Articles

Washing the Deceased during COVID-19

Written by: Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah

Mass Janazahs and burials are permitted.

Currently CDC allows Ghusal with standard precautions.

Tayammum can be done over untouchable corpse.

One can be buried without Ghusal and shroud, if required

The number of people dying in America due to Coronavirus is increasing day by day. It is quite possible that hundreds of thousands may lose their lives. There are many concerns regarding washing the dead bodies, burial shroud, funeral prayers and burials. What are we supposed to do as Muslims during these tough times of restricted social mobility, lockdowns and masjid closures?

Let me assure the community from the outset that there is sufficient guidance in our books of Fiqh regarding almost all possible scenarios presented by this terrifying pandemic. There were a number of wars during the life of Prophet SAW in which multiple Companions of the Prophet received martyrdom in one day. For instance, seventy Companions of the Prophet SAW died in the Battle of Uhud. There was shortage of shroud cloth in the City of Madinah and dearth of manpower. Consequently, the Prophet SAW placed two corpses in one shroud and three bodies in one grave. There was no need for ritual washing as the martyrs were and are exempt from that. Likewise, during the epidemic of ‘Amwas in the 18th year of Hijrah (639 CE), thousands of people died in Syria. Many notable Sahabah were among the dead. Mass funeral prayers, mass burials and mass graves were arranged due to scarcity of volunteers. Same happened during multiple other disasters in the past. As a result, the Muslim jurists have discussed, analyzed and established rules for almost all possible scenarios of a pandemic. We can find solutions for the current problems from within the established legal protocols.

Ritual Bath or Ghusl

The default rule is washing the dead body with water and soap. “Narrated Um ‘Atiyya: Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) came to us and we were giving a bath to his (dead) daughter and said, “Wash her three, five or more times with water and Sidr and sprinkle camphor on her at the end; and when you finish, notify me.” So when we finished, we informed him and he gave us his waist-sheet and told us to shroud her in it. Aiyub said that Hafsa narrated to him a narration similar to that of Muhammad in which it was said that the bath was to be given for an odd number of times, and the numbers 3, 5 or 7 were mentioned. It was also said that they were to start with the right side and with the parts which were washed in ablution, and that Um ‘Atiyya also mentioned, “We combed her hair and divided them in three braids.” (Sahih al Bukhari).

1: The original Islamic ruling as mentioned above stands during the COVID 19 pandemic as long as the State or Federal authorities do not require the otherwise. Currently at the time of this article’s composition, no specific restrictions other than the standard precautions are placed by the CDC on washing the dead body of those confirmed or suspected of carrying Coronavirus. The CDC guidelines state that “If washing the body or shrouding are important religious or cultural practices, families are encouraged to work with their community cultural and religious leaders and funeral home staff on how to reduce their exposure as much as possible. At a minimum, people conducting these activities should wear disposable gloves. If splashing of fluids is expected, additional personal protective equipment (PPE) may be required (such as disposable gown, face shield or goggles and facemask).” It further states: “Cleaning should be conducted in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions for all cleaning and disinfection products (e.g., concentration, application method and contact time, etc.). Products with EPA-approved emerging viral pathogens claims… are expected to be effective against COVID-19 based on data for harder to kill viruses. After removal of PPE, perform hand hygiene by washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available. Soap and water should be used if the hands are visibly soiled.”

Therefore ritual washing of confirmed or suspected victims of COVID 19 per CDC guidelines is permitted with proper precautions. It is Islamically required that we wash our dead bodies with proper Islamic protocols. I will request the Muslim health professionals especially the physicians to volunteer for washing the deceased as they are trained to handle PPE and other preventive measures more than other volunteers. It will suffice to have one or two professionals present.

Some states, cities or medical examiners may place extra restrictions on ritual washing or corpse handling. Those instructions and guidelines must be followed. Those handling the infected corpse can adopt extra precautionary measures such as use of hard gloves, impenetrable Isolation gowns or Medical gowns along with facemasks or even Coveralls to avert dangers of viral transmission via body fluids, aerosol generation or water splash. Protection of a real life will take precedent over respect for a dead body or ritual adherences.  

It is not recommended to keep the corpse refrigerated for one, two or three days to eliminate the danger of virus transmission. Currently there is no scientific or medical consensus as to whether or not COVID 19 dies by refrigeration and how many days does it take to actually die. Therefore it is important that we do not get bog down in these controversial theories and wash the corpse and bury it as soon as possible.

2: If the corpse is given in an unsealed bag and the washing is prohibited by the medical or state authorities then Tayummum can be performed instead of washing. The body handler shall put on nonsterile rubber gloves, rub hands against a dusty or sandy surface and then rub the face and arms of the corpse with dusty hands. This symbolic cleansing is elaborated in the Qur’an in lieu of ablution and is a valid Shara’i alternate in times of emergencies. If touching the body is also prohibited then water can be poured all over the bag as a gesture of purification without touching the body. The so used water and personal protective equipment (PPE) such as glove, gown and facemask shall be disposed of as medical waste with proper precautions.

3: In the worst case scenario when the body bag is totally sealed and touching or washing the body is clearly prohibited then the body can be entombed without ritual washing, Tayummum and burial shroud. The mandated hospital disinfection of the corpse will be considered as ritual washing and the bag will stand for the shroud. The funeral prayer will be offered over the sealed bag and the body will be lowered into the grave as it is. If required, the Janazah prayer can be offered after the burial on the grave. The person is a martyr and a few compromises in routinely held rituals will not impact his/her status in Jannah, insha’Allah.

The Islamic Shari’ah is flexible enough to accommodate various situations. It allows a variety of options enabling us to comply with official guidelines. The bottom line is that we are required to obey the medical, State and Federal guidelines. The advice of medical professionals, State and Federal authorities will take precedent over ordinary religious protocols due to extraordinary circumstances.        

 And Allah Knows the best.

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