Q. Is there a command in the Holy Qur'an for the janaza prayer? Can one read the janaza prayer for an 8-month baby who is stillborn? According to a hadith, if you hear a sound from a baby's mouth, then you should read the janaza for a baby who dies shortly after birth. Are there any other hadith on this subject about babies dying at birth or shortly after? At what point can one say that life starts in human beings? Do we assume that from that point on, anytime that life expires, we have to read the janaza?

A. It is always refreshing to see requests for references from the Qur'an. That is an indication that Muslims are becoming increasingly aware of the need to use Islam's only source of unquestionable authenticity. That being said, it must be mentioned that in several cases on which the Qur'an is silent, such silence is often on the presupposition that the Muslims know -- or have a paradigm on -- what is required. It also sometimes indicates that the Qur'an allows for cultural and other differences. On the aspect of janaza, there is no Qur'anic indication as to how it is to be done. The hadith on it are ahad, which means that for the purpose of academic evaluation, we may state that such hadith are all subject to the probability of mendacity. For this reason, the Muslims are not in concert as to what du'as are to be read, how many rakas are to be done, etc., as some Muslims even pray five rakas.

The question of when life begins would have been an inquiry beyond the sensibilities of the seventh century Muslims and those of the early classical Islamic period. But they were aware of the need to establish if a child was to be given a janaza or not. For this they devised what was known as the testimony of "istihlaal" -- that is, the sound of the newborn baby. If this sound was heard even for a second before the baby died, it was declared to have been alive. This concern seems to have been developed along legal considerations, mainly for inheritance purposes, rather than ethical or medical ones. This leads to the conclusion that for the purposes of Islamic law, two types of life may be presumed: actual life, and that life which is established by normal perception. The istihlaal refers to the latter case. Certainly we know now that before the exit from the womb, the fetus exhibits several aspects of what may cause it to be deemed a living thing. But in the Islamic legal definition, at least as it pertains to inheritance and the need to perform the janaza, it would seem that the "life" that causes legal responsibility is that form which occurs in the fetus at the time of, or after it is separated from its mother, either by natural childbirth, or any other form of separation.

On the issue of the janaza, which is a form of worship, there is a rule based on careful study of the Qur'anic imperatives, and its rule of making things as easy as possible, and considering that Allah says: "I have not created the Jinn and Humankind except to worship Me." This rule is stated in two ways:

(1) The basic rule in everything -- except worship -- is permissibility or,

(2) The basic rule in worship is prevention -- meaning that one is not allowed to introduce anything new in worship, for Allah has ordered us to do all that is necessary.

You may notice that I have carefully attempted to distinguish between the legal responsibility of the presumption of life, and the actual presence of life. This is not because I am unaware of certain hadith that are interpreted by a number of scholars in light of the prevailing questions of when life begins -- hadith that apportion a specific time for the fetus being in particular stages, and when Allah blows life unto it. Medical doctors and ethicists in all religions still argue on this issue today. It is beyond the scope of solution by resorting to hadith and Qur'an. It should also be noted that the janaza is a responsibility of the living towards the dead. This means that if, for some strange reason, a believer dies, and there is no janaza for him/her, by no stretch of the imagination can we attribute blame to the dead person. That responsibility only comes into play when the fetus has separated from its mother, and has survived -- even for a nanosecond -- on its own. If the fetus leaves the womb but there is no life, there is no janaza. And Allah knows best.

Posted November 28, 2001