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Understanding Salatul Janazah and the Humanity of Death

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Posted on Dec 18, 2019
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By Layla Abdullah-Poulos

I stared at the blur of trees while my husband described the movements of the Salatul Janazah (funeral prayer). As with the birth of my daughter, his words barely reached my hearing, fading to the pain burning through me. I took a deep breath and tried to focus on the next steps, wanting so hard for them not to be necessary. Not that day or any other.

When he was done, I smiled, assuring him that I got all of his directions, lying through my teeth and grief. I didn’t want him to have to tell me again, because I didn’t want to hear it. That’s right, I was avoiding an act of worship, a special prayer that my dead father had a right for people to say over him before the rest of his journey to Allah (S) began. I didn’t care, though. Regrets, unanswered questions and the ardent desire to have him with us again clouded all of my thoughts.

So did the fear that I would have to go on a similar journey one day.

Inna lilahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon

My husband had to explain the prayer again to everyone attending my father’s funeral as he did at our daughter’s, who died in her infancy, and all the other funerals he officiated over the years. He had the prayer down. I, and most of those around me, had the luxury of forgetting. After walking away, we could empty it from our minds along with the stark reminder of what the body in the particleboard coffin and the words we uttered to Allah (S) meant for us.

People die every day, but many Muslims, if pressed, are unable to describe the steps to the janazah prayer. Below is a brief description.

How to Pray the Janazah (Funeral) Prayer  

1. Say first takbeer (Allahu Akbar) and raise both hands up to your earlobes; then place your right hand over your left hand.
2. Seek refuge from the Shaytan (devil).
3. Recite Surah Al-Fatiha followed by a short surah or part of a surah.
4. Say second takbeer. You can either choose to raise your hands again up to your earlobes or leave them as is. Both are permissible.
5. Recite darood on Prophet Muhammad (saw) as one does at the end of the prayer. Say third takbeer. You can either choose to raise your hands again up to your earlobes or leave them as is. Both are permissible.
6. Make supplication (du’a) for the deceased. There are a number of recommended supplications from the Prophet.
7. Say fourth takbeer and pause for a little while. You can either choose to raise your hands again up to your earlobes or leave them as is. Both are permissible. Some scholars say to recite general supplications for yourself, family, friends and all Muslims during this period.
8. Then end by saying one tasleem to the right (Assalaamu ‘alaykum wa rahmat-Allah). Doing it on both sides as in regular prayer is also okay. [source] It’s also important to note, as you’ll have noticed from this list, that you remain standing throughout the prayer, as the body of the deceased is in front of you.

See? Simple. Yet who really remembers how to do janazah prayer, save the brave and dedicated people committed to looking death in the eyes along with their own mortality to prepare their deceased sisters and brothers, console family and friends and lead a prayer of human finality? None of us, because we are chickens. Despite its inevitability, death haunts and scares most of us down to our wudu-dampened toes. 

Hand in the dirt

The Prophet said that Allah (S) said:

I do not hesitate to do anything as I hesitate to take the soul of the believer, for he hates death, and I hate to disappoint him. [Sahih al-Bukhari 6502 Book 81, Hadith 91]

Many of us can watch depictions of death with no problem. As I write this, I’ve glanced up at my television to see at least 100 simulated deaths. It was a Ryan Reynolds movie on Netflix. I couldn’t resist. Earlier, I was checking out a list of disturbing horror movies to binge on New Year’s Eve. This I can handle. Death in real life is another thing.

Death, specifically the loss of physical life, is thematic in our worship as well. Allah mentions death in the Quran as a warning but also a potential pathway to ultimate happiness. But even with promises of bliss in jannah (heaven), most people don’t want to become a corpse.

We are too attached to this world and the bodies we use to navigate through it. It’s all we know, and that’s why the sight of tangible death grips us unlike what we see on the screen, read in books or hear about in the latest khutbah. That reality hits us hard, and we will do our best to avoid it, even if it means shedding a poignant ritual like the Salatul Janazah from our selective memories. But, that isn’t going to stop our ultimate meetings with the angels of death. So, it would benefit us more to appreciate the spiritual and communal importance of the prayer.

How uplifting it would be to shift our mindsets so we solidify the Salatul Janazah, not as a chore denoting finality, but a spiritual step in remembering that our connections to the creator are not limited to this world.


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