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Cremating the Rights of the Dead

How will the body, now decayed and turned to soil ever, rise again?
– Sikh-run anti-Islam website

Qur’an 17:49-51: And they (pagan Arabs) ask: “When we are bones and fragments (destroyed), will we really be resurrected (to be) a new creation?” Say (O Muhammad): “Be you stones or iron. Or some created thing that is yet greater (or harder) in your breasts.” Then, they will say: “Who shall bring us back (to life)?” Say: “He Who created you the first time.”

Introduction

Imagine living with a loved one your whole life; walking hand-in-hand in helping shoulder the burdens of hardship and adversity faced while sharing in the moments of temporal joy and happiness.

Imagine further, how you would feel if the one you love suddenly passes away and YOU are confronted with the horrifying prospect of personally setting to fire his/ her funeral pyre and having to experience the smell of burning human flesh as your loved one’s body spits, crackles and burns. Worse still, imagine then, after going through this horrendous ordeal, not being expected to grieve!

All praise is due to Allah (alhamdulillaah) for guiding us to a religion of mercy (deenur-rahmah) that has laid down a complete guidance that has established the rights for all relevant aspects of life in order to maintain harmony and balance:

And He found you unaware and guided you. (Qur’an 93:7)

Indeed We have sent Our Messengers with clear proofs, and revealed with them the Scripture and the balance that mankind may maintain justice. (Qur’an 57:25)

And the heaven He has raised high, and He has set up the perfect balance. Do not violate the balance. (Qur’an 55:7-8)

Part of this balance is to recognise that the teachings and laws of Islam came to honour people, as Allah says:

And indeed We have honoured the Children of Adam. (Qur’an 17:70)

Part of this honour is to know the rights established by our Creator. From these rights include the rights of the mother over her children and vice-versa; the rights of the wife over the husband and vice-versa; the rights of the leader over his subjects and vice-versa; the rights animals have over us; the rights of the enemy; the rights of the neighbours; the rights of the foetus; and even the rights of the walkway. Over all this, however, is the most important right of all: the rights of God Almighty.

Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) was the one who conveyed and taught us these rights, which also include those prescribed to the dead.

Let us see how the Islamic rights of the dead fare in comparison to Sikhism’s funeral/ crematory procedure known as Saskar and the rights it affords its dead.

ASHES TO ASHES – THE SASKAR CEREMONY

It is important to note from the outset that just as the living have rights in Islam, the dead too have rights. The living have the right to being treated respectfully. A human’s honour is sacred and inviolable. Similarly, the deceased too has rights part of which is to treat the dead body with respect and not dishonour it.

Islam has ordered that one treat the deceased with utmost respect just as s/he was treated in life. Allah has prescribed that when a Muslim dies, that person be washed and cleansed, shrouded in a cloth (preferably white), a funeral prayer offered seeking Allah’s mercy and forgiveness, followed by said person being buried in the ground and covered with earth. Hence, it is forbidden in Islam to burn or cremate the dead; such an act is considered sacrilegious.

Given that it is also forbidden for Muslims to step, walk or sit on graves, how much more abhorrent must it be to burn the body that rests therein?

The funeral practice of burying the dead was the original mode of disposing of a dead body prescribed by Allah to the progenitor of humankind: Prophet Adam, and all subsequent Prophets thereafter up to and including the last Prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon them all).

Sikhs, on the other hand, believe that once a person has died, the body becomes an extraneous shell. Hence, the question of disposing of the dead body correctly is immaterial and can be disposed of through burning with fire.

Why do Sikhs cremate their dead and not bury them?

A: Sikhs, by convention, cremate bodies. It is not a divine rule though. We don’t care about the body, we know the atmaa (soul) has left and all that is left is dirt. We don’t care about the body. Sometimes it is even buried at sea. Why? Because the body is nothing without a soul. Sikhs are not bound by beliefs that the body will be resurrected on some Day of Judgement. How will the body, now decayed and turned to soil ever, rise again? [1] And so Sikhs also do not jam precious land by filling it with dead bodies and then declaring it “sacred”. [2] (bold, underline ours)

It is an interesting answer and indicative of the Sikhi mentality. Sikhs, however, it should be noted, do not believe that cremation is the only way to go:

Sikhism does not restrict the way in which a dead body may be disposed of. People may bury the body, throw it in water, cremate it, or treat it in any convenient but respectful way. [3] (bold, underline ours)

Cremation, however, takes precedence over all other modes of “disposal” as set out in the following Rehat Maryada (Article XIX) on funeral ceremonies:

(c) However young the deceased may be, the body should be cremated. However, where arrangements for cremation cannot be made, there should be no qualm about the body being immersed in flowing water or disposed of in any other manner. [4]

We should, nonetheless, acknowledge and pay tribute to the respectful manner in which Sikhs, similar to the Muslims, take care of the pre-cremated body:

(e) The dead body should be bathed and clothed in clean clothes. [5]

But, the question we pose is: if the body is going to be so disrespectfully discarded anyway, why bother with such pretentious superficialities?

Although Sikhs are guilty of adopting and carrying on this Hindu man-invented mode of disposal, albeit with their own separate and unique ceremonial rituals, they should be commended for not carrying on the superstitious beliefs of the Hindus:

(d) As to the time of cremation, no consideration as to whether it should take place during day or night should weigh. [6]

(g) Adh marg (the ceremony of breaking the pot used for bathing the dead body amid doleful cries half way towards the cremation ground), organized lamentation by women, [7] foorhi (sitting on a straw mat in mourning for a certain period), diva (keeping an oil lamp lit for 360 days after the death in the belief that that will light the path of the deceased), pind (ritual donating of lumps of rice flour, oat flour, or solidified milk (khoa) for ten days after death), kirya (concluding the funeral proceedings ritualistically, serving meals and making offerings by way of shradh, budha marna (waving of whisk, over the hearse of an old person’s dead body and decorating the hearse with festoons), etc. are contrary to the approved code. So too is the picking of the burnt bones from the ashes of the pyre for immersing in the Ganga, at Patalpuri (at Kiratpur), at Kartarpur Sahib or at any other such place. [8]

However, an action that has been stipulated in Sikhism, though not found in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is similar to the following practice of the Hindus:

(f) When the pyre is burnt out, the whole bulk of the ashes, including the burnt bones, should be gathered up and immersed in flowing water or buried at that very place and the ground leveled. 

How irresponsible is this practice that pays no mind to the blatant pollution of water? One can only shudder at the thought of how much a water source will be polluted when considering the number of deaths that occur in the Sikh and Hindu community. Unfortunately, they seem to give more importance to superstitious practices than harmful actions!

However, an important observation we have noted is the proven reality that burying the dead is more environmentally friendly than cremation. This further confirms the dictum that Allaah has “forbidden for us only what is injurious or harmful for us (or for our environment)”.

Some Sikhs have contended that cremation does not take up much space as opposed to huge cemeteries. But, we would contend that this is relative. The earth is more than spacious enough to accommodate the dead, and burial is without doubt more environmentally friendly.

In Islam, the Qur’an reminds the true believer of how one’s outlook should be towards the environment. Allah says:

The worshippers of the Most Merciful are those who tread the earth with HUMILITY…” (Qur’an 25:65)

Part of this humility is to uphold the rights the earth has over us by making sure we do not cause pollution unnecessarily.

CONCLUSION

In light of the above, we are brought back full circle and confronted by the question: can burning the body of the deceased really be described as a “respectful way”? 

As part of its social concept of respect, Islam holds that the body of the deceased must not be cremated, but rather buried with respect. However, there is also an emotional concept attached to the action of burying the dead, which is to serve as a reminder to the conscientious Muslim that one day very soon we too shall follow our dead and shortly return to the earth from whence we came. Hence, the impermissibility of cremation revolves around both a social and emotional concept.

  1. To respect the rights of the dead.
  2. To serve as a reminder that life is fleeting and that everyone will die and return to their Lord for a final judgment.

It is, therefore, completely untrue for Sikhs to claim that the reason Muslims bury their dead is because of their belief in the Day of Resurrection. The wisdom behind the burial procedure in actual fact has very little to do with the Final Day and much more to do with respect and practicality.

The Pakistani scholar, Maulana Mahmood Ahmed Mirpuri, ruled:

Cremation is sinful in Islam, regardless of whether he is a Muslim or non-Muslim, because respect of the human body is also part of our religion. The Prophet (upon whom be peace and blessings of Allaah) said: “Breaking the bone of a dead body is like breaking the bone of a live [sic] person.”

If someone takes part in a cremation he is considered to be helping a sinful activity. [9]

Moreover, there is no reminder more important than remembering someone very close to you who was once with you in sharing in the joys of life, but has now left you for the next abode. Indeed, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:

I used to forbid you to visit graves, but now visit them. (Muslim)

According to another report: “[F]or they will remind you of the Hereafter.” (Ahmad, Ibn Majah)

Since cremations were a common theme in India, the 10 Gurus did not find it objectionable. On the contrary, they continued the tradition of the Hindus as per their Sikh worldview.

In an article, a leading Sikh organisation expressed its anger after a non-Sikh society had asked, on behalf of both the Hindus and Sikhs, the right to hold the first open-air cremation in the UK for over 70 years. [10] This is not only ironic, but also indicative of Sikhism’s short-sightedness when one witnesses Sikhs angered by such an insignificant issue as open-air cremations when compared to the horrible ceremony of torching the body of their loved ones and watching these corpses burn, crackle and spit.

[1] Why do Sikhs cremate their dead and not bury them?, (Why I chose Sikhism… and I didn’t choose Islam; accessed: June 18, 2008).

This question: “How will the body, now decayed and turned to soil ever, rise again?” was also posed by the predecessors of the Sikhs, the polytheistic pagan Arabs, who also rejected the Day of Resurrection. Allah answers this question emphatically:

And they (pagan Arabs) ask: “When we are bones and fragments (destroyed), will we really be resurrected (to be) a new creation?” Say (O Muhammad): “Be you stones or iron. Or some created thing that is yet greater (or harder) in your breasts.” Then, they will say: “Who shall bring us back (to life)?” Say: “He Who created you the first time.” (Qur’an 17:49-51)

(They ask) “When we are dead and have become dust and bones, shall we (then) truly be resurrected? And also our fathers of old?” Say (O Muhammad): “Yes, and you shall then be humiliated.” It will be a single Zajrah (the second blowing of the Trumpet), and behold, they will be staring! They will say: “Woe to us! This is the Day of Recompense!” (It will be said): “This is the Day of Judgement which you used to deny.” (Qur’an 37:16-21)

They said: “When we are dead and have become dust and bones, shall we be resurrected indeed? Truly, this we have been promised – we and our fathers before (us)! This is nothing but tales of the ancients!” Say (O Muhammad): “Whose is the earth and whosoever is therein? If you know!” They will say: “It is Allah’s!” Say: “Will you not then remember?” Say: “Who is (the) Lord of the seven heavens, and (the) Lord of the Great Throne?” They will say: “Allah.” Say: “Will you then not fear Allah?” Say: “In Whose Hand is the sovereignty of everything? And He protects (all), while against Whom there is no protector, if you know?” They will say: “To Allah.” Say: “How then are you deceived and turn away from the truth?” (Qur’an 23:82-89)

[2] http://www.sikhism101.com/?p=values&ans=8
[3]
http://www.sikhmarg.com/english/chapter02.html
[4] http://www.sikhs.org/reht4.htm
[5]
Ibid.
[6] Islam too rejects this superstitious notion. Ibn ‘Abbas narrated:

A man died whom the Prophet used to visit (during his illness). He died at night and they buried him at night, and when morning came, they informed him (the Prophet). He said, ‘What kept you from telling me?’ They said, ‘It was night, and it was dark, and we did not like to disturb you.’ He went to his grave and prayed for him.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

The Prophet was buried at night. Imam Ahmad narrated that ‘A’ishah said: “We did not know that the Messenger of Allah had been buried until we heard the sound of the shovels at the end of the night.” Abu Bakr, ‘Uthmaan, ‘A’ishah and Ibn Mas’ud were all buried at night.
[7] Prophet Muhammad firmly warned against the exaggerated forms of wailing over the dead, which had become a customary norm amongst the pre-Islamic Arabs, especially the women, to the extent that he said:

He is not from us the one who slaps the cheeks, tears the front opening of the shirt or follows the ways and traditions of the pre-Islamic days of ignorance (jaahiliyyah).” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

Abu Burdah reported:

(My father) Abu Musa got seriously ill and lost his consciousness. His head was in the lap of a woman of the family and she began to wail. When Abu Musa recovered his consciousness, he said: “I am innocent of those from whom Messenger of Allaah is innocent. Truly, the Messenger of Allah declared himself free of (responsibility) from a woman who wails, shaves her head and tears up her clothes.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

Al-Mughirah bin Shu’bah said:

I heard the Messenger of Allaah saying, “He who allows (others) to wail over his death, will be punished for it on the Day of Resurrection.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

So reprehensible was this deed that the women who came to give their pledge of allegiance to the Prophet would take this as a specific clause. Umm ‘Atiyyah said:

At the time of giving the pledge of allegiance, the Messenger of Allaah took from us an oath that we would not wail.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)

While Abu Hurairah said:

The Messenger of Allaah said, “Two things are signs of disbelief on the part of those who indulge in them: Slandering one’s lineage and wailing over the dead.” (Muslim)
[8] http://www.sikhs.org/reht4.htm
[9] M. A. Mirpuri, trans. M. A. H. al-Oomeri (1998), Fatawa Sirat-e-Mustaqeem, (Darussalam, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia), p.301.
[10] Although the original article is no longer available, the following link has preserved the story: http://pluralism.org/news/view/13850

2 comments

  1. So – having respect for a dead body is to allow it to be eaten by bugs and bacteria so that it decays slowly over months and years into a putrid , evil smelling mess??? I think not!
    For my loved ones, I would by far, prefer the body go into fire and be turned into ash than to imagine they are being eaten by worns and bugs over months and years!

    • Ummm, our dead bodies are BURIED, not left to decay out in the open. So unless you’re some kind of a mutant who has a super smelling ability, we believe you’ll be safe to burn your loved ones and smell their roasting flesh.

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