Q #1. The Qur'an has a verse that says that children should ask Allah to have mercy on their parents (Q17:24). There is a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w) reportedly said that only three things benefit a dead person: "Good knowledge that the person passed on, charity, and the du'a of the children for the person." How does this relate to praying for dead parents, and asking Allah to forgive them and save them from hell? Is it a waste of time or can it be done?

It is also customary to visit the grave of dead relatives and friends and pray for them. Is there any point in this practice?

A #1. The context deciphered from the verses before and after the verse you mentioned denotes that the parents are alive, which is why we are told to lower our wing unto them. The figurative language is based on the protection a mother bird gives to its young and helpless nestlings. We are asking God to be merciful to them while they are still alive. This can mean many things, either that they may be guided aright, that they may live the rest of their days in happiness, etc. The fact is that they are alive and must contribute by their righteousness towards the du'a being answered. After death, the matter is between them and Allah.

Yet I hesitate to say that a du'a cannot be made for them, for the du'a that says: "Rabbana atina fidunya hasana wa fil akhirat hasana wakina azaab an naar" can be extended to include them. Asking Allah's mercy is not done out of the conviction that Allah will change what is due; rather it is done as a filial act of compassion, which Allah rewards. The hedging answer then is that it can be done as long as one is careful about the phraseology. I don't know if I am making myself clear, so I will relate a paradigm.

In Judaism, it is hated to say to a pregnant woman: "May God give you a boy (or a girl)." Since the bio-chemical process has already been done, the sex of the baby is already determined by the time that the pregnancy becomes obvious. Rather, the good wish is: "May God make your baby healthy." Now after death, when each person will have to answer, and God's mercy certainly supercedes ours, it is not that we are asking Allah to change the verdict. Rather, we are hoping that Allah's verdict is good for our parents, and there is no linguistic form except to ask Allah to give them the good of the Hereafter, and to show them His mercy. You are not asking something that Allah needs your du'a for, for God is Most Merciful. You are asking out of respect to your parents' memory, and this may be rewarded. Perchance, and this is not intercession, out of your respect for them, Allah will reward them for having parented such a good child, who even in their death loves and respects them.

Now regarding the hadith, a great researcher by the name of Shlomo Goitein showed that the possible source was "Judeo-Christian" writings. Not that there is anything in Islam to deny the basic message. For good deeds and beneficial knowledge, Allah's mercy seems to indicate that anytime benefits are gained, so will Allah increase blessings. Charity falls into the same category. Now as far as the child goes, that is problematic unless one examines the phraseology of the hadith as indicative of a certain message. The last part states: "waladun salihun yad'u lahu" - a righteous child who supplicates for him. One may state that the child is righteous because of the knowledge and training that his father or mother inculcated unto him/her, and the child asks God that his/her parents share in the goodness of his/her act. It is problematic still, because as Goitein showed, the moral tone of the teaching is sound, but the theology weak, since it came from a source other than the Qur'an and the Prophet.

As for the second part of your question, there is no life in the grave. Once dead, we are completely oblivious to everything. Nor is there any questioning or anything. The body decays, rots, and turns into nothing, to be raised on the Day of Judgment for Allah's questioning and judgment. The visiting is for two reasons: To remind ourselves of what lies in store for us, and to remember them in that it shows respect for the families as well. It also fulfills a part of our emotional attachment to the deceased. Praying in no way can benefit the dead as stated above, since their deeds are already done, and their time of "taklif" (responsibility) is over. We may ask for Allah's grace, but again this is also questionable, since Allah is the Most Gracious, how can we ask for more?

I am somewhat concerned that there be no misconception, that is, Islam sees nothing wrong with the emotional address of a believer to the deceased in the grave. For example, I preach what I preach; yet if and when I were to visit my father's grave, I guess I would speak to him, for nothing but the emotional solace that I would get from it.

Q #2. From your answer above, you are suggesting that the dead cannot hear. Can you provide verses to show this? Yet people insist on greeting the dead, and there are traditions, such as in Wasa'il al hadith, about not only visiting the graves and greeting the dead, but about putting one’s hands on such graves. How can these traditions exist if the Qur'an says otherwise?

A #2. Verses 35:22, 30:52 and 27:80, for example, all very clearly state that we cannot make the dead hear:

30:52: Surah Ar-Rum – Verily, you cannot make the dead hear, not can you make the dead hear when they turn their backs to you.

35:22: The living and the dead are not equal. God causes whomever He wills to hear. But you cannot make those who are in the graves hear.

27:80: You cannot make the dead hear, nor can the deaf hear when they have turned their backs to you.

Those verses are clear. This is why Muslims say that the Qur'an is the word of God. For the traditions, however, they scholars use the term "sighat al-tamrid" -- the passive voice. This means that while a Muslim is obliged to believe the Qur'an is true, s/he is not required to believe this of the hadith. As such, the hadith is defined in the passive voice as "that which is attributed to the Prophet in terms of words, deeds, or tacit approvals." Later Muslims used the hadith as a means through which to channel into Islam several superstitions and baseless traditions. For this reason you see scholars classifying hadith as "true," "false," "rejected," "made-up," "baseless," etc.

The Wasa'il al Shiah that you refer to collected the traditions that were known. In this case, he took freely from Bihar al Anwar, arguably the largest collection of hadiths. However, "the seas of lights" as the name translates to in English, has been criticized by scholars as "containing pearls and pebbles" -- meaning that while it contains gems of wisdom, it also has some worthless material. Allama al-Majlisi, its compiler, was therefore referred to as "hatib al layl" -- the one who collects firewood at night, the implication being that such a person mixes good firewood with that which is worthless. The Bihar therefore is not used for jurisprudential rulings. Rather it is used mainly like the Jewish aggada: for folklore, moral incentives, and often as a conduit for stories that have no basis in Islamic scripture, but are seen as promoting good values.

The greeting of the dead is more to force us to think of death, rather than to assume that the dead are actually hearing and responding. There are hadith about the Prophet being alive in the grave and responding to the greetings in prayer. Obviously this is against the Qur'an that says "each being shall taste of death." The Prophet is dead. As such, some scholars rule that the part of the Muslim prayer that says "Peace be upon you, O Prophet" was for when he was alive and as a form of respect. Now that he is dead, the proper rendition is "assalamu ala al-nabi" -- peace be upon the Prophet. May God guide us to doing what is right.

Posted February 17, 1999, updated on March 26,2019