When evaluating traditions and rituals surrounding death, my inner philosophy nerd first wants to identify what life itself means to my culture. Since the vast majority of Egyptians are Muslim, I will highlight the Islamic meaning of life and how that is reflected in our forms of remembrance.
(بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم)
In Islam, the way one lives dictates one’s fate in the Hereafter. Since life is lived in aspiration for a rewarding afterlife and in fear of punishment, the Hereafter is deemed far more important than this materialistic world that poses as a testful means to a deserving end.
When a person passes away, Muslims are thus more concerned about that beloved person’s fate than their personal loss. Prayer becomes an essential form of mourning and remembrance, healing the mourning souls of this life while aiding the departed souls of the Hereafter.
We bury our dead immediately after they pass away, which is followed by a three-day period when people can call the family and express condolence. A gift we give to the dead is called a “khatma”, which is a complete reading of the Qur’an. Friends and family gather to split up thirty chapters between them, which can be read within minutes if enough people participate. Additionally, supplications are performed asking for mercy and forgiveness on the dead, and a place in “jannah”, or paradise.
On the anniversary of death or religious holidays, it is normal for one to visit the graveyard or perform a “khatma” in addition to cooking a meal shared with family and friends. We cook fatta (a bread and rice dish with garlic and vinegar topping) garnished with goat or lamb meat.
The practice of visiting the graveyard, however, is not greatly emphasized since Muslims place more importance on the immortality of the soul than the mortality of the body. Graveyard visits can, then, serve as a reminder to the living of the brevity of this world and the importance of preparation for the next.
In remembering the dead, speech must also follow essential religious guidelines. Firstly, it is “haram”, or forbidden in Islam, to speak poorly of the deceased. We are only allowed to recount their good deeds and ask forgiveness on his or her behalf for the bad. It is also inappropriate to speak about the unfairness of the death of since it undermines God’s role as wise and just. To Muslims, everything occurs under his will, and is to be accepted, so questions of “why” are unacceptable. Instead, we say “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un” which means “We belong to Allah and to Him we shall return”. (إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ)
Aside from these special occasions, Muslims pray for the living and dead during morning and night supplications. It is also believed by Muslims that since the soul is still alive, “salams” or verbal salutations to the dead are received.
In every way we remember our departed, we are given an opportunity to pray on behalf of the dead, realize God’s mercy and forgiveness, and gain consciousness as to how we are individually preparing for the Hereafter.