Q. Ibn Sa'd reported in his magnus opus (Kitab al Tabaqat al Kabir), in the book on Women of Madina, that the Prophet's daughter Fatima performed formal ghusl and attired herself in her best clothes (with the help of an attendant, Salma) just before she died. Fatima, according to the report, requested that she should not be uncovered. Her husband 'Ali ibn Abi Talib buried her in that state.

It seemed reasonable to me that someone (a Muslim) anticipating death (as in the case of Fatima) and elects to prepare oneself for death, that is, performs ghusl and proper shrouding, appears to be ritually clean for interment, should death strike this person afterwards.

Can such a person, having met the conditions of ritual purity before death, be buried in that same state, after death (without intervention from the community)? Is this legally permissible?

A. Regarding Ibn Sa'd's reports, here we have the problem of hagiography overcoming haqq. In his reverence for Fatima, he goes too far, for there are other reports that show Ali bathing her. And from a fiqh point of view -- without any dissenting view to the best of my knowledge -- it is death that necessitates the ghusl, and a person's wishes are therefore of no avail. In spite of the fact that it would have been unthinkable for Fatima to make such a request, the story apparently stems from the created piety and purity that is ascribed to her, since this over zealous aspect of hijab is seen as a plus by Muslims. There are only a few instances where bath is not given -- in the case of a martyr, or by following the fiqh maxim "al darar yuzal" -- affliction is removed -- in a case where the deceased is carrying, or by the prevalent knowledge, thought to be doing so, a highly contagious disease or other agent that would cause harm to the bathers -- such as, tuberculosis, bacterial agents, etc.

There is unanimity regarding the issue that Fatima was buried at night, and that there were only a few people at her funeral, she allegedly having asked her husband not to have Abu Bakr and the likes present. Is this a Shia creation? It would seem that although there is some embellishment, there were in fact some hard feelings between her and Abu Bakr, as the matter is reported in Sunni fiqh books as well, and used as the basis of certain rulings, among them the permissibility of burial at night.

Posted February 10, 2000