In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful
Answered by Sidi Abdullah Anik Misra
As salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
Thank you for your question; I apologize for the long delay. Although to some, questions about the funeral of our Beloved Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) seem obvious and established, one thing I have learned from this question is never to jump to a conclusion too fast. I must also commend your interest and sincerity in following up with this matter, rather than believing everything you hear.
To understand your question better, we need to clarify terms. When a Muslim passes away, they are normally given a ritual bathing (ghusl), shrouded in long strips of cloth (kafn), prayed over in a group funeral prayer (salat al-janazah), then given a simple burial (dafn).
You seem to ask two separate questions:
(1) was he Allah bless him and grant him peace, given a funeral prayer, and
(2) was he buried? The short answer to both is, yes, there was both a funeral prayer and a burial. A more detailed response follows for those interested.
The subject of the passing of the Best of Creation, our liegelord Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace) is perhaps the heaviest topic that we can discuss, and so we explore questions like this not to delve into debate or speculation, but we intend to draw nearer to the Beloved of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace).
Understanding the Circumstances Leading Up to the Funeral
Although this can be treated quite lengthily, the upshot is that the time leading up to the passing away of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was extremely sad, tense and very fragile.
The Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) had been very ill, at the age of 63 in Madina in the end of Safar, 11th year of Hijrah. Everyone was very worried about what was going to happen. As he was bedridden (Allah bless him and grant him peace), he gave express instructions to Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him), the Truthful One (siddiq) of this nation (ummah), to lead the Muslims in the daily prayers.
At times while the prayer was going on, the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) would peek through the curtain from his room which adjoined the masjid, making sure that his community was ready to be on its own. Then, reassured, he would smile and go back. Sometimes, he would feel better and take the help of two men to attend the prayer whilst seated on the ground, too weak to raise his voice (Allah bless him and grant him peace).
Then, one Monday in the month of Rabi’ al-Awwal, news came that he had returned to Allah and passed away. The Muslims were in shock and besides themselves with grief, not knowing what had really happened. After assessing the situation and verifying the news, the one Companion that managed to compose himself and steer the community towards clarity was Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him).
As news of the death spread like wildfire across Madina, meetings and talks sprung up around the city as to who would take charge of the community and guide the Muslims back to a sense of order and calm at this difficult time. There was already talk of having two co-rulers from the Ansar and Muhajireen respectively – others disagreed.
The unity of the Muslims was threatened by the vacuum of leadership, so Abu Bakr and other senior Companions went to address the grave danger of disharmony and anarchy, with the result that all sides present united to nominate Abu Bakr as the first caliph of the Muslim community.
During this time on Tuesday, an honorary bathing (ghusl) of the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and grant him peace) ever-pure and blessed body was taking place, conducted by his closest relatives, as is the norm in Islamic law. They were ‘Ali his cousin, al-‘Abbas his uncle and his two sons al-Fadl and Qutham, and his two freedmen Usamah and Shuqran, with an Ansari attending to them, may Allah be pleased with them.
The clothes were left on out of respect, and nothing impure left his blessed body, so they shrouded him and ‘Ali said, “Allah’s blessing be upon you, you were pure in both life and death.” [al-Hakim, Mustadrak; Ahmad, Musnad].
Now, with the Muslims still in utter grief, yet united under one leader who would guide the affairs of the community, and an honorary ghusl and shrouding having taken place by the next of kin, it was time to determine how the Muslim comunity would say farewell to one they loved the most, Allah bless him and grant him peace.
Questions that Arose Before the Funeral of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace)
Earlier, some of the Muslims who had attended to the bathing of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) had been confused about what to do: should the ritual bathl be performed for a prophet, or not? Should the clothing remain on, or be removed?
Similarly, it is reported that people were wondering: should a funeral prayer be performed on the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) or not? If so, who would lead it? If there was no leader (imam), how would the Muslims perform the funeral prayer?
A narration of Salim ibn `Ubayd (may Allah be pleased with him) reveals what was decided, when after describing the final sickness and passing away of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) and the confusion and shock that ensued, he ran to inform Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him), who with the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and grant him peace) permission was in a mosque near his wife’s home one mile away.
Abu Bakr arrived, wept and kissed the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and grant him peace) noble forehead. Salim narrates:
“… [The people] asked in consternation, ‘Oh Companion of the Messenger of Allah! Has the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) really been taken away [in death]?’ Abu Bakr replied, ‘Yes…’ And the people knew he had told the truth. Then they asked, ‘Oh Companion of the Messenger of Allah! Is the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) to be prayed over?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’
They asked, ‘And how?’ Abu Bakr said, ‘A group of people enters, they recite their takbirs [4 times] and pray, and they supplicate, then they leave, then [another] group enters, recites the takbirs, prays, supplicates, and then they leave, until all the people have entered.’
The people then asked, ‘Oh Companion of the Messenger of Allah! Is the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) to be buried?’ ‘Yes.’ he replied. ‘Where?’ they asked. He answered, ‘In the place where Allah took his soul, for Allah did not take his soul except in a place that is pure.’ And the people knew he had spoken the truth. Then, Abu Bakr instructed them that his paternal relatives [and only them] should bathe him.’” [al-Tirmidhi, al-Shama’il]
‘Allamah al-Bayjuri, whilst explaining this hadeeth in his commentary on the Shama’il, notes that it was from divine wisdom that Abu Bakr was not present at the moment this great calamity struck, so he was able to think more clearly despite also being drowned in sorrow, unlike many other great Companions who were in a state of shock.
Even before his nomination to leadership, he was called upon to teach, and instructed the masses in a way which he could have only known through his deep understanding of the Prophetic will- not by any guessing or reasoning of his own.
The people were wondering whether the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was to be prayed over, since the funeral prayer is normally a prayer of forgiveness and intercession for the deceased, but the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was sinless. Would he be bathed, even though he was pure in life and death? Was he to be buried, or would he be raised to the heavens, or kept somewhere since his blessed body would never change states?
The answer was that he was to be washed, prayed over and buried because he was a part of his community, Allah bless him and grant him peace, and aside from some details and exceptions, he would share in his beloved community’s rulings, Allah bless him and grant him peace; this was a great honor to all of us till today, Alhamdulillah.
Imam al-Suyuti and al-Bayjuri both mentioned a narration from al-Hakim and al-Bazaar, and though there is a strong difference as to the degree of its weakness, it reinforces that this method of prayer, in fact the prayer itself, was not from independent reasoning, rather amongst final instructions to close family members when they had gathered in the house of ‘Aisha (Allah be well pleased with her) and they asked the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace):
“Who will pray over you?” The Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) replied, “When you have bathed me and shrouded me then place me on a bed, then leave me for some time, for the first one to pray on me shall be Gibril, then Mika`il, then Israfil, then the Angel of Death with his host; then, admit upon me group after group, then let them pray over me and send salams upon me with complete submission.” [al-Hakim, Mustadrak; al-Bazzaar, Musnad]
The Funeral Prayer of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace)
Following Abu Bakr’s (may Allah be pleased with him) directions, the people did exactly as he outlined. Ibn Abbas narrates:
“… and when they were finished with preparing him on Wednesday (Allah bless him and grant him peace) [for burial], they placed him on his bed, in his house, and the people entered upon the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) in small groups until they had finished; then they let in the women until they finished; then they let in the children, and no one led the people as an imam over the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace)…” [Ibn Majah, Sunan]
Ibn ‘Abbas also narrates:
“When the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) passed away, the men were admitted [into the house of ‘Aisha] and they prayed upon him without anyone leading the prayer, individually, then they left, then they admitted the women, and they prayed upon him, then they admitted the children, and they prayed upon him, then they admitted the slaves, and they prayed upon him, individually; no one led them in prayers over the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace).” [al-Bayhaqi, Dalai’il al-Nubuwwah]
Abu ‘Aseeb the Companion (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “I witnessed the funeral prayer on the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace). The people asked, ‘How should we pray on him?’ He (one Companion) said, ‘Enter, all of you, in small groups at a time.’… so they would enter from *this* door and pray, then leave through the other door…” [Ahmad, Musnad]
These hadith, alongside many other transmitted narrations, from Malik, Ahmad, al-Baihaqi, Ibn Abi Shayba and others, and many other accounts in the books of Islamic history, such as Ibn Sa’d, Ibn Hisham, and others, all concur that the funeral prayer of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) did take place in this unique way.
Even in the books of fiqh, it is reported that “this is a matter upon which there is consensus and no difference of opinion exists.” (Hashiya al-Tahtawi) There were however, differences of opinion and various interpretations over the reasons, details and meanings behind the unique method of the funeral prayer.
Why Was the Funeral Prayer Performed Individually?
Perhaps the most unique aspect of funeral of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was that although there was a washing, prayer and burial as the sacred law normally instructs, approximately 30,000 people prayed the funeral prayer individually, with no one acting as the Imam [according to al-Bayjuri’s estimate].
Various scholars, in the absence of any clear, well-authenticated statements from source-texts to settle the matter, proposed diverse reasons (and refuted others) as to why it was prayed this way:
(1) One proposed reason is that since there was no imam to lead the Muslim community initially, the Companions decided to start praying individually without an imam. Ibn ‘Abidin, in the margins of his Hashiya, references the author of al-Mabsut as saying that this is because Abu Bakr (Allah be pleased with him) was busy with straightening the affairs of the Muslims and quelling potential discord, so he was not able to attend as the Caliph and lead, but when he did finally, he was the last to pray and no one after that prayed the funeral prayer. Ibn ‘Abidin mentions there is disagreement as to when exactly he prayed, in relation to ‘Abbas, who was the next-of-kin.
In isolation, this reasoning paints the funeral prayer method as almost entirely politically-based, while also highlighting the importance of leadership and unity in the Muslim community. Many scholars discounted and refuted this as the sole reason however, because the pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr was given while the ghusl was taking place, so if a was leader was needed, they had one.
(2) Given that the city of Madinah and its environs was home to thousands of Muslims, it would’ve been nearly impossible to gather them all inside or around the house of the Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her), in which at most perhaps 10 people at a time could stand. Also, it would take time for those in outlying areas who naturally wanted to attend the funeral prayer to reach the city. Had one large prayer been performed by the Caliph initially, those who missed out would not have a chance to make a second congregation as the group funeral prayer is prayed only once, with the ruler of the Muslims most deserving to lead it.
(3) In a similar vein, al-Ramli mentions the speculation that (in the absence of the ruler) if the nearest-of-kin (the wali) to the deceased has the right to lead the funeral prayer in normal circumstances, it would have been the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and grant him peace) paternal uncle, al-`Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) who would have had this right. However, it is possible that al-`Abbas did not claim that right fearing that it would mislead the people into believing that he was the new Caliph, which could potentially cause discord and confusion. [al-Ramli, Nihayah al-Muhtaj ‘ala al-Minhaj]
(4) One of the stronger proposed reasons explaining the funeral prayer method was that it was part of an explicit decree in the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and grant him peace) final instructions to the community.
Ibn Kathir, in al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, quotes from al-Bayhaqi and al-Bazzaar, that Ibn Mas’ud (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “Part of the last will and testament of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was that he be washed by the men of his family, and that he said, ‘Shroud me in these pieces of cloth, or the Yemeni ones, or the white Egyptian ones,’ and that when they had shrouded him, they should place him on the edge of his grave and then leave him [in ‘Aisha’s house] till the angels prayed on him, then the men of his family would pray on him, and then the people, individually.”
Ibn Kathir indicated the need for investigation on the degree of authenticity of this narration, but despite this, he considered it in his discussion on the reasoning behind the funeal prayer. He mentions that, “had the report that we have narrated from Ibn Mas’ud been rigorously authenticated, it would have been an explicit, conclusive text on the question, and [the unique method of the funeral prayer] would have been a divinely-ordained form of worship, the true meaning of which the intellect would be unable to encompass [as with all revealed forms of worship].”
Ibn Kathir continues, refuting the opinion that it had to do with leadership:
“And no one can say that [the reasoning behind praying individually] was due to the absence of a leader (imam), because they only began to prepare his body (Allah bless him and grant him peace) after the completion of the oath of fealty to Abu Bakr [as the Caliph] and after his approval (to begin praying the Janazah)…
And some scholars have said that there was no imam leading them only so each person could have a direct prayer upon him (Allah bless him and grant him peace), and so the prayers of the Muslims upon him would repeat time after time, from one person to the next, from each of the Companions – each man, woman and child amongst them – and even each of their bondsmen and bondswomen…
As for al-Suhayli, the gist of what he said was that Allah has definitely informed us that He and His angels send blessings upon him (Allah bless him and grant him peace) [al-Qur’an, 33:56], and He has commanded each Believer to send blessings upon him directly from themselves, and the prayer upon him after his death is seen from this angle… Also, that the angels are [like] imams for us in this. And Allah knows best.” [Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah]
This reasoning supports the view that the most blessings (barakah) for the one praying was when it was without any intermediary leading in between – rather there was an opportunity for each Companion to intimately experience, and be in control of, their last direct interaction with the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) – one can only imagine the emotions they must have felt at the time.
It also allowed lesser-prominent companions, including women, children and slaves who may not have always gotten a chance to be up front and close, to have this special opportunity, emphasizing the importance of each Muslim in his eyes, Allah bless him and grant him peace.
(5) The final, undisputed and greatest reason for the unique funeral prayer is that due to the supreme rank of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) amongst all creation, it was not befitting for anyone of his community to intend to be a leader (imam) over him in his passing. This was the highest form of respect and deference.
Ibn Sa’d reports: ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “Let no one stand over him (Allah bless him and grant him peace) as an imam. He is your leader in life and in death.” So the people would enter in small groups, and pray upon him (Allah bless him and grant him peace) row on row, and there was no leader (imam) for them, while ‘Ali was standing beside the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) saying, “Peace be upon you, Oh Prophet…[and saying a long dua’ for him]” while the people were saying, “Amin! Amin!”…[Ibn Sa’d, al-Tabaqat]. Similar supplications and blessings are recorded from Abu Bakr and Omar, together with a group saying “Amin”.
Imam al Shafi’i (may Allah have mercy on him) said regarding the funeral prayer without an imam: “… and that was because of the greatness of the station of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) – may my father and mother be sacrificed for him!- and for the [companions] striving amidst each other [to ensure] that no person be given the position of imam of the prayer upon him.” [al-Shafi’i, Kitab al-Umm]
Imam al-Ramli says al-Shafi’i’s statement about the “striving” not to have an Imam can be explained by the opinion that since the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) did not specify an imam in his lifetime, the Companions were keen to ensure that there would not be one appointed. [al-Ramli, Nihayah al-Muhtaj ‘ala al-Minhaj]
‘Ali’s statement (may Allah ennoble his countenance) brings up an interesting point: during the Prophet’s lifetime (Allah bless him and grant him peace), the Companions were afraid and averse to stand in his place and lead him as the imam, so how could one of them decide to assume this role for the final prayer over him? It can be said that none from his Ummah ever began a prayer as an imam with the intention to lead him.
This is why, once or twice during the final sickness, when Abu Bakr was ordered to lead the community in prayers, and the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) found enough strength to join him after it had begun, Abu Bakr stepped back when he realized this, in deference to him. After the prayer, he said, “It is not for the son of Abu Quhafa to lead prayer in front of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace).” [Bukhari, Muslim]
If this was the case with the loftiest man of this community after the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace), the Companion of the Cave (may Allah be pleased with him), then a fortiori no one else could be worthy of volunteering themselves as the Imam of the prayer over the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace).
The Opinion that No Funeral Prayer was Performed
Although it is established through the source-texts and the views of the majority of the scholars that a funeral prayer did indeed take place, since the opposite opinion was expressed and it could confuse someone, that opinion can be briefly evaluated here.
Numerous works claim a consensus amongst Ahly Sunnah that some sort of devotional prayers took place regarding the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) in the house of ‘Aisha, by all the Muslims of Madina, individually without an Imam. However, there was a small minority of scholars who held that the prayer was not the formal funeral prayer, rather individual “blessings” from each person (i.e. asking Allah to increase His reward, with a raising of station).
The funeral prayer of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was unlike any other, because as Imam al-Suyuti mentions in his work on the rulings and qualities which were unique to the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace), his funeral prayer was prayed without an imam, and it did not include the well-known supplication for the deceased, nor any of the verses of Qur’an. [al-Suyuti, Khasa’is al-Kubra]
It cannot be said however, that what was prayed was not a funeral prayer, and rather only blessings (as many narrations outwardly seem to imply), because other narrations mention the opening invocations (takbirs) as well, which are only done in a formal prayer. Thus, what was done in the house of ‘Aisha by the Companions was indeed a funeral prayer, only it was in accordance with how it is applied to the Last Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace), even if it is different from the funeral prayers of the rest of the community.
Imam Nawawi is quoted as saying:
“The matter was differed upon: was he (Allah bless him and grant him peace) prayed over? Some said, ‘No one prayed over him in actuality, and the people simply entered in groups, supplicated, and left.’ And those who claim this differed amongst themselves as to the reason why: some said, ‘It was because of his supreme excellence, so he was free of the need for a prayer to be read over him.’ However, that [line of reasoning] breaks by the [fact that] he was also given a ritual bath [so why is one applied and not the other, when he is not in need of either of the two?]…
And some said, ‘Rather, because there was no Imam (so there was no funeral prayer),’ but this is erroneous, because the Imamate for the obligatory prayers (with Abu Bakr) was never cancelled, and the oath of fealty to Abu Bakr (from the Ummah) was before the burial (so there was an Imam present, if that was the requirement for Janazah)…” [Sharh Ibn Majah, al-Suyuti and other commentators]
Imam al Qurtubi, in his tafsir of the Quranic ayah [3:144], also refutes those who deny that the funeral prayer took place by saying:
“[Some of them claim that] each person only stood and made supplication, because he (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was too noble to be prayed over.’ [Qadi Abu Bakr] Ibn al-‘Arabi replied, ‘This claim is weak, because the Sunnah of sending blessings upon him is upheld by a funeral prayer just as it is upheld in a supplication, so [the one praying] says, “Oh Allah, send blessings upon Muhammad until the Day of Judgement.”, and [doing so] is actually a benefit for us (and thus does not take away from the greatness of the Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace).” [al-Qurtubi, al-Jami’ li-Ahkam al-Qur’an]
One famous scholar who held the minority position was Imam al-Baji, who according to al-Zurqani, said, “…(The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him peace) is better than every martyr (al-shahid), and the excellence of the martyr frees that martyr from need of a funeral prayer to be prayed upon him [so a fortiori, the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) shouldn’t have needed a funeral prayer]…”
Al-Zurqani then responded by saying: “The objective behind the funeral prayer upon him is actually an honor returning back upon the Muslims, along with the fact that [, although he is not in need of our prayers, Allah bless him and grant him peace] something that is perfect can accept an increase in its perfection…
And [Qadi] ‘Iyad has said: ‘The correct position that the majority of scholars are upon is that the funeral prayer upon the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was an actual ritual prayer, not just a supplication only.’” [al-Zurqani, Sharh Muwatta; al-Kandahlawi, Awjaz al Masalik]
The minority position seems improbable when we consider that there was a customary bath at the beginning and a customary burial at the end, and in-between, the event which would normally take place is a funeral prayer. Then how could it be that 30,000 Companions took part in this event, yet not one narration has reached us to clearly say that no funeral prayer took place, when that is what one would expect?
Thus, it is very clear to see that the stronger and majority position of the Sunni scholars was that there was an actual funeral prayer on the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace), though the way of our tradition is to endorse the correct view while recognizing that a few great scholars may have had differing positions and they cannot be condemned for holding their own opinion on something speculative.
The Burial of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace)
Although there was a difference of opinion between the Companions (may Allah be pleased with them) as to where the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) should be buried, it was settled by Abu Bakr when he said:
“Truly, I heard the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) say, ‘A prophet has never been taken [in death] except that he was buried in the spot where he was taken.’” [Ibn Majah, Sunan]
Imam al-Bukhari dedicates an entire chapter of his Sahih to describing the grave of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace). Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) said,
“…Allah took him (in death, Allah bless him and grant him peace) while he was lying against my chest [lit. between my sternum and the bottom of my throat], and he (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was buried in my house.” [al-Bukhari, Sahih]
The location of the burial is a matter about which there is no dispute, however, there is some difference of opinion on the day of the burial, whether it was Tuesday night or Wednesday late at night that it took place. Though there is difference on the date as well, the most famous date given is the 12th of Rabi` al Awwal.
Since there are many, many narrations that mention the burial and grave of our Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace), it should be exceedingly clear that any claim of no burial taking place is patently false. As Imam al-Busiri, who wrote the Poem of the Cloak or the “Burda”, said in his expression of love for the Beloved (Allah bless him and grant him peace):
“No perfume is as sweet as the ground that holds his bones –
What Paradise awaits the one who breathes its scent or brushes lips against its soil!”[Translation of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf]
Looking at the Bigger Picture
We have looked at many statements regarding the funeral prayer and burial of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace). Many more exist and have not been mentioned here.
However, it is most important for us as followers of the Beloved of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) to go beyond the details and get to the upshot: the fact that the Messenger (Allah bless him and grant him peace) is no longer with us. That is the single most difficult calamity in the lives of the Believers from the past, present or future.
The Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “If you are afflicted by anything, then seek strength from my death, because you will not be afflicted by anything that is worse than my death.” [Ibn Majah, Sunan]
But while we who came after his departing could not see him and are missing him (Allah bless him and grant him peace), we must know that he is missing us too, and eager to see us:
Anas ibn Malik narrates that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said: “I wish that I could meet my brothers.” The Companions of the Prophet (Allah be well pleased with them) asked, “Are we not your brothers?”
He replied: “You are my Companions, but my brothers are those who will believe in me, without having seen me.” [Ahmad, Musnad]
May Allah Ta’ala send His peace and blessings upon the Prophet always and forever, may He increase us in our love and obedience for His Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace), and unite us with him Paradise.