Pastoral Thanatology and Islam

Islam and Pastoral Thanatology

Islam while a Monotheistic creed does pose a challenge for a Western counselor.   The Pastoral Thanatologist, however, can meet the needs of the Islamic suffering by covering the general aspects of paradise and a good and just God; a God that is the same and shared by all monotheistic traditions as the God of Abraham.   Still, a slight understanding of Islamic death and eschatology can be of great benefit when counseling a Muslim who is about to die.
Upon approach of death of a Muslim, verses of the Quran are read to remind the person of his faith.   At the moment of death, ritualistic purification is necessary.  These rituals play a pivotal role in Islam and at the moment of death such rituals continue to play an important role.  One such ritual is the washing of the body.  This ritual is conducted by a professional washer who recites part of the Quran.  After completion of this, the body is wrapped in a white shroud and taken to the Mosque.  There a service is conducted with readings from the Quran and other rituals. 

Photo by: Antonio Melina/Agência Brasil.   The photo shows Muslims praying
Photo by: Antonio Melina/Agência Brasil. The photo shows Muslims praying
Within 24 hours, the body is prepared for burial.   The body then is laid in a wooden coffin facing Mecca.  Practices such as embalming or preservation or forbidden since the theology of Islam believes the body should return to the ground as quickly and naturally as possible.   During the following months after death, the family continues to pray for the deceased begging for his or her intercession before God.
The Eschatology of Islam contains many common principles with other Monotheistic religions.  The theme of life after death, judgment and resurrection of the body are shared within the Muslim community.  Ideas of reincarnation and other Eastern ideals are rejected.   Upon judgment of the soul, it is either condemned to a life of bliss or life of torment.   Some believe the “fire” can be temporary for purgation while some others are in doubt whether the fire is eternal.  In regards to heaven, Muslims believe it is the reward of the just, but, according to some, can still be attained by those who suffer purgation.   Regardless, all Muslims believe the soul returns to the grave whether to exist in a state of bliss or a state of misery until the end day.  Upon that day, the souls undergo a general judgment and enter into the “garden” of paradise or enters into the “fire”.   Again, the eternal nature of the “fire” is an open debate among Muslims.   Some literalistic Muslims refer to the bridge that must be crossed on that judgment day.  The souls of the just across a wide bridge across the fire to the garden.  They are beckoned by the Prophet, Mohammad.  While the souls of the unjust have a narrow bridge as sharp and narrow as that of a sword.   Upon this day, the souls are finally granted their reward or punishment.
In understanding these slight differences of eschatology and death, Western pastoral counselors can better comfort the grieving and suffering people of the Islamic world.  Whether it be to the one who is about to die or the family that surrounds him or her, an understanding of the Quran and eschatology of Islam would always be appreciated by those in need and anguish. 
Mark Moran, MA