After the terrorist attacks in London, more than 200 British Muslim leaders said they would refuse to conduct an Islamic funeral for the perpetrators. It follows a similar approach by Manchester’s mosques following the suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert. Could this stance actually discourage potential terrorists?
The attackers who targeted people on London Bridge and Borough Market last weekend declared they were acting in the name of Islam.
However, this claim has prompted outrage among many Muslims. In a strongly-worded statement issued on Monday, religious leaders described the terrorists’ “indefensible actions” as “completely at odds with the lofty teachings of Islam”.
They added that carrying out such an attack, especially during the holy month of Ramadan, demonstrated “how utterly misguided and distant the terrorists are from our faith and the contempt which they hold for its values”.
As a further snub to the terrorists, the signatories said they would “not perform the traditional Islamic funeral prayer for the perpetrators” and urged others to follow their example.
To understand why this is significant, it’s vital to know the importance of funeral prayers – known as janaza – to Muslims.
Their purpose is to ask for the forgiveness of the deceased person. Muslim funerals usually have an “open house” approach where anyone can join the service, even if they did not know the deceased and it is not uncommon to see large congregations.
“The more people there are, the more beneficial it is for the deceased person as there are more praying for their soul,” says Dr Asim Yusuf, an Islamic scholar and psychiatrist who signed Monday’s statement.
“By not doing it, you’re effectively frowning on them. It’s like saying I’m not going to pray for that person’s forgiveness, which is a horrible thing to do.
“Although theologically it is not an excommunication, the idea that you won’t have a janaza is effectively the community turning its back on you.”
Ahmed Patel, a campaigner against extremism, chose not to attend the funeral of his brother-in-law Mohammed Sidique Khan, one of the four suicide bombers who carried out the 7/7 London bombings in 2005.
“I didn’t go to his burial,” he says. “I don’t even know where he was buried and I don’t care.”
He thinks denying terrorists funeral rites could be effective in persuading potential perpetrators not to carry out attacks.
“I think the fact that they are saying we will not bury you, we will not even do your janaza, is a lot more powerful than going out with placards or holding vigils.
“It’s a very, very powerful message that no Muslim will bury him, no Muslim will wash his body, no Muslim will stand over him in prayer.”
It is not the first time Muslim leaders have refused to bury a terrorist – some mosques in the US were reported to have said they would not conduct the funeral of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the perpetrators of the Boston marathon attack in 2013.
However, the remains of Shehzad Tanweer, one of the 7/7 bombers, were given an Islamic burial near his ancestral town in Pakistan.
Verse of the Sword
Islamist terrorists often use a Quranic verse, known as the verse of the sword, as justification for their actions.
It says “kill the pagans wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them… But if they should repent […] let them go on their way.”
Dr Yusuf says it refers to an incident during the time of Prophet Muhammad where the Muslim army were “given permission to attack pagan tribes that had broken a treaty, following a four-month respite to renegotiate”.
He says the verse is often taken out of context, adding: “The only thing that can be extrapolated from it is that if there is a group of people who have broken a pact with you, then you can go to war with them but that is something that is done at a state level… the Muslim state reserves the right to go to war but it’s not an obligation.
“Even in war there are codes of conduct, the first of which is no killing of innocents. You can only go to war with people who are at war with you, not bystanders.”
Jacqui Putnam, who survived the 7/7 attacks, welcomed Monday’s response from Muslim leaders, saying: “It’s very encouraging to know that there is a strong element in the Muslim community that are against this, and are prepared to stand up and say we’re not having this, this is not acceptable.
“These last couple of months have been very difficult for people who have been on the sharp end of terrorist activity and that’s an understatement… anything that is going to discourage people from engaging in this kind of activity has got to be a good thing.”
Dr Yusuf says there is a very “strong precedent in Islamic law” for refusing to conduct a janaza.
“But it’s a decision that has very, very rarely been taken because of the gravity of the funeral prayer.
“Muslims do not have a unified priesthood so it’s up to the individual to determine if they wish to perform a particular action or not.
“What this statement represents is a voluntary agreement that the signatories will not perform the prayer and they encourage others not to perform it either.”
He says the fact the London attackers claimed they were acting in the name of Islam “was a crime against the religion itself and brings the religion into disrepute”.
“It is a major sin to kill one person, to say nothing of killing multiple people,” he said.
“For those who are in a position of religious leadership, we need to make it clear that if anyone is under a misapprehension, especially misguided Muslims, that this is some religious duty they are performing, then it absolutely isn’t.”