One day, Dr. Safiyyah was walking in Kensington Market in downtown Toronto. On one of the side streets, there's a very large Asian community in that neighborhood. On one of the side streets, she saw a man, with some sort of a metal can, and he was throwing bits of paper, and money. Lots of them into the can. He was lighting that on fire. So, she walked by and was curious about what he was doing. She asked him, “What are you doing?” This is how we honor our ancestors. That was her first encounter. Yet, she realized that ancestor veneration is very common in many different religions.
Different people have different rituals and ceremonies that they remember the dead and show their respect and admiration.
It seems that this is across many cultures and evolutionary biology. People have kept their communities cohesive by honoring their ancestors. It gives a sense of connectivity with their people. That would explain why it is so widespread in the human race.
It happens in Africa and Asia. It doesn't seem to be as common in monotheistic religions. It goes against worship other than God and anything that is related to worship. Therefore, they try to stay away from that as well. Sometimes, the line of distinction is not so very clear. If you bow before your karate instructor, is that veneration or not? Does that cross a certain line? Many Muslims would refrain from that because we are taught as Muslims to pray to God by bowing, by prostrating. Since these actions are so closely related to our prayer, Muslims hesitate to perform the same actions with some other object in view.
Yet, what if it comes close? How close it's too close, where does one cross the line?
Dr. Safiyyah read an account online of a Chinese Muslim. She became Muslim. She said, “There are certain days of the year when one goes to the graves of your ancestors, and you bow down to them.” She told her dad that she couldn't do that anymore. He was very offended. He began to think like she could tell that he was thinking if she was going to abandon him after he passes away too. The whole thing upset him because he couldn't understand. He informed her that it was not worship. Rather, it's deep respect.
Muslims scholars are more closely familiar with the details of these practices and the various cultures, they must think about where that borderline is crossed. They will give verdicts about where the line of permissibility gets crossed. In the Catholic tradition, it became necessary to accommodate some of the practices in ancestor veneration in some Eastern countries. The Catholic Church has given different rulings over time. One time condemning it out right and another time accommodating the practices, after hundreds of years, the practice remains. It shows that these are deep-seated, deep-rooted practices in some cultures.
In the Islamic tradition, there is great respect for our elders and not only our parents but our grandparents. We pray for them, but never to them and to any prophet or to any Saint, etc. We respect our parents and remember them too. We asked God to have mercy on them.
Is there a particular prayer that Muslims do at different times to pray for their parents?
There was a specific time across cultures, one may have like a day of the dead or a day for honoring the Saints. Yet, the Islamic tradition doesn’t have that practice. Generally, we do pray. For example, a common prayer that is recited in many of our Friday sermons. "Oh God, forgive the believers, men, and women. "Have mercy on the believers the men and women, "Those who are alive, and those who have passed away." That is a general prayer for those who have passed away. We can pray in our own way as well, in our own language in a variety of circumstances. Whenever we remember our deceased parents, relatives, and ancestors. We can pray for them, asking God to have mercy on them. For our parents, there is Dua, "Oh God, have mercy on them, come out. As they used to be merciful to me when I was a child." That prayer can be done even after our parents have passed away. Many Muslims know this prayer in the original Arabic by heart.
Is there a particular time in which Muslims might believe the distance between the dead and the living comes together somehow or narrow somehow? Our dead ancestors can come back to this world in some way and interact with us?
If some Muslims believe that on the 15th of the month of Shaaban, which is the month just proceeding the month of Ramadan. Half a month away from the beginning of Ramadan. It is mentioned that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) visited a grave of some people at that time.
The practice emerged among some Muslims to think visiting graves at that time. But other than that, no great significance is offered in that regard as if this is a time of the opening, what one might call the Prophetic Sunnah. Yet, if one thinks about something like the souls of the dead coming back into this world on a particular date, there is no such thing in the Islamic tradition.
Generally, when the souls leave this body, they are in a state of existence that is separate from this world. The term is called “Barzakh” in Arabic. It is shown to be something like when we evolve. If you go through, you don't come back. It's a kind of dividing wall that separates this state of existence from that one that the land of the souls.
Some people might give food offerings to an image of a dead ancestor. Is that something common or foreign to Islam?
It will be foreign to Islam because offering food to the deity, is a way of worshiping God. When an action that so closely resembles what people do in worshiping God, then if that sort of action is offered to someone else, then it's what one would call Shirk or associating partners with God. In our tradition, we don't offer any food to God because we understand that God doesn't eat. “He feeds, but no one can feed him.” He's not supplied with food. However, that action is used as an act of worshiping God in some other cultures. In reference to our ancestors would be quite shady from the Islamic perspective.