The Islamic Ruling of Expressing Condolences to Muslims and Non-Muslims

Death is inevitable and we do not need to quote verses from the Qur’an to prove it, because everyone, regardless of ideology, faith or no faith, accepts its inevitability. It does not matter what the situation is, death is for sure an emotional affair. Therefore, at the time of loss we need to be there for others to provide support and help and this should be regardless of one’s faith.

One of the ways we provide support is by using comforting words to express our sorrow at the loss a person has faced. This is called ta‘ziyyah in Islamic law.

There are different rules regarding the way Muslims express condolences to members of different faiths. Since it is well-known that Muslims may offer condolences to each other, the rule regarding it will be treated after discussing the rules of offering condolences for non-Muslims who have passed away.

Offering Condolences for non-Muslims

There is a difference of opinion amongst Muslim jurists regarding permissibility of offering condolences to non-Muslims. The vast majority of Muslim jurists belonging to the Hanafi, Shāfiī and Hanbali Schools of jurisprudence permitted expressing condolences to non-Muslims.

Imam Malik, on the other hand, was of the view that condolences should not be expressed to non-Muslims.1 This is because they regard an expression of condolence a religious action and something more than just consoling the bereaved. Some of their jurists believed that ta‘ziyyah is a

laudable act while others argued that it is a Sunnah. They believe that the objective in offering condolences was to achieve three things:

    1. to provide comfort and console the bereaved and encourage them to be steadfast and patient and content with the decision of Allah.

    2. to make a supplication for the bereaved family that Allah should compensate them for their loss with a great reward.

    3. to make supplication for the deceased that Allah should show him mercy and forgiveness.2

Due to the nature of expressing condolences and its connection to making supplications for the deceased and the family, they concluded that this is not suitable for Muslims to express to non-Muslims. It is noteworthy that some Maliki jurists did regard conveying condolences to non-Muslims as permissible.

The great Hanbali scholar Ibn al-Qayyim has an elaborate discussion about this in his book Ahkam Ahl al-Dhimmah. He quotes various scholars from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, some of whom assert that it is permissible, while others did not know the answer to the question. Al-Athram and Hamdan al-Warraq asked Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal whether it was permissible to offer condolences to non-Muslims. He replied, ‘I don’t know’.3 In like manner, al-Fadl ibn Ziyad said, ‘I asked Ahmad ibn Hanbal, “how are condolences offered to a Christian?” Ahmad replied: “I don’t know”, and he never offered such types of condolences’.

Ishaq ibn al-Mansur al-Saluli narrates from Huraym that he heard al-Ajlah offer condolences to a Christian saying: ‘You should fear Allah and be patient.’

Al-Athram narrates from Ibrahim who said that if anyone intends on offering condolences to a non-Muslim he should say: ‘May Allah increase your wealth and progeny and give you a long life.’4

In like manner, Ishaq was asked how condolences should be offered to non-Muslims or polytheists, he said to say, ‘May Allah increase your wealth and progeny and give you a long life.’5

Al-Hasan offered the following advice to say to a grieving non-Muslim: ‘May nothing but goodness befall you’.6

It can be safely concluded that the vast majority of Muslim jurists were of the opinion that it is permissible for Muslims to offer condolences to bereaving non-Muslim families.

1Al-Ḥaṭṭāb, Mawāhib al-Jalīl li-Sharḥ Mukhtaşar Khalīl, Vol. 3, pp. 40-42, Al-Mawsu‘a al-Fiqhiyyah, Vol. 12, pp. 288-290
2-Al-Ḥaṭṭāb, Mawāhib al-Jalīl li-Sharḥ Mukhtaşar Khalīl, Vol. 3, pp. 38
3-Ibn al-Qayyim, Ahkam Ahl al-Dhimmah, Vol. 1, p161

Offering Condolences to non-Muslims in the Contemporary World

What is clear from the aforementioned views of Muslim jurists is that offering condolences to non-Muslims is permissible. In the contemporary era this issue has become more complicated due to the nature of Muslim-non-Muslim relationship.

Hence, there are two scenarios for this:

  1. The deceased is a family member or a person known personally to a Muslim

  2. The deceased is a famous person

First Scenario:

When a Muslim loses a family member that is non-Muslim (such as in the case of conversion to Islam where the family remain non-Muslim), it is permissible for the Muslim to offer their condolences to their family. In like manner, when a neighbour, work colleague, friend or the like is grieving from the loss of a loved one, it is permissible for Muslims to offer their condolences to them.

What is not permissible by the consensus of Muslim scholars is to make a supplication for the deceased non-Muslim in the form of asking Allah to forgive them, or to show them mercy or any such supplication of that nature. The Qur’an is categorically clear about this:

Allah says, “It is not for the Prophet and those who have believed to ask forgiveness for the polytheists, even if they were relatives, after it has become clear to them that they are companions of Hellfire” (Qur’an 9:113)

Hence, the prohibition is absolute and without exception. Therefore, making statements such as ‘RIP’ (rest in peace), ‘May God bless his soul’, ‘May God grant him Paradise’ or any other statement of this likeness is strictly forbidden and the person saying it is sinful without doubt.

There is no harm is remembering a non-Muslim in an affectionate manner and for the good things he or she has done. But that is the extent of this matter. Nothing can go beyond that.

Second Scenario:

If the deceased person is a notable or famous person in society, such as a film star, sports personality, or a human rights activist who fought for Muslim causes or even fought against injustice towards Muslims, or a head of state or any other such persons with whom there is no personal connection except that he or she is famously known, nationally or internationally, then in all of these cases Muslims must proceed with caution.

Expressing condolences for them is permitted as aforementioned, but it is categorically unlawful to make supplications for them.

It is important to note that when Muslims are expressing their condolences, especially regarding in the political, it should be measured. It is imperative to avoid being or seeming to be sycophantic, corny or mawkish. However, overexaggerated bursts of emotions, exaggerated eulogies, delivering a Jumu’ah Khutbah (the Friday Sermon) dedicated to their lives, or any other forms of expression which makes a person look corny and mawkish must be avoided.

However, if the person is known to have caused Muslims harm, such as heads of state who led their countries into war with Muslims unjustly or are known to have oppressed Muslims living in their lands, then any form of offering condolences for them is unlawful.

Visiting Ailing Non-Muslims

There is a scholarly difference of opinion regarding the permissibility of visiting ailing non-Muslims. Some Hanbali jurists have taken a very strict view that it is not permissible to visit non-Muslims.7 The Shāfi‘ī opinion is more liberal; they maintain that although it is not laudable (i.e. religiously virtuous) to visit ailing non-Muslims, it is however, permissible.8 They base their view on a tradition recorded in al-Bukhārī that a young Jewish boy used to work as a servant to the Prophet ﷺ. He became terminally ill. The Prophet ﷺ went to visit him and sat by his head. The Prophet ﷺ then told the boy to become a Muslim. The child looked at his father and his father told him to obey the Prophet and the boy became a Muslim.9

It seems that the above opinions are most likely applicable to non-Muslims who are not related to the visitor. If the dying person is a family member, then there is no reason why a Muslim cannot visit them. It is a fact that the Prophet ﷺ visited his paternal uncle Abū Ţālib while he was dying. Moreover, there are no sanctions in the Qur’an or Hadith preventing Muslims visiting their non-Muslim kith and kin. Rather, it is a part of keeping good relations with family which the Qur’an and Sunnah encourage. A difference of religion should not prevent a person from visiting a dying non-Muslim relative. Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ visiting the young Jewish boy is a clear proof for the permissibility of visiting non-Muslims who are dying regardless of them being related or not.

7Al-Bahūtī, Kashshāf al-Qinā‘, vol.2, p.88
8-Al-Nawawī, Al-Majmū‘, Vol. 5, p. 99
9-Al-Bukhārī, Şaĥīĥ al-Bukhārī, Hadith No. 1356

Washing the Body of a Non-Muslim and Attending their Funeral

The obligation of washing the body only applies to a deceased Muslim, and does not extend to non-Muslims. If a non-Muslim dies then Muslims are not obliged to wash the body. Instead, the religious funeral rites of the deceased non-Muslim should be observed according to his religion and his non-Muslim heirs should deal with that. However, if a Muslim has non-Muslim relatives and there are no other non-Muslim family members to carry out the funeral prayer, then the Muslim should wash and shroud the body using one piece of cloth and then bury them. This opinion is maintained by the Shāfiī jurists. This is because the Prophet Muhammad ordered ‘Ali to wash and shroud his father Abū Ţālib.10 The jumhūr, on the other hand, maintain that it is not lawful to wash the body; instead, the heir would shroud the body and bury it. However, all jurists unanimously agree that there should not be any prayer made.11

There is no harm in attending the funeral of non-Muslim friends. However, it is not permitted for Muslims to engage in any of their religious rites. Rather, a Muslim may attend to observe and pay his respects merely by the virtue of his attendance.

The Sunnah Words for Condolences

It is worth noting that it is laudable to express condolences in Arabic. If anyone does not know the Arabic then they can express it in their native tongue. It is also worth noting that Ibn Qudama said that there are no specific words or phrases that must be used. However, there is a narration recorded by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal that the Prophet Muhammad (saw) offered condolences to a man saying: ‘May Allah show you mercy and may Allah reward you’ (rahimakallah wa Aajarak).12

It is record that a prophetic Companion, Ahmad Abu Talib, said at the time of condolences, “‘Azamallahu ajraka wa ahsana ‘azaaak” (may Allah give you a great reward and console you). Others have said one should say: Azamallah ajraka wa ahsana ‘azaaak wa rahimallah mayyitak (may Allah give you a great reward and console you and show mercy to your deceased).

10Al-Zuhaylī, Al-Fiqh al-Islāmī, Vol. 2, p. 1490
11-Ibn al-Humām, Fatĥ al-Qadīr, Vol. 2, p. 132

The Rules of Giving Condolences to Muslims

  1. To Whom Condolences is Conveyed: Condolences are expressed to any bereaved Muslim except to a child who does not understand the situation or to a strange young woman if there is fear of it leading to temptation.13
  2. The Period in Which to Convey Condolences: The condolences should be expressed within three days from the time of death. This is the opinion of the vast majority of jurists. They support their view based on the Hadith recorded by al-Bukhari and others that the Prophet said: ‘It not lawful for a woman for mourn the death of anyone more than three days except when she mourns the death of her husband for four months and ten days.’ This group of scholars maintain that expressing condolences after that period is disliked. They point out that the objective of the condolence is to provide comfort to the heirs of the deceased, hence when this period expires the meaning of it is less significant. However, if a person was absent such as not being in the country or the city but returning afterwards then it is not disliked for him to convey his condolences to the family.

    It is related that al-Juwayni and some Hanbali scholars were of the view that there is no period for expressing condolences. They argue that the point of condolences is to make supplication for the deceased and express sympathy and sorrow to the family and that can be done at any time, and it is not something restricted to time. It is worth nothing that mourning and expressing condolences are two different things, and the Hadith cited prohibits mourning and not condolences.

  3. The Time to Convey Condolences: The best time to express condolences is after the burial. This is because the family of the deceased will be preoccupied with making preparation for the funeral prior to this. Furthermore, people feel the loss of someone after the burial has taken place. This is the opinion of the majority of jurists.

    The majority of Shāfiī jurists maintain that if the family needs that emotional support, then it is better to do it before the burial. It is recorded by al-Thawri that he regarded conveying condolences after burial as disliked.14 It seems like the opinions of the jurists is based on the cultural practice of their time rather than scriptural guidance. Therefore, if the cultural practice differs in different places then there is no harm in following that custom.

  4. The Place to Convey Condolences: The majority of jurists considered it disliked to sit in mosques for condolences. The Shāfiī and Hanbali jurists considered it disliked for the deceased’s family to gather at a place to receive people wishing to express their condolences. They regarded this as an innovation (bidah) and therefore unlawful. The Hanafis agree with them saying that it is disliked if unlawful activities will take place such as the mourning family having to put out a spread to feed people.
    Al-Tahawi maintains that there is no harm is sitting at a place to receive people for three days provided unlawful actions are avoided.15
    The Malikis maintain that it is best to have the reception for condolences at the family home.16
    Some Hanbalis were of the opinion that it is disliked to visit the family more than once or to prolong the visit. It is worth pointing out that jurists were concerned with preventing the deceased’s family any hardship and inconvenience, as well as preventing unlawful innovations which tends to happen in such gatherings. There may be a cultural shift in modern times and there is no harm in adapting to these changes so long as innovations are avoided.

  5. Feeding visitors who are offering their condolences: The laudable practice is for extended members of the family or friends and neighbours to prepare food for the grieving family. This is because at the time of grief there is a total lack of desire to cook and prepare food. This practice is established by the Prophet . It is recorded in Abu Dawud that when the Prophet’s cousin Ja’far died, he said, ‘Prepare food for the family of Ja’far because they are preoccupied with something else’.
    What has been condemned by many scholars is the expectation that the bereaving family will prepare food to feed visitors and people would gather to eat. Scholars have condemned this as an innovation and thereby have rendered it unlawful.17

Expressing Condolences to Muslims

Muslim scholars unanimously agree that expressing condolences to a bereaved Muslim is laudable. The evidence for this can found in some Hadith, although some Hadith scholars have classified them as weak. The fact that there is Muslim consensus on this issue proves that there was a heritage and a tradition for this practice even though the words of the Hadith fall short of authenticity.

It is related in al-Tirmidhi that the Prophet Muhammad said: ‘Whoever expresses condolences to a bereaved will receive a reward in kind’. In another Hadith recorded by al-Khatib al-Baghdadi in his book about history, it is related that the Prophet said: ‘No Muslim expresses condolences to his bereaved Muslim brother except that Allah will clothe him with the jewellery of honour on the Day of Judgement.’

12Abu Dawud, Masail al-Imam Ahmad, p. 138-9
13-Al-Dasūqī,. Ḥāshiyah Al-Dasūqī ‘alā al-Sharḥ al-Kabīr, , Vol. 1, p. 419, Ibn ‘Ābidīn, Ĥāshiyah Ibn ‘Ābidīn ‘ala Rad al-Muĥtār, Vol. 1, pp. 603-4, Ibn Qudāmah, Al-Mughnī, Vol. 2, p. 543-5, Al-Shirbini, Al-Mughni al-Muhtaj, Vol. 1, p 419
14Al-Nawawi, al-Majmu‘, Vol. 5, p. 306
15Al-Tahawi’s commentary of the Maraqi al-Falah, p. 339
16 Al-Dasūqī,. Ḥāshiyah Al-Dasūqī ‘alā al-Sharḥ al-Kabīr, , Vol. 1, p. 419
17Al-Ḥaṭṭāb, Mawāhib al-Jalīl li-Sharḥ Mukhtaşar Khalīl, Vol. 3, pp. 37