Every soul deserves a dignified burial. Salat al-Janazah (funeral prayer) is an Islamic obligation and must be performed either by an “Imam” or a lay Muslim, irrespective of the deceased’s background. Islam differentiates between the sin and the sinner and mandates a dignified burial for every believer who does not abandon the faith during one’s life time.
There are some exceptions to this generic Islamic rule. The Imam (Muslim leader) can refuse to offer the funeral prayer on a criminal who has committed a heinous crime. This is to highlight the nature and magnitude of the crime so that the masses abhor it. This is not meant to punish the sinner but to create awareness about his sin. The judgment is left to Allah SWT as He is the best of judges meeting out justice with His divine wisdom. The Imam has to ask someone else to perform the funeral prayer but nobody is deprived of honorable burial. The aforementioned exceptions are authenticated by the actions of Rasulullah (SAW). The Hadith in Sunan Abu Dawud explains:
حَدَّثَنِي جَابِرُ بْنُ سَمُرَةَ، قَالَ: مَرِضَ رَجُلٌ فَصِيحَ عَلَيْهِ فَجَاءَ جَارُهُ إِلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ، فَقَالَ لَهُ: إِنَّهُ قَدْ مَاتَ، قَالَ: «وَمَا يُدْرِيكَ؟» قَالَ: أَنَا رَأَيْتُهُ، قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ: «إِنَّهُ لَمْ يَمُتْ» قَالَ: فَرَجَعَ فَصِيحَ عَلَيْهِ فَجَاءَ إِلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ، فَقَالَ: إِنَّهُ قَدْ مَاتَ، فَقَالَ النَّبِيُّ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ: «إِنَّهُ لَمْ يَمُتْ» فَرَجَعَ فَصِيحَ عَلَيْهِ فَقَالَتِ امْرَأَتُهُ: انْطَلِقْ إِلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَأَخْبِرْهُ، فَقَالَ الرَّجُلُ: اللَّهُمَّ الْعَنْهُ، قَالَ: ثُمَّ انْطَلَقَ الرَّجُلُ فَرَآهُ قَدْ نَحَرَ نَفْسَهُ بِمِشْقَصٍ مَعَهُ، فَانْطَلَقَ إِلَى النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ، فَأَخْبَرَهُ أَنَّهُ قَدْ مَاتَ، فَقَالَ: «وَمَا يُدْرِيكَ؟» قَالَ: رَأَيْتُهُ يَنْحَرُ نَفْسَهُ بِمَشَاقِصَ مَعَهُ، قَالَ: «أَنْتَ رَأَيْتَهُ؟» قَالَ: نَعَمْ، قَالَ: «إِذًا لَا أُصَلِّيَ عَلَيْهِ»
Narrated Jabir ibn Samurah that “A man fell ill and a cry was raised (for his death). So his neighbor came to the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) and said to him: He has died. He asked: Who told you? He said: I have seen him. The Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) said: He has not died. He then returned.
A cry was again raised (for his death). He came to the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) and said: He has died. The Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) said: He has not died. He then returned.
A cry was again raised over him. His wife said: Go to the Apostle of Allah (peace_be_upon_him) and inform him. The man said: O Allah, curse him.
He said: The man then went and saw that he had killed himself with an arrowhead. So he went to the Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) and informed him that he had died.
He asked: Who told you? He replied: I myself saw that he had killed himself with arrowheads. He asked: Have you seen him? He replied: Yes. He then said: Then I shall not pray over him.”
In the above case, Rasulullah (SAW) shunned the funeral prayer to underscore magnitude of the sin i.e., suicide. In another incident the Prophet (SAW) spurned funeral prayer of a person who, during the Battle of Khayber, stole from the booty, as narrated by Abu Dawud. But He (SAW) asked his companions to offer funeral prayer upon the deceased.
فَقَالَ: صَلُّوا عَلَى صَاحِبِكُمْ
Rasulullah (SAW) refused funeral prayers in the above mentioned cases to emphasize the magnitude of these sins and not to punish the sinners. The prophetic prayers are different from common Muslims’ prayers. The prophetic supplications are meritoriously prized as the Qur’an states in Surah al-Towbah verse 103:
إِنَّ صَلاتَكَ سَكَنٌ لَهُمْ وَاللَّهُ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ
“Lo! your prayer is an assuagement for them. Allah is Hearer, Knower.”
In Surah al-Nur verse 63 it states:
لَا تَجْعَلُوا دُعَاءَ الرَّسُولِ بَيْنَكُمْ كَدُعَاءِ بَعْضِكُمْ بَعْضًا
“Make not the calling of the messenger among you as your calling one of another.”
It becomes clear that the Prophetic hesitation to offer funeral prayers in a few cases was not aimed at punishing the sinners but to stress the fact that such grave sins must be avoided by others. He did command the Companions to offer prayers upon the deceased. That is why Muslim jurists are of the opinion that every Muslim is entitled to a dignified burial irrespective of his background. This is not to condone a sin or a crime but to show respect for humanity of the dead person. Imam al-Shafai’ has put the point in the nutshell when he stated:
وَقَالَ الشَّافِعِيُّ لَا يُتْرَكُ الصَّلَاةُ عَلَى أَحَدٍ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْقِبْلَةِ بَرًّا كَانَ أَوْ فَاجِرًا
“The funeral prayer of a Muslim (who follows the Qiblah) is not to be abandoned irrespective of him being a righteous or a sinful (Muslim).”