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Reviewed by:
  • Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society
  • Christine D. Baker
Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society. By Leor Halevi. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. 416 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

In Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society, Leor Halevi cogently argues that an examination of the development of specific Islamic funerary practices in the eighth and ninth century can shed light on the Islamification of Arab society as a whole. More controversially, however, Halevi also contends that the development of these practices were not meant to unite the nascent Islamic community but were viewed by religious elites as an opportunity for social construction and a chance to demarcate boundaries between Muslims and non-Muslims while establishing a distinct hierarchy with religious experts at the top. [End Page 453]

Theoretically, the earliest Muslims tried to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad in establishing rituals for burying and mourning the dead. However, as Halevi points out, the memories of these earliest events in Islamic history were contested, even at this early period. Thus, the decisions about what constituted proper praxis were left largely in the hands of the early Islamic jurists who, during the course of the seventh through ninth centuries, developed a corpus of decisions relating to proper funerary practices. Halevi argues that these key decisions on how Islamic society should comport itself in the face of death served to circumscribe the borders of the nascent Islamic community and differentiate Islamic practice from both its pre-Islamic Arabian tribal roots and Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian practices.

Halevi’s study contains seven chapters, each focusing on a different facet of emerging Islamic funerary rites: tombstones, preparation of the corpse for burial, shrouds, wailing for the dead, funerary processions and communal prayers, tomb construction, and beliefs about the afterlife and the fate of the spirit/corpse after death. In each of these chapters, he analyzes how it is possible to see debates over proper Islamic funerary practices as the site of contention in broader deliberations over what constituted an Islamic society. As public events involving a large number of social actors, funerals became the ideal site for Islamic legalists and pietists to craft a distinct Islamic identity.

The development of Islamic tombstones reflect this larger process of change. Halevi uses the inscriptions on tombs as a record of religious trends and popular practice independent from the legal discussions of proper practice. Thus, he is able to show that while the earliest tombs lacked Qur’anic inscriptions, by the late eighth century standardized Qur’anic epitaphs on tombs became de rigueur. Most interestingly, Halevi connects this discussion of an emerging Islamic style of tombstones with long-standing debates on the canonization of the Qur’an. Because these eighth-century Qur’anic inscriptions correspond precisely to the ‘Uthmanic codex of the Qur’an, Halevi challenges John Wansbrough’s theory of scriptural polygenesis and argues that these early tombs confirm a process of scriptural diffusion.

Within the process of Islamification of funerary rituals, Halevi shows the conflicts within the nascent community regarding what constituted proper practice. Debates over the proper preparation of a Muslim corpse for burial reveal growing anxieties about maintaining appropriate social and sexual boundaries in the emerging Islamic polity. Could a man prepare his wife’s body for burial even though the bond of marriage was severed at death? Was it appropriate to perfume and beautify the [End Page 454] body before interment? Did washing a corpse render the washer ritually impure? Dramatic difference of opinion emerged between Medinan and Basran / Kufan jurists about the answers to these questions. Halevi thoroughly explores these dissimilarities and attributes them to the difference between the Medinan and southern Iraqi contexts: while the Medinan code reflects Jewish and Zoroastrian notions of ritual purity, the Iraqi codes invert these practices. Halevi argues that the southern Iraqi sectarian milieu led the Kufan and Basran jurists to work harder to differentiate Islamic practice from those of the other monotheistic faiths in their community.

In addition, Halevi contends that Medinan and Iraqi jurists actively sought to shape collective memory in order to develop a...


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