Q. In Islam, the general belief among Muslims is that cremation is forbidden. Is the ruling on cremation still relevant today, if the purpose is not to escape punishment in the hereafter?
A. Regarding cremation, the general view is that the aspect of burying and what is allowable is based what was the norm at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The non-burial was associated with specific pagan acts. Allah says that even from a fingerprint we will be put together. See ayah 75:4, plus several others that show that no matter how much the bodies have decayed, they will be remade, also Q17:49, 17:98, 23:35, etc. This is obviously an expression of explanation. Whether we burn or don't burn our dead, the idea is that Allah will resurrect us as He wishes. Now there is a hadith that says the injury to the dead is like the injury to the living, and several other ahadith that describe conditions in the grave. The ahadith are obviously problematic (see related article The Grave for more information).
Now all this shows that the Arabs were concerned not so much with the aspect of burial, but with the aspect of resurrection. It is also known that in the time of the religious messages of the Jews, Christians and Muslims, meaning at the time of prophethood and the early post prophetic period, even the mundane things were cloaked in the garb of religiosity. Every ritual identified one as either belonging to the Semitic tradition or not. Now who were opposed to this tradition? The Greeks, Indians, etc. and they burned their dead. So from an early religious view, the burning was taboo. However, in instances where the cremation has nothing to do with religiosity or lack thereof, and either a burial plot is horribly expensive or unattainable, or the body is diseased and there is the possibility of an epidemic, then there is nothing to proscribe it. For as the Qawaid al Fiqhiya rule: "If a matter presents hardship, then liberality is the resort, al amr idha daaqa itasa'a..." However, this option is permissible as long as it is not done to deliberately go against the accepted Muslim practice or to imitate non-Muslim practices.
Posted September 10, 1999