The Funeral Prayer of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace)
Following Abu Bakr’s (may Allah be pleased with him) directions, the people did exactly as he outlined. Ibn Abbas narrates:
“… and when they were finished with preparing him on Wednesday (Allah bless him and grant him peace) [for burial], they placed him on his bed, in his house, and the people entered upon the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) in small groups until they had finished; then they let in the women until they finished; then they let in the children, and no one led the people as an imam over the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace)…” [Ibn Majah, Sunan]
Ibn ‘Abbas also narrates:
“When the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) passed away, the men were admitted [into the house of 'Aisha] and they prayed upon him without anyone leading the prayer, individually, then they left, then they admitted the women, and they prayed upon him, then they admitted the children, and they prayed upon him, then they admitted the slaves, and they prayed upon him, individually; no one led them in prayers over the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace).” [al-Bayhaqi, Dalai'il al-Nubuwwah]
Abu ‘Aseeb the Companion (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “I witnessed the funeral prayer on the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace). The people asked, ‘How should we pray on him?’ He (one Companion) said, ‘Enter, all of you, in small groups at a time.’… so they would enter from *this* door and pray, then leave through the other door…” [Ahmad, Musnad]
These hadith, alongside many other transmitted narrations, from Malik, Ahmad, al-Baihaqi, Ibn Abi Shayba and others, and many other accounts in the books of Islamic history, such as Ibn Sa’d, Ibn Hisham, and others, all concur that the funeral prayer of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) did take place in this unique way.
Even in the books of fiqh, it is reported that “this is a matter upon which there is consensus and no difference of opinion exists.” (Hashiya al-Tahtawi) There were however, differences of opinion and various interpretations over the reasons, details and meanings behind the unique method of the funeral prayer.
Why Was the Funeral Prayer Performed Individually?
Perhaps the most unique aspect of funeral of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was that although there was a washing, prayer and burial as the sacred law normally instructs, approximately 30,000 people prayed the funeral prayer individually, with no one acting as the Imam [according to al-Bayjuri's estimate].
Various scholars, in the absence of any clear, well-authenticated statements from source-texts to settle the matter, proposed diverse reasons (and refuted others) as to why it was prayed this way:
(1) One proposed reason is that since there was no imam to lead the Muslim community initially, the Companions decided to start praying individually without an imam. Ibn ‘Abidin, in the margins of his Hashiya, references the author of al-Mabsut as saying that this is because Abu Bakr (Allah be pleased with him) was busy with straightening the affairs of the Muslims and quelling potential discord, so he was not able to attend as the Caliph and lead, but when he did finally, he was the last to pray and no one after that prayed the funeral prayer. Ibn ‘Abidin mentions there is disagreement as to when exactly he prayed, in relation to ‘Abbas, who was the next-of-kin.
In isolation, this reasoning paints the funeral prayer method as almost entirely politically-based, while also highlighting the importance of leadership and unity in the Muslim community. Many scholars discounted and refuted this as the sole reason however, because the pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr was given while the ghusl was taking place, so if a was leader was needed, they had one.
(2) Given that the city of Madinah and its environs was home to thousands of Muslims, it would’ve been nearly impossible to gather them all inside or around the house of the Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her), in which at most perhaps 10 people at a time could stand. Also, it would take time for those in outlying areas who naturally wanted to attend the funeral prayer to reach the city. Had one large prayer been performed by the Caliph initially, those who missed out would not have a chance to make a second congregation as the group funeral prayer is prayed only once, with the ruler of the Muslims most deserving to lead it.
(3) In a similar vein, al-Ramli mentions the speculation that (in the absence of the ruler) if the nearest-of-kin (the wali) to the deceased has the right to lead the funeral prayer in normal circumstances, it would have been the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and grant him peace) paternal uncle, al-`Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) who would have had this right. However, it is possible that al-`Abbas did not claim that right fearing that it would mislead the people into believing that he was the new Caliph, which could potentially cause discord and confusion. [al-Ramli, Nihayah al-Muhtaj 'ala al-Minhaj]
(4) One of the stronger proposed reasons explaining the funeral prayer method was that it was part of an explicit decree in the Prophet’s (Allah bless him and grant him peace) final instructions to the community.
Ibn Kathir, in al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, quotes from al-Bayhaqi and al-Bazzaar, that Ibn Mas’ud (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “Part of the last will and testament of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was that he be washed by the men of his family, and that he said, ‘Shroud me in these pieces of cloth, or the Yemeni ones, or the white Egyptian ones,’ and that when they had shrouded him, they should place him on the edge of his grave and then leave him [in 'Aisha's house] till the angels prayed on him, then the men of his family would pray on him, and then the people, individually.”
Ibn Kathir indicated the need for investigation on the degree of authenticity of this narration, but despite this, he considered it in his discussion on the reasoning behind the funeal prayer. He mentions that, “had the report that we have narrated from Ibn Mas’ud been rigorously authenticated, it would have been an explicit, conclusive text on the question, and [the unique method of the funeral prayer] would have been a divinely-ordained form of worship, the true meaning of which the intellect would be unable to encompass [as with all revealed forms of worship].”
Ibn Kathir continues, refuting the opinion that it had to do with leadership:
“And no one can say that [the reasoning behind praying individually] was due to the absence of a leader (imam), because they only began to prepare his body (Allah bless him and grant him peace) after the completion of the oath of fealty to Abu Bakr [as the Caliph] and after his approval (to begin praying the Janazah)…
And some scholars have said that there was no imam leading them only so each person could have a direct prayer upon him (Allah bless him and grant him peace), and so the prayers of the Muslims upon him would repeat time after time, from one person to the next, from each of the Companions - each man, woman and child amongst them – and even each of their bondsmen and bondswomen…
As for al-Suhayli, the gist of what he said was that Allah has definitely informed us that He and His angels send blessings upon him (Allah bless him and grant him peace) [al-Qur'an, 33:56], and He has commanded each Believer to send blessings upon him directly from themselves, and the prayer upon him after his death is seen from this angle… Also, that the angels are [like] imams for us in this. And Allah knows best.” [Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah]
This reasoning supports the view that the most blessings (barakah) for the one praying was when it was without any intermediary leading in between – rather there was an opportunity for each Companion to intimately experience, and be in control of, their last direct interaction with the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) – one can only imagine the emotions they must have felt at the time.
It also allowed lesser-prominent companions, including women, children and slaves who may not have always gotten a chance to be up front and close, to have this special opportunity, emphasizing the importance of each Muslim in his eyes, Allah bless him and grant him peace.
(5) The final, undisputed and greatest reason for the unique funeral prayer is that due to the supreme rank of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) amongst all creation, it was not befitting for anyone of his community to intend to be a leader (imam) over him in his passing. This was the highest form of respect and deference.
Ibn Sa’d reports: ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “Let no one stand over him (Allah bless him and grant him peace) as an imam. He is your leader in life and in death.” So the people would enter in small groups, and pray upon him (Allah bless him and grant him peace) row on row, and there was no leader (imam) for them, while ‘Ali was standing beside the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) saying, “Peace be upon you, Oh Prophet…[and saying a long dua' for him]” while the people were saying, “Amin! Amin!”…[Ibn Sa'd, al-Tabaqat]. Similar supplications and blessings are recorded from Abu Bakr and Omar, together with a group saying “Amin”.
Imam al Shafi’i (may Allah have mercy on him) said regarding the funeral prayer without an imam: “… and that was because of the greatness of the station of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace) – may my father and mother be sacrificed for him!- and for the [companions] striving amidst each other [to ensure] that no person be given the position of imam of the prayer upon him.” [al-Shafi'i, Kitab al-Umm]
Imam al-Ramli says al-Shafi’i’s statement about the “striving” not to have an Imam can be explained by the opinion that since the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) did not specify an imam in his lifetime, the Companions were keen to ensure that there would not be one appointed. [al-Ramli, Nihayah al-Muhtaj 'ala al-Minhaj]
‘Ali’s statement (may Allah ennoble his countenance) brings up an interesting point: during the Prophet’s lifetime (Allah bless him and grant him peace), the Companions were afraid and averse to stand in his place and lead him as the imam, so how could one of them decide to assume this role for the final prayer over him? It can be said that none from his Ummah ever began a prayer as an imam with the intention to lead him.
This is why, once or twice during the final sickness, when Abu Bakr was ordered to lead the community in prayers, and the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) found enough strength to join him after it had begun, Abu Bakr stepped back when he realized this, in deference to him. After the prayer, he said, “It is not for the son of Abu Quhafa to lead prayer in front of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and grant him peace).” [Bukhari, Muslim]
If this was the case with the loftiest man of this comunity after the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace), the Companion of the Cave (may Allah be pleased with him), then a fortiori no one else could be worthy of volunteering themselves as the Imam of the prayer over the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace).
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