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  • September 2021 : Muslim Death Rituals and COVID-19

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Muslim Canadians have been among the hardest hit populations to succumb to the consequences of the virus. According to a recent study by Miconi et al. (2021), Muslims in Quebec – the first provincial epicentre of the virus – had higher rates of virus exposure and experienced higher COVID-19-related discrimination than any other population in the province. Like the UK and the US, morbidity and mortality rates have also been higher among Muslim Canadian communities which comprise populations from largely racialised backgrounds (Subedi, Greenberg and Turcotte, 2020). These early trends, in conjunction with pandemic restrictions, have drawn attention to the importance of adequately conducting Islamic death rituals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the Islamic tradition, the death of a Muslim is followed by four rituals : al-ghusl (the ritual washing of the body), al-kafan (the shrouding), al-janazah (the funeral prayer), and al-dafan (the burial), respectively. The performance of these rites is a collective obligation (fardh al-kifayah) upon the Muslim community, which must be fulfilled to both honour the deceased and console the bereaved. The immediate family of the deceased takes an active role in the performance of these death rites, which are to be hastened during normal circumstances. Due to the collective obligation and the religious virtues associated with attending Islamic funerals, Muslims are encouraged to actively participate in the funerals that occur in their community.

Amid the pandemic, however, participation in Islamic death rites has been substantially restricted. Although provincial guidelines have subtly differed from one another, restrictions on end-of-life ceremonies have been largely based on the World Health Organization’s recommendations regarding the handling of post-mortem bodies. Accordingly, restrictions on public gathering sizes, physical distancing, and sanitation requirements have been steadily imposed across the country. In March 2020, the Bereavement Association of Ontario (BAO) released a special statement for the Muslim community, which urged community members to adopt caution and apply flexibility when performing traditional Islamic death rites.

Since the early months of the pandemic, only licensed professionals or trained volunteers wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) have been permitted to perform ghusl and kafan of the deceased. In provinces with high morbidity rates like Ontario and Quebec, the washing and shrouding of the body were altered or suspended because of the potential risk of contracting the virus. Due to mosque closures in these provinces, funeral prayers (or Salat-ul-Janazah) were limited to graveside services only, while funeral attendance was restricted to a limited number of people, physically distancing by two metres. Many immediate family members, who would have otherwise been active participants in these rituals, were forced to quarantine and forgo the in-person rites because of their prior contact with the deceased. Furthermore, customary visitations to the homes of grieving families were halted, preventing the sharing of food and consolation through comforting touch.

Despite these interruptions to the death rituals and grieving process, Muslim Canadians have persevered and adapted. On March 13, 2020, dozens of Muslim medical, spiritual and community organisations joined to create the Canadian Muslim COVID-19 Task Force (CMCTF). In response to the effect of the pandemic on Islamic death rites, the CMCTF played a vital role in disseminating reliable and consistent messaging to Muslim Canadians. In their concerted effort, the Canadian Council of Imams (CCI) and the Muslim Medical Association of Canada (MMAC) became one of the first in the world to present a detailed guide for dealing with Muslim victims of COVID-19, which has been implemented by mosques and Islamic organisations across Canada. These guidelines for conducting Islamic death rituals have been guided by Islamic jurisprudence and dicta, which emphasise the importance of life preservation. Based on this Islamic principle, Muslim Canadians have practised greater compliance to public health directives during the pandemic.

Muslim Canadians have also adapted by applying Islamic alternatives to traditional death rites because of the Islamic concessions to obligatory rites, permitted during trying times like war, pandemic, or natural disasters. For instance, when traditional ghusl could not be performed, tayammum (dry, ritual wiping of the body) had been applied. For extreme cases wherein physical contact with the deceased was impossible, the obligation for conducting these rites was waived according to Islamic law. Furthermore, for instances when loved ones could not attend the in-person funeral prayer, Salat-ul-Ghayb (absentia funeral prayer) had been practised at home or during isolation.

While further research is needed on the impacts of death ritual restrictions at the individual level, the collective response to such public health measures by Muslim Canadian organisations has been one of consistent vigilance. The collaborative efforts by Muslim organisations with medical, spiritual and governmental agencies have provided Muslim Canadians with reliable guidance on conducting Islamic death rituals safely and adequately.

Additional Sources :
- Al-Dawoody, A., and Finegan, O. (2020, April 30). COVID-19 and Islamic burial laws : safeguarding dignity of the dead.
- Kutty, A. (2020, March 29). Islamic funerals in the time of covid-19. Islamic Institute of Toronto.
- Xiong, J. J., Isgandarova, N., & Panton, A. E. (2020). COVID-19 demands theological reflection : Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian perspectives on the present pandemic. International Journal of Practical Theology, 24(1), 5-28.

D 8 septembre 2021    AAniqa Sheikh

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