Sharia Regulations Regarding Burial Rites During the Covid-19 Pandemic

Whilst Islam accords detailed and specific funeral and burial rites for the deceased, the current pandemic poses challenges to the adequate implementation of these rites. The Centre for Intra Muslim Studies (CIMS) convened virtually to discuss Sharia regulations regarding burial rites during the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to presentations from the scholars of different Islamic sects, the discussion also benefitted from the input of medical professionals and individuals sitting of government advisory committees who were able to provide proper context for the issue.

The bodies of coronavirus infected patients who pass away are currently required to be treated with a disinfectant and then kept in a sealed body bag to prevent the spread of infection. This raises potential problems with regards to discharging the Sharia regulation of washing (ghusl) and shrouding (kafan) the deceased. Mufti Mohammad Farooq Alwi, explained the fatwa issued by Ulama Council of UK Islamic Mission according to which the Sharia stipulated regulations can be dispensed with in the current situation and the deceased can be buried without the ghusl or kafan; the final prayer can be offered near the grave from a convenient distance.

There exist ample hadith within the Sunni canonical texts whereby Prophet Muhammad termed any individual who dies from the plague, a martyr. Precedent from the early battles of Islam show that a martyr can be buried in his/her own clothes without ghusl or kafan. In the light of this, the deceased of coronavirus is definitely a martyr and the funeral rites are not required. In addition, the Qur’anic verse, “Allah intends for you ease, and does not intend for you hardship.” (2: 185) demonstrates that there is no hardship and rigidity in Sharia regulations and therefore, concessions can be made in the face of extreme difficulty. The Quran also commands, “Do not throw yourselves into destruction with your own hands.” (2:195) This means that it is imperative to protect individuals from the potential risk of contracting the virus entailed within performing the washing of the deceased.

Mufti Farooq’s presentation raised a number of further issues relating to the level of risk required to dispense with the Sharia stipulated rites. The actual number of days beyond which coronavirus survives in a dead body is unknown; however, the deceased human body is packed with secretions which could all be sources of transmission of infection and therefore the guideline is to keep bodies in sealed bags. Nonetheless, as guidelines vary regionally, in Birmingham, funeral directors are still at liberty to conduct funeral rites as they have access to personal protective equipment (PPE). As a side point, this raises the question of whether the scarce PPE resources should be diverted from frontline NHS workers who are most in need to funeral directors? According to Mufti Farooq, Islam does not wish to put people in harms way and since there is a real risk, even if it is small, of contracting the virus from performing the funeral rights, it is not obligatory.

Shaykh Arif Abdul Hussain argued that the Qur’anic verses utilised by Mufti Farooq and the principles derived from them do not mean that the obligation of performing funeral rites is dispensed with, rather they still have to be performed to the extent possible. Accordingly, he suggested that if it is possible to keep the deceased in a mortuary until it is ascertained that the virus has died, then it is obligatory to do so and perform the funeral rights thereafter. However, this may be practically infeasible if the death toll increases and mortuary space runs out. Also, leaving a body in cold storage may inadvertently extend the life of the virus and that coupled with us not knowing the exact number of days it lasts in the body may be problematic.

View the full discussion here: