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Prayers for the Dead – A Quranic Perspective

In the Quran, God prohibits all believers from offering prayers for the disbelievers or idol worshippers regardless of whether they are dead or alive:
“Neither the prophet, nor those who believe shall ask forgiveness for the idol worshippers, even if they were their nearest of kin, once they realise that they are destined for Hell.” 9:113
If they died as disbelievers or idol worshippers nothing and no prayer can change their fate:
“With regard to those who have deserved the retribution, can you save those who are already in Hell?” 39:19
This truth is known to all Quran readers and is not the subject of any dispute. The purpose of this research is to enquire into the legality and benefit (if there is any) in offering prayers to the believers. To arrive at a Quranic verdict with regards to this question we must first address two separate types of prayers:

1-
Prayers for the believers who are still alive.

2-
Prayers for the believers who have died.

First : Prayers for the believers who are still alive
When we pray for a living parent, a relative or friend we usually implore God to cure them of an illness or assist them in adversity, etc. This kind of prayer implores God’s Mercy on them while they are still alive. This prayer is encouraged in the Quran and is heard by God:
“And lower for them the wings of humility, and kindness, and say, “My Lord, have mercy on them, for they have raised me from infancy.” 17:24
Some have interpreted this verse so as to make it permissible to offer prayers for our loved ones whether they are dead or still alive, however if we examine this verse, and the verse just before it, we find good indication that God is inviting us to pray for our parents while they are still alive. Let us read verse 23:
” …. you shall never say to them, “Uff” (the slightest gesture of annoyance), nor shall you shout at them; you shall treat them amicably.”17:23
The words “you shall treat them amicably” can only mean while they are still alive, it is not possible to treat a dead person amicably!
After they are dead, they will get a judgement in accordance to their work on earth and in accordance to God’s Mercy, nothing we can do can change that.
We also read that the angels offer prayers for those (living) on earth:
“The heavens above them almost shatter, out of reverence for Him, and the angels praise and glorify their Lord, and they ask forgiveness for those on earth. Absolutely, God is the Forgiver, Most Merciful.” 42:5
The significance of the words “for those on earth” will be apparent later.
It must be emphasised here that prayers for the living believers is encouraged by God for a number of reasons:

1-
Prayers for the living believers is not related to the judgement they will receive from God on Judgement Day. This judgement is exclusively reserved for the Almighty and we are told in the Quran that it is based primarily on each ones deeds and work on earth. Consequently, and since we are not imploring God to alter or change the judgement they receive on the Day of Judgement, thus this kind of prayer cannot be classed as a form of intercession.

2-
Prayers for the living believers (which as shown is not intercession), and imploring God in general, is a genuine expression of our worship of God. To implore God is to trust and accept His absolute authority to answer our prayers. It is also an acceptance that God alone has the absolute authority to cure and alleviate the hardship of the ones we pray for. The link between imploring God and worshipping Him is made evident in the following Quranic words:
“Your Lord says, ‘Implore Me and I will respond to you. Surely those who are too arrogant to worship Me will enter Hell forcibly” 40:60
The words ‘Implore Me’ and ‘Worship Me’ in this verse confirm that ‘Imploration’ is indeed an essential expression of worship.
“Should My servants ask you about Me, I am always near. I answer their prayers when they implore Me. Thus they should respond to Me and believe in me, so that they may be guided.” 2:186

Second : Prayers for the believers who have died
What about the prayers offered to the believers who have already died? Are we permitted to pray for them? Do our prayers make a difference in their judgement on the Day of Judgement? The aim here is to analyse this claim and try to establish whether there is any benefit in offering prayers for the believers after their death.

Any prayer for a dead is a form of intercession and the Quran states categorically that there will be no intercession allowed by God.
As mentioned earlier, when we pray for a living relative or friend (believer) we usually implore God to cure them of an illness or assist them in adversity, etc. This kind of prayer implores God’s Mercy on them while they still live. We have seen how this prayer is encouraged in the Quran and is heard by God.
Prayer for a loved one, who we believe to have died as a believer, is categorically different, for here we are not imploring God to cure them of their illness or assist them in adversity, but we are actually imploring God to alter or amend His judgement and to forgive their sins on the Day of Judgement. Any plea imploring God to amend, alter or improve the judgement He decrees on a person on the Day of Judgement is defined as an attempt to intercede for them. What this means in reality is that we are interceding with God to issue them a more favourable judgement! Ultimately, this raises the question of how can God be implored to exercise more mercy when He is the Most Merciful and when He decreed that Mercy is His attribute?
“Say, “To whom belongs everything in the heavens and the earth?” Say, “To God.” He has decreed that mercy is His attribute.”6:12
Moreover, the concept of intercession is categorically refused in the Quran:
“O you who believe, you shall give to charity from the provisions we have given to you, before a day comes where there is no trade, no nepotism, and no intercession. The disbelievers are the unjust.” 2:254
On Judgement Day any intercession is useless unless it coincides with God’s Will:
“Intercession with Him will be in vain, unless it coincides with His will.” 34:23
“It is not up to you; He may redeem them, or He may punish them for their transgressions.” 3:128
Moreover, many verses in the Quran make it very clear that on Judgement Day, and in accordance with God’s Absolute Justice,no person shall be credited for anything other than his/her own work, equally that no soul would carry the burden of another:
“No soul benefits except from it’s own works, and none bears the burden of another.” 6:164
“Every human being is credited only to what he/she (personally) done.” 53:39
What this means is that on Judgement Day no soul will benefit except from what it has achieved personally, all our prayers to someone will not alter their judgement. It also means that many practises undertaken by many Muslims today for their dead parents or next of kin are utterly useless. It is utterly useless to do Hajj on behalf of our dead parent, they shall not get the credit of it since they have not done it themselves. The same applies to fasting on behalf of someone dead or giving zakat on their behalf. All that is totally useless. They will not benefit nor their records credited for anything we do on their behalf. The Salat, Hajj, Fasting and Zakat are all acts of worship and God does not accept us to act as deputies who observe acts of worship on behalf of others!

Sura 82
18. “What a day; the Day of Judgement!
19. That is the day when no soul can help another soul, and all decisions, on that day, will belong to God.”
The moment the human being dies his/her record is sealed and nothing can change it one way or another. Sadly many Muslims reject these Quranic truths and prefer to believe corrupt hadith that advocate what is contrary to Quranic teachings!

God’s Infinite Mercy
When we analyse this issue even closer we note that to pray for a dead person, even if they were good sincere believers, is indirectly in rejection of Quranic truth. Let us look at the following verse:
“Proclaim: “O My servants who exceeded the limits, never despair of God’s mercy. For God forgives all sins. He is the Forgiver, Most Merciful.” 39:53
“God does not forgive idolatry, but He forgives lesser offences for whomever He wills.” 4:48
By virtue of these two verses and other Quranic verses, we are given a glimpse of God’s Infinite Mercy. God would actually forgive all the sins of believers as long as they avoid idol worship.
If we still pray that God would forgive the sins of dead believers, are we not guilty of questioning the promise of God in 39:53?
Commentary on some related verses

The significance of 14:41
Some have quoted 14:41 to indicate that we are invited in the Quran to pray for our parents and implore God to have mercy on them on Judgement Day. Well let us read this verse:
“Our Lord! Forgive me and my parents and believers on the day when the account is cast.”14:41
Immediately, we note a very important difference between 17:24 and 14:41. In 17:24, the prayer for the parents (in their lifetime) is given to us by God. However, in 14:41 the prayer we read is not given by God, it was a prayer spoken by Abraham.
Many would quickly say, “well, this is good enough for me, if this prayer was spoken by God’s own prophet Abraham then it is something we should follow”.
However, if we resist this impetuous route and in stead seek guidance from the Quran, we would note the following:

1-
This is a personal prayer spoken by Abraham, it cannot be constituted as a law which we should follow.

2-
We are told later that Abraham was not to pray for his father who was an idol worshipper. This indicates that this prayer offered by Abraham (for his parents) could not have been authorised by God. We learn later that this prayer of Abraham was not accepted by God. We also read in 9:114 that Abraham’s prayer was unrighteous.

3-
Just because a prayer was offered by a messenger does not mean that we should follow it or that it is righteous. In 11:74 we are told how Abraham attempted to offer a plea/prayer for the people of Lot, which was rejected by God (11:76). Similarly, the prayers of Noah for his son (11:46) and of Muhammad for his uncle (111:1-3) were also rejected by God.

4-
If we examine 14:41 one more time, we would be able to see how it stands in disharmony with other Quranic words:
“Our Lord! Forgive me and my parents and believers on the day when the account is cast.”14:41
Now let us meditate on these words in the light of the following words of God:
“Intercession with Him will be in vain, unless it coincides with His will.” 34:23
These words are quite conclusive in asserting that on that Day of Judgement, nothing will have any weight towards our judgement except the will of God. We also know that God’s Judgement is based purely on our OWN deeds and our own belief and not on how devoutly others have prayed for us.

The significance of 9:84
Before we analyse this verse a word has to be mentioned about one of the rituals practised in Islamic countries today when a Muslim dies. Shortly before the burial proceedings, the dead person is taken in his/her coffin inside a masjid and a salat is observed in prayer for that person. Some have interpreted the words in 9:84 to be related to this ritual which is known as “Salat Al-Ganazah” (Funeral Prayer). However, with the guidance of the Quran, it can be shown that this is a misinterpretation.
To start with, we are told in 72:18 that the masjid is for one purpose, and that is to worship God. The masjid is not for taking coffins of dead people inside and offering prayers for them.
Moreover, we are told in 6:162 that the prayer (salat), as all other rituals, should be dedicated to the name of God and no one else. To set up a salat in response to the death of a human being is in violation of 6:162.
The proponents of this un-Quranic Salat will argue that it is not a salat in the traditional sense since it has no bowing nor prostration and is much shorter. This excuse is not acceptable simply because it is not the form that validates a ritual or invalidates it, it is the heart of the ritual and who it is dedicated for. Since this salat is done purely in dedication to the dead person then it is unlawful whatever form it may have.
Now let us ponder on the words in 9:84:
“And “la tussallee ala ahadan minhum” (do not support any of them) when he dies, nor shall you stand at their grave. They have disbelieved in God and His messenger, and died in a state of wickedness.” 9:84
The key words in this verse with regards to our research are “la tussallee ala ahadan minhum”. These words have been used in the Quran in a number of verses. They do NOT mean “do not pray for them” (as some have interpreted). Neither do they refer to (as others have interpreted) the widely practised “Funeral Salat”. When we consult a number of verses where these same words are used ( 33:43, 9:103, 33:56) we realise that these words simply means “do not support them”. Let us consider these verses:
“He (God) is the One who “Yussallee alaykum” (supports you), together with His angels, to lead you out of darkness into the light. He is Most Merciful towards the believers.” 33:43
It is clear here that God does not conduct a Salat for the believers!
“Take from their money (O messenger) a charity to purify them and sanctify them. And “Sallee alyhum” (support them), for your support reassures them. God is Hearer, Omniscient.” 9:103
Once again, it is clear that the messenger is not to conduct a Salat dedicated to the believers!
“God and His angels “Yussalloon ala al-nabi” (support the prophet). O you who believe, you shall “Salloo alayhee” (support him), and recognise and accept him (as God”s messenger).” 33:56
Once again it is clear that neither God nor the angels conduct a salat for the Prophet, nor are the believers required to do so.
Consequently, it can be established that the prohibition in 9:84, which is related to the words “la tussallee ala ahadan minhum” is a prohibition from supporting any dead disbeliever. The obvious question is: how can we support a dead person in the first place? Support can be expressed in any of the following : taking part in the funeral, taking part in the burial, contributing to the cost of the funeral or later memorials ….. etc.

The significance of 59:10
Some have quoted 59:10 and implied that the words in this verse allow us to pray for the believers who came before us and are now dead.
“Those who came after them say: “Our Lord, forgive us and our brothers who preceded us in faith, and do not place in our hearts any resentment towards those who have believed. Our Lord, You are Benevolent, Merciful.” 59:10
Indeed the above words indicate that the people spoken of in 59:10 were offering prayers for the believers who came before them and would thus be dead at the time. But does 59:10 invite us to pray for the dead believers? Is God inviting us in 59:10 to say such a prayer? The answer to both questions is no. Not every narration given in the Quran is a law from God, in many verses God is simply telling what some people said or done.
This is quite different from a situation where God would be telling us to actually say this prayer, this is not the case in 59:10.
The prayer of these people (in 59:10) is useless for 2 reasons:

1-
Just because these people are saying this prayer (for the dead believers who came before them) does not mean in any way that God will oblige to their prayer.
Let us take the following example where Abraham and Ismail said the following prayer:
[2:128] “Our Lord, and make us submitters to You, and from our descendants a nation of submitters to You, and show us our rituals and redeem us. You are the Redeemer, the Merciful.
Now when we look at the descendents of Abraham, were they all submitters to God? Were the nations who came after Abraham all submitters to God? We know that the majority of people, descendants of Abraham or otherwise, are either disbelievers (12:103) or idol worshippers (12:106), so we cannot really say that the prayer of Abraham was answered by God, and that all the descendents of Abraham and Ismail formed nations of submitters!
Why was this prayer not answered? It is because the prayer itself was faulty!
God will not decree a nation to be submitters simply because Abraham prayed for that! But a nation can only be submitters if they themselves make the right choice and choose to submit to God. So Abraham’s prayer actually did not make much sense!
This is not any different than if any of us says:
“Please God give me a son and make him a submitter!”
Will God answer this prayer? Not really, this is because God does not make anyone a submitter, instead this is a choice that has to come from the person himself.
Otherwise God would have created every person on earth as a submitter.
It is the same in 59:10, the fact that these people say that prayer does not mean that God is obliged to answer it. As a matter of fact God tells us that it is useless since it is a form of intercession.
Any prayer for a dead person can only be a prayer for God to give him/her a lenient judgement on the Day of Judgement or for God to forgive their sins ..etc. This is a form of intercession, and all intercession is useless.

2-
The second reason why this prayer is useless is that God tells us that He will forgive all the sins (except shirk) of the true believers anyway (39:53). So why are these people praying for the dead believers? Don’t they believe God? Or are they more merciful than God Himself?
This reminds me of those who say prayers to the prophet Muhammad asking God to grant Him mercy and an honourable rank! Do they not believe the Quran?
God tells Muhammad in the Quran that He forgives all his past and future sins, does a person whose sins are all forgiven, past and future, really need our prayers?
So the fact remains that all prayers for the dead believer are useless.
– God would never tell us to pray for the dead, not when God tells us that no intercession is accepted.
– God would not tell us to say this prayer because that would also be in contradiction to 53:39 which confirms that every person is rewarded only for to his/her own work (not to anything else including prayers from others).
– Also God would never tell us to pray for the dead believers, since this would indirectly mean that our prayers are in fact of benefit to them, and that these prayers may improve the fate of these people. But this would indirectly mean that we can influence God’s decision to be more merciful towards the ones we love! This would raise the same questions once again: Are we more merciful than God? Do we not believe God when He tells us that He will forgive all the sins of the believers who did not commit shirk?
We can see that the whole concept of such prayer is full of contradictions!
In truth, God’s verdict on Judgement day is the final verdict and it cannot be altered or compromised in any way, not even by all the prayers in the world.
Simply: there is no intercession on Judgement Day.
Conclusion

1-
We must have full faith in God’s Mercy:
“None despairs of his Lord’s Mercy, except the strayers.”15:56

2-
Can we (by praying) prompt God to exercise more mercy on our beloved ones when God’s Mercy is infinite?
“Say, “To whom belongs everything in the heavens and the earth?” Say, “To God.” He has decreed that mercy is His attribute.”6:12

3-
Since God forgives all sins for the believers (39:53), what exactly would we be praying for when we pray for a dead believer? Do we not believe 39:53?
“Proclaim: “O My servants who exceeded the limits, never despair of God’s mercy. For God Forgives all sins. He is the Forgiver, Most Merciful.” 39:53

4-
Can we ignore the truth of 53:19 and 6:164 and insist that our loved ones will benefit from our prayers?
“Every human being is credited only to what he/she (personally) done.” 53:39
“No soul benefits except from it’s own works, and none bears the burden of another.” 6:164

5-
Is it okay to intercede on behalf of our loved ones who died and are awaiting judgement when the Quran states that there will be no intercession on Judgement Day?
“O you who believe, you shall give to charity from the provisions we have given to you, before a day comes where there is no trade, no nepotism, and no intercession. The disbelievers are the unjust.” 2:254

6-
Belief in the Quran and its teachings leads all believers to accept without any doubt that as a result of God’s Infinite Mercy, all believers will be ultimately pardoned, not because others prayed for them, but because of God’s Infinite Mercy.

 

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