opened for them, nor shall they enter into Paradise till a camel passes through the eye of a needle. [4]

“Then God says, ‘Write his history in Sijjin, which is the lowest earth; then his soul is thrown down with violence.”

Afterwards the Prophet repeated this verse: “Unite no partner with God, for whoever uniteth gods with God is like that which falleth from on high, and the birds snatch it away, or the wind wafteth it to a distant place.

“Then his soul is replaced in his body, and two angels [Munkar and Nakir] come to him and set him up, and say,

“‘Who is thy Lord?’

“He says, ‘Alas! Alas! I do not know.’

“Then they say, ‘What is thy religion?’

“He says, ‘Alas, alas! I do not know.’

“And they say to him, ‘What is the condition of the man who is sent down to you?’

“He says, ‘Alas, alas! I do not know.’

“Then a voice comes from above saying, ‘He lieth; therefore spread a bed of fire for him and open a door for him towards hell.’

“Then the heat and hot winds of hell come to him, and his grave is made tight upon him, so as to squeeze his ribs. And a man with a hideous countenance comes to him shockingly dressed, of a vile smell, and he says, ‘Be joyful in that which maketh thee miserable; this is the day that was promised thee.’

“Then the dead man says, ‘Who art thou? Thy face is hideous and brings wickedness.’

“He says, I am thy impure actions.’

“Then the dead person says, ‘O Lord, delay the resurrection on my account!’”

The ceremonies attending the death of a Muslim are described by Jafir Sharif in Herklot’s Qanun-i-Islam, “Islamic Law” page 80. Four or five days before a sick man’s dissolution, he makes his will in favor of his son or any other person in the presence of two or more witnesses and either delivers this will to others or retains it. In it he likewise appoints his executor. When he is about to expire, any learned reader of the Qur’an is sent for and requested to repeat, with a loud voice, “Surat Ya Sin” (or Chapter 36 in the Qur’an), in order that the spirit of the man, by the hearing of its sound, may experience an easy concentration. It is said that when the spirit was commanded to enter the body of Adam, the soul looked into it once and observed that it was a bad and dark place and unworthy of its presence. Then the Just and Most Holy God illuminated the body of Adam with “lamps of light” and commanded the spirit to re-enter. It went in a second time, beheld the light, saw the whole dwelling and said, “There is no pleasing sound here for me to listen to.” It is generally understood from the best works of the mystics of the East that it was because of this circumstance that the Almighty created music. The Holy Spirit, on hearing the sound of this music, became so delighted that it entered Adam’s body.

Commentators on the Qur’an and expositors of the Traditions and divines have written that the sound resembled that produced by the repeating of the Surat Ya Sin; it is therefore advisable to read at the hour of death this chapter from the Qur’an for tranquilizing the soul.

The Kalimatu ‘sh-shahada (the [creed]) is also read with an audible voice by those present. They do not require the patient to read it himself, since at that time he is in a state of distress and not in a fit state of mind to repeat the Kalimah.

Most people lie insensible and cannot even speak, but the pious retain their mental faculties and converse till the very end. There is a most serious religious rule amongst Muslims that if there is a desire for the dying person to repeat the Kalimah, and the sick man expires without being able to do so, his faith is considered dubious, and the man who directed him to repeat the Kalimah incurs guilt. It is therefore best that those sitting with the dying person read it, in hopes that the sick man, hearing the sound of it, may bring it to his recollection and repeat it either aloud or in his own mind. Usually when a person is on the point of death, someone pours sharbat, [5] made of sugar and water, down his throat to facilitate the exit of the vital spark, and someone procures the holy water of the Zamzam well at Mecca. [6]

The moment the spirit has fled, the mouth is closed, because it would present a disagreeable spectacle. The two great toes are brought in contact and fastened with a thin strip of cloth to keep the legs together. Perfumes [7] are burned near the corpse. If the individual died in the evening, the shrouding and burial take place before midnight; if he died at a later hour, he is buried early the next morning. The sooner the sepulchral rites are performed, the better; for it is not proper to keep a corpse long in the house. [8] For this reason the Prophet said that the sooner a good man is buried, the more quickly he will reach heaven. If a bad man, he should be speedily buried so that his unhappy lot will not fall upon others in the house, and so that the relatives of the deceased may not, by holding the corpse, weep too much or go without food. [9]

There are male and female washers [10] who are hired to wash and shroud the corpse. Sometimes, however, the relatives do it themselves. They dig a hole in the earth to contain the water used in the washing and to keep it from spreading over a large surface, as some men and women consider it bad to tread on such water. Some women who are particular in these matters are afraid even to venture near the place where the body has been washed. The corpse is placed on a bed, a country cot, a plank, or on straw then stripped and laid on its back with its head to the east and feet to the west. The washers cover it with a cloth that reaches, for a man, from the navel to the calves of the legs, or for a woman, from the chest to the feet. They wash the corpse with warm or cold water, raising the body gently and rubbing the abdomen four or five times. Then they pour plenty of water on the corpse and wash off all the dirt and filth with soap, using flocks of cotton or cloth. Next they wash the sides of the body, then the back and the rest of the body, gently, because life has just departed and the body is still warm and sensitive to pain. The body is cleaned well so that no offensive smell remains. The washers never throw water into the nostrils or mouth but clean them with wicks of cloth or cotton. Then they perform wudu’k [11] for the person; they wash his mouth, and arms to the elbows; they make masah on his head and they throw water on his feet—these actions constituting the four parts of the ceremony. They then put some camphor with water into a new large earthen pot and with another new earthen pot they take out water and pour it on the body three times: first from the head to the feet, then from the right shoulder to the feet, finally from the left shoulder to the feet. Every time a pot of water is poured the Kalimatu ‘sh-shada (the words of testimony) is repeated: “Ash-hahadu an la ilia Allah,” which means “I testify that there is no deity but God”), either by the person washing or someone else. After the body is bathed and wiped dry with a new piece of cloth, it is placed in the shrouds.

The shrouds consist of three pieces of cloth for a man and five for a woman. The shroud for men is a special set of burial clothes: first, a lungi or izar [12] that reaches from the navel to the knees or ankle joints; second, a qamis or kurta or alfa, [13] that hangs from the neck to the knees or ankles; third, a lifafah [14] or sheet that extends above the head to below the feet. Women have two additional pieces of cloth: a sinah-band or breast-band, that extends from the armpits to just above the ankle joints; the other a damini which encircles the head once and has two ends dangling on each side.

Having placed the shrouds on a new mat and fumigated them with the smoke of perfumes, the lifafah is spread first on the mat, over it the lungi or izar, and above that the qamis and on that the sinah-band, if it is a woman. The damini is kept separate and tied on afterwards. The corpse must be carefully brought from the place it was bathed and laid on the shrouds.

Surmah is applied to the eyes with a tent made of rolled up paper with a ring or with a pice. Camphor is applied in seven places: on the forehead including the nose, on the palms of the hands, on the knees, and on the great toes. Then the different shrouds are put on properly, one after another as they lay. The color of the shroud is to be white; no other is admissible. It is of no consequence if a colored cloth is spread over the bier. After the funeral or after the fortieth day, this cloth is given to the faqir [15] who resides in the burying-ground or to any other person deserving of charity. Before shrouding the body, the family tears shreds from the clothes. After shrouding is completed, these shreds are tied on the body: one band above the head, a second below the feet, and a third about the chest, leaving six or seven fingers’ breadth of cloth above the head and below the feet to permit the ends to be fastened. In the case of a deceased female, if relatives are present, they undo the cloth of the head to expose the face and ask the dead person, in the presence of two witnesses, to remit the dowry which had been given her. However, it is preferable that this dowry be remitted while the person is still alive.

If the mother of the deceased is present, she says, “The milk with which I suckled thee I freely bestow on thee”; but this is primarily a custom in India. It is neither enjoined in books of theology nor by the law of Islam. Finally the family places a flower-sheet or wreath of flowers on the corpse. [16]

Views of the Hereafter

Arthur Jeffery, an authority on Islam, gives a number of accounts regarding death and the hereafter. Jeffery observes that “Whosoever has a loving desire to meet with Allah is one whom Allah has a loving desire to meet.” [17] He states that by meeting with Allah (he means death), the true believer is in such a state that he cannot be responsible for his faith; thus, he will be given the good news that Allah is well pleased with him and will grant him His Paradise. To die will be more desirable to the true believer than to live. After meeting him, Allah will pour out upon him His grace and give bountifully of His gifts.

Jeffery also reports that the Prophet once said that’ ‘He who is disinclined to meet with Allah is one whom Allah is disinclined to meet.” In other words, when an unbeliever thinks of the punishment that has been prepared for him, he weeps for his doom and is disinclined to die, so Allah is disinclined to meet with him. The meaning of “disinclined” when used in reference to Allah’s relations with a man is that Allah puts the man far from His mercy, and wills his punishment. This has nothing to do with painful emotions, the attribution of which to Allah—exalted be He—would not be fitting.

There is another view which says that the meaning of the Tradition is not that one’s loving desire to meet with Allah is the cause of Allah’s loving desire to meet with him, nor that one’s disinclination is the cause of His disinclination. The Tradition is intended to describe clearly those people who desire to meet with Allah when Allah desires to meet with them. This is all he says, and its purport obviously is that “loving desire” is an attribute of Allah, and a human’s loving desire for his Lord springs from it and is a reflection, like the reflection of water on a wall. Islamic tradition supports the idea that “When Allah loves a man He keeps him busy with himself.” That His loving them precedes their loving Him is indicated in the Qur’an. When Muhammed made the statement above, people responded, “But, O Apostle of Allah, we are all disinclined to die.” He answered: “That is not disinclination. Whenever a believer comes to die a messenger of good tidings (bashir) [18] will appear, bringing to him from Allah—exalted be He—news of the good to which he is going, so there will be nothing for which he has greater loving desire than for the meeting with Allah—exalted be He—and Allah will have a loving desire to meet with him. But when an iniquitous man—or some related that he said, an unbeliever—comes to die, a messenger of ill tidings (nadhir) will appear, bringing him news of the evil that awaits him, so he will be disinclined to meet with Allah, and Allah disinclined to meet with him. On another occasion the Prophet said:

Relate [religious traditions] from the Children of Israel. There is no crime in that, for they are a people among whom marvelous things have happened.

Then he himself began to relate and said:

Once there was a group of the Children of Israel who as they were walking along came presently to a graveyard. They said, “Let us set ourselves to prayer, and then make supplication to our Lord, and maybe he will allow one of the dead to come forth to inform us about dying.”

So they set themselves to prayer and made supplication to their Lord, and while they were engaged in so doing a dark mulatto raised his head out of one of the graves, saying, “Ho! You there! What do you want? By Allah, though I died ninety years ago the bitterness of dying [19] has not left me till this moment. Make supplication to Allah for me that he let me be again as I was (among the living).”

As for dying, he said, “For a true believer the distress and anxiety of dying are equivalent to that from three hundred strokes.”

The Prophet spoke clearly about the distress and bitterness of dying as a word of wholesome advice to his community. He hoped that they might prepare themselves for dying and bear with patient endurance (sabr) the distresses of this world; for endurance of the distresses of this world is easier than to endure the distress of dying, and the distress of dying belongs to the torments of the Hereafter, and the torments of the afterlife are more severe than the torments of this life.

Muhammed was once asked by a Muslim:

“What have you done about giving Him His due?”

“What Allah has willed,” answered the Prophet, “And do you know death?”

“Yes,” answered he.

“Then what have you done in preparation for it?” asked the Prophet.

“What Allah has willed,” answered he.

So the Prophet said, “Go and put in practice what that involves, then come and I will teach you of the wonders of learning.”

Then he said, “When the light of Islam enters the heart it becomes at ease and is enlarged.” Someone asked, “And is there any [outward] sign of that?” To which he answered:

“Yes! A withdrawing from the abode of the illusory, a coming back to the abode of the eternal, and a making preparation for death before it comes upon one.”

JacFar b. Burqan has related from Maymun B. Mihran that the Prophet said to a man, as he was exhorting him:

Lay hands on the opportunity for five things before five: on your youth before you become decrepit; on your health before you become sick; on your leisure before you become busily occupied; on your wealth before you become poor; and on your life before you die.

From these five precepts a man can gather much wisdom; for a man is capable of works during his youth of which he is incapable in the years of his old age. If a youth becomes accustomed to doing deeds of disobedience, he cannot refrain from them in his later years. So a youth in the period of his youthfulness ought to become accustomed to doing good deeds and then doing good deeds will be easy for him when he becomes old. Likewise, a healthy person can carry effectively through matters which concern his property or his person; therefore, a healthy person ought to seize the opportunity his health gives him to be diligent in using his property and his body for doing deeds of obedience. “On your leisure before you are busily occupied,” means that by night one is at leisure but by day is busily occupied, therefore one ought to say prayers at night during the period of his leisure and fast by day. When he said: “On your life before you die,” he means that so long as man is alive he is capable of works, but when he is dead there is an end to his works. Therefore, a true believer ought not to squander his days, which pass so quickly, but should seize the opportunity of such days as remain to him.

cAli reported that Muhammed saw the Angel of Death at the head of a man of the Ansar, so the Prophet said to him:

“Be gentle with my friend, for he is a true believer.”

He answered: “Be of good cheer, O Muhammed, for I am gentle with every true believer. By Allah, O Muhammed, if any of the family starts screaming when I am taking a man’s spirit, I say, What is this screaming? By Allah, we are doing him no injustice. We have not come before his time. We have not accelerated his fate, so what sin are we committing in taking him? If you are well pleased with what Allah has done you will receive your reward, but if you are displeased or sore afflicted [by it], you are committing sin and being rebellious. You have no cause for discontent with us, and we are going to return for you, so let him who will beware, beware, for there are no dwellers whether in hair tents or in villages, whether on land or on sea, but we examine their faces five times daily and at night, so that I know them both small and great, know them individually. By Allah, O Muhammed, did I desire to take the spirit of a gnat I could not do it till Allah gave me commandment to take it.”

It is related that the Apostle of Allah said: “Did the animals [i.e. domesticated beasts] know what you know about dying you would never eat fat meat.” [20]

It is recorded that Abu Hamid al-Laffaf said:

One who reminds himself frequently of death gains three precious things, viz., an urge to speedy repentance, a contentment with his daily provision, and a liveliness in worship, whereas one who is forgetful of death will be punished for three things, for postponing repentance, for not being content with a sufficiency, and for laziness in [matters of] worship.

It is recorded in Muslim sources that Jesus used to raise the dead by Allah’s permission. Some of the unbelievers said to him:

“You have been raising to life those who had but recently died and who maybe were not quite dead. Raise to life for us someone who died in ancient times.”

He said to them: “Choose whomsoever you will.”

They replied: “Raise for us Shem, Noah’s son.”

So he went to Shem’s grave, prayed a prayer of two rakcas, and made supplication to Allah—exalted be He—whereupon Allah raised to life Shem the son of Noah, and lo, his head and beard had gone white.

They said: “What is this? Folks used not to go grey in your time.”

He said: “I heard the summons, and I thought it was the resurrection, so out of fear my head and my beard went white.”

Someone asked: “How long have you been dead?” and he answered, “Four thousand years, yet the anguish of dying [21] has not left me.”

One Muslim authority has observed:

Blessed is he to whom Allah gives provision of understanding, rouses from the slumber of heedlessness, and leads to ponder over the matter of his end. Let us, therefore, ask Allah to appoint us a good ending, to grant us an ending that is accompanied by a message of good tidings, for there is a message of good tidings from Allah—exalted be He—for the true believer when death comes to him, and it is the words of the Most High.

Verily, those who have said, “Our Lord is Allah,” and then have kept the straight course, on them will the angels descend [saying]: “Fear not! Grieve not! But rejoice in good tidings of the Garden which ye have been promised.”

By keeping the straight course he means believing in Allah and in His Apostle, and standing firm in the faith, though others say that it means performing the required duties and avoiding things forbidden.

In Islam the message of good tidings at death has five aspects:

  1. The first is for believers in general, who receive the message: “Fear not that the punishment will be everlasting,” or, you will not remain in torment forever because the Prophet and righteous persons will intercede for you. “Grieve not lest you miss the reward, but rejoice in good tidings of the Garden,” that you will assuredly go to Paradise.
  2. Sincere devotees (al-mukhlisun) [22] receive the message: “Fear not that your works will be rejected, for your works are accepted; grieve not about things you may have done subsequent to your repentance.”
  3. Penitents receive the message: “Fear not about your sins, for they have been forgiven you, and grieve not that you may miss the reward because of anything you may have done subsequent to your repentance.”
  4. Ascetics (Zuhhad) receive the message: “Fear not the assembling and the accounting [at Judgment], and grieve not about there being any diminution in your doubled reward, but rejoice in the good tidings that you go to Paradise without any accounting and without [having to go to Gehenna for] any torment.”
  5. Theologians (culama) who teach the people, if they teach them well and live in accordance with their own teaching, will receive the message: “Fear not the terrors of the Day of Judgment; grieve not, for He will recompense you for what you have wrought, and rejoice in good tidings of the Garden, which is for you and for those who imitate your example.”

Blessed is he whose ending is accompanied by a message of good tidings, for there will be such a message of good tidings only for such as have been true believers and whose works have been good. To such the angels will descend (at death), and they will say to the angels:

Who are ye? Never have we seen faces more beautiful, nor [smelled] an odor more pleasant than yours.

They will say:

We are your friends (awliya), [23] i.e., your guardians who used to write down your deeds during your earthly life, but now we are to be your awliya in the afterlife.

Man was created for death. There is no running away from it. Thus Allah has said: “Flight will not benefit you at all if you are fleeing from death or being killed.” So it is incumbent on each Muslim to make preparation for death before it comes. Allah has said: “Then wish for death if ye are those who speak truth.” But they will never wish for it because of what their hands have sent forward.

Allah here makes it clear that the one who speaks truth desires death, but the false speaker flees from death because of the evil of his works. The truth-speaking believer has made preparation for death, so he wishes for it, yearning for his Lord.

It is related that there is no soul, innocent or wicked, to which death is not a good thing. If it is innocent Allah has said, “What is with Allah is a good thing for the innocent,” and if it is wicked Allah has said, “We respite them only that they may increase in guilt, and for them is humiliating punishment.”

The Torment and Distress of the Tomb

Al’Khalil b. Ahmad has reported:

We went out with the Apostle of Allah [to join] the funeral procession on a man from the Ansar. [24] When we came to the grave it was not yet dug [completely], so the Prophet sat down, and we also sat around about him, and it was as though the birds were over our heads. In his hand was a rod with which he kept digging in the ground.

Presently he raised his head and said: “Seek refuge with Allah from the torment of the tomb.”

This he said twice or thrice, and then went on: “When a man who is a true believer is drawing near to the next world and is about to be cut off from this world, there descend to him angels whose faces are white as the sun, bringing with them a shroud from Paradise and celestial aromatics, and take a seat at his head and say, ‘O thou tranquil soul, come forth to Allah’s favour and forgiveness.’

“Then,” said the Prophet, “it comes forth, flowing as easily as a drop from a water-skin, whereupon [those angels] take it, not leaving it in his hand more than the twinkling of an eye ere they take it, [wrap it] in the aforementioned shroud and aromatics so that the odor from it is more redolent than the finest musk to be found on the face of the earth, and mount up with it.

“There is not a single angel group whom they pass [as they mount upwards] but asks, ‘What sweet-smelling spirit is this?’

“And they reply, ‘This is the spirit of so-and-so,’ using the finest names for him. Anon they come with it to the gate of the lowest heaven and ask that it be opened for it. It is opened to them and the chief personages in each heaven receive it and accompany it to that which lies beyond it, till finally they arrive with it at the seventh heaven. There Allah says, ‘Write its record in cIlliyun [25] and return it to the earth from which I created men, into which I make them return, and out of which I shall bring them a second time.’ (Sura, xx, 55/57)

“The spirit is then returned to its body, whereupon two angels [26] come to it and ask it, ‘Who is the Lord?’

“It replies, ‘Allah is my Lord.’

“They ask, ‘And what is your religion?’

“‘Islam is my religion,’ it replies.

“Then they say, ‘And what say you about this man who was sent [on a mission] among you?’

“And it answers, ‘He is the Apostle of Allah.’

“They ask, ‘What works have you?’

“And it answers, ‘I have read Allah’s Book, believed it, and in it put my trust.’

“Then a herald will call: ‘He has believed My servant (i.e. Muhammed). Spread for him a bed (firash) from the Garden. Clothe him in a celestial garment, open for him a door giving on the Garden through which may come to him its breezes and its aroma, and expand his grave for him as far as eye can reach.’

“Then there approaches him a sweet-smelling man of handsome countenance, who says to him: ‘Good tidings of that which please you. This is your day that you were promised.’

“He will ask, ‘And who are you?’

“To which the answer will come, ‘I am your pious works.’ Then [the deceased] will say: ‘O Lord, bring on the hour that I may be again with my family and my servants.’”

The Prophet continued: “But when an unbeliever is drawing near to the next world and being cut off from this world, there descends to him from heaven angels whose faces are black, bringing with them hair-cloth, and take their seats just within his vision. Then the Angel of Death arrives, takes a seat at his head and says, ‘O thou pernicious soul, come forth to Allah’s discontent and wrath.’ Thereupon his soul is scattered through all his members and [the angel] drags it forth like the dragging of an iron spit through moist wool, tearing the veins and the sinews. Thus he takes it, but it is not in his hand more than the twinkling of an eye ere [those angels] take it, put it in the hair-cloth where the odor from it is like the stench of a decomposing carcass.

“They mount up with it, and there is not a single angel group whom they pass but asks, ‘What impure spirit is this?’

“They reply, ‘This is the spirit of So-and-so,’ using the least worthy name for him. Anon they come with it to the gate of the lowest heaven and ask that it be opened for it, but it is not opened.”

At this point the Apostle of Allah recited this verse (vii 40/38):

“The gates of heaven will not be opened for them, nor will they enter the Garden till a camel passes through a needle’s eye.

“[He continued,] Then Allah will say, ‘Write this record in sijjin, [27] then let his spirit be thrown out.’”

At this point [the Prophet] recited (xxii, 31/32):

“He who associates anything with Allah will be as though he fell from the sky and the birds snatched him away and the winds blew him to some remote place.”

“So his spirit is returned to his body, whereupon two angels come and sit by him. They ask him, ‘Who is your Lord?’ and he replies, ‘Alas, I know not.’

“They ask him, ‘And what is your religion?’ to which he again replies, ‘Alas! I know not.’

“They ask, ‘Well, what do you say about this man who was sent [on a mission] among you?’ But again he replies, ‘Alas! I know not.’

“Thereupon a herald cries from heaven: ‘He has given my servant [Muhammed] the lie. Spread for him a bed from the fire, clothe him in fire, open for him a door giving on the fire, through which its heat and smoke may enter to him and contract his grave so that his ribs pile on one another.’

“Then there approaches him a man, ugly of countenance, ill dressed and foul smelling, who says to him, ‘Receive tidings of that which will grieve you. This is your day that you were promised.’

“He will ask, ‘And who are you?’ to which [the man] will reply, ‘I am your evil deeds,’ whereat he will say, ‘O Lord, let not the hour arrive. O Lord, let not the hour arrive.’ “

The Apostle of Allah also said:

“When a true believer draws near his end angels come to him with a silk cloth in which are musk and bundles of sweet basil. His spirit comes forth as easily as a hair from a batch of dough, and hears the words:

“‘O tranquil soul, return to your Lord, well-pleasing and well-pleased. [Go on] to the mercy and favor of Allah—exalted be He.’

“When his spirit has been drawn forth and placed in the musk and sweet basil, the silk cloth is folded and sent with it to cIllyun.

“As for the unbeliever, when he draws near his end, angels come to him with a cloth of hair in which are coals of fire. His spirit is painfully dragged out, and hears the words,

“‘O thou pernicious soul, come forth displeased and displeasing. [Go on] to Allah’s contempt and punishment.’ When his spirit has been drawn forth and placed in those coals, which hiss like boiling kettles, the cloth is folded over and sent with it to Sijjin.”

When a true believer is placed in his grave, the grave is expanded for him seventy cubits, strewn with sweet basil, and hung with silk. If he should be one who has memorized somewhat of the Qur’an, the light of that will suffice him, but should he have nothing (of the Qur’an) memorized, a light equivalent to that of the sun will be put in his grave, and he himself will be like a sleeping bird who will not be wakened save by her best beloved.

At this point I feel safe in concluding that Islam in the Middle East gives more attention to death than Christianity. The aforementioned details show clearly that in Islam afterlife for good men is something to look forward to. It depicts both spiritual and material life. Conversely, Christianity generally emphasizes afterlife more than being in the world.

Death in the Days of the Pharaohs

We have now covered Islamic concepts of death and dying; let us briefly present other rites of minority groups in the Middle East.

What about Pre-Islamic Egyptian beliefs and practices concerning death? Let us go back to the days of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. According to the oldest Egyptian beliefs, the gods also were subject to age and could die. The body was preserved so that the soul would not also die as a result of the dismemberment of the body. Legend has it that the gods Herus and Anubis cared for the dead body of Osiris, an Egyptian deity; and likewise a dead person would live on only if friends and relatives did for him just what Herus and Anubis did for the body of Osiris.

Osiris reigned in the world of the dead over the ka or soul of the dead. Each Egyptian burial was made out to be an exact duplicate of the god-burial. Every dead person was identified with Osiris and bore his name (the famous papyrus of Ani often mentions the dead scribe as “Osiris-Ani”). Further at Sais, the suffering of Osiris was enacted yearly and images of Osiris were filled with grain and placed with the dead person as symbols of fertility and eternal life.

Much of the Egyptian religious beliefs would show up in either culture in modified form but with a common theme as their basis. Even as late as in Egyptian Christianity, some forms are still easily identified. [28]

In ancient Egyptian religion when a pharaoh came to the throne, the first thing he planned was his tomb. Like King Tut, whose funerary remains are moving around the United States these days, the body was mummified because the Egyptians wanted the body to still be alive in the tomb. The king’s soul, of course, did not die at all but moved around in heaven—like a solar boat.

In Egypt, one finds three big jars in every tomb of any pharaoh: one for his heart, one for his intestines, and one for other things. His whole body was mummified and wrapped so that he looked exactly as if he were alive. The rituals differed but the king was taken through corridors, surrounded by high priests and a variety of elaborate things, and given the best burial a man could see.

As the pharaohs disappeared in Egyptian history, they were replaced by descendants of other ancient Egyptians called the Copts. The Copts, or Christians of Egypt, have developed different burial customs. I have had personal experience with many of these. If a Christian dies in the Middle East, he is kept only until the undertaker arrives and takes care of the body. As in Jewish customs of burial, the deceased must be buried immediately. There must be no waiting. The body cannot even stay overnight. [29] We don’t know why, but the body is immediately placed in a casket. Symbolically, a person is buried wearing his suit and tie (if he worked in one of the professions), with a new haircut, everything prepared as if he is alive. If he’s a peasant, he is buried in his new galabiyya or robe, [30] that he usually wears on special occasions. But before the burial the body must be washed. In certain cultures the family takes care of the washing but in the Middle East, the family cannot even touch the body. So a volunteer or the undertaker washes the body before dressing him in a beautiful way.

The Coptic or Christian cemetery is really amazing. [31] It is like entering a village. People are never buried underground. Homes, sometimes very strange, and no doubt inspired by the tombs of the pharaohs are built. After six thousand years of history with some adjustments, Egyptian Christian cemeteries have now developed into communities of homes. My family has a home in a town where it lives, with a key and a door and locks. The house even has a kitchen, living rooms, and bedrooms. On certain feast occasions, the family of the deceased get the key from the oldest or the most respected man in the family, go to that house, open the door, and rest there for several days or a week. It’s like vacationing in Las Vegas! Underneath the house is the basement where the caskets are lined up. Everybody knows this is the casket of so-and-so and so-and-so. When the family is endowed with a brilliant or famous man, there are sometimes special inscriptions. These family reunions in the cemetery house are often festive occasions, not gloomy funeral reminders. Family members console each other and the minister or priest offers a prayer and the family gives the priest a little money. When the family visits the house, they prepare rahmah. Rahmah is a form of charity. They make a big loaf of bread, and give it to poor people—who know that this is the day the Christians go to their tombs, and ask for it as charity. You will find many baskets full of bread. This also has symbolic meaning—for comfort of the soul of the deceased, wherever he may be. This custom is deeply embedded among the Christians, whether educated or rural people.

The Christians of the Middle East are a minority group. The predominant religion is Islam. In accordance with Muslim concepts of death and dying, loud screams and lamentations are performed only by women. [32] The women lock the room where the body is kept, stay in the living room, and begin to wail so that everybody in the neighborhood will know that somebody in this house died and a funeral is pending. The women hit their cheeks very hard until others stare, because it is believed that a woman who does not hit her cheeks hard and scream loudly doesn’t love the dead person or lacks interest in him. Christians do the same. [33]

Another distinctive aspect of Muslim funeral practice involves a group of women called naddabat or in the singular, naddabah, who come to the funeral house. Immediately after death a family member contacts one of these women. The woman brings a group with their drums, and they begin to eulogize the beautiful characteristics of the deceased. These women are very fiery and emotional. If they slow down, they are urged by relatives of the dead to pick up the tempo. Then they do all they can to raise their emotions. They cry out without interruption with no food, no drink all day until the body is prepared and washed and taken from the house to the burial place.

For Christians, we know where the dead are going. The dead have a home, or a semi-home at least. For Muslims, burial is very simple, the same from Nasser to Sadat to the man in the street. After the body is washed, it is wrapped in a white sheet. Instead of a casket, a flat board platform is used, held up by four assigned pallbearers and four volunteers. They rotate their positions from the home to the burial place. There are no automobiles with headlights on and no police officers to accompany the march as is done in the United States. But such a procession lets everyone know that a funeral is taking place. The people march until they reach the burial place on the outskirts of the city. Then they dig a simple hole large enough to accommodate the person. The deceased is taken from the board and placed in the hole. Dirt is thrown over him and burial is complete.

When I first came to Utah and attended the funeral I discussed earlier, I asked myself, “What do these people do?” The body of the dead is uncovered, the casket is half open, the person is embalmed and powdered to look natural. This struck me as the opposite of Muslim and Christian culture of Egypt or the Middle East. In the United States the deceased is kept for three or four days, sometimes a week, in a refrigerator in the mortuary until the funeral date is set, then people view the body.

To us the whole idea is entirely different. Who is a dying man? What does dying mean to Muslims? In the Muslim Qur’an Muhammed said: “If you are a good man, God will be very pleased to meet you and you will be also very pleased to meet God.” That means you go right away in a sputnik, you go directly to God and He will shake hands with you if you are a good man. If you are not a good man on earth, you will go to hell. Heaven and hell are there for good and bad people. In the Qur’an, all Muslims are commanded to do well, to perform their Islamic duties, prayers, fasting, and all else.

Another feature of Middle Eastern funerals is that they do not end when the person is buried. Female relatives of the deceased return home where other women come to deliver their condolences. In the yard of the home a huge tent has been constructed, made of fancy cloth and decorated. As many as five hundred to six hundred chairs have been set out to handle the crowds. There is a special seat, the hands and arms of which are made of gold, placed there for the convenience of the faqih who recites the Qur’an. Whether you are poor or rich, this is one of the necessities of a bona fide Muslim funeral. After sunset, all the clan stand outside the tent on chairs, there receiving the condolences of others. When the faqih pauses in his recitations, one group moves on and as he resumes, another group comes in. Coffee is offered, and it’s a must to partake. I don’t know how they do it now, when a pound of coffee costs five dollars, but tradition requires that the family, whether poor or rich must serve black coffee—very thick and very fine. There is a well-dressed waiter, hired of course, who circulates with a tray of coffee for the guests. You cannot say, “Thank you, I don’t drink coffee.” You have to drink it. If you don’t drink it, it’s a serious insult to the deceased.

This tent stays up for three days and then is dismantled. But the mourning period continues for forty days. The family of the deceased are in mourning, crying all this time. They do not eat until someone else comes in and pressures them to eat. They eat a little bite here and little bite there. Food is crucial. They never eat dessert or any sweets during these forty days and don’t even put sugar in their coffee or tea.

On the fortieth day, regardless of whether you are Muslim or Christian, the ritual begins again. Professional female mourners are called in and the men receive their friends once more.

During these funeral rites men wear black ties. If you ever go to the Middle East and see a man wearing a black tie, that means he is in mourning. He may wear it for years, depending how dear or how close the dead person was to him. Women wear black dresses; everything is black. Some people in rural areas get black mascara and put it on their faces, forehead, and hands so that everyone will immediately see that they are in mourning. Black faces, black dresses, and black coffee are signs of mourning in Egypt. Some people even paint their windows black to show their distress and to express sorrow for the departure of a beloved relative or friend.

Another interesting custom in the Middle East is that radios cannot be played in homes surrounding the deceased’s home. It’s a tradition and to do so is very insulting. If I play a radio, the relatives of the deceased will hear the music and send a man to my house and tell me to turn off my radio. They have television in Egypt now, and I don’t know how the young people manage to miss The Six-Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. These customs and habits are always followed during times of mourning, whether you are poor or rich, whether you live in a village or in a city.

There is another interesting sign of death and dying in the Middle East. When the women scream and slap their faces, you will probably hear one word—yagamili—“Oh, my camel.” The woman who cries this is the wife of the dead man. Gamali means “my camel.” She is saying, “Oh, my camel.” Of course he was not a camel, but it shows the great loss that has occurred. A camel symbolizes wealth among the villagers and when a camel dies naturally or disappears, it’s a great loss. How about a man? He’s the provider of the family. He does everything for the family. He’s the man of the family. Therefore, he’s the camel of the family, symbolic of the endurance of the camel, capable of crossing many miles in desert without even a sip of water.

There is segregation in Egyptian funeral rites. Women go into the house. They are not to go outside. Men only go outside. Even in rural areas, only certain women can go with the procession. If they are very close to the deceased, they can go to the tomb and attend the burial rituals. But most women stay home and wait for the funeral party to return.

Christians visit the tomb only on occasions like Christmas and Easter. They spend Christmas and Easter in the tomb sitting in the home. They sleep there three or four nights with the buried people underneath.

The Muslims go to the tomb every Thursday. They must go on that day, carrying with them palm branches and palm leaves. Each person walks in the street carrying a palm leaf. This is related to the concept of rahmah, “mercy,” or “charity.” A green palm leaf is a symbol of mercy. It is an expression in Egypt similar to the American idea of visiting the dead with flowers.

I have touched upon the attitudes and customs of various Middle Eastern cultures toward the inevitable mystery of death. I trust, in this presentation, that you have received some valuable insights into death and dying as it relates to Egypt, Islam, and the Coptic faith. Hopefully this will serve to give you a better understanding of ways in which the traditions of the Middle East differ from those practiced in the United States, particularly among the Mormon people.


[1] Hughes' Dictionary of Islam (London, 1885), 79–81.

[2] Muslims wear ihram or simple white robes when participating in the pilgrimage to Mecca. The idea of paradisiacal clothing is also known among members of the Mormon faith.

[3] Italics added by the author. Again, such a belief resembles the Muslim beliefs, i.e., white is the symbol of purity and blackness is the symbol of sin.

[4] Reminiscent of the words of Jesus in the New Testament, Mark 10:25.

[5] The origin of the American word sherbet?

[6] A water well which is considered holy water by all Muslims who perform the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

[7] In Arabic, Bukhur.

[8] As in the case of Eastern Christians and Jews.

[9] A common habit among Middle Eastern people.

[10] This has reference to washing the body of the deceased.

[11] A Muslim ritual of purification performed before entering the Mosque.

[12] A white sheet of cloth to cover the lower parts of the body.

[13] This means a “shirt.”

[14] Lifafah is an Arabic word delivered from the root laffa, “to wrap up.”

[15] A poor person.

[16] Hughes’ Dictionary of Islam, pp. 79–81. Nowadays in the Middle East the family of the deceased goes to the grave carrying a palm tree leaf to put on the grave instead of flowers. Here we can see cultural interplay. Flowers in the Middle East are still considered a sign of joy, but a palm leaf is not so joyful.

[17] Arthur Jeffery, A Reader on Islam (Houston, 1962), 197.

[18] The two words bashir and nadhir, used in this Tradition, are said to have become technical terms in pre-Islamic Mecca, the bashir being the announcer of good news of a caravan’s safe arrival, and the nadhir being the announcer of the bad news that a caravan had been lost. (Compare bashir with the term bisharah which is applicable only to the New Testament.)

[19] Mararat al-mawt, “the distress of death,” has reference to one of the many expressions used for death-pains or the agony of death.

[20] I.e., they would be so terrified that they would always be thin and lean.

[21] Sakrat al-mawt is another of the many expressions for the agony of death, or the last moments before death.

[22] Those who are loyal or sincere.

[23] Plural of waliyy, which means a friend, a beloved, a tutor, a patron, a guardian, and in some contexts, a saint. It may be noted that the Guardian Angels are beings identified here with the Recording Angels, though generally they are kept distinct.

[24] An Arab word which means “the supporters of the Prophet.”

[25] Sura LXXXIII, 18–21. It is said to be a place in the uppermost heaven where the record of the righteous is kept.

[26] These are Munkar and Nakir, the blue-eyed questioners of the dead.

[27] Sura LXXXIII, 7–9; in Arabic it means “prison.”

[28] This is elaborated in Frazer’s classic work, The Golden Bough.

[29] Unless death occurred at night. In this case, the funeral rites are administered next day as early as possible.

[30] Peasants, especially in Egypt, instead of a suit wear a garment which is called galabiyya or quftan.

[31] There is no serious research on the burial customs of the Copts in Egypt. However, the writer is planning to conduct such research in the near future.

[32] The Christians and Jews follow the same procedures, with some variations from one denomination to another.

[33] Among the upper classes, this pattern is not followed in most cases.