Practices & Customs
Death is no stranger to any culture. However, the ways in which we reflect on, lament, and at times, venerate, the dead varies globally. Arabia is often shrouded in mystique and a vapid orientalism that fails to adequately present the greatly intriguing differences in death and funeral practices and customs beyond the lens of “difference,” namely, from the West. This blog post will reflect on these differences without the often-diminishing impact of the Western gaze.
This piece would be remiss if it did not touch on the Islamic customs that heavily impact death and burial in the Gulf. Death is seen merely as part of living, an assured ending that will come for us all in Islam. This juxtaposes the often heavily fearful depictions of death in the West. In Islam, mourning usually extends for three direct days. Death is seen as “predetermined. So excessive grieving shows disbelief in Allah (God).”
On the first day, the body is generally buried at the Afternoon Prayer (Asr prayer). Beforehand, the direct family will clean and wrap the body into a white burial shroud before funeral prayers are performed at the cemetery mosque. Men usually are solely present and bury the body whilst women typically remain at home. It is also important to note that only women will prepare a woman’s body for burial and vice versa for men.
Funerals are separated into male and female gatherings where mourners can pay their respects directly to the family at specified times over the first three days post death. These gatherings are typically reserved affairs where no perfume, lavish clothes, or accessories are worn to honor the mourning period. For 40 days after the deceased has departed, personal familial mourning, where all manner of traditions from not leaving the house to not playing music, ensue. However, these traditions vary greatly from family to family and in terms of gender and sect of Islam.
Islam holds the notion that death comes for us all as a means of equality before God but also to affirm the belief that only God can judge the departed no matter their status (achieved or ascribed) on this earth. Muslims are never cremated and share similar views to Judaism and Christianity with regard to the sacred significance of the human body in life as in death. Along a similar vein of resurrectionist beliefs, Islamic practices and customs on death can namely be understood through its Abrahamic religious base.
While changes to general efficiency and optimization of burial have occurred alongside the impact of growing populations that has necessitated the development of new burial ground, Islamic customs have remained widely untouched in the contemporary era.
Kuwait is no different from the majority of its neighbors when it comes to funeral practices due to it being surrounded by majority Muslim states. Kuwait has an overwhelmingly Muslim population with a roughly 60:40 split Sunni to Shia Muslim. Approximately a third of the nation’s population is non-Muslim with approximately 200 Kuwaitis holding Christian beliefs.
The majority of the population is buried in the coastal area of Sulaibikhat where burial is divided based on religion. Kuwaitis tend to practice the aforementioned Islamic funeral customs directly. In Kuwait, the mourning period or more specifically the funeral gatherings are called “Aza.”
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Islamic Mysticism & Life Beyond Death
In Islam there exists a life beyond death or more specifically, a waiting period between death and judgement where a world of its own exists. The term “Barzakh” is used to delineate this period of time while simultaneously emphasizing a clear divide between the dead and living. Although Islam does not venerate or revere the dead as some religions do, some Muslims practice “Ziyarat,” a loose form of veneration through the visiting of the graves of prophets and holy-persons.
It is widely believed by most Islamic scholars that an angel of death visits each person as they make their journey from this realm to the next. Notably, despite a great deal of acknowledgement of Jinn (an intelligent spirit of lower rank than the angels, able to appear in human and animal forms and to possess humans) and other supernatural entities, humans live, die, and remain as such after leaving this earth.
What happens after death is centered on the purity of the soul and whether it has shown repentance and attempted to make amends in a process known as “Tawba.” The act of dying alongside the practices and customs aforementioned is heavily tied to a sense of spiritual growth and atonement that goes beyond the mere transience of life in Islam.
As a whole, death and its associated practices and customs in the Gulf of Arabia world are unique and endearing with some 1400+ years of existence. Although overlap exists between these nations and their religious practices associated with death, it should be noted that a great deal of difference within these national and religious identities exists which affirms not only a sense of diversity but also, the great magnitude of what is hidden from our Western perspectives.