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.

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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