Q. 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. 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.
Posted February 17, 1999