During the third presentation in a series at the Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth last Thursday, the crowd had a few laughs at some jokes exchanged among the three faiths representatives discussing religious rituals of death and burial. This helped alleviate the discomfort of many people who avoid reflecting upon death, an ultimate reality for all humans. For as Muslims believe and say: “To God we belong and to Him we go back.”
Representing the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths respectively were Rev. McDonald, Rabi Perras, and Imad Hamdan, a Muslim member from the Ibrahimi Mosque in Fort Worth. With the Abrahamic tradition as a background, the three groups discussed the religious traditions that are practiced in times of death, burial, family condolences, and post-burial rituals. Mostly, the three groups had so many things in common, but at times they differed, while often cracking up jokes about their differences.
For instance, Rabi Perras alerted the audience to his belief that “Jewish Hell is much better than the Christian Hell,” as he had explained that Jews believe the soul of a sinner gets punished for a short period of time before it is extinguished by God. Thus, the Christian and Muslim belief of eternity in Hell does not exist in Judaism. However, Hamdan bragged that “it’s much cheaper to die as a Muslim” because Islamic tradition adopts simple grave markings, no grave raising, no scriptures, or any other costly habits associated with Judeo-Christian burial rites.
What both Muslims and Jews have in common was that they wash the bodies ritually and then wrap them in shrouds for burial; Muslims use only white cloth while Jews may use clothes as well. The significance of purifying water in all three traditions in relationship to burial reflect a belief in an event where humans meet their Lord, the King of all Kings, hoping that they will be purified from their sins to deserve admission into Paradise.
Another common aspect among the faiths was the living will and testimony. For Christians, it is important to confess at the time of death and to have testified to the path of Jesus Christ. The Jews also consider time of death an opportunity to leave this world clean by confessing to their loved ones and asking for forgiveness and by asking their children to follow the path they would like them to adopt. Muslims too have living wills: they request to be buried according to Muslim tradition, they ask their families to mourn without breaking religious rules, and they can ask others to follow the straight path, believe in the oneness of God, and follow the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad. A Muslim’s first concern when dying is to pronounce the testimony of Islam, the “shahada” of faith: witnessing to the oneness of God and to the prophethood of Muhammad.
Rabi Perras explained how Jews express condolences to the diseased family by bringing them food and without speaking to them or saying a word. They are “just a listening ear,” he added. Muslims on the other hand traditionally have many expressions to support and comfort the ones mourning a loss. They say “To God we belong and to Him we return” or “To God belongs what He took and to God belongs what He gave” among other expressions. They feel an obligation to make sure the family and loved ones are not falling into a depression or a spiritual failure because of their loss. They also bring food to the family and offer them help in every way.
Life on earth does not have ultimate justice, which belongs to another realm, the rabbi observed. That is why people can find peace in death, knowing that on the Day of Judgment God will enforce justice on all humans and each soul will be rewarded or punished according to their deeds. This is part of a theology of Life after Death that all three Abrahamic religions believe in, with one difference: Christians believe in the return of Jesus Christ as a sign of the end of this world, something Jews don’t believe; and while Muslims do believe in the return of Jesus, they look at him as a prophet, not in divine terms. “We can’t wait for Jesus Christ,” Hamdan exclaimed, “I am instructed by my prophet to join his army.”
With or without words; with Baklava, Hummus, or Kosher food; with or without formal dress; we all are brothers and sisters in humanity, following the paths of our faiths, worshiping God, hoping to earn His mercy, leaving a productive legacy on earth for others to remember us with, and struggling to coexist. With more things in common uniting us, especially that we all are going to die, we each strive to reach peace on this earth and in the next world. The series of presentations about life rituals at the Brite Divinity School draws us together on a sunny morning over lunch to exchange stories of our faiths. This is an asset to the Dallas Fort Worth community and a living legacy of coexistence and human dignity.