(iqbār, muwārāt)

Muzaffar Iqbal and Csaba Okvath

The initiation of the burial rite is mentioned in Q 5:31, as one son of Ādam—identified in the commentaries as Qābil (Cain)—is taught what to do with the corpse of his brother whom he had slain: Then Allah sent a raven scratching up the ground, to show him how to hide his brother’s bare corpse. He said: Woe unto me! Am I not able to be as this raven and so hide (fa-uwāriya) my brother’s bare corpse? And he became regretful. Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr Al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) explains on the authority of Ibn ʿAbbās (3BH-68/619-688) and “a number of other Companions,” that the verse refers to two ravens sent by Allah, one of which killed the other and covered it with soil in a crevice (see ĀdamAnimalsTwo Sons of Ādam). The exegetes explain that the verse indicates the slain son of Ādam, identified in the commentaries as Hābīl (Abel), was the first human to die, such that until his death burial rites were unknown (cf. Ṭabarī and Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrs; Samarqandī, Baḥr; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, all sub Q 5:31).

The raven’s act inaugurated an abiding communal obligation on all people (farḍan ʿalā jamīʿ al-nās ʿalā al-kifāya). The responsibility to ensure proper burial of the dead falls first upon near relatives or those living with the deceased, then upon his or her neighbors, and then upon the general community of believers. Such burial both conceals the deceased and protects the living from the odor of decomposition (Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām 2:86; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 5:31). The verse, along with Q 77:25-26 (Have We not made the earth a receptacle, both for the living and the dead) and Q 80:21 (Then He causes him to die, then inters him (fa-aqbarahu)), is considered to be “the foundation of the rite of burial of the dead” (al-aṣl fī sunnati dafn al-mawtā) (Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām, sub Q 5:31).

Definitions and Usage

The Qurʾān uses the following terms to denote burial:

  1. Form III verb wārā–yuwārī (“to keep secret, to hide”), from the root w-r-y, which appears thirty-two times in various derived forms. The relevant Form III verb is used twice (Q 7:20, 26) in reference to covering nakedness and twice in Q 5:31 in reference to the first burial in human history;
  2. al-mawʾūda (“the female infant buried alive,” Q 81:8), the feminine passive participle from the root w-ʾ-d—from which only this word occurs in the Qurʾān—carrying the meaning “to make one thing heavy with another;” thus such an infant is called al-mawʾūda because the soil bears down upon her (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; al-Zamakhsharī, Asās al-balāgha 2:316);
  3. In Q 16:59, the verb yaduss (from the root d-s-s, meaning “to cover one thing with another”) is used for the act of burying alive (waʾd). It is preceded (Q 16:58) by the description of the state of the man who receives the news of the birth of a female child: his face darkens, he dissimulates his anger, and hides himself from the people because of what he conceives to be an ill-news; should he keep her in humiliation or bury her (yadussuhu) in the ground? Truly evil is what they decide!
  4. Form IV verb aqbara [-hu] (“He provides a grave for him”), from the root q-b-r, used once (Q 80:21). The related verbal noun qabr (pl. maqābir) appears six times (Q 8:84; 22:7; 35:22; 60:13; 82:4; 100:9) in singular and once (Q 102:2) in plural form.

In addition, the Prophetic Traditions use three terms for infanticide: imlāṣ, milāṣ, and ijhāḍ (Bukhārī, Diyāt, janīn al-marʾa; Muslim, al-Qasāma wal-muḥāribīn wal-qiṣāṣ wal-diyāt, diyat al-janīn).

Burial of the Dead

The grammarian Abū Zakariyyā Yaḥyā b. Ziyād al-Farrāʾ (144-207/761-822) explains the usage of the Form IV verb aqbara in Q 80:21: “[Allah] did not use [the Form I verb] fa-qabarahu, because al-qābir is the one who buries with his own hands, whereas al-muqbir is Allah, Who made humans the possessors of graves…instead of their being left to be scavenged by predators or entombed as practiced by the Zoroastrians” (in Azharī, Tahdhīb; Zabīdī, Tāj, sub q-b-r) (see al-Majūs). The philologist Abū Bakr Muḥammad Ibn Durayd al-Azdī (223-321/838-933) says the meaning of the verb aqbara is “to aid in burial or to make for another a place of burial (mawḍiʿ qabr), as per the interpretation of Q 80:21 by Abū ʿUbayda, [who said] ‘by sending the raven, Allah, glorified and exalted, revealed to the son of Ādam who had killed his brother how to bury the corpse’” (Jamhara, sub b-q-r 1:324). Ismāʿīl b. Ḥammād al-Jawharī (d. 393/1002) writes, “it is as though the grave is one of the things by which the children of Ādam have been honored” (wa-kaʾanna al-qabra mimmā ukrima bihi Banū Ādam) (Ṣiḥāḥ, sub q-b-r).

It is through burial that bodies are interred in earth until the Day of Resurrection, when they shall rush forth (yansilūn, Q 36:51) from their graves (ajdāth, qubūr) as if racing toward a signpost (Q 70:43; cf. Q 36:51; 54:7; 100:9). The burial returns the human body to earth from which it was originally created (Q 3:59; 18:37; 22:5; 30:20; 35:11; 40:67)—a theme mentioned in other verses as well: You have no other deity but Him. He brought you forth from the earth (Q 11:61); Thereof We created you, and thereunto We return you, and thence We shall bring you forth a second time (Q 20:55); and And Allah has brought you forth from the earth; then He will return you into it, and will bring you forth [on the Day of Resurrection] (Q 71:17-18) (see clay; earth). Commenting on the aforementioned Q 20:55, the Sufi exegete Abū al-Qāsim ʿAbd al-Karīm b. Hawāzin al-Qushayrī (376-465/ca.986-ca.1073) offers insights into the subtle relation between body and spirit and what happens to them upon death:

Bodies are molds and spirits repositories. The provenance of the molds is soil; the characteristic of the repositories is [spiritual] intimacy (wal-wadāʾiʿ ṣifatuhā al-qurba). Whereas the molds are adorned with His favors, the repositories are revived by the unveiling of His Majesty and the grace of His Beauty. This day, the molds enjoy retreat (iʿtikāf) in their repose on the carpet of His worship (ʿalā bisāṭ ʿibādatih), and the repositories have gnosis (maʿrifa) of [Allah] (Tafsīr).

The obligation of burial and the concomitant prohibition of selling any part of the dead body underscore the sanctity of the human body (cf. Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām; Bayḍāwī and Qurṭubī, Tafsīrs, sub Q 77:26). Whether a person may donate organs is a contested contemporary issue to which jurists offer contextual responses, taking into consideration the objectives of the Sacred Law (maqāṣid al-sharīʿa) and individual circumstances (see Body; Limbs and Organs).

The deceased has four fundamental rights (ḥuqūq) which the living must fulfill (see rights and claims): (i) to be washed; (ii) to be shrouded; (iii) to have the funeral prayer performed; and (iv) to be buried (Ibn Rushd, al-Muqaddimāt 1:232; Ibn al-Ḥājj, al-Madkhal 3:237; for details on the first three, see al-Mawsūʿa al-fiqhiyya, “al-Dafn”, 21:8-21). The obligation of burial is understood in Islamic jurisprudence to be universal, that is, irrespective of the creed of the deceased, as based on an injunction of the Prophet:

Nājiya b. Kaʿb narrates that ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (13bh-40/609-660) said, “When Abū Ṭālib died, I went to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and said, ‘Your aged misguided (ḍāll) uncle has died. Who will bury him?’ He said, ‘Go and bury your father, and do nothing else before you return to me.’ When I returned, he ordered me to take a ritual bath (ghusl) and he prayed for me with supplications which are dearer to me than all that exists on earth.” (Aḥmad, Musnad, Musnad ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib 2:67 §1092; Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, Janāʾiz, al-rajul yamūt lahu al-qarābat al-mushrik; Nasāʾī, Sunan, Ṭahāra, al-amr bil-ghusl min muwārāt al-mushrik)

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, also ordered that the polytheists killed at the Battle of Badr be buried together (Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q 80:21), demonstrating that Muslims must bury not only their non-Muslim kin but even unrelated non-believers and their mortal enemies when circumstances so demand. The Qurʾān, however, strictly prohibits Muslims from praying over the graves of disbelievers and hypocrites (Q 9:84). Conversely, non-Muslims are not permitted to perform any of these burial rites (washing, shrouding, prayer, burial) for a Muslim, although they may accompany the burial procession and supplicate for the deceased (al-Kharshī, Sharḥ Mukhtaṣar Khalīl 3:78). Juridical works note precedent for this in the case of a Jewish man who converted to Islam at the time of his death: the Prophet ordered the Companions to carry out his burial, instead of leaving it to the deceased’s family (Aḥmad, Musnad, Musnad ʿAbd Allāh b. Masʿūd 7:64 §3952; al-Sarakhsī, al-Mabsūṭ 2:55; Ibn al-Humām, Fatḥ al-qadīr 2:133) (see Kindred;Legal Responsibility).

Advising (talqīn) the person at deathbed and the deceased is a recommended (mustaḥabb) practice. In the phrasing of Abū Zakariyyā Yaḥyā b. Sharaf al-Nawawī (631-676/1234-1277), in the case of the deceased, one stands at the head of the grave and says: “O so-and-so, remember the testament upon which you left the world, that is, that there is no deity except Allah, the One Who has no partner and Muḥammad is His slave and messenger and that Paradise is true, and Hell is true, and the Resurrection is true, and that there is no doubt in the coming of the Hour, and that Allah will raise all those who are in the graves, and that you were pleased with the belief that Allah is your Lord; Islam your religion, Muḥammad your prophet, the Qurʾān your guide, Kaʿba your qibla, and all believers your brethren” (al-Majmūʿ 5:304; al-Kharshī, Sharḥ Mukhtaṣar Khalīl 2:220; Ibn al-Ḥājj, al-Madkhal 3:264; al-Buhūtī, Kashshāf al-qināʿ 2:135; Ibn Qudāma, Mughnī 2:377; Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-muḥtār 2:191; al-Ruʿīnī, Mawāhib al-Jalīl 2:220; al-Maqdisī, al-Furūʿ 3:384).

The recitation of the Qurʾān, especially certain suras and verses, as well as recitation of specific Qurʾānic and Prophetic supplications form an integral part of the rites related to death, burial, and visitation of graves, although scholars differ on whether the reward of such recitation goes to the deceased or not. Three occasions are especially identified for reciting the Qurʾān: (i) at the onset of death pangs; (ii) after burial or while visiting the grave; and (iii) any time after burial. Al-Bayhaqī (384-458/994-1066) reports that when the Successor al-ʿAlāʾ b. al-Lajlāj al-Ghaṭafānī was dying he said to his son, “When you put me in the grave, lay me down in the crevice (laḥd) saying, ‘In the Name of Allah, upon the Way of the Messenger, upon him blessings and peace;’ then throw soil over me and [after burial], recite the opening and closing verses of Sūrat al-Baqara while standing at the head of the grave; I saw Ibn ʿUmar recommending this practice” (Bayhaqī, Sunan 4:93 §20515). Al-Nawawī says, “Imam al-Shāfiʿī and our [Shāfiʿī] colleagues recommend recitation of some portion of the Qurʾān by the grave after burial, and it is preferable if the entire Qurʾān is recited” (al-Majmūʿ 5:294). Imam Abū Ḥanīfa (80-148/699-767) discouraged such recitation but his senior student and fellow authority in the Ḥanafī school, Imam Muḥammad (d. 189/804) did not; and the later scholars of the school follow the opinion of Imam Muḥammad (al-Zaylaʿī, Tabyīn al-ḥaqāʾiq 1:246). Imam Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (164-241/780-855) said, “When you enter the graveyard, recite the Verse of the Footstool (Q 2:255) once and Sūrat al-Ikhlāṣ (Q 112) three times (in another narration: Q 1, Q 112, 113, and 114) and then supplicate: ‘O Allah, the reward for this is for the residents of the graveyard’” (Ibn Abī Yaʿlā, Ṭabaqāt al-Ḥanābila 1:264; also see al-Suyūṭī, Sharḥ al-ṣudūr 1:304). Ibn Qudāma writes, “In every city and in every age, Muslims have gathered to recite the Qurʾān for the dead, assigning to them the reward of the recitation; no one has ever denied it; and there is consensus among the Muslims on this” (Mughnī 2:424).

Burial Rites

The Qurʾān does not delineate the burial rites, but they are elaborated in fiqh [applied Islamic jurisprudence] manuals (based on the Prophetic practice, custom of the Companions, and rulings of jurists). A systematic survey of the legalities of Islamic burial rites is beyond the scope of this article; the brief overview provided below is not intended for use in burials.

Procedure and Places of Burial

The actual procedure for burial differs slightly between legal schools in the fiqh manuals, but they concur that the preferred site is a Muslim communal graveyard, one benefit being the profusion of visitors’ supplications for the deceased. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, would bury Muslims in the communal graveyard, known as Baqīʿ al-Gharqad (lit. “the boxthorn-tree tract”), near his Mosque in Madina; this graveyard is still being used and is the most desired site of burial for millions of Muslims. The Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī schools allow burial in a house or garden rather than the communal graveyard, for the Prophet himself was buried in his own house and later the Caliphs Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq (d. 13/634) and ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (d. 23/644) were buried next to him, but the Ḥanafī school considers this practice to be specially reserved for the Prophets and makes exception for the two caliphs. The Mālikī school too admits burial elsewhere, but stipulates that infants should be buried in a Muslim communal graveyard (Ibn al-Humām, Fatḥ al-qadīr 2:141; al-Shurunbulālī, Marāqī al-falāḥ 1:226; al-Dusūqī, al-Sharḥ al-kabīr 1:424; Ibn al-Ḥājj, al-Madkhal 3:257; Muwaffaq al-Dīn ibn Qudāma, al-Kāfī 1:370).

All four extant Sunni legal schools discourage burial in a casket or coffin (ṣandūq, tābūt), as it was not practiced by the Prophet or his Companions and because it hampers the decomposition of the body in its return to earth; but they admit it in exceptional circumstances, such as if the soil is soft and the grave may collapse (al-Māwardī, al-Hāwī al-kabīr 3:23; Ibn Qudāma, Mughnī 3:376; al-Nawawī, al-Majmūʿ 5:287; al-ʿAynī, al-Bināya 3:248; al-Rāzī, Tuḥfat al-mulūk p. 115).

The legal schools agree that the corpse should be lowered into the grave by men and laid to rest facing qibla (Ḥākim, Mustadrak, 1:362; Kāsānī, Badāʾiʿ, 1:319; Māwardī, Ḥāwī, pp. 3-40-52; Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, awwal kitāb al-janāʾiz, bāb fīl-mayyit yudkhal min qibali rijlay al-qabr). A woman’s husband has the first right to place her body in the grave (al-Buhūtī, Kashshāf al-qināʿ 2:133; al-Kāsānī, Badāʾiʿ al-ṣanāʾiʿ1:320; Ibn Nujaym, al-Baḥr al-rāʾiq 2:28; al-Bujayramī, Ḥāshiya 2:292). While lowering the body into the grave, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, would say, “In the name of Allah and on the Way of the Messenger of Allah” (Tirmidhī, Sunan, Janāʾiz, mā yaqūlu idhā udkhila al-mayyit al-qabr; Aḥmad, Musnad 4:410 §4813; Abū Dāwūd, Sunan 2:498 §4813).

It was the practice of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, to stand by the grave after burial and ask the Companions to “seek forgiveness for your deceased brother and pray for his steadfastness, as he is about to be questioned” (Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, Janāʾiz, bāb al-istighfār ʿindaal-qabr). Mullā ʿAlī al-Qārī (d. 1014/1605) explains that “‘Pray for steadfastness’ means may the deceased remain steadfast on the testimony of faith during the questions and answers of Munkar and Nakīr (“Dreadful” and “Grim”), two angels who interrogate the deceased in the grave immediately following burial; see Angels)” (Mirqāt 1:216; also see Haythamī, Majmaʿ 3:44 §2242 and 2244; Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-muḥtār 2:137). The Companion ʿAmr b. al-ʿĀṣ (30bh-63/592-682), Allah be pleased with him, said to those present at his deathbed: “When you have buried me, cover my grave with soil and stand by it for as long as it would take to slaughter a she-camel and distribute its meat, that I may derive strength from your presence and know my answers to the angels of my Lord” (al-Nawawī, al-Majmūʿ 5:294; for the ḥadīth of ʿAmr, see Muslim, Īmān, kawn al-Islām yahdimu mā qablahu wa kadhā al-hijra wal-ḥajj). Al-Shāfiʿī commends this practice (al-Umm 1:316; Ibn Sālim, al-Bayān 3:114).

Time of Burial

One should bury the deceased as soon as possible after his or her death is confirmed, in keeping with the Prophetic hadith, “Make haste with funerals, for if [the deceased] were righteous, he will meet his good end soon; and if [the deceased] was otherwise, you are relieving yourself of the evil” (Muslim, Janāʾiz, al-isrāʿ bil-janāza; Bukhārī, Janāʾiz, surʿa bil-janāza). Although daytime is preferred for attendees’ convenience, the funeral prayer and burial may take place at any time of day or night. (Muwaffaq al-Dīn ibn Qudāma, Mughnī 2:414; Ruʿīnī, Mawāhib al-Jalīl 2:221; Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-muḥtār 2:245; Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, Tamhīd 4:28) (see Day; Night; Time).

Burial at Sea

Jurists are unanimous that if someone dies at sea, the burial may be delayed if land can be reached within a reasonable duration: that is, without danger of the corpse rotting. If there is no hope of finding land shortly, then the legal schools agree that the deceased be buried at sea (Ibn al-Humām, Fatḥ al-qadīr 5:286), whether weighted down (to protect and hide the body, according to Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal: Ibn Qudāma, Mughnī 2:373) or set adrift (in the hope that it reaches land, according to al-Shāfiʿī: al-Nawawī, al-Majmūʿ 5:285-286) (cf. al-Qarāfī, al-Dhakhīra 2:480).

The Burial of Martyrs

The burial of “martyrs” (shuhadāʾ, sing. shahīd, lit. “witness,” a category which includes not only those who die in battle but also, per various hadiths, those who die of drowning, in plagues, and under certain other circumstances—see Martyrs and Martyrdom) is treated distinctly in the jurisprudential literature, with the legal schools agreeing that those who die on the battlefield should be neither washed nor shrouded but buried where they fell, in the clothes they were wearing when they died (Tirmidhī, Sunan, Jihād, mā jāʾa fī dafn al-qatīl fī maqtalih; Nasāʾī, Sunan, Janāʾiz, ayna yudfan al-shahīd). The paradigmatic instance of such practice is the martyrs of Uḥud, of whom the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, “Wrap them in their blood (i.e., their bloodsoaked clothes)” (Bukhārī, Janāʾiz, man lam yara ghusl al-shuhadāʾ). Others who die martyrs’ deaths (of wounds in or after battle, or of drowning, etc.) are buried with full funeral rites (ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn al-Samarqandī, Tuḥfat al-fuqahāʾ 1:258; Ibn Nujaym, Baḥr al-rāʾiq 2:212; Qayrawānī, al-Risāla p. 54; Ibn Rushd, Bidāyat al-mujtahid 1:239 and 254; Ibn Qudāma, Mughnī 2:396; al-Buhūtī, Kashshāf al-qināʿ 2:99).

Live Burial

The Qurʾān makes direct references to the pre-Islamic Arab practice of live burial of female infants (Q 6:137, 140; 16:58-59; 17:31; 81:8-9; see Children, Jāhiliyya). The practice may have been conducted due to (i) angelolatry, that the pagan cult of angels as the daughters of Allah (Q 2:116; 2:172; 6:100; 10:68; 19:88; 39:4; 43:15; Bukhārī, Badʾ al-khalq, dhikr al-jinn; Tafsīr al-Qurʾān, sūrat al-Ṣāffāt) and human daughters too belong to Him; (ii) out of fear of impoverishment due to the financial burden that daughters represented to the pagan Arabs (Q 6:151; 17:31); (iii) or because they feared their daughters would be captured by the rival tribes and become a source of dishonor and humiliation for them (Tafsīrs of Qurṭubī; Baghawī, sub Q 6:140; 16:59; 81:8-9). Qays b. ʿĀṣim al-Minqarī confessed to having buried eight daughters alive, seeking the Prophet’s intercession. His fellow Tamīmite Ṣaʿṣaʿ b. Nājiya, however, opposed the practice, and later told the Prophet, “I would offer two ten-month pregnant she-camels and one male camel to those who were intent on killing their daughters from fear of poverty, and this way I saved three hundred and sixty infants.” The Prophet replied, “There is reward for you for this as Allah has bestowed upon you the bounty of Islam” (Ḥākim, Mustadrak 3:610). Infanticide was repudiated by the few monotheists among the Quraysh such as Zayd b. ʿAmr b. Nufayl, who died before the revelation of the Qurʾān (and whose son Saʿīd was an eminent Companion) (Bukhārī, Manāqib al-Anṣār, ḥadīth Zayd b. ʿAmr b. Nufayl).

The practice has been variously described. Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688), Allah be pleased with him and his father, said that women would dig a pit before giving birth and cast their newborn daughters into it, only returning home with the baby if it were a son. Aḥmad b. ʿAlī Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 852/1449) comments that this was the practice of those who killed their daughters simply because they did not want them, whereas those who killed them out of fear of poverty would delay it until the girl was about six years old. The father would then ask his wife to make their daughter beautiful for her “in-laws”, with perfume and special clothes. He would take her to a dry well in the desert, ask her to look into it, and push her in, filling it in before returning home (cf. Thaʿlabī and Baghawī, Tafsīrs, sub Q 81:3-4; Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-Bārī, qawluhu bābun bil-tanwīn qawluh ʿaqūq al-wālidayn min al-kabāʾir). Explaining the euphemism “in-laws” (al-ṣihr), Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Ismāʿīl Ibn Sīda (398-458/1007-1066) says: “Because they buried girls alive, they would say, ‘we married them to the grave’” (Muḥkam, sub ṣ-h-r). Abū ʿAbd Allāh ʿIkrima (d. 107/725) said, “The husband would tell his wife, ‘You are to me as my mother’s back (the ẓihār divorce formula) if you do not bury her before my return!’ The wife would then gather her female friends to care for the infant and spend the last few hours with her. When she saw her husband returning, she would quickly throw her into the dry hole [prepared beforehand] and they would cover it with dirt.”

The Qurʾānic condemnation of this practice appears in a graphic description of the portents of the Day of Resurrection, underscoring its gravity: When the sun shall be darkened; when the stars lose their luster; when the mountains shall be set moving; when the heavily pregnant she-camels are abandoned; when the savage beasts shall be mustered; when the souls shall be coupled; when the girl-child buried alive (al-mawʾūda) is asked, for what sin was she slain; when the scrolls shall be unrolled; when heaven shall be stripped off; when Hell shall be set blazing; when Paradise shall be brought nigh; then shall each soul know what it has brought forth (Q 81:1-14). Muḥammad al-Ṭāhir Ibn ʿĀshūr (1296-1394/1879-1973) explains that only live burial is mentioned here, of all the questions to be asked on the Day of Reckoning, because on this day spirits are returned to the bodies from which they were separated either due to natural death or through violence. The worst such violence is a father’s killing of his own child, for it contravenes the love that Allah has instilled in a father’s heart for his child’s life and also the very fact that He made parents a means for the child’s birth. The infant’s questioning mentioned here serves as a dire threat of the murderer’s impending punishment. The apparent meaning of the verse is that this is one of the first matters judged on the Day of Resurrection (Tafsīr, sub Q 81:8-9).

The practice of infanticide is ascribed to idols’ trickery in Q 6:137: Thus have their [so-called] partners [of Allah] made the killing of their children seem fair to many of the polytheists, that they may bring about their destruction and to make them confused about their religion. And if Allah had willed, they would not have done so. So leave them and that which they fabricate. The partners were their false deities, idols, and satans, who incited the idolaters to slay their children (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Zamakhsharī), an act that contravenes the fundamental human instinctive trait of love for children (q.v.) and that leads to perdition and obscure for them true religion (Māturīdī, Taʾwīlāt). Three other verses (Q 6:140, 151; 17:31) mention the slaying of children out of fear of poverty. Those who practice it are called losers in Q 6:140, they have gone astray. In Q 6:151, the Prophet is commanded to Say: “Come, I shall recite that which your Lord has forbidden you: that you associate none with Him, and to be good to your parents, and that you slay not your children for fear of poverty—We will provide for you and them—and that you approach not any indecency, whether outward or inward, and that you slay not the soul Allah has made inviolable, except by right. This He has commanded you that you may understand.” Ibn Masʿūd (d. 32/ca.653) said whosoever wants to know the last testament of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, should recite Q 6:151-153 (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr sub Q 6:151). When asked about the greatest sin, the Prophet replied, “Associating others with Allah, Who created you.” The questioner asked, “After that?” The Prophet replied, “Killing your child for fear that he will eat with you” (Bukhārī, Tawḥīd, qawl Allāh taʿāla yā ayyuhā l-Rasūlu balligh mā unzila ilayka min Rabbika…; Muslim, Īmān, kawn al-shirk aqbaḥ al-dhunūb wa bayān aʿẓamihā baʿdah). ʿAlī b. Khalaf b. ʿAbd al-Malik Ibn Baṭṭāl (d. 449/1057) explains that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, called infanticide “the greatest sin after polytheism (shirk)” because it includes several other sins: murder, severing ties of kinship, and extreme stinginess (see Avarice and Greed) (Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, qatl al-walad khashyatan an yaʾkula maʿahu, 9:214). It stems from lack of reliance on Allah as the Provider of sustenance; it is the worst injustice (al-Qārī, Mirqāt 1:122).

Infanticide is declared an enormity in Q 17:31: And do not kill your children for fear of poverty. We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin (khiṭʾan kabīran). Although the term “children” embraces both sons and daughters (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar), most exegetes consider the verse to be a reference to the live burial of infant daughters considered a financial burden (Ṭabarī and Rāzī, Tafsīrs; Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām) and shame (ʿār) (al-Ālūsī, Rūḥ, sub Q 17:31). Killing them is a sign of unbelief in Allah Most High, Who is the Sustainer of the Worlds (Rabb al-ʿĀlamīn), and “Who opens the gates of provision for men as well for women” (Rāzī, Tafsīr).  Therefore, one must not kill one’s children for fear of poverty, just as one does not commit suicide because of fear of poverty (Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, emphasized generous treatment of daughters, even in times of trial, for “Whoever is put to trial by these daughters and he treats them generously, then the daughters will act as a shield for him from the Hell-Fire” (Muslim, al-Birr wal-ṣila wal-ādāb, faḍl al-iḥsān ila al-banāt; cf. Bukhārī, Ādāb, Raḥmatil-waladi wa taqbīlihi wa muʿānaqatihi).


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See also

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