Muhammad's Grave

Michael Rubin reviews Muhammad's Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society, by Leor Halevi.

Western policymakers and academics often concern themselves with death in Islam only in the context of suicide terrorism. But the Islamic treatment of death is far more complicated. Halevi, professor of history at Vanderbilt University, has written a masterful, well-written work filled with original research that shows how Islamic notions of death coalesced in the first centuries of the new religion.

Well-organized by theme, the separate chapters in Muhammad's Grave (on such topics as cover tomb stones, the washing of corpses, shrouds, wailing, processions, and tomb construction) will primarily interest medievalists and theologians. At the same time, Halevi's work makes for interesting reading to all Middle Eastern experts.

Halevi is an expert linguist and, with training at Princeton, Yale, and Harvard, equally at ease with Muhammad bin Isma'il al-Bukhari's compilations of the sayings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, with the Babylonian Talmud, or with the essays of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French and German scholars. Because Halevi has mastered such a breadth of sources, he is able--as is Qur'anic scholar Khaleel Mohammed at the University of California--to provide the context to Islam's early years.[1] Islam did not arise in a vacuum.

Classical Muslim scholarship acknowledges how both Judaism and Christianity influenced Islam's development and the evolution of its rites more than some contemporary studies suggest.

Classical Muslim scholarship--lost to a generation of modern scholars who have mastered neither language nor historiography--acknowledges how both Judaism and Christianity influenced Islam's development and the evolution of its rites more than some contemporary studies suggest. Hence, when discussing the washing of corpses, Halevi is able to provide the Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian contexts with a bit of humor. Why, he asks, did "Basrans and Kufans stray from the Medinese [prevalent in Medina] model? Did they fall under the influence of Jews or Zoroastrians, some of whose notions concerning purity and pollution they ingested as readily as Magian cheese?"

Halevi also describes early debates about whether and how "should Muslims participate in everyday civic events that failed to meet their standards," such as Jewish and Christian funerals. After all, Saudi authorities might today seek to keep their kingdom Judenrein, but in classical periods of Islam to which, ironically, many fundamentalists seek to return, Arabia was a far more diverse and tolerant place.

Halevi's final chapter, "The Torture of Spirit and Corpse in the Grave," may immerse itself fully in classical scholarship, but it provides important background for modern debates--as Halevi explains elsewhere.[2] If Muslims believe they suffer great pain once in the grave but can avoid such torture if they die as martyrs, then terror masters have an effective line of argument when they recruit "martyrdom" bombers.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.


[1] Khaleel Mohammed, "Assessing English Translations of the Qur'an," Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005, p. 59-71.
[2] The International Herald Tribune (Paris), May 4, 2007.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author



What's new on AEI

Four years of Dodd-Frank damage
image Dodd-Frank, financial institutions, and public opinion
image Time for an Anwar Sadat moment in the Middle East
image Freedom of the skies at risk
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
Monday, July 21, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Closing the gaps in health outcomes: Alternative paths forward

Please join us for a broader exploration of targeted interventions that provide real promise for reducing health disparities, limiting or delaying the onset of chronic health conditions, and improving the performance of the US health care system.

Event Registration is Closed
Monday, July 21, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Comprehending comprehensive universities

Join us for a panel discussion that seeks to comprehend the comprehensives and to determine the role these schools play in the nation’s college completion agenda.

Event Registration is Closed
Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | 8:50 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Who governs the Internet? A conversation on securing the multistakeholder process

Please join AEI’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy for a conference to address key steps we can take, as members of the global community, to maintain a free Internet.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
Expanding opportunity in America: A conversation with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan

Please join us as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveils a new set of policy reforms aimed at reducing poverty and increasing upward mobility throughout America.

Thursday, July 24, 2014 | 6:00 p.m. – 7:15 p.m.
Is it time to end the Export-Import Bank?

We welcome you to join us at AEI as POLITICO’s Ben White moderates a lively debate between Tim Carney, one of the bank’s fiercest critics, and Tony Fratto, one of the agency’s staunchest defenders.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.