The dreaded COVID–19 has brought fear and ignorance about the disposal of dead bodies across the world. The Muslim community seems to be no different in this regard. From Egypt to India, there have been instances where COVID martyrs’ mortal remains were refused dignified burials by the graveyards and the local Muslim communities. The Telangana State Waqf Board rose from a deep slumber after a COVID martyr Mohammed Khaja Mian was refused 2-square yards of final resting place by not one but caretakers from 6 graveyards! The Hindu community came forward to give burial space to the late Khaja Mian. The laudable humanitarian step of the Shamshaan Ghat and the Hindu community is a tight slap on the collective conscience of the Muslim community at large, the graveyard mafia and some of the indifferent Ulema who choose to avoid speaking on the grave subject of graveyards.
After distressed calls from the grieving and helpless relatives of the COVID martyrs, the Telangana Waqf Board has formed a Help Desk to assist in the burial of the COVID martyrs smoothly and to take action against the caretakers of the graveyards, who refuse burial space or demand huge sums of money for the same. The Help Desk is functional 24/7 with two employees put on the job. The Help Desk phone number is 7995560136. Till the filing of this report, the Waqf Board has claimed that it has assisted in the burial of 5 dead bodies.
The refusal to allot burial space to COVID–19 martyrs started with an unfortunate incident in Egypt in April 2020. A female doctor who passed away was not given burial space before the authorities intervened to settle the issue successfully. Thereafter, the Egyptian Muftis came out with their fatwas or edicts to pave way for the burial of COVID martyrs without any hassles or objections from the local community. The refusal to bury the mortal remains of COVID-19 victims is due to the misperception that corpses could spread infection in nearby population centres. These types of rumours led Dr Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, and Dr Shawki Allaam, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, to issue statements condemning and prohibiting this practice. The Grand Mufti of Egypt Dr Shawqi Allaam issued a fatwa (Islamic edict) prohibiting this act. “It is impermissible for anyone to deprive any human of the divine right of burial,” the fatwa says. The fatwa added that bullying of the COVID-19 patients is religiously forbidden. “The fatwa also prohibited the gatherings that could be staged by the relatives of the deceased people,” Dr Allaam added. “The demagogic objection to the burial of coronavirus martyrs is religiously rejected,” Allaam ruled. He added that those who died from the coronavirus are considered martyrs. He called for accelerating the burial of the victims because it is their right.
The above fatwas illustrate the need for strengthened cooperation between authorities, Islamic institutions and humanitarian organizations – more specifically, humanitarian forensics experts – to ensure a dignified burial of the dead. Dissemination and communication are crucial, both on the relevant scientific evidence as well as the fact that burying the dead as a collective obligation (Farḍh kifāyah) in Islam means that the entire Muslim community would be guilty if they failed to fulfil this communal duty. So, the entire Muslim community is guilty in 6 places where Khaja Mian was denied the burial right in Telangana!
With the Muslim community in Hyderabad divided over to bury or not to bury Muslim dead bodies in their own graveyards, the land grabbers have sensed this as an opportunity to grab graveyard lands. This is particularly happening in areas where there is less Muslim population near the graveyards. Graves are allegedly cleared and attempts are being made to construct houses. Taking advantage of the lockdown and knowing that the Hyderabad City Police is busier than ever in fighting the pandemic COVID– 19, the land grabbers are back to their illegal ways. After witnessing illegal construction activities and attempts being made to grab graveyard lands, the local people have lodged police complaints. The graveyards facing the illegal activities of land grabbers are Jamal Bi ka Takia G. M Colony, Bhoiguda, Kandikal Gate and Tolabai Uppuguda Railway Station. On instructions from Chandrayangutta legislator Akbaruddin Owaisi, under whose constituency the said graveyards are situated, Majlis Municipal Corporator from Jamgammet ward, Abdur Rahman and former Corporator from Upuuguda ward, Samad bin Abdaat inspected the graveyards along with the Waqf Board officials. At graveyard Tolabai near Uppuguda Railway Station, illegal construction activity was allegedly taken up on 500 square yards after clearing the graves. There is no potent law to deter the land grabbers and the story is similar in different states including the capital New Delhi – Qabristans or graveyards are grabbed with impunity!
Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult things we have to go through in life, even under normal circumstances. Every culture and community has its own set of rituals to help ease the grief and pain. As per the Islamic laws, as in many cultures and religions, the management of disposal of the dead bodies is the object of specific rules that aim at ensuring the dignity and respect of the dead as well as for their grieving, living relatives. The very nature and sheer scale of the current coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic have given rise to a number of questions, challenges and even rumours in Muslim-majority countries as well as for local Muslim communities all over the world.
As per the Islamic tradition, the burial of a deceased person is a collective obligation (Farḍh kifāyah) of the Muslim community. This obligation consists of ghusl — the ritual washing of dead bodies, kafan, or shrouding the body with 3 pieces of cloth and finally offering Salat al-janazah, a funeral prayer.
In handling the remains of COVID-19 martyrs in a dignified way, whether in Muslim or non-Muslim majority countries, Islamic rules developed by Muslim jurists and Islamic authorities must be guided by two prime considerations:
First, the lives of body handlers and the rest of the community must not be endangered at any cost. The protection of life (Hifẓ al-nafs) is the first of the five ultimate objectives of Islamic law (Maqāṣid al-sharīʻah). Therefore, this overrides any other Islamic obligations. It is therefore of supreme importance to keep in mind, as discussed below, that determining the Islamic position on any of these three Islamic burial laws for the victims of COVID-19 is dependent on the available medical evidence of how such a practice could put a life at risk.
Second, according to Islamic burial rituals, the dignity of the dead person and the emotions of their loved ones are to be respected as much as is practically possible in extraordinary situations such as armed conflicts, epidemics, pandemics, (COVIDin this case), disasters or other catastrophes.
Current Islamic burial practices in both Muslim and non-Muslim majority states must be evolved and reshaped by the available medical evidence and forensic guidelines. However, till date, the medical knowledge and scientific evidence related to the COVID-19 pandemic seem to be incomplete.
The ritual washing of the dead body can be performed as normal for COVID-19 martyrs, provided that the necessary protective measures are put in place. Forensic guidance includes wearing complete Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – including gloves, gown, a waterproof apron, face shield and goggles, and a mask – as well as avoiding direct contact with blood or bodily fluids, making sure that wounds are covered with waterproof bandages, and avoiding contact with the face and mouth, as well as food, drink, or eating and drinking utensils.
To date, Ghusl has been administered on the bodies of COVID-19 victims in most cases, as in Egypt, the United Kingdom (UK) or Canada. The most detailed procedural guide on the burial of COVID-19 Muslim victims has been issued by the Canadian Council of Imams and the Muslim Medical Association of Canada. Another guiding manual has just been released by the widely respected Al-Azhar Global Fatwa Center.
If state health authorities conclude that normal Ghusl, which includes scrubbing the body of the deceased person, could lead to infection, then merely pouring or just spraying water onto the body is sufficient. This was confirmed by Jordanian Iftaa Board Resolution No. 283, issued on 19 March 2020. The resolution makes clear that all necessary protective measures must be taken to prevent infection and that as much as possible of the burial rituals shall be performed provided that no infection can be transmitted to those handling the mortal remains. Otherwise, merely spraying water on the body and the coffin or shrouding will suffice.
The Ministry of Health in Morocco has issued instructions for the handling of dead bodies of confirmed or potential COVID-19 victims. It mentions that ‘the ritual of washing the body, whether at the hospital morgue or the city morgue, must be supervised by the local management team (reducing to a minimum the use of water, spraying and other rituals used)’. Afterwards, all the areas used should be disinfected, including trolleys and tables, and disposable objects should be treated as medical waste.
If none of the above is permitted by the health authorities, as is the case for example in Algeria, France and Tunisia, then the body should be buried without ghusl or tayammum. This is not a new Islamic position. In fact, pre-modern Muslim jurists permitted burials without performing ghusl in cases where the high number of bodies resulting from an epidemic would make body washing impossible.
The Salatul Janaza or the funeral prayer requirement should not constitute an issue in the context of COVID-19 because it can be performed by a minimum of two individuals. Furthermore, funeral prayers can also be performed at the grave after the burial of the dead. Alternatively, absentee funeral prayers (Salat Al-Ghā’ib) can be performed on COVID-19 victims, as advocated in a recent fatwa issued during a Facebook live session by Sheikh Ahmad Wisam, the Secretary of Fatwa at Dar al-Ifta in Egypt.
The World Health Organization (WHO)’s guidance on infection prevention and control for the safe management of bodies in the context of COVID-19 shines a clear light on the debate of getting an infection from dead bodies. It states that ‘To date, there is no evidence of persons having become infected from exposure to the bodies of persons who died from COVID-19’. However, low risk does still exist from the aerosolization of fluids from the body, a risk that is greater for health care and death care workers who may be involved in the examination of a dead body or the cleaning of a mortuary area following an autopsy.
The Islamic burial laws and instructions from the health authorities in Muslim-majority countries are considerably and continuously shaped by the available medical evidence and forensic guidelines. This demonstrates that Islamic law is able to adapt to the reality of handling the remains of people who have died from COVID-19. In other words, it is realistic to follow the central and state authorities’ medical and forensic instructions while also respecting Islamic burial laws in India too.
Respect the living people and also the dead!