Islam’s Attitude towards Expression of Sorrow at the Loss of Loved Ones


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Waqar Akbar Cheema & Adeel


Human emotion is a very natural and normal way of expressing ourselves. All people have different emotions and they want to express them in their own way – whether these emotions are sadness, happiness, anger or grief. In an attempt to disconnect people from Islam and dehumanize the religion, some critics have said that Islam does not allow people to experience grief and that crying is completely not allowed on occasions such as the death of a loved one. As it happens too often, these claims lack substantiated proof or understanding of the proof that is cited. Even more surprising is that these critics do not look into their own religious texts to find out what their religion says about these types of emotions; if they did, they would find very similar lines of thought. This article will examine the evidence that the critics bring to the table, and then show the full explanation of each of these proofs in their proper light.


1. Introduction

Missionary critics of Islam quote a narration relating to Prophet Muhammad – peace and blessings upon him – where excessive crying has been disliked and at the same time quote a passage from the Bible indicating that Prophet Jesus – peace be upon him – was a very kind and soft-hearted man who used to get very emotional when people cried and used to cry with them. These opposing passages make the former appear cruel and the latter appear his exact opposite. The reality is however quite different. Both messengers of Allah were among the greatest men who ever lived. Such opposing passages, as a result of selective pick-and-choose while backing it up with emotionality will surely present the last prophet of God in bad light.

2. Islam’s attitude towards expression of sorrow

Before dwelling on this hadith, we need to understand Islam’s attitude towards expression of sorrow. According to a hadith, the Prophet said one of two voices are cursed, both in this life and the hereafter: “Screaming in adversity.”[1]

In another report we read:

عن جابر بن عبد الله قال: أخذ النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم بيد عبد الرحمن بن عوف، فانطلق به إلى ابنه إبراهيم، فوجده يجود بنفسه، فأخذه النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم، فوضعه في حجره فبكى، فقال له عبد الرحمن: أتبكي؟ أولم تكن نهيت عن البكاء؟ قال: ” لا، ولكن نهيت عن صوتين أحمقين فاجرين: صوت عند مصيبة، خمش وجوه، وشق جيوب، ورنة شيطان

Jabir bin ‘Abdullah narrated: “The Prophet took ‘Abdur-Rahman bin ‘Awf by the hand and went with him to his son Ibraheem. He found him in his last breaths, so he took him and out him on his lap and cried. ‘Abdur-Rahman said to him: ‘You cry? Didn’t you prohibit (your followers) from crying?’ He said: ‘No. But I prohibited two foolish immoral voices: A voice during a calamity while clawing at one’s calf and tearing one’s clothes, and Satan’s scream.’”[2]

The permitted and prohibited in this issue are beautifully summed up in the following saying of the blessed Prophet:

ابكين، وإياكن ونعيق الشيطان ، ثم قال: ” إنه مهما كان من العين والقلب، فمن الله، ومن الرحمة، وما كان من اليد واللسان، فمن الشيطان “

Weep, but avoid the crying of the Devil. Whatever comes from eye and heart is from Allah and is a sign of mercy, and whatever comes from hand and tongue is from the Devil.[3]

 Clearly, Islam does not suppress natural expression of sorrow; it only forbids screaming and self-beating, etc.

 In the light of such reports, scholars of Islam have summarized his guidance in these words:

النهي عن عادة الأمم التي لا تؤمن بالبعث والنشور، من لطم الخدود، وشق الثياب، وحلق الرءوس، ورفع الصوت بالندب، والنياحة وتوابع ذلك. وسن الخشوع للميت، والبكاء الذي لا صوت معه، وحزن القلب، وكان يفعل ذلك ويقول: «تدمع العين ويحزن القلب ولا نقول إلا ما يرضي الرب» وسن لأمته الحمد والاسترجاع، والرضى عن الله، ولم يكن ذلك منافيا لدمع العين وحزن القلب،

He forbade the practices of those who do not believe in the Resurrection, such as striking the cheeks, tearing the clothes, shaving off the head, raising the voice in lament, wailing and such like. He prescribed humility towards the dead, crying without raising the voice and sadness of the heart and he used to do these things and he said: ‘The eye weeps and the heart grieves, but we do not say anything except that pleases the Lord.’ And he prescribed for his people gratefulness (as opposed to ungratefulness) and recovery (from grief in submitting one’s self to the Creator by saying, ‘To Allah we belong and unto Him shall we return.’) and to accept Allah’s will. This is not opposed to tears of the eye and grief of the heart.[4]

 Such reasonable restraint was especially important on the martyrdom of the Muslim soldiers because an over-reaction could discourage the people who fight in the way of Islam. If the mujahideen were to witness women crying in such a way, it could possibly affect their resolve in the battlefield with thoughts of their own women in case they were to fall.

 2.1 Biblical instruction of similar import

In fact, the Bible also takes exception to exaggerated mourning. God tells Ezekiel on the death of his wife:

Groan quietly; do not mourn for the dead. Keep your turban fastened and your sandals on your feet; do not cover your mustache and beard or eat the customary food of mourners.[5]

 In Matthew-Henry’s commentary, it is explained as:

Though mourning for the dead be a duty, yet it must always be kept under the government of religion and right reason, and we must not sorrow as those that have no hope, nor lament the loss of any creature, even the most valuable, and that which we could worst spare, as if we had lost our God, or as if all our happiness were gone with it;[6]

 3. The narration and its rightful understanding

The narration quoted by the missionary critics of Islam is reproduced here:

Narrated ‘A’ishah: When the news of the martyrdom of Zayd bin Harithah, Ja‘far and ‘Abdullah bin Rawahah came, the Prophet sat down looking sad, and I was looking through the chink of the door. A man came and said, “O Allah’s Messenger! The women of Ja‘far,” and then he mentioned their crying. The Prophet – peace be upon him – ordered him to stop them from crying. The man went and came back and said, “I tried to stop them but they disobeyed.” The Prophet – peace be upon him – ordered him for the second time to forbid them. He went again and came back and said, “They did not listen to me (or us – the sub-narrator Muhammad bin Hawshab is in doubt as to which is right).” ‘A’ishah added: The Prophet said, “Put dust in their mouths.” I said (to that man), “‘May Allah stick your nose in the dust (i.e. humiliate you).’ By Allah, you could neither fulfill the order (stop the women from crying); besides you did not relieve Allah’s Messenger from distress.”[7]

3.1 Meaning of the phrase “Put dust in their mouths”

The phrase “put dust in their mouths” is not to be understood literally. It is a proverbial way to suggest the need to shun something with disapproval when it becomes annoying.

In an explanation to the very hadith under consideration, Mulla Ali al-Qari (d. 1014 AH) says:

والظاهر أنه ههنا كناية عن تركهن على حالهن لعدم نفع النصيحة بهن من حال ضجرهن في جزعهن

“Evidently here it is a metaphor for leaving them in their state for the lack of any benefit of advice in their impatience due to grief.”[8]

The same expression is used in another hadith which shows it was simply a metaphor.

عن أنس، قال: ” كان للنبي صلى الله عليه وسلم تسع نسوة، فكان إذا قسم بينهن، لا ينتهي إلى المرأة الأولى إلا في تسع، فكن يجتمعن كل ليلة في بيت التي يأتيها، فكان في بيت عائشة، فجاءت زينب، فمد يده إليها، فقالت: هذه زينب، فكف النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم يده، فتقاولتا حتى استخبتا، وأقيمت الصلاة، فمر أبو بكر على ذلك، فسمع أصواتهما، فقال: اخرج يا رسول الله إلى الصلاة، واحث في أفواههن التراب، فخرج النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم، فقالت عائشة: الآن يقضي النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم صلاته، فيجيء أبو بكر فيفعل بي ويفعل، فلما قضى النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم صلاته، أتاها أبو بكر، فقال لها قولا شديدا، وقال: أتصنعين هذا “

Anas said: “The Prophet had nine wives, and when he divided his time among them, he did not come back to the first one until the ninth day. Every night they used to gather in the house of the one whose night it was. He was in ‘A’ishah’s house and Zaynab came and he reached out his hands towards her. ‘A’ishah said: ‘This is Zaynab,’ and the Prophet withdrew his hand. They argued and raised their voices, and the iqamah was called for prayer. Abu Bakr came past at that point and heard their voices, so he said: ‘Come out for the prayer, O Messenger of Allah, and throw dust in their mouths.’ The Prophet came out, and ‘A’ishah said: ‘Now the Prophet will finish his prayer and come, and Abu Bakr will come and do such-and-such to me.’ When the Prophet had finished his prayer, Abu Bakr came to her and spoke sternly to her, and said: ‘Do you behave like this?’”[9]

Commenting to it, as-Sindi (d. 1138 AH) writes:

والمراد: اتركهن واعرض عنهن حتى يسكتن بسكوت من في فمه التراب، فلا يقدر على التكلم

And the meaning is: Leave them until they become quite like the one who has mud in his mouth and is unable to speak.[10]

It certainly has similar meanings in the narration about the incident in question.

3.2 Reflections on the hadith

There are many important details that must be highlighted for the correct understanding of the hadith.

  1. The blessed Prophet was himself sad at the demise of his beloved Companions, especially Ja’far.
  2. He himself did not go after or even take notice of the women of Ja’far.
  3. A person came to him as if complaining about something wrong on the part of women of the household of Ja’far.
  4. Understanding that some women were perhaps really behaving the wrong way, the Prophet asked for it to be stopped it but the man kept coming again and again, only with complaints about the women.
  5. At last the Prophet said, “Put dust in their mouths.”
  6.  ‘A’ishah’s final statement in the narration shows she understood that the Prophet was irritated by the man’s behavior. This is why she reprimanded the man for neither stopping the women nor helping the Prophet get over his distress.

In fact the true significance of the hadith becomes clear only from the final words of ‘A’ishah. Anwar Shah al-Kashmiri (d. 1352 AH) explains this:

أي لو كنتَ قعدت في بيتك ولم تُواجِه رسولَ الله صلى الله عليه وسلّم بما يكرُهُه كان أحسنَ لك، فلا أَنَّك تفعلُ ما يَطِيب بنفسه، ولا تمتنِعُ عما يكرهُه. فهذا كله يأتي في محل الكراهةِ مع إمكانِ الإِغماض عنها. وهذا الذي أرادَتْ مِنْ قولها: «ولم تترك رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلّم … إلخ. أي إذا كان بكاؤهُنَّ في حدِّ الإغماض، فلك أَنْ لا تُخبر به رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلّم فتدعهن وبكاءهن. ولكنَّك لا تَقْدِر أن تفعلَ ما أُمِرت به

It means: if you were to sit in your house and were not to bring to Messenger of Allah’s attention what displeased him it was better for you. You neither did what pleased him nor stopped what displeased him and all this is itself from distress even though it could have been overlooked. This is what she meant by her words ‘you did not relieve Allah’s Messenger from distress,’ i.e. if their weeping was to the extent that could be tolerated you should have not informed the Messenger of Allah of it and left them and their weeping. But (once you informed the Prophet), you were not able to carry out what you were ordered to.[11]

To summarize: the Prophet was already disturbed due to the demise of his beloved Companions and while he had himself had not known what the women of Ja’far’s household were doing, a man came to him and told him of their weeping and crying. Considering that a man came to make a complaint, he thought they were overdoing it and therefore asked him to stop them. Failing to stop the women, he came to the Prophet again only to have same command repeated. But he turned up once again with the same complaint. At this point the blessed Prophet said “throw dust in their mouths,” i.e. ‘Shun them until they become quite like the one who has mud in his mouth and is unable to speak.’ ‘A’ishah – may Allah be pleased with her – also reprimanded the man for his behavior that only added to the distress of the Prophet.

It is thus clear that in this hadith there is no direct reproof for the women of Ja’far. It was the behavior of the man that made the Prophet utter that phrase.

 4. Some Biblical narratives of apathetic behavior of Jesus

Before discussing the narrations related to Prophet Muhammad – peace and blessings upon him – let us look at something similar in the Bible:

 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.”[12]

 Other translations use the words “shouting”, “pleading”, “cry out” and “shout” instead of ‘crying’ – all words indicating the severity of her cry. She came from her region travelling a lot only to find cure to her pains indicating even further the pain and suffering she was encountering and her choice of words while begging for mercy further enlighten the readers to the level of distraught and sadness she was suffering from. However, the response she received appears troublesome:

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.[13]

True that Jesus eventually listened to her and healed her, but we see the woman was rebuked for crying but when she surrendered and accepted being called a dog, that moved him and made him realize her level of faith and so he helped but initial reaction to crying and shouting was apathetic.

 We find other passages in the New Testament that indicate that the Biblical Jesus was portrayed as somewhat cold at times:

 The following is a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples:

He said to another man, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”[14]

If we were to use the same strategy as the missionaries and cherry pick statements out of context to portray the Messengers of God in bad light, then such passages provide the best opportunity. Applying the same logic as that used by the anti-Islamic missionaries, one would reach the conclusion that Jesus – peace be upon him – was a cruel and cold hearted man.

Jesus did not allow another man to return to his family and bid them farewell. Ignoring all context and any sound commentary and using hate and twisted logic, one would reach the conclusion that Jesus – peace be upon him – did not care about other people. However, we as Muslims, refuse to accept such an absurdity.

5. Reports about ‘A’ishah and Fatimah beating themselves in grief

Though we have shown the Islamic position on various expressions of sorrow through the sayings of the Lawgiver, we take this opportunity to address reports about the Prophet’s beloved wife ‘A’ishah and his youngest and most beloved daughter Fatimah self-beating in grief.

5.1 Did Fatimah beat herself on hearing the rumor of Prophet’s death?

The missionaries quote from a Shiite polemic write-up on a random online forum a statement with reference to Persian work Madarij al-Nabuwwah of ‘Abdul-Haqq ad-Dehlawi (d. 1052 AH/1642 AC). The way they put it is:

Fatimah az-Zahra, hearing the rumor of the martyrdom of the blessed Prophet at Uhud, came out of her house running and beating her head.[15]

We reproduce the actual statement and analyze it. Giving the details of Battle of Uhud, he writes:

از غرائب روایات است کہ  در معارج  النبوہ  آوردہ  کہ آواز شیطان کہ بقتل محمد صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم ندا میکرد  بمدینہ رسید  تا در خانیای مدینہ نیز مشنیدند  و فاطمہ زہرا رضی اللہ عنہا   چون این آواز شنید دست برسر زنان از خانہ  بیرون دوید و میگریست و ہم زنان ہاشمیہ می نالیدند

From the strange reports (ghara’ib riwayat) is what it is stated in the book Maʻarij an-Nubuwwah that the Devil’s cry “Muhammad has been killed” reached Madinah and was heard in the houses there. And that when Fatimah az-Zahra – may Allah be pleased with her – heard this voice, she put her hand on the heads of the women and came running out of her house and wept, and the Hashmite women also cried.[16]

Firstly, it is to be noted that the narration does not say anything like “beating her head;” it rather suggests she was with some women and as she allegedly heard the voice she left the gathering to come out running and in the process placed or rested her hands on the heads of women she was with. There is no idea of self-beating here.

Moreover, it is important to note that ad-Dehlawi has termed this report as odd (ghareeb) and he quoted it only on the authority of a little known work Maʻarij an-Nubuwwah. This work is actually al-Haj Muhammad Mu’in al-Farahi’s (d. 954 AH/1501 AC) biography of the Prophet in Persian, Maʻarij an-Nubuwwah fee Madarij al-Futuwwah.[17]

Reference to such a late, secondary and obscure work cannot be used to prove an act of a Companion, let alone to make suggestions on Islamic etiquettes and rulings.

What makes this report even more dubious is the fact that no such reaction is reported from Sayyidah Fatimah after the actual demise of the blessed Prophet some eight years after the Battle of Uhud.

It is amazing that these missionaries take information without verifying their sources, which causes their writings to lack objectivity.

5.2 On the report about ‘A’ishah beating herself at Prophet’s death

There is a report about Sayyidah ‘A’ishah’s crying and self-beating at the death of the Prophet. It is reported in Sirat Ibn Hisham, Tarikh at-Tabari, Musnad Ahmad and other books that ‘A’ishah said:

مات رسول الله ص بين سحري ونحري وفي دوري، ولم أظلم فيه أحدا، فمن سفهي وحداثة سني أن رسول الله قبض وهو في حجري، ثم وضعت رأسه على وسادة، وقمت ألتدم مع النساء، وأضرب وجهي

The Messenger of God died on my bosom during my turn, and I did not wrong anyone in regard to him. It was because of my ignorance and youthfulness that the Messenger of God died while he was in my lap. Then I laid his head on a pillow and got up beating my chest and slapping my face along with the women.[18]

Clearly ‘A’ishah attributed her actions to her ignorance and youthfulness, suggesting that she had realized her mistake and repented.

In fact, it appears this reaction of ‘A’ishah and other women was just for a very short while, for it is reported from other Companions that the Prophet was not wailed over.

عن حكيم بن قيس، أن قيس بن عاصم، قال: لا تنوحوا علي، فإن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم لم ينح عليه

It was narrated from Hakim bin Qays that Qays bin ‘Asim said: “Do not wail over me, for no one wailed over the Messenger of Allah.”[19]

Abu Hurayrah also reported the same.[20]

6. Summary and Conclusion

1- Islam takes a very balanced approach towards expression of sorrow and while it forbids wailing and self-flagellation, it recognizes the grief of heart and shedding of tears as natural and honors such expression.

2- In the hadith about the women of Ja’far, the reproof is more for the man who came to the Prophet time and again only with complaints while the blessed Prophet was himself sitting grieved. The final statement of ‘A’ishah confirms this.

3- The expression “put dust in their mouths” means ‘Shun them until they become quite like the one who has mud in his mouth and is unable to speak.’ It is not to be taken literally as evident from the report of Abu Bakr using it for ‘A’ishah and other wives of the Prophet who raised their voices to him.

4- There is no proof that Fatimah beat her head on hearing the rumor of Prophet’s death in the Battle of Uhud. The report sometimes quoted has no such backing. Furthermore, it comes from an obscure work which is not an authoritative reference.

5- While ‘A’ishah did beat her chest and slap her face, the same report says she attributed her actions to her ignorance and youthfulness, implying that he recognized her mistake and repented.

6- The Bible also commends a sober restraint in expression of sorrow without giving in to the ways of those who do not believe in God.

7- Using twisted logic and hate while trying to learn would result in reaching the conclusions one already has in his/her mind. Preconceived notions need to be removed while genuinely trying to learn and if they are not removed, then the conclusion would be nothing less than hate and bigotry as seen from the original claim from the missionary of hate.


References & Notes:

[1]al-Bazzar, al-Musnad, (Madinah: Maktabat al-Uloom wal Hikam, 2006) Hadith 7513; classified as sahih by al-Albani in Silsalah al-Ahadith as-Sahihah No. 427

[2]at-Tirmidhi, al-Jami’, Translated by Abu Khaliyl, (Riyadh: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, 2007) Hadith 1005; classified as hasan by al-Albani

[3] Ibn Hanbal, Ahmad, al-Musnad, Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 1995) Hadith 2127; classified as sahih by Ahmad Shakir

[4] Ibn al-Qayyim, Zaad al-Ma’ad fee Hady Khayr al‘Ibad, (Beirut: ar-Resalah Publishers, 1998) Vol.1, 480

[5] The Bible, Ezekiel 24:17

[7] al-Bukhari, as-Sahih, Translated by Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Riyadh: Maktabat Dar-us-Salam, 1997) Hadith 1305

[8] al-Qari, Mulla Ali, Mirqat al-Mafatih, (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 2002) Vol.3, 1245

[9] Ibn Hajjaj, Muslim, as-Sahih, Translated by Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Riyadh: Maktabat Dar-us-Salam, 2007)  Hadith 3628 (46-1462)

[10]as-Sindi, Abul-Hasan, Hashiah Musnad al-Imam Ahmad, (Qatar: Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, 2008) Vol.7, 100

[11] al-Kashmiri, Anwar Shah, Fayd al-Bari, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyah, 2005) Vol.3, 34

[12]Matthew 15:22

[13] Matthew 15:23

[14] Luke 9:59-62

[15] Rafiqul-Haqq, M. and P. Newton, “Tears between Muhammad and Jesus

[16] ad-Dehlawi, Madarij al-Nabuwwah, (Lucknow: Naval Kishawr, 1877) Vol.2, 163

[17] Khalifah, Haji, Kashf az-Zunun, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ at-Turath al-‘Arabi) Vol.2, 1723

[18] at-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari – The Last Years of the Prophet, Translated by Ismail K. Poonawalla (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990) Vol.9, 183

[19]an-Nasa’i, as-Sunan, Translated by Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Riyadh: Maktaba Dar-us-Salam, 2007)  Hadith 1852; classified as sahih by al-Albani

[20]al-Bazzar, al-Musnad, Hadith 8018

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Waqar Akbar Cheema

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