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 on what was the norm at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.s). The non-burial was associated with specific pagan acts. Allah says that even from a fingerprint we will be put back together (recreated), 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 that the injury to the dead is like the injury to the living, and there are 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 during the time of the religious messages to 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 states: "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 with the intent to deliberately go against the accepted Muslim practice or to imitate non-Muslim practices.

[Webmaster's Note]: Every religion has its share of superstitious accretions, and Islam is no exception. Traditionally Muslims (like Jews and Christians) bury the dead, and cremation is discouraged. Based on numerous reported Prophetic sayings, Muslims believe that life never really ends at death, that there is a soul that never dies, the angels question the dead shortly after burial, and the grave is made spacious or constricted depending on how virtuous the deceased was. This is contradictory to the Qur'anic message that clearly states that life ends after death until the Day of Judgment, when the dead are brought back to life and held accountable for their deeds during their life on earth. Only after this resurrection event are we promised eternal life.

Posted September 10, 1999