Muhammad Ali addresses a gathering at a Black Muslim convention...

Muhammad Ali addresses a gathering at a Black Muslim convention in Chicago, Ill., Feb. 25, 1968. Credit: AP WIREPHOTO

With Muhammad Ali’s traditional Muslim funeral being held Thursday in Louisville, Kentucky, here is an explanation of a Janazah, or Islamic funeral, from an interview with Dr. Isma Chaudhry, president of the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury and information from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Ali will be buried after a funeral procession through his hometown Friday morning, with a public memorial service following at 2 p.m.

What is a Janazah?

A Janazah is a funeral. It is intended to be a simple, modest service for the deceased and his or her loved ones and friends. As the Council on American-Islamic Relations puts it: “The Prophet Muhammad said, “(Weeping) is the mercy that God has placed in the hearts of His servants.’ The Prophet also said that only good things should be remembered about a person’s life after he or she dies.”

How is the body prepared for the funeral?

The deceased is bathed at a mosque, a funeral parlor or at home, with only people who are respected members of the community or relatives taking part. Men wash men, and women wash women. Either a man or a woman washes a child’s body. A husband may wash his wife’s body and vice versa if the need arises.

The body is wrapped in two white, clean, unstitched cloth pieces. The face is left uncovered for the family to view. After that, the face is covered. The shroud is tied at the head and the feet, with a piece of cloth from the same shroud in such a way that one can differentiate the head from the feet.

The body then can be buried in the shroud or in a coffin, typically a very simple wood case.

What is the significance of covering the body in a white shroud?

“The process has to be very simple and modest,” said Chaudhry. “That is why they use a white shroud, so that all people are buried in an equal way. In other words, the rich cannot be buried in a fancy shroud. A casket is not a necessity — sometimes one is used, sometimes it is not. The idea, again, is to keep the process simple so that all people can be buried in a similar, simple and modest way.”

How does the service proceed?

People stand in front of the body and a shortened prayer takes place, usually led by the imam or a member of the community who is well-versed on the rulings of the Janazah.

Who are Muslims praying to during the service?

To God.

What does the shortened prayer mean?

It is a prayer for the deceased. It includes verses from the Quran and prayers for the forgiveness of the deceased so that his or her soul is well-received. The body is placed in front of the congregation during the prayer. The imam stands before the body, and the congregation stands behind the imam in rows. All stand facing Mecca.

The worshippers make a personal intention to offer a funeral prayer. They say “God is great,” then fold their hands on their chests. The opening chapter of the Quran, Islam’s revealed text, is read quietly. Prayers are recited for the deceased, the prophets Abraham and Muhammad, and for the Muslim community. Saying “Peace be to you” concludes the prayer. The entire funeral prayer is performed while standing.

Where is the family during the prayer?

The family stands with the congregation and prays. They usually are in the front, but sometimes also stand wherever they wish among the congregation. Everyone faces Mecca.

Do women join the funeral prayer?


Can anyone join the prayer? Or do they need to be invited?

Yes, anyone can join the prayer. If you hear of a Janazah, it is a good practice to join in. Anyone from any religion can join.

What happens after the service?

The deceased is carried to the burial ground. During the funeral procession, mourners walk in front of or beside the body. Those who are riding or driving follow that procession. Silence is recommended.

What happens at the cemetery?

The body is taken out, placed in the ground so that the head is facing Mecca, and covered with dirt. Each person present shares in filling the grave by pouring in three handfuls of soil. Someone in the family or the iman or anyone else, announces if the deceased owed a debt to anyone present, that person should come forward. If so, they come forward and the family takes care of the debt, or the person says they will forgo the debt. Tradition indicates that the deceased should not be mourned for more than three days.

Do Muslims need to be buried before sunset?

The deceased has to be buried as soon as possible, but not necessarily before sunset.

What is the etiquette for non-Muslims who attend a prayer service?

Women cover their heads and wear long dresses or slacks or pants. Men should not wear shorts. All should dress modestly and in a dignified manner.

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