Prayers for the Dead

By: A Muhammad

This article covers prayers for all who died, believers or disbelievers. It also covers all things people do for the dead, such as reading Quran for them, giving zakat on their behalf, observing Hajj and Umrah on their behalf and so on.
To start, God forbids believers from asking forgiveness for the disbelievers and idol worshippers regardless of whether they are dead or alive:

It is not for the prophet and those who believed to ask forgiveness for the mushrikeen, even if they were their relatives, after it has become clear to them that they are the companions of Hellfire. 9:113

In addition, if a person dies as a disbeliever or idol worshipper, nothing and no prayer can change his/her fate:

As for the one who has deserved the Word of punishment, are you to rescue the one who is in the Fire? 39:19

If this truth is known to all Quran readers, and is not the subject of any dispute, what is the verdict in the case of offering prayers for the believers? For that, we will address two types of prayers:

1-
Prayers for the believers who are still alive.

2-
Prayers for the believers who have died.

First : Prayers for the believers who are still alive

When we pray for a living parent, a relative or friend, we usually implore God to cure them of an illness or assist them in adversity. This kind of prayer, which implores God's Mercy on them while they are still alive, is encouraged in the Quran and is heard by God:

And lower the wings of humility for them through mercy and say, "My Lord, have mercy on them just as they raised me when I was small." 17:24

Some have interpreted this verse so as to extend its scope to include our loved ones who have died, however, if we examine this verse and the verse just before it, we find good indication that God is inviting us to pray for our parents while they are still alive. Let us read verse 23:

Your Lord has decreed that you shall not worship except Him and to treat your parents kindly. If one of them or both of them reach old age with you, do not say to them, "Uff" (word that expresses annoyance), nor shall you scold them, but say generous words to them. 17:23

The words "say generous words to them" can only mean while they are still alive, it is not possible to speak kindly to a dead person!
Once they are dead, they will receive their judgement in accordance to their work on earth and in accordance to God's Mercy, nothing we do can change that.
We also read that the angels offer prayers for those (living) on earth and not those who died:

The heavens almost shatter from above them, and the angels glorify their Lord with praise and ask forgiveness for those in the earth. Indeed, God is the Forgiver, the Merciful. 42:5

The significance of the words "for those in the earth" is quite clear.
P
rayers for the living believers are encouraged by God for a number of reasons:

1-
Prayers for the living believers are not related to the judgement they will receive from God on Judgement Day. This judgement is exclusively reserved for the Almighty and we are told in the Quran that it is based primarily on people's deeds and the purity of their faith while they were on earth. Consequently, by praying for living believers, we are not imploring God to alter the judgement they receive on the Day of Judgement.

2-
Prayers for the living believers are an expression
of our worship of God. To implore God is to trust and accept His absolute authority to answer our prayers. It is also an acceptance that God alone has the absolute authority to alleviate hardship off the ones we pray for. The link between imploring God and worshipping Him is made evident in the following Quranic words:

Your Lord said, "Implore Me and I will respond to you. Surely, those who are too arrogant to worship Me will enter Hell humiliated." 40:60

The words "Implore Me" and "Worship Me" in this verse confirm that ‘Imploration’ is indeed an essential expression of worship, (see:
Worshipping God).

And if My servants ask you about Me, I am near; I answer the caller's call if he calls upon Me. Therefore, they shall respond to Me and believe in Me so that they may be rightly guided. 2:186

As per the words in 9:113 above, believers are prohibited from asking forgiveness for the non-believers. We have also seen in 17:23-24 that God instructs us to pray for God's mercy upon our living parents. An important observation we derive from the words in 17:23-24 is that God did not specify that our parents must be believers in order to be entitled to our prayers. This important observation indicates that even though we are not allowed to pray for God's forgiveness upon disbelievers, even if they are our parents, yet we are allowed to pray for God to have mercy on our parents and loved ones, during their life time, if they are going through some suffering.
This allowance runs parallel in concept with the subject of the Zakat. God defined for us the categories of people entitled to receive our Zakat, however, God did not specify that our Zakat should be paid only to the believers among those categories. The ones who insist that the Zakat can only be paid to believing people in need are therefore advocating a rule that was never authorised by God

Second : Prayers for the believers who died

What about the prayers offered for the believers who have died and reading Quran for them? Are we permitted to pray for them? Do our prayers make a difference to their judgement on the Day of Judgement?

By definition, a prayer for a dead person is a form of intercession and the Quran states categorically that there will be no intercession allowed by God, see: The Myth of Intercession

As mentioned above, when we pray for a living relative or friend (believer) we usually implore God to cure them of an illness or to alleviate hardship off them. This kind of prayer implores God's Mercy on them while they still live. We have seen how this prayer is encouraged in the Quran.
Prayer for a loved one, who we believe to have died as a believer, is categorically different, for here we are not imploring God to cure them of their illness or assist them in adversity, but we are imploring God to grant them mercy on the Day of Judgement. Initially, the concept is improper. If we accept that God is the Most Merciful, and that He has decreed mercy upon Himself, why would we need to implore Him to show mercy?

Say, "To whom belongs what is in the heavens and the earth?" Say, "To God." He has decreed mercy upon Himself. 6:12

Do our prayers for a dead person lead to any change or improvement in the judgement God has decreed on that person on the Day of Judgement? What this means in reality is that we are interceding with God to issue the dead person a more favourable judgement!
The concept of intercession is categorically refused in the Quran:

O you who believe, give from what We provided you with before a Day comes in which there will be no trade, no friendship and no intercession. The disbelievers are the transgressors. 2:254

Many verses in the Quran make it very clear that on Judgement Day, and in accordance with God's Absolute Justice, no person shall be credited for anything other than his/her own work, equally that no soul would carry the burden of another:

Every self earns from none other than itself, and no burden-bearer bears the burden of another. 6:164

The human being has nothing to benefit him except his own work.
53:39

On Judgement Day, no soul will benefit except from what it has personally earned and not from the prayers of their loved ones. All our prayers to a dead person will not alter his/her judgement. Many practises undertaken by many Muslims today for their dead parents or next of kin are utterly useless. It is utterly useless to read Quran for a dead person, or to observe a Hajj or Umrah on behalf of a dead parent or relative; they shall not receive the credit since they have not observed the Hajj themselves. The same applies to fasting on behalf of a dead person or giving Zakat on their behalf. All these acts are utterly useless. The Salat, Hajj, Fasting and Zakat are all acts of worship, and God does not accept any acts of worship by proxy!

Sura 82

It is the Day when no self possesses any power to help any other self, and all matters on that day will be decided by God alone. 82:19

The moment the human being dies his/her record is sealed and nothing can alter it one way or another. Sadly many Muslims reject these Quranic truths and prefer to believe baseless hadith that advocate what is contrary to Quranic teachings!

God's Infinite Mercy

When we analyse this issue closer, we note that to pray for a dead person, even if they were good sincere believers, is an indirect rejection of Quranic truth. Let us look at the following verses:

Say, "O My servants who transgressed exceedingly against themselves, do not despair of God's mercy, for God forgives all sins; He is the Forgiver, the Merciful." 39:53

God does not forgive the association of anything with Him, and He forgives other than that for whom He wills. 4:48

By virtue of these two verses, as well as other Quranic verses, we are given a glimpse of God's Infinite Mercy. God would actually forgive all the sins of believers as long as they avoid idol worship.
If we still pray that God would forgive the sins of dead believers, would we not be guilty of disbelieving God's promise in 39:53?

Commentary on some related verses

The significance of 14:41

Some writers have quoted 14:41 to claim that we are invited in the Quran to pray for our parents and implore God to have mercy on them on Judgement Day:

My Lord, forgive me, my parents and the believers on the Day when the reckoning takes place. 14:41

Immediately, we note a very important difference between 17:24 (above) and 14:41. In 17:24, the prayer was for the parents in their lifetime. However, in 14:41 the prayer for forgiveness on the Day of Judgement, is not a prayer given by God, it was a prayer spoken by Abraham.
Many would quickly say, "Is a prayer spoken by God's own prophet Abraham not good enough as a prayer that we should follow?"
The answer to this question is as follows:

1-
The prayer in 14:41 was a personal prayer spoken by Abraham, thus it cannot be regarded as an instruction from God for us to follow.

2-
We are told later that Abraham was not to pray for his father who was an idol worshipper. This indicates that this prayer offered by Abraham (for his parents) could not have been authorised by God. We learn later that this prayer of Abraham was not accepted by God. We also read in 9:114 that Abraham's prayer was unrighteous.

3-
Just because a prayer was offered by a messenger does not mean that we should follow it or that it is a prayer that God would answer. In 11:74, we read how Abraham attempted to offer another prayer for the people of Lot, which was also rejected by God (11:76). Similarly, the prayers of Noah for his son (11:46) and of Muhammad for his relatives (9:80) were all rejected by God.

4-
If we examine 14:41 one more time, we would be able to see how it stands in disharmony with other Quranic words:

My Lord, forgive me, my parents and the believers on the Day when the reckoning takes place. 14:41

It is necessary now to compare the above words to the following Quranic words:

Intercession with Him does not benefit except the one whom He has granted permission. 34:23

These words are quite conclusive in asserting that on the Day of Judgement, nothing will have any weight in our judgement except our own deeds and faith and not on how devoutly others may have prayed for us.

The significance of 9:84

Before we analyse this verse a word has to be mentioned about one of the rituals practised in Islamic countries today when a Muslim dies. Shortly before the burial proceedings, the dead person is taken in his/her coffin inside a masjid and a salat is observed for the dead person. Some have interpreted the words in 9:84 to be related to this ritual which is known as "Salat Al-Janazah" (Funeral Prayer). However, it can be shown that this is a misinterpretation.

We read in 72:18 that the masjid serves only one purpose and that is to worship God. The masjid is not for taking coffins of dead people inside and offering prayers for them.
Moreover, the rule in 6:162 dictates that the Salat, as well as all other worship practices, should be dedicated to glorify the name of God and not for any other purpose. To observe a Salat with the purpose of offering prayers for a dead person is in violation of 6:162. It is also in violation of 20:14 which defines the sole purpose of the Salat as being the commemoration of God:

I am God, there is no god except Me. Therefore, you shall worship Me and observe the Salat to commemorate Me. 20:14

The proponents of the un-Quranic Funeral Salat will argue that it is not a Salat in the traditional sense since it has neither bowing nor prostration and is much shorter. This excuse is not acceptable simply because it is not the form that validates a ritual or invalidates it; it is the heart of the ritual and who it is dedicated to. Since this Salat is observed and dedicated to the dead person, then it is unlawful, whatever form it may take.
Now let us ponder on the words in 9:84:

'La tussallee ala ahadan minhum' (you shall not support any of them) who died, ever, nor shall you stand at his grave. They have disbelieved in God and His messenger and died in a state of wickedness. 9:84

The key words in this verse with regards to our research are "la tussallee ala ahadan minhum". These words have been used in the Quran in a number of verses. They do not mean "do not pray for them" (as some have interpreted). Neither do they refer to the widely practised Funeral Salat. When we consult a number of verses where these same words are used ( 33:43, 9:103, 33:56) we realise that these words simply mean "do not support them". The following verses confirm this meaning:

"He (God) is the One who "yussallee alaykum" (supports you), as well as His angels, to bring you out of darkness and into the light. He is Merciful towards the believers."
33:43

It is clear here that neither God nor the angels observe a Salat for the believers! Nor do the words mean to send blessings since the angels have no authority to bless us; all blessings come from God alone.

Take a charity from their money to cleanse and purify them with it and 'sallee alayhum' (support them). Your support provides them with tranquillity. God is Hearer, Knowledgeable. 9:103

Once again, it is clear that the messenger is not to observe a Salat dedicated to the believers!

God and His angels 'yussalloon ala al-nabi' (support the prophet). O you who believe, 'salloo alayhee' (support him) and accept him wholeheartedly. 33:56

Once again it is clear that neither God nor the angels conduct a Salat for the prophet, nor are the believers required to do so.
Consequently, it can be established that the prohibition in 9:84, which is related to the words "la tussallee ala ahadan minhum" is a prohibition from supporting any dead disbeliever. Support for a dead person can be in the form of taking part in the funeral, taking part in the burial, contributing to the cost of the funeral or memorials, and so on.

The significance of 59:10

Some writers have quoted 59:10 and implied that the words in this verse allow us to pray for the believers who came before us and are now dead.

And those who came after them say, "Our Lord, forgive us and our brothers who preceded us to the faith and do not place any animosity in our hearts towards those who believe. Our Lord, You are Benevolent, Merciful." 59:10

Indeed the above words indicate that the people spoken of in 59:10 were offering prayers for the believers who came before them and would thus be dead at the time. Therefore, should we say that 59:10 allows us to pray for the dead believers? The answer is no. Not every narration given in the Quran constitutes a law from God that we should follow. In many verses God is simply narrating to us about what some people said or have done.
In other verses, God would be narrating to us about various sins committed by previous people who have long been dead. This again does not mean that God is authorising us to commit the sins mentioned.
One of the many such examples is the following:

And say, "My Lord, admit me an entrance of truth and let me depart an exit of truth, and grant me from You a supporting authority." 17:80

The difference between the prayer in 17:80 and that in 59:10 is that the one in 17:80 is a prayer authorised by God for us to say, this is apparent since the verse starts with the word "Say", while the one in 59:10 is merely a narration of words spoken by previous people.
The prayer of the people mentioned in 59:10 is useless for 2 reasons:

1-
Just because these people offered a prayer for the dead believers who came before them does not mean in any way that it was a prayer that God would answer. Let us take the following example where Abraham and Ismail said the following prayer:

Our Lord, and make us Submitters to You and from our progeny a nation of Submitters to You, and show us our rituals and redeem us. You are the Redeemer, the Merciful. 2:128

Was that a prayer that God would answer? If we go by the Quranic information we have, we would have to say that it was not a prayer that would be answered by God. The reason is that the majority of the human race are either disbelievers (12:103) or committing shirk (12:106). The words in 12:103 and 12:106 are not restricted to a specific time or place; they apply to all mankind. For God to create a whole nation of submitters, God would have to take away the free will that the human race is given and make a whole nation of submitters when they have not chosen submission by themselves. God would not do so because that would defeat the purpose for which we came to this life. That being to earn the right for redemption.

For God to create a whole nation of submitters would not be any different than a teacher giving a false 'pass' mark to all the students in his class when the majority of the students would fail the exam on their own.

As a matter of fact, God gave us Quranic evidence that Abraham's prayer in 2:128 was not answered. The following verse tells us that the majority of the descendents of Abraham were wicked:
We sent Noah and Abraham and We placed among their progeny the prophethood and the Scripture. Some of them were guided while many were wicked. 57:26

Such a prayer could not have been answered because it is not in harmony with God's grand purpose.
God will not decree a nation to be submitters simply because Abraham prayed for that to happen! Rather, a nation can only be submitters if they themselves make the right choice and choose to submit to God.

For the same reason, prayers such as the following would never be answered:
"Please God make my brother a submitter!"
This is a useless prayer because God does not make anyone a submitter if others prayed for that to happen, instead becoming a submitter is a choice that must come from the person himself.

Conclusion

1-
We must have full faith in God's Mercy:

He said, "Who despairs of his Lord's mercy except the misguided ones!" 15:56

2-
Can we through prayers prompt God to exercise more mercy on our beloved ones when He has decreed mercy on Himself?

Say, "To whom belongs what is in the heavens and the earth?" Say, "To God." He has decreed mercy upon Himself. 6:12

3-
Since God forgives all sins for the believers (39:53), what exactly would we be praying for when we pray for a dead believer? Do we not believe 39:53?

Say, "O My servants who transgressed exceedingly against themselves, do not despair of God's mercy, for God forgives all sins; He is the Forgiver, the Merciful." 39:53

4-
Can we ignore the truth of 53:19 and 6:164 and insist that our loved ones will benefit from our prayers?

The human being has nothing to benefit him except his own work. 53:39

Every self earns for none other than itself. 6:164

5-
Is it permissible to intercede on behalf of our loved ones who died when the Quran states that there will be no intercession on Judgement Day?

O you who believe, give from what We provided you with before a Day comes in which there will be no trade, no friendship and no intercession. The disbelievers are the transgressors. 2:254

6-
Belief in the Quran and its teachings should lead all believers to accept without any doubt that due to God's Infinite Mercy, all believers will be ultimately pardoned, not because others prayed for them, but because of God's Infinite Mercy.