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Islamic rites of passage study

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1. Analysis of the Nature, Role and Significance of the Islamic Rites of Janazah (Funerals) and Al-Hajj (Pilgrimage Rite of Passage and Personal Devotion.
The nature and role of any religious rite is that it allows people to communicate values and beliefs, gives meaning to their cultural reality and effects a harmony between the natural and supernatural worlds, creating a realization of how things are and how they should be. In analyzing the components both these Islamic rites, it can be demonstrated how these aspects are effectively brought together.
When a Muslim is near death, loved ones will gather to pray with them, seeking forgiveness and believing that death is but a step towards eternal life, a tenet of the Islamic faith. The hope is that the person will die with the Shahada on their lips;
” I bear witness that there is no god but God; I bear witness that Muhammud is the messenger of God.” This constitutes an affirmation of faith.
Washing and Shrouding of the body in a clean white cloth (kafn), is a tradition passed down from Abraham and symbolizes not only purity, cleanliness and simplicity, but adherence to the Quran. As Muhammud said, ” When one of you shrouds his dead brother, he should shroud him in the best of manners.” All Islamic rituals demand purification before performance. The absence of color, the cleansing of the body, also signify a transition from worldly contamination, and preparation for a better, holier place. A variant on this practice is that those who die as martyrs may be buried in their own clothes, and some sects will use three sheets, while others only one. Performing such rituals on the body not only reaffirms faith, but allows comfort for the bereaved, who are caring for and helping the lost loved one.
Funeral Prayers (Salat-l-Janazah) are said outdoors, with the Imam standing in front of the body. These are similar to the five daily prayers, with the first said aloud, the others silently, and known as Takbirs. The time, place, language, objects and actions provide a continuity, yet a transition from life to death, and allows individuals to add their own silent intentions for the person.
Burial, which takes place quickly after death, to avoid worldly contamination, is always facing Mecca, and in a simple grave. In some countries, mourners will speak aloud verses from the Quran, such as:
” From the earth did We create you, and into it shall We return you, and from it shall We
bring you out again.” (Quran, Sura 20, V. 55) as the body is carried, by males only, to the grave. In all, the ritual serves to reinforce the belief in eternal life, observe the traditions of the community (Umma) and bring hope and comfort to all.
The three day mourning period, extended to four months and ten days for widows, (iddah), provides a time of reflection, transition and closure within a prescribed ritual, allowing for return to normal living, supported by both beliefs and community.
With regard to Al-Hajj, Pilgrimage to Mecca, the Fifth Pillar of Islam, this is considered by some to be obligatory (fard), but others believe it need only happen if personal circumstances permit. In the Quran, there are many references, but the variable interpretation of the works may lead to different practice.
” And proclaim that the people shall observe Hajj pilgrimage….(Sura 22, V. 27) and again
” They shall complete their obligations, fulfill their vows, and visit the ancient shrine.”
(Sura 22, V. 29)
Undertaking Hajj significantly draws an individual from the natural to supernatural, and encompasses all the elements of ritual as outlined earlier. It combines the roles of both private and public devotional ritual, bringing all together in a transcendental religious experience. Instead of praying towards Mecca, the believer is physically and spiritually in that place, the Ka’ba, the House of Worship of the One True God, erected by Abraham and his son Ishmael, where Muhammud led the Salat (prayers). It is a symbol of pride for Muslims in their submission before God.
The components, having the necessary ritualistic elements, combine to move the believer from one spiritual status to another. The first step in attainment of this, is the formal leave-taking,
signifying separation from worldly to supernatural. Next, no shaving, sexual intercourse, cutting of hair , wearing of jewelry or work must take place, in preparation for the state of ihram. Plain white garments are worn by men and women. Significantly, pilgrims are removing themselves from the everyday world, into the realms of holiness and contact with God. The time, place, actions all show belief in the Ka’ba and it’s designation as a holy place.
Prayer, re-enactments, circling the Ka’ba, seven times on three occasions, serve to repeat the actions of the Prophet and to adhere to his words. The climax of the ritual is the Standing Ceremony, where millions spend a day of prayer and reflection on the Plain of Arafat, reinforcing their faith and commitment to God, Islam and fellow Muslims. The following sacrificial offerings of animals signifies a re-enactment of Abraham’s sacrifice, which was to have been his only son, and reinforces the belief in submission to God’s will. The final circumnambulation of the Ka’ba includes a ritual stoning of the Devil, a revocation of evil, which the pilgrims have achieved, as completing the Hajj makes them spiritually different. The title Hajji may be thereafter added to their name and in Egypt, returning pilgrims will paint the outside of their houses with scenes from the pilgrimage, signifying saintliness (though Sunni Muslims consider there is no need for saints in Islam). Though not strictly part of the ritual, many will visit Medina and Muhammud’s tomb and other holy places, in the belief that these are where it all began.
The final days of pilgrimage represent a transition to the earthly world, as the requirements of ihram are stripped away and people look towards life after Mecca, returned but transformed by the experience which has brought them closer to God and the Umma of Muslims all over the globe.
Both the rites contain the elements of religious ritual which make them an intrinsic part of the individual, the community and the culture at large. Beliefs are expressed, shared and reinforced both internally and externally, confirming identity with and the nature of, submission to the will of God.
Reference List
Kalipha, Dr. Rashad, Ph. D., 2001. The Authorized English Translation of the Quran
[Online] Available from: http://www. submission. org/suras. html.
[Cited 6 July 2006]

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