Q. As you know, some Muslims who hail from the Caribbean occasionally have Qur’anic readings for various reasons, e.g., to welcome a newborn, celebrate a birthday, remember the deceased, etc. These functions typically include relatives and friends, and some Qur’anic verses are read / pondered, followed by the participants thanking God for His many bounties and making additional supplications. Some Muslims claim that these events have no precedence during the Prophet’s time and as such, they must be discarded. Specifically with regards to Qur’anic readings for the deceased, these Muslims state that such events do nothing for the dead, and they constitute bid’ah (innovation), which is tantamount to shirk (associating partners with God), an unforgivable sin. They cite voluminous ahadith and “scholarly opinions” to support their assertions. What is your perspective on this?

A. I am very much aware of the the Qur’anic functions of which you refer. Since you mention that numerous ahadith were referenced, it appears that one of the most famous hadith about the deceased was conveniently overlooked: "When a human being dies, all of his deeds are terminated except for three types: charity that he (or she) gave, useful knowledge passed on from which others benefit, and a righteous child who makes du'a for him (or her)." (Muslim and others).

From the perspective of the hadith, it would seem to legitimize the Qur’anic reading because a Muslim host meets all three objectives outlined in the above hadith: 1) feeding the guests can be considered an act of charity, 2) the occasion fosters an environment for imparting knowledge, and 3) the host and participants make a du’a for those around them as well as the departed parent(s). The ahadith about bid’ah deal with that which relates to ritualistic acts of worship, and the Qur’anic reading does not fit this category. The Qur’an repeatedly states that God is merciful, yet even the prophets made du’as. Are their prayers answered? That is for God to know, and what matters is that these functions are acts of compassion on our part. We ask God because He says to ask and He will listen to our prayers. God did not tell us to limit our asking, or spell out the minutiae as far as what form our asking should take.

While some of these cultural acts were passed down to us through generations and are not always according to institutional ritual, law, and propriety, we host these events out of love and respect for others. In Islam, God judges us by our intention, and that is why we have no problem with observing some of our forefathers’ actions, for even though they may not have been products of a seminary, their actions made them stalwarts, head and shoulders above those who carry books / degrees and assumed knowledge. In fact, were it not for our forefathers’ unwavering faith, Islam would not be present today in the Caribbean and many other parts of the world. An example that depicts the powerful bond of a parent / child relationship is that the Qur’an never says that God told Abraham to go and sacrifice his son. Instead, Abraham said that he saw it in a dream, which he shared with his son. God would never ask that we kill a loved one, yet both Abraham and his son (peace be upon them) were willing to go through with the sacrifice, and God blessed them both for that willingness and devotion.

When a Muslim dies, we perform the janazah not only for the departed person but more so for the family and society. Also, there are the customs of a community or nation that the Qur’an does not impede. In our culture / society, the reading is done to get family members and friends together, and to celebrate the memory of a progenitor who was loved and respected. Those who campaign against this are missing the social dimension and benefits of these functions as outlined above. What is the harm in Muslims getting together for a noble cause; does it not promote cohesion within the community? The opposite of this is fitna (dissension), and I strongly encourage those who advocate against these functions to look beyond their own narrow perspective and stop acting as God’s appointed judges. And Allah knows best.

Posted March 14, 2011