Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Unit 6: Pilgrims on earth

Overview of the unit

6.1     The journey to the centre

Human life is viewed in many cultures as a journey towards some end. In religious traditions, we find human life described as a pilgrimage to a sacred centre. Through the example of a West African woman's pilgrimage to Mecca in the early part of the twentieth century, we try to gain a deeper understanding of a metaphor of human life as a pilgrimage.

6.2     The entry into the world

One of the most important rites of passage is related to birth. In religious traditions, the birth of new life is viewed as a sacred gift from the divine. In the performance of birth rites, the human body is prepared for entry into the world. We explore here the rite of birth performed among the Gayo people of Indonesia. Through this example, we try to gain insight into how birth rites are used as a means of expressing the sacredness of human life.

6.3    Crossing thresholds

Some of the rites of passage are intended to help individuals become integrated in their communities. Marriage ceremonies create social bonds between individuals and families within or between communities. In this section, we study the rites of marriage of the Ait Sadden in Morocco to gain a better understanding of this critical stage in human life.

6.4     From the here to the hereafter

The final section of the unit and the module leads us to examine the experience of death in human communities. In all cultures, we find special rites that are performed to mark the passage of human life from the here to the hereafter. We study in this section a personal narrative about a death in an Iranian family, and the religious ceremonies related to it.

6.1     The journey to the centre

Rites of passage in human life
In this final unit, we turn our attention to a special set of rituals that are performed to mark events in the lives of individuals. In religious traditions, these events are looked upon as sacred, in the same way as certain places and times are considered sacred.
An individual's life consists of many important events, such as birth, marriage and death. In all human cultures, communities perform special rituals to mark these events. These rituals are called rites of passage because they mark the progress of a person from one stage of life to another.
Rites of passage are performed by communities all over the world. Each event has its own special rites. These rites may be divided into three types: those undertaken before, during, and after an event. The rites, like the rituals we have studied, are expressed through a symbolic language. The symbols used in the rites are drawn from the culture and religion of each people.

The role of rites of passage
In religious traditions, the rites of passage play an important part in the lives of individuals, families and communities. Since human life is considered sacred from a religious perspective, its transition from one stage to another holds deep meaning. The birth of an individual is celebrated as the gift of life from the divine. Marriage is valued for its bonding of families and the creation of new ones. And death is viewed as the departure of an individual from physical life into another state of being. Like other rituals, rites of passage in a community serve many purposes. They ease the passage of individuals and families from one stage of life to another. Events such as birth, marriage and death can be stressful, and rites of passage are Important in providing support, comfort and guidance within communities at these critical times. The rites are also an important means of strengthening the relations between members of a community. They bring people closer together through their participation in events considered important in the community.

Human life as a pilgrimage
In religious traditions, rites of passage are also a means of celebrating human life as sacred. The rites sanctify human life and enable it through the presence and participation of the community.
Human life is often viewed in religions as a journey in time, bounded by birth and death. In the religious understanding, human life is seen as having a sacred purpose. It is not aimless, but has a goal to pursue. Human life is precious and to be respected, as it comes from the divine and returns to it after death.
In religious traditions, we often find human life portrayed through the metaphor of pilgrimage. Human beings are pilgrims on earth who are moving towards a sacred centre. In order to reach this centre, they have to cross many thresholds or boundaries. Stepping over a threshold means leaving an old way of life behind and beginning a new one. Rites of passage are a means of helping individuals cross these thresholds in their pilgrimage to the centre.

The Hausa pilgrim

Pilgrimage is an important concept and practice in many religious traditions. In Islam, it forms an important part of the religious life of Muslim communities. The pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj, is made every year by thousands of Muslims. In many Muslim countries, we also find other centres of pilgrimage, such as tombs, shrines and sites of significance.

The following account gives us a deeper understanding of pilgrimage from the viewpoint of an individual. It is about a Hausa woman, by the name of Alhajia, who travelled all the way from West the early part of the twentieth century before settling in the Sudan.

The Hausa are an African people of north-western Nigeria and south-western Niger. In the early part of the twentieth century, their land was colonised by the British. Many of the Hausa people immigrated to the Sudan to escape from the British. The pilgrimage to Mecca was part of their movement to the new land.

The account describes the trials and challenges that Alhajia faced in making this long and arduous journey. This was at a time when modern means of transport were not available to the pilgrims in her region. Much of her journey involved crossing the Sahara desert and walking through hostile lands. Alhajia's story helps us to understand what it means for an individual to undertake the journey of life and to cross different thresholds in search of a sacred centre.

The Hausa pilgrim

Alliajia is frail now Her once tall, imperious structure is bowed with age. And although her features are very wrinkled, and her toothless gums dark-red from years of chewing kola nuts, one is left with little doubt that she must have been a determined and a very attractive woman in her youth.

On the wall of her stall, which she rents in the market place, is a rather faded photograph of herself: a proud mother, her arms on the shoulders of her two sons - six and three years respectively - staring straight into the lens of the photographic contraption that took the picture.

The year 1921 is printed at the back of the photograph. She recalls it was taken by a white photographer in one of the French territories they had passed through on their way to Mecca. 1921 was the year she left home to undertake the pilgrimage ...

Alhajia was her father's favourite daughter. He allowed her to sit with him when he held court, and she recalls hearing many stories of the events that were taking place in the world outside their village. She heard of the last great battles in which her father had taken part, of how the Sultan had fallen at Burmi, and of how people were leaving their homes to join the rest of the Sultan's commanders to go eastwards.

Alhajia believes that most people would have liked to follow their leaders to the east, but quite often it was just not practical. She heard of cases everywhere in Hausaland, of people fleeing from the new rulers; how some people even left behind their ripe dhurra in the fields to join the new hijra to the holy land.

 In the case of her own family, they were unable to leave partly because her father was lame and sickly and partly because they believed that the blessings and the grace attained by those who left were to be shared by all those who desired to leave but could not do so. So her family stayed behind to await the will of Cod.

Sometimes they heard of how the Europeans intercepted and forced the migrants to return to their villages, because they feared that these people would join the forces of the remaining leaders and fight them again. Around this time, she already was betrothed to the son of the chief of a neighbouring village, a religious man who had abandoned his village to join the great numbers of people moving east. Her fiancé had evidently been influenced by his father, because shortly after the betrothal, he made up his mind to make the pilgrimage to Mecca before settling down to married life.

She neither saw nor heard from him again ... Time went by. When after several years of waiting her betrothed did not return from Mecca, her father decided to give her away in marriage to another man, a ,malam, who was also his personal maraboul (diviner). Thereafter, she gave birth to two sons.

 Her first boy was nearly three years old when her husband asked permission from her father to go on the pilgrimage. He agreed, and her husband left with a group of pilgrims the same year the First World War broke out in Europe. Shortly after their departure, news arrived that the Europeans had intercepted a caravan and arrested some pilgrims on route, and how the men were being used as forced labour. She worried about her husband:

'I made sadaka, (offered alms), and prayed all the time that he should be well. But my father said that although there was nothing wrong with my praying and making sadaka, this was not necessary at all, because it was my husband - wherever he was - whose prayers we needed, since he was on the hajj (pilgrimage), and that holy undertaking made his prayers more powerful than ours. There was not much we could do. If it was the will of Allah that he should return safely to us, that will come to pass. Not long after this, my father died and my elder brother became sarki in his place. Eventually, peace and quiet returned to our land again ...

Five years passed, but still her husband had not returned from Mecca, and she had not had a single message from him. It was then that she decided to go on pilgrimage herself.

'I went to my brother and said. "I have lost two men to the pilgrimage. It is written that I should myself undertake the journey. Besides, perhaps, I will find out what has become of the father of my son." My brother worried for me. He said: "Sister ... I cannot stop you. If you must undertake this hazardous journey, then you must take Sani along."

 Together with Sani, her younger brother, her sons and two servants of their house, she began the long journey to Mecca.

They left after the harvest that year (l921). Her brother the sarki followed them to Kano, and upon his recommendations, they were given documents for the pilgrimage.

The first leg of the journey brought them to Maidiguri, where they joined a large caravan, consisting of about a hundred people, 75 of whom were professed pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Some rode on camels, others on horses, but Alhajia and her group had to walk all the way untill they reached El Fasher.

Sometimes they would stay in a town or a zongo to work to replace dwindled funds, and to furnish the next leg of the journey In some of these places, she prepared and sold cooked food for the predominantly male travellers, and soon acquired a reputation for her tasty rice-balls and groundnut stew. So successful was she in this occupation that it was to take them about three years to reach El Fasher.

 She does not remember much else of the journey through the towns in Chad, except that one of her servants who had been with her family since she was a little girl, died of fever near Fort Lamy. The French authorities declined to allow burial in the town, and insisted they leave the town with the corpse immediately.

'They said that this was because we had not the right papers. We walked very fast until we were some distance outside Fort Lamv. Then we stopped and sent a message to the sarkin zongo (chief of the zongo) of the nearest town to explain what had happened. He sent some people to take Amina (the dead girl) away and, claiming that she was one of their own, they were able to give her a proper Muslim burial before sunset that same day, in accordance with our custom.'

Alhajia's excellent cooking, and her background as the daughter of one of the chiefs who had fought the Europeans, made her very popular with the Hausa communities in the zongos. It was at this time she was given the name of Alhajia', even though she had not yet completed the pilgrimage.

All along the road, she inquired after her husband, but nobody had heard of him. She does not recall any serious hazards of any kind along the road, except that sometimes they had to pay local chiefs, for assistance to get through. This posed no ditficu1t however. She could afford this, as she was earning considerable funds en route, and having carried what she referred to as a 'lot of presents' from home with her.

 It was after El Fasher that they first travelled by 'lorry. It was in El Fasher too, that she had the first news of her husband. She learned that he had already completed his pilgrimage and was on his way back home. 'Unfortunately, I had progressed so far on my own pilgrimage, that I saw no point in returning home. It was the will of Allah that I should have reached Sudan, and already close to the holy land. So I decided to continue.'

In one of the zongos she learned of some relatives who were living in a Hausa community in the Gezira, and decided to visit them before making for the Red Sea.

Of the 75 pilgrims who banded together at Maidiguri, only fifteen reached Sudanese territory with Alhajia - almost three and a half years after leaving Hausa soil. Alhajia considered this a very fast journey, Of Alhajia's fellow travellers, ten had died en route, and the rest had remained at various stops they found congenial to work, or to recover from illness before continuing.

'My feelings when we reached the Sudan were those of great exhilaration. We had finally arrived in a country in which the Prophet's own tongue could be heard all around us ... All the Hausa men who lived here seemed to be great ma1ans ...

Alhajia, her sons, her brother and servant, all spent some time in this village, a West African village which the authorities designate a work camp ...

Atter a few months' respite, recovering from the fatigues of the journey, she left by train for Suakin on the Red Sea. There she discovered that the authorities would not allow her to travel to Mecca with two young children without a male companion, She was bitterly disappointed and decided there and then to return to the village in the Gezira. However, her senior son, now nearly nine, saved the situation by saying 'Mother, you should not break your journey after coming this far because of us. You continue with my little brother to Mecca. I shall go back to the village and wait until your return.'

Alhajia went across to Mecca. She recalls it as the most memorable experience in her life, as well as the most frightening. Until Mecca, she had always felt like an individual with desires, feelings, and whims, which her social standing compelled others - her servants, for instance - to heed.

 As she approached Mecca, she felt engulfed by sheer humanity, just one of myriads of insignificant souls, all of whom sought to be noticed by Prophet, and through him, by God. She claims that it was as she approached Mecca that she learned the meaning of suffering, and humility, and the reality of true belief.

She also learned that there was a universal brotherhood of man. Paradoxically, she claims that it was during this last phase of the pilgrimage that she recognised that some people accorded lower status, solely because her skin was darker than theirs. Yet, she stayed on in Arabia for three years after the pilgrimage.

'During my third year in Saudi Arabia, I heard that my husband had died suddenly after his return. There therefore appeared to be no pressing reason for me to return home. So I decided to return to our Gezira village to stay there for a few years ...I was still set on returning to Hausaland and did not want to be attached to a piece of land in a country in which I was a stranger. I began to trade and save up for my return journey

'After some time, Allah asserted His will. I found a husband, and gave birth to a girl. I was able to save enough money to send my sons on their pilgrimage. Then I found wives for them. I became a grandmother - I have now over thirty grandchildren. We lived in the West African village until twenty years ago when we moved to our present village. This village has become our home.


  • betrothed- engaged; under a promise to marry
  • contraption - machine, device
  • diviner- a person who predicts the future
  • dwindled - grew less
  • fiancé - a person to whom one is engaged to be married
  • forced labour - people made to work by force
  • frail - in weak health
  • furnish - fund, pay for
  • grace- blessing, favour of God
  • hazardous – dangerous
  • hijra - migration
  • imperious – domineering, superior
  • intercepted – stopped people from going from one place to another
  • kolanut – a seed of thr kola tree containing caffeine
  • malam – a msn familiar with Arabic language and Islamic sciences
  • maraboul – a holy man, a Sufi Saint
  • predominantly – mainly
  • professed – claimed to be
  • sadaka – donation to the poor
  • sarki – chief
  • zongo - town
  • compelled – forced
  • congenial - agreeable
  • declined - refused
  • designate - label, name
  • en-route- on the way
  • exhilaration - great happiness
  • fatigue – tiredness
  • heed- take notice of, attend to
  • myriads - great numbers
  • paradoxically - opposite to what one supposed before
  • pressing – urgent
  • respite – rest
  • social standing – position
  • whims - fancies, urges

  Reflecting on the text

What was Alhajia's family background? To whom did she get married?
What was the reason for the people of Hausaland to leave their homes and travel to Mecca? Why did her family not leave? What finally prompted Alhajia to make the pilgrimage? In which year did she leave and who accompanied her?
What kinds of challenges did Alhajia have to overcome during her journey? How was she able to provide for herself and her family?
El Fasher is own located near the western border of the present-day Sudan. How long did it take Alhajia to reach this town? What was the reason for this?
Of the 75 pilgrims who had set out, how many reached Sudanese territory? What happened to the rest?
What kinds of thresholds did Alhajia have to cross in her journey before she could reach Mecca?
What was her experience on reaching Mecca? What did she discover there about herself and others?

 The inner journey

A pilgrimage is the physical journey that a believer makes towards a sacred place. It can also mean an inward journey in which a person tries to find the sacred centre within oneself.

This inner journey is more difficult than the physical one, and may take an entire life to attain. It is a journey of self-discovery and spiritual education in which one finds the meaning of what is sacred in life. The type of journey one makes, and what one finds at the end, differs from one person to another. The inner pilgrimage is a personal journey that one makes towards the sacred.

Just as there are thresholds to cross in the physical journey, the spiritual pilgrimage also has its own barriers and stages that need to be overcome. In mystical literature, we find many examples of these inner barriers. Some of these struggles are to do with one's ethical relations to others. Some have to do with ones relation to the sacred. The believer finds strength and inspiration in his or her faith to make this inner journey.


How is pilgrimage in Muslim traditions understood as the passage of human life towards a sacred centre?


Find out more about pilgrimages in Muslim traditions. What are some major sites of pilgrimage, and what kinds of ceremonies are performed there? What meaning do pilgrimages have in different Muslim traditions?


  • pilgrimage     hail    
  • pi1grim     rites of passage


Study a pilgrimage made by believers of another religious tradition. Compare it with a Muslim pilgrimage. What are some features that are common to both traditions?


n Muslims traditions, we find people who place emphasis on a pilgrimage as a physical journey. Others stress the need for a journey of the heart end mind, in terms of moral and spiritual growth. Discuss both these views to gain an understanding of their underlying reasons.


In what ways is the life of a person like a pilgrimage? Is the 'sacred centre' of one person the same as of another person?


Pilgrimages in religious traditions are journeys of the body and the soul. They give us insight into the life journeys of individuals towards a sacred centre.

6.2   The entry into the world
The gift of life

In many families and communities all over the world, the birth of a baby is an occasion of happiness and celebration. The baby is welcomed as a new person and as an individual in the human undue community. In religious traditions, the birth of a new baby symbolises the mystery of the gift of life. Birth, like death, marks the boundary between existence and that which lies beyond human life. New life is viewed as a sacred trust and gift from the divine that needs to be protected and respected. The community celebrates the addition of a new member to its faith.
The event of birth signifies the continuity of a family and a community. It also symbolises the continuity of a culture or a tradition. The child becomes part of a new generation that will inherit and engage with the tradition of a community in the future.

Rites of birth
The birth of a baby is marked in many communities by special rituals called birth rites. These birth rites form part of the rites of passage that mark critical events in the life of an individual. Some birth rites may be simple ceremonies, while others can be elaborate and lengthy rituals. They may be performed prior to the birth of a baby, and after the baby has been born. The event if a baby's birth is a stressful time for the baby and the mother. Birth rites facilitate the transition of a family from a period of stress and danger to one of safety.
Rites performed before a baby's births are intended to ensure the safe arrival of the baby, and to safeguard the health of the mother. Rites performed after the births are for protecting the child and its mother from harm. These rites are also intended to prepare them for entry into ordinary life. In the birth rites, the body of the child becomes the centre of the ceremonies. In many cultures, the child is protected by making certain marks on its body, placing amulets around its neck or wrists, trimming its hair, or other such ceremonies. The physical body becomes an important symbol in the rites of passage in the struggle between good and evil.

Birth rites in Muslim traditions
In pre-Islamic Arabia, the birth of a child is thought to have been accompanied by the ceremony of sacrifice. On the seventh day, the child's hair was shaved, a name was given to it, and a sheep or goat was sacrificed to mark this event. These birth rites were adopted by the Muslim community during the time of the Prophet, and came to be known as the aqiqa
ceremony. In this ceremony, the food from the sacrificed animal was distributed by the parents to the poor. An amount of gold or silver, equal to the weight of the hair cut from the baby, was also donated to the poor. The baby was given a name that was in keeping with the Islamic tradition.
Over time, these birth rites were further adapted by Muslim communities in different regions of the world, reflecting the culture of each people.

The Gayo child's entry into the world

The following account gives a description of the birth rites of 4he Gayo villagers in Indonesia. Their birth rites are divided into two parts, the first part is based on a bathing ceremony, and the second is the ceremony of sacrifice.

 In the bathing ceremony, the child is taken on the seventh clay to a nearby stream or river by the women of the village. Here, a series of rituals are performed to wash away illness and misfortune from the baby. In the ceremony of the sacrifice, the family of the new-born baby invite the village elders to a feast. On this occasion, a lock of the baby's hair is cut, and a name is chosen for it. A goat or sheep may also be sacrificed for the feast. In the case of the Gayo people, the aqiqa ceremony has become combined with birth rites practised by the Gayo before the coming of Islam to Indonesia.

The Gayo child's entry into the world

...after the birth of a child, Gayo carry out a series of rituals known either by the phrase 'descending, being bathed' (turun mani) or by the term kikab, from the Arabic aqiqa .. Seven days after birth the baby is taken outside the house for the first time.

Four women played important roles in the ritual. The ritual specialist was, as is ideally the case, a relative and member of the same village as the infant boy. A second woman, the baby's holder', cradled him in her arms during most of the ritual. A third woman carried the uncooked rice that later would be given to the holder, and a fourth woman carried a tape recorder with a cassette of gong music (instead of the actual gongs that sometimes are used), which announced the message from the baby's house to the water's edge.

Preparations had to be made. The baby's holder twisted a bit of cotton cloth, picked it up with a steel betel-nut cutter, and set it afire. The steel provided an element of hard resistance to [evil] spirits, and the fire helped scare them off. The gong music also repelled them. A sprig of the first plant ever to exist on earth, the 'tough plant' (batangteguli), was used at many stages in the ritual; its toughness was said to rub off on the baby.

Just before stepping from the house, both the ritual specialist and the holder (with the baby) dropped a sprig of tough plant and stepped on it. The holder kept an umbrella over the baby during their procession to the river.

At the river, the woman spread a colourful reed mat on the rocks, and the holder sat with the child. The specialist arrayed four coloured piles of the cooked rice in a circle on a banana leaf. In the centre of the circle were four selensungs, betel leaves wrapped around a bit of areca nut and lime.

The specialist then held the leaf over the baby's head ... and waved the leaf in a counter-clockwise direction over the baby's head, counting from one to seven. This process transferred any illness or bad fortune from the four elements that constitute the baby into the four rice piles on the leaf ...

She then held the leaf over the river and before letting it drift downstream, counted backwards, from seven to one, thereby sending illness and bad fortune away ...

The ritual focus then shifted from announcing the birth to inoculating the child. The specialist bathed the child several times with flour, mungkur water, and river water. She split a coconut over his head ('so that he will not be afraid of thunder'), and let the milk fall on his face ('so that he will not be afraid of rain').

She then held a mirror up to his head ('to show him his own light,' meaning
the reflection of the four colours that made up his body). The mirror also permitted the four natural elements in the body to see that this new being was, indeed, a human being and should be protected (Before the availability of mirrors, infants were held over the river to see their reflections.)

The bathing ritual was complete when the ritual specialist, acting on behalf of the mother, gave a measure of uncooked rice to the child's holder, 'to redeem the child from her.' The rice ... compensated her for her trouble ...

The second part of the initiation ritual is a kenduri of four elements at which the child is given a name, a bit of hair is cut from the head ...

The mother then brought her child into the room and handed him to the Kuakek (the subdistrict religious official). The Kuakek brought some sweet tea to the baby's lips, so his speech would be sweet, and cut off a lock of his hair. The hair, he explained as he cut, could be thrown into the river or buried; in either case it would take with it any diseases or dirt that accompanied the child at birth.

The baby was then handed to ... the elder among the hosting party. [He] arranged two betel leaves to cover three slips of paper onto which names for the child had been written. The baby's mother then chose blindly one of the three.

In choosing a name for the infant, the chooser must know the science of names. Names have a direct relation to character and fortune. If a name is too 'high,' or demanding, the individual may not be able to bear the burden and will fail in life. Conversely, a name that is too 'low' could hold a child back. A person's problems later in life may be diagnosed as due to an ill-fitting name, and the name may then be changed ... The person who chooses a name thus must fine-tune it to the child's characteristics, which derive from the time and circumstances of birth.

... in some cases, a sheep or goat is sacrificed. The sacrifice, kikah, 'redeems' the child from God, as one would redeem mortgaged land. We are in debt to God for a child, I learned, and this sacrifice cancels that debt. It also creates a tie between parents and the child.


  • areca nut - see betel-nut
  • arrayed- arranged in an orderly way
  • betel-nut - a nut of a tropical plant that is chewed by people in some parts of asia
  • counter-clockwise - in direction to the movement of the hands on a clock
  • cradled- sheltered; held carefully
  • descending - lowering down
  • gong- a metal disc that produces a ringing sound when struck
  • resistance - opposition
  • specialist - a knowledgeable or trained person; an expert
  • sprig - a small branch or shoot
  • compensated- made up for; paid back
  • conversely - opposite to what has been stated
  • diagnose - find the cause of
  • initiation ritual - birth rite
  • inoculating - protecting against illness
  • kenduri - a ritual feast of rice
  • mortgaged – loaned
  • redeem - pay someone back for a favour that has been done; buy back

Reflecting on the text

What kinds of birth rites are performed during the ceremony called turunmani? How are these different from the aqiqa ceremony?
Which four women perform the bathing ceremony? What is the role of each woman?
Identify the different items used by the Gayo in their birth rites. Which ones are from their natural environment? What does this tell us about the nature of rituals?
What new objects have been introduced in the bathing ceremony that were not available' in the past? What does this tell us about how rituals change with time?
What significance do the different items used in the birth rites have for the Gayo?
How do the Gayo choose the name for the new baby? Why is it important that the right name be chosen for each individual?

The human body

In the Gayo ritual, the child's body was at the centre of the ceremonies. All the rites performed made a reference to the baby's body in some way. For example, the banana leaf with coloured rice was waved around the baby's head, its body was washed with water, and a lock of its hair was cut during the rites.

In religious traditions, the human body is an important expression of the sacred. In Islam and other faiths. the human body 'is' considered as the house in which God's spirit resides. According to the Quran, God breathed His spirit into Adam, and this divine spirit exists in every human being. The human body is therefore the meeting place of the material and the spiritual.

In rituals, the human body becomes an important vehicle for expressing the relationship of the human to the sacred. Many rituals require the body to be in a certain posture, or to use certain gestures. Certain ceremonies, such as birth rites, are performed on the body itself.

In rituals, the body becomes an outer means of expressing an inner language of feelings, intentions, and commitments. The human body has a deep potential to express the sacred, and to become a vehicle for the sacred, in ritual.


What types of rites are performed by Muslim communities to mark the birth of a new baby?


  • aqiqa


Find out from your parents what religious ceremonies were conducted when you were born. What is the significance of these rites in your community?

Examine the birth rites of other communities, in Muslim and societies. Find out more about the rituals performed in various cultures, and how symbols are used to convey different meanings related to birth.


Some people would argue that many birth rites performed in various cultures to protect the mother and the child is superstitions. Others would see them as being symbolic and full of meaning. Discuss these two ways of interpreting birth rites.


In what ways is the human body an intersection between the physical and the spiritual?


The birth rites performed in Muslim communities reflect a wide range of symbols that are drawn from the cultures of this community.

6.3     Crossing threshold

Marriage as a social practice
Marriage is an important institution in all societies. It is a public act through which a man and a woman are united in a special relationship of dependence, often for the purpose of creating and looking after a family. Marriage as a contract between a man and a woman has existed since ancient times.
It forms part of the family structure that has evolved in human communities over many centuries. Marriages are formal agreements that are made valid by religious or civic law.
As a social practice, marriage varies widely from one culture to another. In some religious traditions and cultures, marriage is a sacred and binding relationship for life between a man and a woman. In other faiths and societies, it is a legal contract. In the latter case, a man or a woman can choose to end a marriage through divorce proceedings.
In pre-modern societies, marriages served multiple purposes. They were used as a means of strengthening ties between social groups or households. They played a role in the distribution of wealth through dowries and bride-price. And they were an important means through which power was kept within the ruling classes. In these societies, arranged marriage was the norm.
Marriage continues to serve these purposes in many communities today. However, rapid changes in society have impacted deeply on family structures, including marriages. In some industrialized societies, for example, the divorce rate has risen sharply, pointing to changing attitudes about human relationships and the concept of the family.

Rites of marriage
Like birth, marriage is a critical event in the lives of individuals and families. It is also an important occasion in which the community participates. Marriages involve a transition for individuals from one phase of life to another. Marriages are observed with special ceremonies or rites of passage that mark and facilitate this transition.
Rites of marriage are often divided into three kinds: those that take place before, during, bend after the marriage. They prepare the bride and the bridegroom to cross from one stage of life to another. An old way of life is left behind and a new one begun.
Rites of marriage are based on symbols that refer to aspects such as purification, protection, fertility, unity, harmony and prosperity. They prepare the bride and the bridegroom for living, together in a relationship that is based on mutual help and sacrifice.
The rites often involve feasts and exchanges of gifts between the families. Through participation in these rites, the families of the bride and the bridegroom establish closer ties to one another. At the wedding ceremony itself, the bride and bridegroom formally become husband and wife through the taking of oaths, official pronouncements by religious or civic authorities, the recitation of prayers, the exchange of rings, and other rites that symbolize union.

Rites of marriage in Muslim traditions
In Muslim traditions, marriage is viewed as a normal and natural Institution for human beings, In contrast to an ascetic way of life. It is viewed as essential for a stable family life within which children can be brought up. Since the family is considered basic building block of society, marriage is necessary for the proper functioning of society.
In Muslim societies, marriage is regarded as a legal or social contract between a man and a woman. They enter into a formal agreement to carry out the duties and responsibilities of a husband and a wife, until one of them dies or they decide to separate by divorce.
The customs regarding marriage ceremonies vary widely in Muslim communities. The nikah or marriage ceremony may take in a masque, a place of prayer, a social hall, or other suitable venue. Selected verses from the Quran, including the Fatiha, will be recited, first, followed by the legal proceedings. The person conducting the wedding ceremony will then ask the bride and the bridegroom whether they consent to marrying each other. Once they consent, rings may be exchanged, and then the official will conclude by pronouncing blessings on the newly wedded couple.
Festivities take place before and after the nikah ceremony, in which families, relatives and guests partake. A variety of marriage rites may be performed, which involve collecting the bride from her house to the wedding ceremony, and then taking her to the groom's house. These rites usually reflect the local culture and customs of the people, and vary widely from region to region.

Marriage ceremonies among the Ait Sadden

In this section, we study the rites of marriage as performed by the Ait Sadden, an Imazighan (Berber) tribe to be found in the central mountains of Morocco. The Imazighan are to be found in large parts of North Africa, from Egypt to Morocco, and from the Mediterranean coast to the River Niger. They make up about 40 per cent of the population of Morocco and about 30 per cent of the population of Algeria.

The Imazighan are a non-Arab people who were converted into Islam over many centuries. They consist of many tribes, some of which are nomadic and others settled. They live in the deserts and mountains of North Africa as well as in coastal towns and cities. Although they have their own language and customs, their life has changed considerably from interacting with other groups of people.

The following account describes the wedding ceremonies performed by the people of Ait Sadden. This study was conducted in the early part of the twentieth century by a German researcher. It gives a good idea of the customs of the Imazighan as they were practised before they were affected by modern influences.

Marriage ceremonies among the Ait Sadden

 In the bridegroom's home

Marriage ceremonies are commonly celebrated in the autumn, when the harvest has conic to an end and the granaries are full of corn ... The wedding proper is preceded by certain ceremonies, [such as] those connected with the cleaning of the wheat which is to be used for the wedding.

Among the Ait Sadden, the wheat is cleaned in the yard of the fiancé's father by all the women of the village. The grit is collected in a sieve containing a silver bracelet ... This grit is afterwards thrown by the young man's mother into a spring or river or buried in the ground, so that nobody shall work magic with it.

The men of the village arc also present on this occasion, and there is much powder-play, singing, music, and dancing. The women arc entertained with bread and butter and perhaps tea ... This day is called ... 'the day of the cleaning of the corn.'
The cleaned wheat is then sent to the ground at Fez or Sefru or ... where there is a water-mill . .. The day when the flour is brought back from the mill is called ... 'the day of the flour'; and it is then received on the road by the men and women of the village with singing, music, and powder-play. On the same occasion the clothes and ornaments of the bride are also, in many cases, brought from the town.

On the [following] day ... the bridegroom has his hands painted with henna on both sides, by either his sister or some female cousin of his. This, however, is done not in his own home but in the house of a relative or friend, and he is on that and following days taken about to many other houses to have his hands smeared with henna over and over again, so that at last they become quite black ... he is painted once more on the day when the bride is brought to his home, or one or two days later.

Later on in the day when the guests have arrived, the bridegroom sits down outside his father's house. From a bowl containing a silver bangle, his sister slowly smears a little henna on the palm of his right hand. Two [guards], who are standing on either side of them crossing their swords, cry out, ... 'God be with my lord so-and-so,' every time a person puts down money on the tray which has been placed near the bridegroom.

Two other men ... are sitting close to the tray, watching the amount of money given and putting it under a silk kerchief; they afterwards give an account to the bridegroom of the donors and the sums presented. Some money is also placed in the bowl containing the henna as a gift to the girl. All the time, the women are singing and making their quivering noise.

In the bride's home

... some days before the wedding, the young man sends to his bride a small sum of money .... She puts this money underneath the handmill when she performs the ceremony called ... 'the flour of the abrir' consisting in her grinding some wheat with the hand mill ...

The grinding is subsequently continued by other women, and out of the flour is made abrir; a kind of gruel prepared with salt butter, on the day before the bride leaves her old home. It is made with water brought early in the morning from a spring or well by seven girls who have gone there with the bride ...

On the evening of the same flay after sunset, the bride's hands, feet, and hand are smeared with henna, her lips are painted with walnut bark or root, her eyes with antimony, her cheeks with ochre. and on her face is made a design with saffron, consisting of two lines, resembling whiskers, which are extended over the eyebrows, and joined with a third line drawn along the ridge of the nose ...

Next day, the bride is dressed in the clothes brought by the bridegroom's party, who have now come to fetch her .. The bridegroom's mother and sisters take in the clothes and dress the bride in them ...

When the money sent by the bridegroom ... is presented as the first gift, the two [guards], who are crossing their swords over the bride's head, cry out, ...'God be with my lord the Sultan.' Two men of the bride's family are watching the amount contributed by each donor, all the money given on this occasion becoming her property.

The fetching of the bride

...on the wedding day a large crowd of people from the bridegroom's village go to fetch the bride. If she is living far away, the procession starts in the morning, otherwise later in the day; and if she is from the bridegroom's own village, she is only fetched about an hour before sunset; it is considered a good omen for the people of her new home if she arrives there at the same time as the flocks and herds return from the pastures.

The bridegroom's mother, sisters, and other female relatives must be in the procession, and if the bride lives in the neighbourhood, even the bridegroom himself may go, though well covered up ...

The people take with them a mare, which is ridden by a little brother or male cousin of the bridegroom; and the boy holds a in his hand a flag - which is afterwards given to the bride. The mare is led by the bridegroom's mother, while his sister or sisters keep hold of the tail ...

When the procession has reached its destination, the bridegroom's mother and sisters take in the bride's clothes, which they have brought with them; and after she has been dressed in them she is painted with henna ... of the [helpers] lifts her up on the mare which is standing close by ... The bridegrooms mother again leads the mare, his sister or sisters keep hold of the tail ... Any suspicious person, such as a scribe or an old woman, that comes near the mare is driven away ...

In the procession there are also people from the bride's village, including her mother, who carries with her ... dried fruit ... a small box containing two of three looking-glasses, antimony, walnut root or bark, and baraqsus, a sweet stuff eaten to prevent hoarseness, which is subsequently given by the bride to bachelors ...

When the procession amidst volleys of gunpowder passes a village, the women come out and sprinkle the bride and the people accompanying her with milk or, if they have no milk, with a mixture of henna and water ...

The arrival and reception of the bride

the bridal procession, on arriving at the bridegroom's village, goes three times round the mosque, from right to left. While this is being done, the bride mutters some words like these: 'O Lalla Jebrin (the name given by women to a mosque), bless me with sons who will become scribes.'

The bride and her company then proceed to the temporarily erected tent, into which she is to be taken, and go round it three times ...

After the three circuits round the tent, the procession stops outside its entrance. Turned towards the tent, the bride, still on horseback, moves her head and hands as if she was praying, and says by herself four times: Allahu Akbar 'God is most great.'

She then beats the tent three times with [a] cane ... and throws it at the tent; if it falls down on or behind the tent; it is considered a good omen, whereas it is regarded as an evil foreboding if the stick does not reach the tent. This ceremony is intended to remove any evil which may be in the bridegroom's family, and to expel death from the domestic animals ... The bridegroom's mother sings [to the bride]:

Bring a ram with black rings round its eyes

Let us set down the excellent woman.

This song is repeated by the other women. The [helpers] take down from the mare the saddle with the bride sitting in it, and thus carry her into the tent, which is filled with men, women, and children.

A woman of the bridegroom's family puts into the bride's hand some butter, with which she smears the ... horizontal pole supporting the roof of the tent; this is done that there shall be an abundance of 'grease' - butter, oil, and honey. The bridegroom's sister, or some other woman of his household. pours barley into the bride's lap; the latter gets up and, with her face covered as before, goes to the mere outside the tent, lets it eat three times of the barley and throws the rest over is head, so that there shall be much corn in the household.

When she is back again, the bridegroom's mother throws a silk kerchief round her neck, and lends her by it to the four corners of the tent, saying at each corner one of the following sentences: 'Here is the threshold of boys'; 'Here is the threshold of sheep and cattle'; 'Here is the threshold of safety and quietness'; 'Here is the threshold of cheapness.'...

The bride now sits down on a mat. A bachelor lifts up one of the vertical tent poles, and puts it in her lap. in order that she shall remain in her new home and support it by becoming a mother of sons, as the [vertical pole] supports the tent ... The bridegroom's mother comes and sings:

Oh good morning to you, 0 bride
O lady you became like a lamp
Your tent became very bright.

All the bachelors and women repeat the song to the accompaniment of tambourines...

End of the wedding

... the wedding festivities come to a close with the following ceremony. A sister, paternal cousin, or other female friend of the bridegroom, either married or unmarried, takes to him a palmetto tray with dried fruit - figs, raisins, and dates – and some silver money ... Carrying the tray on her head she goes to him accompanied by a crowd of women and men, who are singing, playing, dancing and discharging volleys of gunpowder.

[The bridegroom] is sitting in the house of a relative or friend, with the hood of his cloak drawn over his head, and when they arrive there the woman hands the tray to the [helpers], who put it down in front of him, remove the silk kerchief covering it, and pour out the contents. The bridegroom takes some money from the bag ties it up in the kerchief, and puts it on the empty tray as a present to the woman, at the same time giving her his blessing ...

In very many cases, the same ceremony is then repeated by other sisters, female cousins, or friends of the bridegroom The woman's present of dried fruit .. is considered to bring good luck; it is distributed by the bridegroom among the bachelors.


  • bride - a woman about to be married, or just married
  • bridegroom- a man about to be married, or just married
  • destination - a piece to which a person is going
  • fiancé - a person to whom one is engaged to be married
  • flocks, herds - sheep, goats, cattle
  • granaries - storing places for grain
  • grit - particles of stone or sand
  • gruel- a liquid food
  • henna - a reddish dye for colouring parts of the body
  • kerchief- a cloth –used to cover the head
  • mare – a female horse
  • ochre - a pale brownish yellow pigment
  • omen - sign
  • pastures - fields for grazing animals
  • preceded by – happened after
  • quivering – vibrating
  • saffron – an orange yellow food colouring
  • sieve - a utensil with mesh for separating large particles from small ones
  • smeared – stained, spread
  • whiskers – short stiff hair such as that on a cat's face
  • bachelor - an unmarried man
  • barley - a type of grain or cereal
  • circuits - circling movements
  • discharging- setting off
  • expel - force out
  • foreboding - an expectation of trouble or evil
  • hoarseness - referring to a deep voice
  • palmetto - shaped like radiating palm leaves
  • ram – a male sheep
  • scribe - a person who writes documents
  • threshold- a point of entry
  • volleys- a series of shots fired together or quickly one after the other

 Reflecting on the text

What are the different parts in which the marriage ceremonies of the Ait Sadden are divided? How are the bride and the bridegroom prepared for the wedding?
How do the families and other people in the village participate in the wedding rites?
What role does wheat and other types of food play in the rites performed before the wedding? Why do you think wheat is an important symbol for the Ait Sadden?
What other symbols are used in the ceremonies? What meanings are given to these symbols by the Ait Sadden?
How is the local culture and customs of the Ait Sadden reflected in their wedding ceremonies?
What purposes do the marriage rites serve in the case of the Ait Sadden?

 Marriages in changing societies

In traditional communities such as the Ait Sadden, marriages were an important part of their social life. They created ties between families and households, and they strengthened the bonds within the tribe.

As societies have evolved, the institution of marriage has also undergone changes. In many Muslim countries, national laws have been introduced that regulate marriage as a legal contract. For example, a man can normally only marry one woman, and he cannot divorce his wife without good reasons. In the case of a divorce, the courts ensure that the wealth and property of the couple is divided fairly.

In traditional societies, child marriages were common practice. New laws have been introduced in Muslim countries that restrict the age of marriage. In some countries, the minimum age of marriage is eighteen for a boy and sixteen for a girl.

Despite these reforms, there are still many problems connected with the abuse of marriage. For example, in some countries, the parents of a girl have to pay a very high dowry to the bridegroom's family as part of the marriage contract. In some cases, they may have to spend all their wealth to pay for the dowry. Forced marriages where the girl is not given the right of consent, is another problem that has to be addressed through education and better laws,


How are marriages celebrated in Muslim societies?


Write a description of a wedding ceremony in which you participated. What kinds of rites of marriage were performed on this occasion?


  • nikah


Compare marriage ceremonies in two communities that have a different cultural background. What do you find about their rites of marriage?


Identify a major issue that is related to marriages in the country in which you live. What are the underlying factors giving rise to the issue? What can be done to address the concern?


What factors in modern times have affected how people view marriage?


Marriage is an important institution in Muslim communities that is enacted though diverse rites and ceremonies.
6.4     From the here to the hereafter

Conceptions of death
Death is a universal experience that all individuals undergo. The death of a person is often a deeply traumatic event for the family, relatives and friends of' the deceased. People in all societies find it difficult to come to terms with the passing away of a loved one.
In religious traditions, the concept of death is understood within a larger framework of human destiny and purpose. Just
as life is viewed as meaningful, so too is
death. Religions see death not as the end life beyond death. In the religious view physical existence is part of a larger picture that refers to eternity.
A wide range of ideas about death can be found in religious traditions, from the literal to the mystical. A common belief is that the souls of the deceased go either to heaven or hell, depending on their deeds on earth. In some interpretations, the human body will be resurrected in the distant future when the world will end. In others, the souls of dead people take on new life forms through reincarnation. Yet in other beliefs, the souls of the deceased become one with the ultimate reality. All these beliefs point to the deep need in human beings to believe in the continuity of human life after death.
Rites of death
Death, like birth, is a border event in human life. Birth marks the entry of a human being into the world, while death is the end of a person's life. Death is a significant event in human life that causes families and communities to experience change. It is marked in all societies by rituals that belong to the rites of passage.
The rites of death are determined by the beliefs, traditions and culture of a people. When a person is terminally ill and near the point of dying, the rites help the individual and the family to prepare for death.
The rites are also performed during the funeral. At this time, the corpse of the deceased is either buried or cremated, according to religious or social laws or customs. After the funeral, the rites assist the family and relatives to resume normal life after a period of grieving.
The rites of death serve many purposes. Socially, they bring people in a family and community together during a difficult time. The families of the deceased receive support and consolation from the people around them to see them through a distressful period. Psychologically, the rites help individuals to come to terms with the fact of death. They provide inner strength through which people begin to accept the loss of a family member or friend. In religious traditions, the rites contain symbols that point to the shortness of human life and the eternal nature of existence in the hereafter.

Rites of death in Muslim traditions
In the Quran, death is referred to as the certainty, since it is inevitable for each human being. Death is viewed as a natural part of the order of things. Muslims believe that death, like birth, rest in the hands of God:' Allah is He who created you and then sustained you, then causes you to die. (30:40). It is God who gives life to each individual for an appointed period: He ... has created you from clay, and has decreed a term for you.' (6:2) Muslims believe that the souls of all human being are from God, and it is to Him they will return after death.
As with other rites of passage, funeral rites in Muslim communities vary according to local customs and culture. The rites are usually divided into three parts: the preparation of the body for burial, the burial ceremony itself, and the rituals performed following the burial.
The corpse is prepared for burial through a ritual cleansing of the body, after which it is draped in a white piece of cloth. The funeral ceremony is conducted in a mosque, a place of prayer, or a suitable venue. Here, prayers are recited for the departed soul before the coffin is taken to the graveside. More prayers are recited before the coffin is lowered into the grave.
After the burial, family members and relatives gather once more to offer prayers and to comfort one another. Further rites may take place after certain periods of time have elapsed, when more prayers are offered for the deceased.

The sorrow

Death is something that all human beings experience. It is a common phenomenon in human life that takes place every day in all societies. However, at the level of the individual and the family, it becomes something that is very personal. The passing away of a loved one affects people deeply and it can have a lasting effect on them.

The following story is an example of how death in a family is experienced at a deeply personal level by members of a family. It is from a chapter in a book written by an Iranian author that describes the passing away of her mother. The passages convey to us many aspects about death in a family. The author communicates to us her relationship with her mother and the impact on her life when she realised that her mother was dying. We learn of what she thought and felt during this time, and how she helped other members in the family through this difficult period in their lives. The text also describes' the different rites of death that were performed by the family, In keeping with their Shia Ithna Ashari tradition.

The story leads us to reflect on age-old questions about death that all human beings ask, regardless of their beliefs or background.

The sorrow

There came a Nawruz when there was no happiness in the homes of my family: the throwing away of the sabzeh couldn't rid our homes of concern and sorrow ... Mother was ill, under the care of a doctor.

Mohsen [my brother] called me one morning before I left for my office. 'Najmeh-jun, are you alright?'

'Of course.' But there was something in his voice that stirred me to greater uneasiness. 'What is it? Mohsen?'

'It's Mother. The doctor . . . has been with her again this morning.'

For some time, years perhaps. we had sensed that Mother had trouble with her leg. She had walked about with increasing difficulty - and Mother loved to shop, to visit friends, to go to the public baths, go to the mosque. 1 thought that Mohsen spoke of the old trouble.

'Her leg?' I asked.

'This morning the doctor says there must be surgery immediately or she may lose her leg.'

'No. There must be something else. Mother is aging. An operation might be too much for her.'

Mohsen held himself to a patient explanation, speaking as if I were an idiot child.' Mother has had diabetes for a long time; the sugar which her body could not use has been so poor.... the doctor must do everything possible to encourage a stronger flow of blood or the leg will die, turn gangrenous, and she would loose it.'.....

I listened in silence, and even when I followed Mohsen's words, a thousand pictures of Mother, pictures without continuity, without organization flowed through my mind. How fast my mind travels from babyhood to just yesterday, from last year to the days of childhood. The memories separated me from the reality of Mohsen's words.

'Will you come now? Mother would like to be prepared for prayer before she leaves for the hospital. She is asking for you.'....

In the Volkswagen, we took a short cut to Mohsen's house, bumping over unfinished streets of newer subdivisions, then, striking a main thorough fare, slowing to an exasperating crawl as we cut through a herd of henna-decorated sheep on the way to the market. We neither of us spoke, though anxiety was electric between us.

'Good morning, Mother,' I said as I bent to kiss her soft cheek. In her eves I saw peace, tranquility, resignation. I helped her through her ablutions and prayers. My heart was praying, too, but in an unquiet, half-panicky way. It asked these questions; questions as old as the thinking of man: Why did this come to one so good, so faithful, and so gentle as Mother? Is God, after all, just? Or perhaps He is helpless in this situation? And if He can't control something as minute as the sugar in one person's blood, how then, can He manage a universe? All of the time, these thoughts were pressing against my faith while I was repeating the words of faith and affirmation in prayer.

After we had given her into the care of the doctors, we waited for the surgery to be completed and finally we saw her again. The operation had been successful; there was still to be much suffering.

As soon as the hospital would allow it, I went to sit beside her. At times, between coma and consciousness, she would open her eyes and say, 'O God, give me patience so I won't lose my faith.' After a time, when she was conscious for longer periods, she would talk with us of our hopes and plans. In this emergency, when her thoughts should have turned inward, she was concerned with her inability to help us carry out loads.

Then, in the middle of June, Mother was again at Mohsen's home. True, she had to be lifted from her bed to the floor, from the floor to her bed. She could do none of the innumerable little services she had always done for us, but again she was the centre of the life around her. None of us could believe that this was a terminal illness, that Mother had come home to

She asked Mohsen to bring candies so that when the children came to see her, there would be small treats. .. She talked in the same gentle, quiet way she had always talked, without bitterness, without sorrow often as I watched her placid face, I thought of my own doubts the morning of her surgery. How could she be so sure of Allah and His watchful care?

One day when I went to visit her, I saw her sitting up in bed with her small transistor radio in her hand; she was listening to the news. 'Mother,' I asked, 'why do you want to know everything?'

She smiled, 'this is my world, Najmeh. I must know what is happening to it.'...

Once, as I was leaving the office, one of the other workers who had asked me to stop for tea said, 'Don't you dread these visits to your mother?'

'They are my greatest delight,' I told her, and I realised with a rush of love and sorrow that I spoke the truth......

When Mother had been out of the hospital for six weeks, moved by some premonition, she decided to spend some time in the home of each of her children ... After two weeks with Shahla, she asked to come to me. We had done everything we could to prepare a pleasant place for her, putting her bed in our salon, where everything the eye touched would be beautiful. But she came bringing candies and toys for the children, doing all she could to make the visit pleasant for us.

Nassim and Sina ran laughing and shouting to her. How they had missed her. She didn't seem like an invalid, a person near death. The day after her arrival, she sat on a bench in the garden watching the children laughing and playing in the pool. Later, we ate dinner with invited guests and her presence in our home was like a benediction.

I helped her to prepare for bed, but she wanted first to sit upon the floor for prayer. I sat close beside her as she read from the Quran and went through her prayers. Tonight her prayers were unusual. Quietly, without passion, she asked Allah to forgive her faults and her sins. Finally, she said 'Najmeh, I am ready,' and we helped her to bed'...

The next morning Fahkri came to take Mother to her home. 'She still sleeps.' I said.

'It is time she wakened.' Fakhri said. She went to the - door and said gently. 'Mother, - Mother.' Then there was no answer, she went in. 'Najmeh, she is dead. Mother is dead:' she screamed and began to moan in a way that would shatter the heart of God.

I put my arms around her. 'Fakhri, we must keep ourselves strong. We must not show these passions before the dead.'

I went into the room and looked upon my mother's face. Never had it been more peaceful. I was as if she slept with the most pleasant dreams, or perhaps too deep for dreaming. I kissed her cold face. With the help of Najmeh and Ramazan, we put her bed in the centre of the room, and then the servants carried out the vases, the decorative boxes, every delicate thing that decorated the salon...

But when Mohsen came into my home and saw the bed in the middle of the room as it must be for the dead, he struck his head against the wall so hard I feared the head would break. There is a moment of realization far different from the anticipation of the event. I wondered if that moment had yet come to me as I went about without weeping, without tears....

Nasim and Sina were frightened. I took them to the bench in the garden and tried to tell them about the Muslim idea of death. I told them that a part of their grand mother that we could not see would walk in a beautiful garden under deep shade of flowering trees. That gentle waters would flow through the garden and the music of birds would be every where. There would be soft grass to cushion the feet and their grand mother would be able to walk again.

They listened with their trustful eyes on my face, and I thought, 'Either this is a beautiful story or it is the only true reality.' I searched my heart and found that I believed Mother was in this place where pain and grief are left behind.

I left the children sitting together on talking to each other of this beautiful land.......

At noon, the Mullah came for the special prayers in the house of the dead. I prepared last journey. There must be no ring on the ears and chains at the throat, no jewels on the fingers when the body is returned to the dust.

The sons and the sons in law carried the bier. Near this cemetery, we stopped at the house for the washing of the dead. This I wanted to do myself for my mother. Carefully I washed the body that so long had been the home of a beautiful spirit, which at one time had been my own home, and I wondered why even now I could not cry. I wrapped her in the shroud, tying it over her feet and over her head.

It was Mohsen and my older brother Ali who lowered the body into the grave. Sina tugged at my black chaddar. 'Is this Grandmother?' he wanted to know, 'Is it?' Evidently he had been expecting the beautiful garden I had described. Everybody threw a little earth into the grave. Yes Sina, this is Grandmother's body. This is the place that Grandmother is going to stay.'

'No,' Sina protested. 'Not here.' And all our hearts echoed the little child's protest.

We returned to our house, allowing ourselves to grieve. There were two hundred people in the house and garden. All were trying to eat luncheon from a great cloth spread on the floor. On it was every variety of excellent food: fruit, cheese, cakes. My sister-in laws had arranged for this with the help of the cook or the houseboy from every home. For three days there was food upon the cloth for anyone who came to grieve with us. Then the cloth was folded as a sign that the mourning was finished, but in my heart I knew that that I had not even begun to mourn.

For three days the talk had been of my mother who knew most of the people in the town: how there was a smile on face for every body, rich or poor, how she loved every body as if all men were her children; how she helped the poor with money; the sorrowing with comfort, the discouraged with helpful words. The woman spoke of the chaddar she had cut and made for her daughters, and for many others that we might be suitably covered for prayers.

After seven days there was a visit to the grave. There were beautiful Persian rugs on the grave and bowls of fruit. There was tea and coffee for everyone. The service was long – perhaps two hours- but still I watched quietly. Abruptly I felt that tears were coming down my cheeks; the dreadful dam in my heart had given way, and now the good, strong pain of my bereavement shook me.

When forty days had passed, there would be another service. After a year, another. It is not until the heart is broken that it can mend again. Forty days were given to quietness, to grief, to contemplation. During these forty days, I had the apartness from life that I needed to look at myself through different eyes. Always I had thought of myself as Najmeh, an independent person, myself. Now I saw myself as an extension, in many waves of my mother......

For the forty days of quietness I lived with my mother in memory; still many hours were empty and desolate. When I felt her close to me, I was warmed and encouraged by her confidence in my dedication, my perseverance, perhaps my abilities, and I resolve to carry to fulfillment for her sake.....

There was another facet of my mother's life that I must live with more closely- the warm wise human being. I must educate myself to accept those things in my life that cannot be changed. I must give more love to more people – especially to those nearest to me.

After forty days, I came back in the world as spring breaks through its winter fetters of ice.

But one day, when I came home from the office, Nasim brought me a letter she had written. 'I wrote this for Grandmother. You must mail it for me.'


  • diabetes-a disease caused by high amount of sugar in the blood
  • electric - high, charged
  • exasperating – intensely irritating or frustrating
  • gangrenous – referring to a part of body that becomes infected and dies
  • Sabzeh - sprouting wheat grains
  • Thoroughfare - a road open at both ends
  • Uneasiness - discomfort, worry
  • ablutions - cleansing of the body before prayer
  • affirmation – acceptance
  • anticipation - being aware of something in advance
  • benediction - blessing
  • bier - a platform or frame on which a coffin rests
  • cemetery - a burial place
  • chaddar - a large piece of cloth worn as a wrap by women
  • coma - a long, deep sleep
  • dread - fear
  • innumerable- too many to be counted
  • invalid - a person made weak or disabled by illness
  • minute - very small
  • mullah – one who perform religious rites
  • placid – peaceful, calm
  • premonition - awareness of what is to happen
  • pressing against - demanding answers from
  • realisation- the state of understanding clearly
  • resignation – acceptance of what will finally happen
  • salon - a large room
  • shroud- a sheet or piece of cloth for wrapping a corpse
  • sons-in-law - ones husbands of one's daughters
  • tranquility - calmness
  • abruptly- suddenly
  • bereavement - the state of being deprived of a close one through death
  • contemplation - reflection, thought
  • dedication - devotion or commitment to a special task or purpose
  • desolate - alone
  • dreadful- terrible
  • extension - an additional part of something
  • facet - aspect, side
  • fetters - chains or bonds tied to something to prevent it from being free
  • fulfillment - completion
  • grieve - feel deep sorrow
  • luncheon - lunch, midday meal
  • mourning - expression of deep sorrow for a dead person
  • perseverance - determination to continue a task
  • resolved - decided firmly
  • sisters-in-law - sisters of one's husband or wife

 Reflecting on the story

From what illness was Najmeh's mother suffering?
What was Najmeh's initial reaction on hearing about her mother's condition? What kinds of doubts did she begin to experience about her faith?
What do we learn about the character of Najmeh's mother from the story? How did she respond to the fact that she was dying?
How did Najmeh's mother spend her last day? What was the reaction of her family the next day on finding out that she had died in her sleep?
How did Najmeh explain to her children what had happened to their grandmother?
What were the different rites of death that were carried out by the family?
How did Najmeh describe her experience of grieving? What did she mean by the following remark? 'After forty days I came back into the world as a spring breaks through its winter fetters of ice.
What did Nasim's letter to her grandmother symbolize?

 Death - the great mystery

The actual experience of death is something that cannot be shared between human beings. When a person dies, it is not thought possible for that person to communicate to others the experience of dying. Death as a personal experience seems to be an event that lies outside human life and language.

However, since death affects human beings so deeply, we find in each culture a rich and imaginative vocabulary thus refers to the experience of death and what happens in the hereafter.

For example, religious scriptures describe the departing of the soul from the human body its entry into heaven or hell. Mystical texts speak of death as a portal between physical life and a non-material form of existence. Poetry uses symbols and metaphors to convey ideas about the hereafter. In literature, we find many wonderful allegories of the journey of the human spirit to its ultimate destination. Art and music, too, are creative means through which ideas and feelings about death are conveyed.

Symbolic language provides human beings with a creative means to engage with death as one of the great mysteries of life.


What types of rites of death are performed in Muslim cultures?


Find out about the various rites and ceremonies performed when a person passes away in your community. What meanings are given to these rites?




Read about stories from other traditions and cultures that are based on the subject of death. Is there anything common in the way that all human beings deal with the experience of death in their families or communities?


In some cultures, death is viewed as an end to life, in others it is passage to another form of existence. Examine and discuss these contrasting interpretations of death in greater detail.


How are people's beliefs about what happens after death reflected in rites of death that they perform?


The rites of death in Muslim communities reflect beliefs about death that have their source in the Islamic vision of human destiny.
Review of Unit Pilgrims on earth

6.1     The Journey to the centre

• What is a pilgrimage? What meanings are given to the concept of pilgrimage in religious literature?
• What do we learn from Alhajia's story about the role of pilgrimages in the lives of religious believers?
• In what ways is a person's life like a pilgrimage?
• What are rites of passage?
• What role do rites of passage play in religious communities?

6.2     The entry into the world

• How is the birth of a new baby viewed in religious traditions?
• What are birth rites, and what functions do they serve in a community?
• What kinds of birth rites are performed by the Gayo people?
• How do the birth rites of the Gayo reflect their culture?
• How is the human body viewed in religious traditions?
• What role does the human body play in the rites of passage and other types of rituals?

6.3    Crossing thresholds

• What functions does marriage serve in human society?
• What are rites of marriage, and how are they observed in Muslim traditions?
• What do we learn from the marriage ceremonies of the Ait Sadden about the meanings given to marriage rites in a community?
• What social issues have arisen in modern times that are related to the practice of marriage?
• How are some of these problems being addressed in Muslim countries?

6.4     From the here to the hereafter

• What are some of the ways in which death is understood in religious traditions?
• What does Nazmeh's story teach us about how death affects people at the level of the family?
• What are rites of death, and how do they help people to pass through a difficult time in their lives?
• What are some rites of death that are performed in Muslim traditions? What meaning is given to these rites?
• How has human language been used by people of various cultures to express the mystery of death?

  To continue reading "TALIMAT" series books please click next:   UNIT-1

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