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I must admit, I can’t wait until the year is over. I have had a difficult year first dealing with my partner’s passing, and then trying to figure out what follows the grieving process. Right after Saad’s passing, I found that my Muslim community had a rather complex and unexplored relationship with death. Many of my fellow Muslims did not only tell me that I should have gotten over Saad’s death after three days, as some traditions mandate; but some felt so uncomfortable having a young, “single” woman in a grieving state within the community, that they made an effort to look for potential spouses for me three days after his passing… The first imam who suggested it told me, “You have to wait for a little while, but you need to start looking now. There are plenty of brothers looking for young wives.”
In my culture, these reactions are not only unacceptable, but they speak of a community that has neglected to explore death, grief and what their role is.
During this time, I felt compelled to turn to the Internet in search of some kind of community that may be talking about death and grief. But instead I found that numerous sites and “Islamic advice blogs” are preachy in nature, and instead of promoting healing, empathy and community building, they focus on the legalities of grief. For example, we are called to keep our composure, and avoid violent and emotional reactions. The debate on whether or not praying for the deceased is a form of intercession, is often addressed, but at the end, we are told to stay on the safe side and avoid shirk. Likewise, some argue that keeping pictures of the deceased and looking at them is shirk. Memorials, for some Muslims, are out of the question, but disagreements prevail and tensions among religious interpretations are fleshed out.
One of the first articles I came across on dealing with death and grief was from the Deen Show (which, I have critiqued before for their approach to “encouraging” women to wear hijab). They dedicate five sections to explaining the importance of suffering as part of being good Muslims. The article concludes:
“When some calamity strikes us in this life, we should remember that God will recompense us, but we must show patience; the ultimate recompense will not even be in this life, but in the next one, and in this, we should take comfort.”
Whereas there may be nothing wrong with the particular interpretation of suffering and looking forward to the afterlife, I wondered, why is it that we fail to address the needs of those who are grieving here and now? In my culture, we assume that the deceased is in a “better” place, and that all the rituals and processes that take place are for those who stay behind. Thus, the emphasis is in facilitating grief and avoiding preachy attitudes that may make it harder for those who have lost someone.
Not surprisingly, there is also gender aspect to it. When looking at how dead, grief and womanhood interact, we are told that rulings are different for women than they are for men according to orthodox and conservative understandings. To start with, we shall remember that a woman is said not to be able to remarry before four months and ten days after her husband’s passing (some even attempt to justify the time frames). A grieving woman is not to wear jewellery or attractive clothing. And if possible, she should not leave the house. The way in which these sites talk about death and grief portray an image that, as a Muslim woman, may make you feel like your life is over because your life was dependent on that of your husband, partner or family member.
Sadly, in some communities this is also the approach. For example, after Saad’s passing I was uninvited from a Somali wedding because, as a grieving woman, I was considered to be “bad luck” for the newlyweds. And whereas the process of exploring what the grieving process is as a Muslim woman led me to write a personal blog post about what four months and ten days look like, I have since then found that my experience is not at all uncommon.
Stories of Muslim women losing husbands and losing connections to the community appear in blogs and sites. But a broader set of posts also show how many Muslim women use writing as a way to explore grief and help others, in similar situations, find their way. Although not always about partners, some stories talk about the loss of children and family members. In Love and Hurt a writer describes wondering what happens after death since the loss of her father. Stories of loss and grief also have a niche in the famous Love Inshallahblog, where some share poems and others share memoirs.
And it is these individual writers that make it all better and more soothing… For instance, in a piece by Sabina Khan-Ibarra, she states about the loss of her child,
“I am not ungrateful for all that I have been given. But I also realize that I am forever altered and cannot pretend that Ibrahim did not exist.”
Such portrayals of humanity among the legalistic language of death and grieve in Muslim communities is what gets many of us out of bed every morning. And it is the only support system that we can find when some Muslim communities refuse to explore more broadly, what their role in supporting grieving Muslims is. Thus, as much as I am disappointed with a number of sites and resources out there that tell me to “be patient and get over it in order to be rewarded,” I am thankful for the stories, and the little figments of Muslim womanhood that are floating around in the Internet. Let’s be honest… if it was not for them… I would not even have the strength to share my own story.