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Muslims ritualising death in the Netherlands
Death rites in a small town context
ter verkrijging van de graad van doctor
aan de Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
op gezag van de rector magnificus prof. mr. S.C.J.J. Kortmann,
volgens besluit van het college van decanen
in het openbaar te verdedigen op donderdag 13 juni 2013
om 13.00 uur precies
Claudia Josephina Hubertina Venhorst
geboren op 25 maart 1972
te Tegelen
Prof. dr. P.J.A. Nissen
Prof. dr. H.J.M. Venbrux
Dr. T.H. Quartier
Prof. dr. C. van Nieuwkerk
Prof. dr. P.J.C.L. van der Velde
Prof. dr. P.G.J. Post (Universiteit Tilburg )
Chapter 1 Introduction
Muslims ritualising death in a small town migration
context in the Netherlands
1.1 Ritualising death: research problem, research context and sources
1.1.1 Research problem
1.1.2 Research context
1.1.3 Sources
1.2 Theoretical approaches, research questions and methods
1.2.1 Theoretical approaches: key concepts Ritual practice Ritual context: migration Ritual content: meaning
1.3 Research questions and research aim
1.3.1 Research questions
1.3.2 Research aim
1.4 Triangulation of methods and sources
1.5 Overview
Chapter 2 Ritual elements
Mapping the ritual cleansing and shrouding of the
2.1 Ritual elements: creating an interpretive framework
2.1.1 Applying the key concepts Ritual practice Ritual context: migration Ritual content: meaning
2.2 Mapping ritual elements
2.2.1 Actions
2.2.2 Actors
2.2.3 Sources
2.2.4 Attitudes, beliefs, emotions
2.2.5 Place
2.2.6 Time
2.2.7 Objects
2.2.8 Languages, sounds
2.2.9 Senses
2.2.10 Comments, criticism
2.2.11 Mapping ritual elements: a summary
2.3 Conclusion
2.3.1 Ritual practice
2.3.2 Ritual context: migration
2.3.3 Ritual content: meaning
Chapter 3 Ritual roles
Motivation and authority of ritual experts in a
migration context
3.1 Ritual identity: reinventing the role of the ritual washer
3.1.1 Applying the key concepts Ritual practice Ritual context: migration Ritual content: meaning
3.2 Ritual experts at work
3.3 Becoming a ritual expert: motivation and authority
3.3.1 Motivation Personal Interpersonal Transpersonal
3.3.2 Authority Personal Interpersonal Transpersonal
3.3.3 Motivation and authority: a summary
3.4 Conclusion
3.4.1 Ritual practice
3.4.2 Ritual context: migration
3.4.3 Ritual content: meaning
Chapter 4 Ritual beliefs
Lived eschatology, Muslim views of life and death
4.1 Introducing lived eschatology
4.1.1 Applying the key concepts Ritual practice Ritual context: migration Ritual content: meaning
4.2 The grand eschatological narrative
4.3 Enacted eschatology
4.3.1 Before the funeral Dying rites Purification and shrouding of the deceased The funeral prayer
4.3.2 At the grave Funeral rites Mourning rites Grave visits
4.3.3 At the end of time
4.3.4 Enacted eschatology: a summary
4.4 Conclusion
4.4.1 Ritual practice
4.4.2 Ritual context: migration
4.4.3 Ritual content: meaning
Chapter 5 Ritual narratives
Re-imagining death rites in a small town context
5.1 Introducing a world of narratives
5.1.1 Applying the key concepts Ritual practice Ritual context: migration Ritual content: meaning
5.2 Popular narratives in Venlo
5.3 Narrative themes on death rites in various media
5.3.1 News media
5.3.2 Books
5.3.3 Internet
5.4 Between two contexts: a process of re-imagination
5.4.1 Re- imagining death rites
5.5 Conclusion
5.5.1 Ritual practice
5.5.2 Ritual context: migration
5.5.3 Ritual content: meaning
Chapter 6 Conclusion
Muslims ritualising death in the Netherlands,
negotiating death rites in a small town context
6.1 Research questions and outline of conclusion
6.2 Negotiating ritual in the face of death
6.3 Emerging Muslim ritual repertoires
6.4 Perspectives for further theoretical reflection
6.4.1 Negotiating ritual
6.4.2 Emerging ritual
Appendix I Map of the Netherlands and Venlo
Appendix II Perspectives on practice, guidelines for professionals
Nederlandse samenvatting
About the author
Although my name is on the cover, this work would not have been possible
without the support of many. I am indebted to all that have supported me in
various ways in the course of this project.
First of all, I would like to thank my respondents who shared their
knowledge and experiences with me. Their stories are the most important
source of information in this book. I thank them for their openness and willingness to talk to me on the often difficult subject of death and for inviting me to
witness their ritual practice at important times in their lives. Special thanks go
out to Omaima Korz-Noor and Fadime Yürekli who were always willing to put
me in contact with people. And I thank Muhuba Abdi and Ambaro Mahamoud
who reminded me that there were always at least two opinions on something
within one family.
I want to thank my supervisors prof. dr. Eric Venbrux and prof. dr.
Peter Nissen. Eric, thank you for getting me enthousiastic for death studies and
for the guidance you provided in this field. Peter, thank you for well-structured
input that always helped to refine things.
I am deeply gratefull to co-supervisor dr. Thomas Quartier, who guided
me through all the daily challenges of this reasearch project. You always inspired me with your passion and a smile. Thomas, thank you for everything.
A special thanks goes out to Marcelle Manley and Courtney Bonneau
for brushing up my English writing.
I want to thank my friends for putting up with my sometimes unbrideled
enthousiasm for my research and all my talking about it. Joke, thank you for being supportive in so many ways. Peter, thank you for all the nightly houres on
the phone discussing life, politics and the state of the world. Brenda, thank you
for all the cappuccinos and pleasant talks. I will return the favour, since you are
now starting your own thesis writing. Thank you Irene, Elsa and Marielle who
remind me that there was a life before and there will be a life after this.
Finaly, I owe much gratitude to my parents, José Venhorst-Schellekens
and Ed Venhorst, who have always supported me and believed in me. I could
not have done it without you.
For years I was part of a group of Venlo women that got together monthly to
study the Qur’an and talk about life. We gathered in someone’s living room for
an enjoyable evening of study, animated discussion and pleasant company. It
was a colourful group in many respects: of different ages; some conservatively
dressed, others dressed according to the latest fashion; headscarves in different
colours and styles, while others wore no veils at all. Personalities, too, differed,
as well as ethnic origins: Dutch converts and others from Turkish, Moroccan,
Egyptian, Somali and Surinam backgrounds. Being Muslim was the cohesive
factor that brought them together, but in the process they also learned about
their differences, like when a guest was invited to speak about her work assisting in the ritual cleansing of the dead. By sharing her experience it opened up
the other women to talk about the often problematic subject of death. The women discovered small differences between their traditions that triggered a discussion on ‘real Islam’, ‘correct’ performance of rites and what meaning to ascribe
to them. The gatherings showed the unity of Islam, but at the same vividly illustrated the diverse perceptions of Islam and the way it is lived by various Muslims. It made everyone realise that there was less of a clear-cut tradition to fall
back on than most of them expected. For many it was an eye-opening discovery
that made them wonder how Venlo Muslims actually ought to practise their
death rites in their particular context of people from divergent backgrounds.
Ritualising death: research problem, research context, sources
Among life cycle events death appears to have a relatively huge impact and the
accompanying rites are often assigned great importance (Van Gennep, 1961, p.
146). Death often has a revelational effect, as Peter Metcalf and Richard Hun-
tington (1991, p. 25) note: ‘the issue of death throws into relief the most important cultural values by which people live their lives and evaluate their experiences. Life becomes transparent against the background of death, and fundamental social and cultural issues are revealed.’ Death-related behaviour is the
focus of death studies or thanatology.1 Since the 1970s the academic field of
thanatology has grown steadily, focusing mainly on the taboo on death and the
awkwardness surrounding the subject. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, death has resurfaced as a topic of great interest in both academia and society.
For a long time Western scholars did not study the actual death rites of ordinary
people in their own societies (Grimes, 2000), and although in recent years there
has been some research into the death rites of Muslims in the Netherlands, the
impact of their divergent backgrounds is largely ignored. We focus on death ritual practice in a particular context that is influenced by migration.
Death is a confrontation and a maybe even a traumatic event to which
the living must respond – and they do so elaborately with their ritual repertoire.
In addition, since it is a key issue in Islam, we are very much interested in how
these Islamic perceptions take shape in the ritual practice of Muslims in the particular migration context of Venlo. Garces-Foley (2006, p. ix) points out that the
intersection between death and religion is a disclosing one, ‘for in the face of
death humans have long expressed what we value most and what we believe to
be the nature of reality and the meaning of human life’. She also points out that
death is not only an opportunity for expressing beliefs and values but also an
area for construing meaning and creating community, ritual and myth. Like in
deathbed ritual, core values of religiosity can be observed (Nissen, 1999;
Quartier, 2011).
Death rites always involve at least two ritual actors with their own distinct roles: the deceased and the survivors (Van Gennep, 1960, p. 147; Hertz,
1960). According to Islam death is a passage from this life to the hereafter. In
this transition the role of the deceased is often much more active and present
than one might expect. The deceased í both the corpse and the soul í plays a
vivid, central role in the construction of meaning via death rites. The survivors
or bereaved have to deal with the loss of a loved one or a member of their
community, both by repairing the hole in the social fabric caused by death and
by coping with their grief. In addition they are responsible for the rites that enable the deceased to make the crossing to the next world.
The word ‘thanatology’ derives from Thanatos, who personified death in Greek
mythology. The field is laid out in Eric Venbrux’s inaugural lecture (2007).
In most cases Muslims in the small town of Venlo are able to practise their ritual life in their own, sometimes very small (ethnic) communities. In the case of
death rites the involvement of a broader Muslim community might be needed.
Particularly in a migration context death often confronts people with overwhelming doubts concerning their ability to provide the ‘correct’ ritual for their
deceased loved one. In that situation they actively seek the support and participation of other Muslims. This is often a moment when diversity and differences
surface relentlessly, demonstrating that Muslim communities in diaspora are
rarely monolithic. At best they are a mosaic: separate pieces, each with its own
peculiarities that together make up a colourful whole. Muslim death ritual in a
migration context presents an excellent opportunity to study this mosaic and unravel the beliefs and values. At the same time these rites not only express people’s views, but also create a place for constructing meaning. As a result ritual
practices are an indispensable primary source for the study of lived religion and
death rites can be seen as vehicles of lived Islam.
Research problem
Islamic tradition has a body of prescribed death rites practised by Muslims
worldwide. Rites accompany people in the dying process, in the period up to the
funeral, during the burial and throughout the mourning and commemoration.
The cleansing and shrouding of the deceased, an important ritual practice, is focal in this study. It is a key rite in the migration context, as it is almost always
performed in the Netherlands regardless of where the deceased is eventually
buried (the majority of first generation Muslim migrants prefer to be buried in
their country of origin). Death in a strange country is a particularly intense
event, as people are challenged to deal with practical problems, their needs, resources and values (Arblaster, 1998, pp. 211-217). What impact do those circumstances have on the way ritual is performed and experienced?
This study primarily focuses on particular death practices prescribed by
Islam, as performed by a diversity of Muslims in the small town of Venlo in the
Netherlands, a specific context very much marked by the consequences of migration. When Muslims migrate their rites are also on the move:- the transfer
and transformation, invention and re-invention of ritual take shape in relation to
new social, economic and religious contexts (Brosius & Hüsken, 2010, p. 8).
Intrinsic to the study of enacted religion is the challenge of wading through an
array of voices, as culture, class, ethnicity, education, lineage and gender may
all influence how Muslims enact Islamic traditions in the face of death. Islamic
legal literature provides quite detailed prescriptions for death rites and important Islamic sources like the Qur’an and Hadith2 provide an ample framework of meaning, as death and the afterlife are frequently referred to and elaborated on. These sources make a universal claim that is often labelled ‘Islamic’
and that we refer to as ‘ritual myths’. A strong focus on these myths tends to
produce a narrow and somewhat oversimplified image of Islamic death ritual.
By separating them from their context of practice it reduces them to abstract descriptions of rites that are desiccated, lacking trouble and life (Grimes, 2000, p.
11). When performing an apparently universal ritual order a dynamic, variegated practice unfolds, shaped by the different ethnic, social, cultural and religious
backgrounds of Muslims that call Venlo their home. Muslim organisations are
based on shared (or related) ethnicity or nationality, or on the various Islamic
denominations, schools of law and branches. So some small groups might have
a degree of organisational structure but have to share facilities like a mosque,
ritual experts and a Muslim cemetery with other groups. In the case of ritual purification of a deceased body the washers might belong to a different denomination or culture, which could lead to conflict. Such conflicts can be understood as
‘diagnostic events’ (Venbrux, 1995, p. 15). These events raise issues that are of
the utmost significance for the people involved but under other circumstances
remain unsaid. They offer clues to what Muslims from various backgrounds
consider their cardinal practices and beliefs. They also make us curious about
how a variety of backgrounds will be accommodated in a common practice –
how far can prescribed rules be bent?
Research context
The ritual context of this study is the Dutch town of Venlo, an agglomerate of
the city of Venlo (38.811 inhabitants) and villages of Blerick (27.589), Tegelen
(19.328), Belfeld (5.477), Arcen (2.490), Velden (5.127) and Lomm (1.018) situated in the south-eastern Netherlands on the German border.3 For a long time
Venlo was predominantly Roman Catholic and that religion was very much
alive in personal and social life.4 From the early 1970s onwards the general
The Tradition; record of the words and deeds of Muhammad and other early Muslims;
considered an authoritative source of revelation, second only to the Qur’an (Robson,
Municipal personal records database 31-12-2010 (Afdeling bedrijfsvoering, 2011, p.
In 1947 the percentage of Roman Catholics in Venlo was 96%, in 1971 it was 91,5%
and in 1989 probably around 70% (Camps 1993, p. 113). It shows the initially quite
trend of secularisation in the Netherlands greatly reduced the influence of that
church and the Venlo population also became more diverse with the arrival of
migrants. In the Netherlands a large percentage (73%, Forum, 2010, p. 4) of
Muslims live in the so-called Randstad í a conurbation in the western part of
the country consisting of the four largest cities (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The
Hague and Utrecht) and the surrounding areas. In this Randstad context even
the smallest Muslim communities can find a way to organise themselves. In the
ritual practice in rural areas Muslims of various backgrounds need to rely on
each other more often.
According to the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS í Central
Statistics Bureau) in 2011 an estimated 950.000 Muslims lived in the Netherlands (Forum, 2012, p. 8).5 They initially arrived in various circumstances and
at various dates in the latter half of the 20th century. In Venlo, like elsewhere in
the Netherlands, Muslim migrants settled in roughly four stages (Shadid & Van
Koningsveld, 2008, pp. 22-23). At first small groups from Indonesia and Surinam migrated in the wake of decolonisation. In the 1960s the number of Muslims grew substantially with the arrival of foreign workers from Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia. From 1974 onwards residence permits were issued to the
wives and children of those workers, so families were reunited. Later, mainly in
the 1990s, refugees from Muslim backgrounds fled to the Netherlands due to
political instability in their home countries (Dourleijn & Dagevos, 2011). These
refugees from various countries (former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan,
Guinea and Somalia) are predominantly first generation young men and women
that are placed in Venlo from refugee centres all over the Netherlands after
gaining official status.6 Venlo also has a centre that temporarily (months, sometimes years) houses refugees during their application for asylum; some have an
homogenous composition of the population. With secularisation not only did the number of Catholics drop but also the way religion was perceived and lived changed even
In its Permanent Onderzoek Leefsituatie (Permanent Survey of Living Conditions)
CBS asks about religious affiliation, offering ‘Islam’ as a specific response option. The
latest figures date from 2006 and were used to calculate the number of Muslims in the
Netherlands: 857.000 (Herten & Otten, 2007). Based on these figures and population
growth, Forum (2012, p. 8) estimates a number of 950.000 Muslims in 2011.
Numbers retrieved from CBS statline: herkomstgroepering (group of origin) Venlo
2011: Turkish 4.074, Moroccan 2.070. The database further differentiates between Afghanistan (302), Egypt (62), Iraq (305), Iran (174), Pakistan (53) and Somalia (174).
The number of refugees and asylum seekers (living in asylum seekers' centre, AZC)
fluctuates, only those who stay longer than six months and newborn infants are registered in the municipal personal records database (GBA).
Islamic background. The migration experience of labour migrants and refugees
differs greatly. With the arrival of larger Muslim communities in Venlo an Islamic infrastructure developed. In Venlo and Tegelen Turkish and Moroccan
Muslims established their own prayer houses from 1977 onwards; from the late
1980s to the early 1990s larger, more multi-functional housing was found and
full-time imams were appointed. Nowadays Venlo has five fully functioning
mosques (two Moroccan, three Turkish).7 Various communities have their own
religio-cultural associations, and in 1995 part of the public cemetery in Blerick
was set aside for Muslim burials. In 2007 a facility for the ritual cleansing of the
deceased was opened on the site of the Islamic cemetery. Today we also find
second and third generation Muslims, born and raised in the Netherlands that
clearly find their way into Dutch society. There is also a small number of
Dutch converts to Islam.8 As a result of these converts and mixed marriages
Muslims and non-Muslims become part of the same family and participate in
death rites side by side.
The perception of Islam differs within groups and is influenced by traditions and practices in their countries of origin, by migration and by their circumstances in the Netherlands. And although the aforementioned migration
movements apply to both the Netherlands as a whole and to Venlo in particular,
the effect in the Randstad can be rather different from the small town context.
As in Venlo, several different, very small Muslim communities depend on each
other and are negotiating their position with the somewhat larger Muslim communities and their facilities – a phenomenon that, although widespread, is underexposed in current research.
Research into Islam in the Netherlands refers predominantly to Muslims
of Turkish, Moroccan and sometimes Surinam (Javanese) descent, as they are
large and well established communities. The actual diversity of Dutch Muslim
communities is often camouflaged by this focus on numeric majorities.9 To gain
insight into common Muslim praxis one has to take cognisance not only of the
religious dimensions but also of the aforementioned social dimensions, as both
The Turkish mosques: Sultan Ahmed Camii in Tegelen, Tevhit mosque in Venlo and
Hollanda TurkIslam Merkezi in Blerick. Moroccan mosques: Elfath mosque in Tegelen
and the Alhouda mosque in Venlo.
The number of converts to Islam is not clear, as they are not registered. Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (2009, p. 38) cites a figure of 13.000 ‘autochthonous’ Muslims
consisting of an unknown number of converts and the children of second generation
Muslim migrants.
About 70% of all Muslims in the Netherlands are of Moroccan and Turkish origin (Forum, 2012, p. 8).
affect the actual practice of death ritual. The large-scale survey Moslim in Nederland (Muslim in the Netherlands) (Phalet & Ter Wal, 2004) does mention
the actual diversity of Muslim communities, but nonetheless chooses to focus
on the two largest groups: Muslims of Turkish and Moroccan origin.10 Regarding the lived religion of these groups the study concludes that Turkish and Moroccan Muslims in the Netherlands — also those of the second generation —
still strongly identify with their religion while also influenced by the migration
context. This raises the question of how this personal interpretation takes shape,
and makes one curious about other, smaller groups of Muslims and their communities.
Death in Islam has been studied from various angles, but the research often provides a rather general overview of how Islam deals with death in a ritual sense.
Several publications outline life cycle ritual in world religions and in Islam in
particular (Sakr, 1995; Sultan, 2003; Chittick, 1992; Morgan, 2002); they meticulously depict Islamic eschatology (Smith & Haddad, 2002) and deal with the
historical evolution of Islamic death rites (Halevi, 2007). These studies often
appear to be stripped of any context. Descriptions of the practice of Islamic
death rites in a specific context are rare, just as there is a general lack of research into the concrete death rites of ordinary people in contemporary Western
society (Fabian, 2004; Grimes, 2000). Dursun Tan’s Wandlungen des Sterbens
und der Trauerrituale in der Migration (1996) and various contributions by
Gerdien Jonker (1996; 1997; 1997b) afford insight into Islamic death rites as
performed by mainly Turkish Muslims in Germany. In 1998 photographer Marrie Bot published Een laatste groet: uitvaart- en rouwrituelen in multicultureel
Nederland (A final farewell: funerary and mourning rites in multicultural Netherlands) with an informative chapter (photographs, explanatory comments and
extensive background information) on death and funerary customs of a variety
of Muslims in the Netherlands. A more systematic, comparative study is the
work by Natal Dessing (2001) on life cycle ritual among Muslims in the Netherlands, providing detailed descriptions of the ritual death practices of Muslims of
Turkish, Moroccan and Surinamese descent. Her main research question í ‘how
are such rituals to be transposed and adapted to the Dutch circumstances so that
The recently published Moslim in Nederland 2012 (Maliepaard & Gijsberts, 2012)
does include the four largest refugee communities (originating from Afghanistan, Iraq,
Iran and Somalia) in the research.
they retain their significance for the participants while remaining within the
bounds of practicality?’ – reveals a clear interest in the dynamics of ritual and
ritual change. Her concept of ritual attrition – ‘which type of ritual is more likely to survive when transplanted’ – in the final chapter on continuity and change
(Dessing, 2001, p. 186ff) barely touches on the subject. The book Death and religions in a changing world (2006), edited by Kathleen Garces-Foley, was an
eye-opener in many respects and a clear call for more in-depth research into the
intersection of death and religion in a changing world. So notwithstanding
these works we can í by concentrating on death and ritual in a context of
change (migration and diversity) í further explore the field. The death of a
Muslim in the migration context of Venlo is approached via ritual.
Theoretical approaches, research questions and methods
This is a study of the evolution of Islamic death ritual as performed by diverse
Muslims in a variety of roles in the specific migration context of Venlo, hence
primarily a study of ritual dynamics. Ritual is considered a primary source for
the study of religion in practice, religion on the ground or lived religion. The
particular rite of cleansing and shrouding the deceased takes centre stage in this
study, since it is at the heart of Islamic death ritual as practised in the Netherlands. Islamic death rites are studied via the roles of those involved í the deceased, the bereaved, the ritual performers/experts, the community/communities
– and the appropriation of meaning by these participants. Through fieldwork the
ritual practice and its context are explored and intensively probed so as to abstract theoretical concepts and elaborate on these. The study is intent on developing theory, in constant interaction with the unravelled ritual practices found
in the field. This theorising approach leads to in-depth mapping of the field of
Islamic death ritual as practised in a migration context and also contributes to
further development of theoretical approaches to (death) ritual. Ritual is seen as
a source of communication as well as an analytic tool.
Theoretical approaches: key concepts
In the course of our fieldwork three key concepts emerged: ritual practice, ritual context of migration and ritual content: meaning. These concepts are interrelated and greatly influence the approach to the research of death ritual and the
methods applied. They provide a framework in which ritual practice in Venlo
can be observed, interpreted and analysed, leading us to answer the questions
raised in this ritual context. Ritual practice
From our fieldwork ritual practice emerged as a primary source for our study,
so we need to expand on the concept of ritual. Defining ritual is difficult if not
impossible and in this case not very useful (Bell, 1997; Grimes, 1990, p. 13).
Without capturing it in a clear-cut definition, however, we can agree that it entails doing, performing actions, a particular type of behaviour. As definitions
tend to be either too broad or too narrow, depending on the context, it is more
helpful to explain ritual in terms of the genre and its key aspects.
Death rites form part of a specific genre of ritual generally referred to as
rites of passage í rites that mark changes, shifts and transitions in the human
life cycle. The French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1960, pp. 189-191)
found that a multiplicity of rites of passage all display the same threefold pattern: a phase of separation, followed by a phase of transition and a phase of incorporation. In The ritual process (1969) Victor Turner elaborates on this threefold structure, underlining the dynamic character of rites of passage. The first
phase consists in rites of separation from a previous world (pre-liminal rites),
signifying detachment. The second phase comprises rites performed during the
transitional stage (liminal rites), when one has left one place or state but has not
yet entered or joined the next. Finally there are rites of incorporation into the
new world (post-liminal rites) indicating that the ritual subject has completed
the passage. The rites safeguard life passages, in this case the final life cycle,
both spiritually and socially. Each turning point – which is both a crisis and an
opportunity – is accompanied by a set of symbolic actions which enable one to
pass through a danger zone, negotiating it safely and memorably. It hinges on
three pivotal notions: the human life course, the transitional phases and the experience of ritual transformation (Grimes, 2000). Labelling these ‘rites of passage’ does not fully cover the concept of ritual and we need to probe certain aspects more deeply.
Although rites are often conceived of as static, repetitive, formalistic action –
and their internal structure might well be í this notion of stability is at least
questionable. Even in an institutionalised, traditional religion like Islam ritual
practice is dynamic, subject to both subtle and obvious changes. As there is no
religious or ritual approach to death without a context, ritual actors have no option but to improvise: it is a premise of ritual (Grimes, 1995, p. 274ff). Besides,
in practice formal Islamic death rites, often perceived as strongly rule-governed,
are always mixed with social custom and personal input. Contexts change, rites
are transferred and they need to be ‘translated’ into the new context. They usually undergo slight of even significant changes to meet the requirements of
changed circumstances. This kind of ritual re-invention goes hand in hand with
ritual imagination and rites in fact survive by being reinvented and re-imagined
(Grimes 2000, p. 4). It might appear strange referring to re-invention and reimagination with reference to highly traditional and conventional rites, but by
ignoring the dynamic properties of ritual one misses out on the actual ritual
practice. Ritual dynamics are inherent in ritual. Rites have a life cycle of their
own: they emerge, consolidate, solidify, ossify, even disperse and die, as they
are also influenced by the fact that they are always embedded in a context. Rites
have biographies, progressing through various highly complex stages and thus
moving through different domains (Brosius & Hüsken, 2010, p. 7). As Grimes
(2000, p. 12) puts it: ‘Rites are hand-me-downs, quilts that we continue to
patch; whether you call it ritual creativity, invention, ritualizing, ritual making
or ritual revision doesn’t matter as much as recognizing that rites change, that
they are also flowing processes, not just rigid structures or momentary events.’
When it comes to further theorising on ritual dynamics it is useful to use
a clear terminology. We follow Ronald Grimes’s differentiation (1990, pp. 910) between rite, ritual, ritualising and ritualisation. By ‘rite’ we mean specific
enactments at concrete times and in concrete places that are differentiated from
ordinary behaviour. These actions are widely recognised by members of a culture and are often part of some larger whole, a ritual system or ritual tradition
that includes other rites as well. 'Ritual’ refers to the umbrella concept of which
a rite is a specific instance. Ritual is an idea scholars formulate. ‘Ritualising’
refers to the activity of deliberately cultivating rites. The suffix ‘-ising’ suggests
a process, a quality of nascence or emergence. Finally, 'ritualisation’ refers to
activity that is not culturally framed as ritual but which someone, often an observer, interprets as if it were potentially ritual.
This section on ritual theory shows the dynamic ritual repertoire that is
available to Muslims in Venlo to cope with death in their migration context.
This ritual repertoire can be broken down into ritual elements, roles, beliefs and
21 Ritual context: migration
When studying the practice of Muslim death ritual in the Netherlands migration
is a significant factor. The majority of Muslims in Venlo have a migrant background, as they (or their parents or grandparents) came to the Netherlands at
some point in the latter half of the 20th century. With migration the context often drastically changes and as rites are not isolated phenomena but are performed in a particular cultural context, it is necessary to work out a detailed
concept of the migrant situation. Migration involves the transfer and reinstitution of cultural patterns and social relations in a new setting (Vertovec, 2008, p.
282), so when we speak of migration we are not so much referring to the actual
migration as to its outcome. This migration context is also referred to as diaspora.11 As the study of and theorising on diaspora deals in detail with the experience of dislocated or relocated populations, the concept provides interesting
leads for this study. Approaches to the topic can be described in terms of underlying depictions of diaspora as a social form, as a type of consciousness and as a
mode of cultural reproduction (Vertovec, 2008, p. 279). These are all useful in
studying and analysing ritual in a migration context.
When people migrate from various countries and backgrounds their religious and ritual practices are also on the move, adding to the ritual dynamics.
Although coming from various backgrounds they often share an original context
with a strong Muslim majority who now live in a minority situation. Being a
minority makes being a Muslim less self-evident. In the new context they also
often encounter for the first time the diversity of practices in their own religion.12 This contrast í with the past and with others in society í makes Muslims
more self-conscious (Metcalf, 1996), which is reflected in their capacity both to
imagine and to enact ritual.
The context of diversity is equally new. Muslims in Venlo originate
from various countries and cultural backgrounds; they arrived at various points
in time and under various circumstances and they relate to their new context in
different ways. To refer to them simply as ‘the Muslim community’ is to deny
this diversity. It might even be considered an invention (Bechir & Saghieh,
2005) – not least by Muslims themselves, who frequently refer to a somewhat
We follow Ter Haar’s notion (1998) that migration means diaspora, without getting
lost in the ongoing debate on the definition of diaspora. We take over useful concepts to
understand the outcomes of migration.
Here ‘new’ refers not so much to ‘recent’ as to another context.
utopian, united community of Muslims, the Ummah.13 In practice Muslim
communities are marked by ethnic, national, cultural, linguistic, sectarian (various religious affiliations) and class diversity (Moghissi, Rahnema, & Goodman,
2009, p. 8). Their different migration experiences (voluntary labour migration
or forced migration of refugees), the duration of the group’s history in the new
context, their demographic structure and the size of the community might also
contribute to the diversity.
When rites are transferred from one context to another, they (or elements of them) inevitably change, as they need to meet the requirements of the
new context (Langer, Lüddecken, Radde, & Snoek, 2006).14 As ritual itself has
a dynamics that inclines to both stability and change, the diaspora context adds
a duality of continuity and change (Sökefeld, 2000, p. 23). And as rites are assessed by their practitioners í Grimes (1990, pp. 7-27) calls this ‘ritual criticism’ í they will maintain, modify or discard ritual practices, so religious and
cultural reproduction takes shape.
Whereas first generation Muslim migrants might have lived long
enough in their context of origin to have experienced particular ritual practices,
many others (those who left at a very young age, double/subsequent migrants or
second and third generation migrants) only have an imagined connection with
the place of origin. The practice of Islamic death ritual has a certain claim to
universality (at least for all Muslims), but at the same time they take shape in
very specific contexts and therefore are also highly localised. Both universality
and localisation are subjects of our study.
It might be clear that ritual is shaped by social context, but at the same
time it is able to shape social realities. Ritual can be a source of change, as it
opens up space for new ideas and practices instigated by both individual and social creativity.
Ummah is a fundamental concept in Islam, expressing the essential unity and theoretical equality of Muslims from diverse cultural and geographical settings. In the Qur’an
it designates people to whom God has sent a prophet or people who are objects of a divine plan of salvation (Esposito, 2012).
Dessing’s study of life cycle rituals among Muslims in the Netherlands has a different
approach. She seems to focus on the development of a totally new organisational infrastructure, as the rites of passage have lost their matter-of-course character due to loss of
the support network in the migration context (Dessing, 2001, p. 43). In our view this is a
way of accommodating and assuring ritual transfer and is just one aspect of ritual
23 Ritual content: meaning
In ritual we always see two key aspects converging: structure and meaning
(Bell, 1997, pp. 23ff, 61ff). Each aspect has an internal and an external dimension (Quartier, 2007; 2011). Ritual structure refers to its own structure (internal)
and to the structure it brings about (external). One can say that ritual in general
has a stable structure manifested in an ordered ritual performance. Whether this
ordered structure or sequence continues to prevail in changed circumstances and
new contexts is an interesting question. The ordering effect of ritual on society
and how it works out in a concrete social organisation is considered in this
study. But as not all structured, recurring actions can be identified as ritual activities, rites should also have meaning apart from structure. Meaning is therefore a crucial aspect of ritual and here, too, one can distinguish between the
meaning of the ritual itself (internal) and the one it refers to (external). Ritual
has an internal meaning that is naturally associated with certain objects and gestures, implying recognisability. Its external meaning, on the other hand, extends
beyond the concrete performance: it transcends the everyday meaning (Bell,
1997, p. 55). It makes ritual a means of communication.
In order to study ritual content í the meaning it embodies and conveys
– rites should not be isolated from the specific context where they are practised.
So gaining insight into the ritual meaning of Islamic death rites in a migration
context is closely linked with the concept of ‘lived religion’ (Hall, 1997;
McGuire, 2008; Orsi, 2003) that focuses on human practice. It is clear that ritual
action does many things, which are naturally experienced in very different ways
by the actors. The purpose of studying and analysing ritual is to try to understand the many ways in which rites are performed and experienced, and the
many things that are going on when a person (group of people) participates in a
certain kind of action (Nye, 2004, p. 132).
Like ritual, the term ‘religion’ is complex, in that it refers to a number
of different concepts and practices. In the case of Islam it denotes a set of ideas
and beliefs that Muslims, to some extent or other, subscribe to. At the same time
it is a framework for their lived experiences and daily practices. Hence it is important not only to study what is prescribed í as laid down by various Islamic
authorities í but also to consider the actual practice of death and dying. It is
crucial to distinguish between Islam and Muslims (Campo, 2006, pp. 149-153).
Islam refers to the religious principles and regulations, in our case derived from
the Qur’an and Hadith. Who Muslims are is more difficult to answer, because
there is no such thing as an unequivocal Muslim community. A ‘lived religion’
approach is not so much faith-centred as focused on human practice. And it is
this focus on practice that complicates it, as we have no clear-cut approach
(methodologically) at our disposal. The practices of Muslims – their lived religion - in coping with death in a migration context are multi-layered and complex and demand a differentiated approach. In our case it means examining the
practices, experiences and expressions of ordinary Muslims (rather than official
spokespeople of Islam) in everyday life.15 Ritual is undeniably an important element of lived religion and through the study of actual ritual practices we are
able to gain insight into Islam as practised by Muslims. Leor Halevi (2002, p. 5)
makes the same point: ‘To study death rites and beliefs about the afterlife is in
some sense to study religion at its very core.’
In Islamic tradition death rites are presented quite unequivocally with
clear, unambiguous instructions. An interesting phenomenon is that the actual
application of those regulations presents a very diverse picture. These dynamics
between Islam and Muslims makes research into death ritual interesting but also
complex. A practice of Muslim funerary behaviour and bereavement, as Juan
Eduardo Campo (2006, p. 160) aptly puts it, ‘takes shape in the space between
what is prescribed and what is performed, where the performed might also contradict or resist the prescribed’. The performed dimension of religion tends to be
more flexible: while people are expressing their religious and cultural norms,
they also adapt or contest them. A fascinating, creative dynamics unfolds, and
lived Islam takes shape. Universal claims and localised practices often reveal
tension between the ritual or liturgical order (Rappaport, 1999, p. 169) and actual practice. It causes confusion, as diversified praxis within a single, institutionalised religion is not always easy to comprehend. It means ‘wading through
an array of voices: religious elites, funeral specialists, media experts, family
members’ (Garces Foley, 2006, p. xi).
Ritual is part of a complex field of discourse, in which different social
agents position themselves in relation to particular other groups, frames of
meaning and status distinctions. We study the ritual actors that are participating
in various roles: the deceased, the bereaved, and the ritual experts, the commu15
Individuals practice their own religious interpretations and, as in any community,
there are orthodox believers, practising individuals (varying from radical Islamists to
moderate adherents), non-practising sceptics, secular and lay members, and atheists
(Moghissi, Rahnema, & Goodman 2009, pp. 8-9). Moslim in Nederland 2012
(Maliepaard & Gijsbers, 2012, p. 99ff) differentiates between four types of religious
profiles: practising, practising in private, only food regulations, non-practising (profiling based on participation in religious practices: mosque attendance, prayers, Ramadan).
nities (Muslim and non-Muslim). Lived religion is, by definition, dealing with
diversified practice. We should be more alert to emerging and (re-)invented ritual in institutionalised and traditional religions like Islam, as this kind of development is not restricted to secular or new religious movements where ritual
change and creativity may be more obvious. Analogous with the idea of lived
religion, we want to focus on ‘lived eschatology’ that seeks insight into the way
actual Muslims deal with questions about the final destination of human beings.
Research questions and research aim
The key concepts presented in the preceding sections and their interrelationship
make up the dimensions that shape the practice of death rites. In our particular
Dutch context Muslim minorities ritualise in the face of death and ritual practices evolve.
Research questions
This leads to our primary research question:
When confronted with death, what ritual repertoires emerge among Muslims
in the small town migration context of Venlo and how did these ritual repertoires emerge?
‘Repertoire’ refers to the ritual tools available to Muslims in handling death and
can be broken down to ritual elements, roles, beliefs and narratives. This ritual
repertoire will be studied via the participants – the deceased, the bereaved, the
ritual expert and the community í in the ritual cleansing of the deceased and
will be unravelled in the next four chapters of this thesis. Our three key concepts – ritual practice, ritual context: migration and ritual content: meaning –
are the keystones of the research questions in each of these chapters.
What ritual elements are significant to contemporary Muslims when ritualising death?
What is the ritual character of the identified elements, what is the influence
of the migration context and what ritual content emerges from the ‘lived
religion’ practice of death rites in Venlo?
Which roles can be distinguished in the practice of the ritual cleansing and
shrouding the deceased?
Which ritual roles emerge in the ritual practice, how are ritual roles shaped
by the small town migration context, what motivates people to take on the
role of ritual expert and how is their ritual authority recognised?
What ritual beliefs are connected to death rites?
How do death rite practices emerge from the interaction between myth and
ritual, what impact does the migration context have on ritual myth and beliefs and how do these beliefs function in lived eschatology?
What is the role of narratives in the process of constructing ritual meaning
of death?
How are narratives and death ritual interlinked, how do migration, context
and narratives interact and what is the role of narratives in the construction
of ritual meaning?
Repertoire ĺ
Concepts Ļ
Ritual context:
Ritual content:
Figure 1. Repertoires and concepts regarding death rites
Research aim
The aim of this research is threefold:
Gaining greater insight into negotiating Islamic death ritual as it occurs in
the small town context of Venlo in the Netherlands.
Acquiring theoretical insight into the ritual practice and further theorising
on the subject.
Triangulation of methods and sources
The aim of this study is to explore the practice of Islamic death rites as performed by diverse Muslims in a migration context. To this end we need to gain
insight into the various aspects of Muslim life and death in the Venlo context
and at the same time develop a suitable theoretical framework. Triangulation is
crucial when mapping the complex ritual field under consideration. Through
meticulous fieldwork we set out to explore the field of death ritual as practised
by Muslims from various backgrounds and the local Islamic infrastructure at
their disposal, with due regard to both the ritual participants and their context.
Our basic approach for this study proceeds from the empirical field situation, focusing on the actors and actions presented. Throughout the fieldwork
the gathered material was critically examined and the key concepts – ritual practice, ritual context and ritual content í were derived from it and refined to serve
as analytical concepts. These emerging concepts, the relations between them
and continuous interaction with the field led step by step to theory building.
They were basic concepts for further theorising.16 It is not so much a linear as a
circular process, as these concepts are subject to ‘theoretical sampling’: when
important elements are discovered in the material, new cases are researched to
sharpen, confirm or rectify them. In this way theories can be both tested and developed.
The initial data were collected through extensive fieldwork in Venlo in
the period 2009-2012, consisting of interviews and (participant) observation.
Through semi-structured personal interviews and informal personal communications with ordinary Muslim men and women we were able to unearth the issues and topics regarding death and dying that are very much alive among the
people in the various communities. The informal personal communications
were very useful in unravelling ‘lived religion’, as people tend to be more spontaneous in their behaviour and less focused on socially acceptable answers.
In selecting respondents – ordinary Muslims in Venlo í diversity was
the criterion: men and women of different ages (generations), of various ethniccultural (Turkish, Moroccan, Somali, West-African, Afghan, Iraqi, Kurdish,
Indonesian, Iranian, Surinam, Dutch and Bosnian) and social backgrounds
I conducted 36 semi-structured interviews that were recorded and transcribed (some
respondents preferred not to be recorded). In field notes I report over 50 informal personal communications with respondents and informants. For the sake of confidentiality
all names of people mentioned in this study have been changed.
(mixed families, converts), with different migration experiences (voluntary and
forced migration) and various Islamic affiliations (Sunni, Shia, Alevi, Suleimanji and Mouridiyya). We also interviewed people playing key roles in various communities, who proved to be rich sources of information and were consulted regularly. They were active in their own ethnic and religious communities or social groups (youths, refugees, women) and professions (spiritual and
health care, funeral organisations, social workers). They were also helpful in
proposing and introducing respondents for the interviews and tipping me off
about events in their communities. The interviews provided the ritual narratives
– accounts of personal experience of ritual and appropriations of the repertoire
í that form the basis of this study.
Taking part in a women’s Qur’an group opened my eyes to the variety
of Muslims in Venlo. A first step in identifying Muslims in Venlo was to search
databases that provide demographic information (CBS stattline) to gain some
insight into the variety and number of Muslims living here. Although exact
numbers are not available, as ‘Muslim’ is not a search category, one can search
the databases on nationality or country of birth (or of parents) for predominantly
Muslim countries. This provided some idea of what groups (their size and demographic development over the years) are actually living in Venlo. The Islamic and Muslim infrastructure could be partly traced by searching telephone directories and databases that list mosques, cultural and religious organisations.
Venlo is also my hometown where I was born and raised and where I returned
after ten years of living elsewhere. I participated in a local women’s Qur’an
group that made me mindful of the diversity within the Muslim communities in
Venlo and how people handle those differences. And as my parents were actively involved in coaching refugees and other migrants, I simply got to know a lot
of different Muslims in town. This personal network proved very helpful when I
started my fieldwork, as it was easy to establish a first contact with certain
communities and families.
Observations were conducted to witness and sometimes participate in
death rites. I watched funerals from a distance with other female participants,
said the funeral prayer in the mosque and attended several mourning gatherings.
I had a rare opportunity to participate in the ritual cleansing of a deceased person some years ago. To explore the Venlo context I made many home visits,
went to celebrations of various groups, visited mosques, cultural and religious
organisations, women and youth groups. Both weddings and funerals provided a
context in which Muslims in Venlo live. The observations and interviews
centred on ritual action í- the practice of people, not what Islam prescribes. We
were looking for the practices of Muslims without labelling it Islamic ritual beforehand, as the prescribed ritual is often only part of what Muslims actually
practise. So the idea was not so much to give a detailed overview of how certain
rites are performed in all the different communities as to determine how plurality as such influences the ritual practice in the small town migration context. In
preparing both the interviews and the observations I used the observation model
provided by Ronald Grimes (1995; 2003), a leading scholar in ritual studies. It
proved very useful in unravelling complex ritual practices and putting them into
Following this introductory chapter, subsequent chapters will deal with the ritual repertoires found among Muslims in Venlo when confronted with death. The
ritual cleansing and shrouding of the deceased is the key ritual in this study. In
each chapter we elaborate on how particular ritual repertoires emerge and develop in this small town context in the Netherlands. Chapter 2 examines the ritual elements which permit the mapping of ritual practice; chapter 3 is on the ritual roles that emerge; chapter 4 concerns ritual beliefs; and chapter 5 focuses on
ritual narratives. In each chapter the three key concepts of this study – ritual
practice, ritual context and ritual meaning í are used as keystones of our research questions. Chapter 6 collates the conclusions drawn from chapters 2, 3, 4
and 5. It also offers suggestions for further research.
Death in a strange country presents a particularly intense context that challenges
people to deal with practical problems, their needs, resources and values. Although Muslims have a rich, carefully specified ritual repertoire at their disposal
where death and dying are concerned, in a new context these repertoires are often changed or reinvented to meet the altered needs. It is these reinvented ritual
repertoires used by Muslims to handle death in their new surroundings that we
trace in this study in order to answer our main research question:
what ritual repertoires emerge among Muslims in the small town migration
context of Venlo?
Ritual elements, roles, beliefs and narratives are all part of this repertoire, which is the ritual range available to people. In this chapter we map the
field of Islamic death ritual by concentrating on ritual elements, which will lead
us, step by step, to answering the question: what ritual elements are significant
to contemporary Muslims when ritualising death?
By identifying and mapping the ritual elements we provide an overview
of ritual practice in this particular small town migration context. Thus we learn
how it constitutes the religious experience – a process of constructing meaning
í of Muslims in Venlo. The main focus is the rite of cleansing and shrouding
the deceased. The choice is dictated by practical reasons, as this rite is almost
always performed in Venlo regardless of where the body is eventually buried.
The cleansing is a rich and dynamic ritual in an interesting context: a small
town migration setting that is often overlooked in research.1
Parts of this chapter were published in Jaarboek voor liturgieonderzoek/Yearbook for
liturgical and ritual studies (Venhorst, Venbrux & Quartier, 2011).
Ritual elements: creating an interpretive framework
Mapping ritual elements entails identifying what can be seen as the essential
building block of ritual cleansing and shrouding. Breaking the rite down into
observable elements makes it possible to transcribe and interpret complex ritual
practices – both on the level of ritual practice and theoretically.
Actors, roles, figures
Attitudes, beliefs, emotions
Languages, sounds
Commentary, criticism
Figure 2. Elements of ritual
These ritual elements will be encapsulated in a ‘thick description’ as proposed
by anthropologist Clifford Geertz in The interpretation of cultures (1973, pp.
5-6, 9-10). Thick descriptions are first interpretations that proceed from the participants’ social world and refer to their construction of meaning and reality.
The elements make up workable units that can function as axes of comparison
and make it possible to link developments and changes in different contexts.
They also afford insight into the way ritual elements are interrelated and structured. Mapping these elements serves as an introduction to the lived practice of
death ritual in Venlo – introducing particular ritual practices and those involved
in them – and as an interpretive framework for studying death ritual in a particular context. Both are important pillars in answering the research question.
This approach to ritual elements is advocated by Ronald Grimes (1982; 2003;
2006) in numerous publications and it provides a useful framework for both observation and interpretation of ritual as it conveys its multidimensional character, already evident in the various roots of ritual: human bodies, the environment, cultural and religious traditions, social processes (Grimes, 1982, p. 2).
Even though we are exploring individual components, they should not be seen
as isolated but as closely interrelated and in constant interaction with the context. The ritual elements we distinguish are studied in detail with reference to
the key concepts identified in the chapter 1: ritual, context of migration and
lived religion.
Applying the key concepts
The key concepts identified in chapter 1 enable us to deepen our observations
and interpretations, as they prompt continuous questioning of the gathered
material. Ritual practice
The concept of ritual practice highlights the dynamics of ritual í a dynamics inherent in ritual but also a result of the participants’ biographies and their context. It leads us to examine the qualities of identified ritual elements and the ritual practice they constitute in the small town context of Venlo.
Mapping and studying these ritual elements enable us to unravel this complex
ritual dynamics.
What is the ritual character of the identified ritual elements? Ritual context: migration
The migration context is marked by change, which affects ritual practice. Just as
migrants are on the move, so are their ritual repertoires. For a better understanding of how Islamic death ritual takes shape in the specific context of Venlo the
concept of ritual transfer (Langer et al., 2006) is important. As rites are not isolated phenomena but are performed in specific cultural contexts, the transfer of
ritual (elements) from one context to another can be expected to entail change.
Studying the interaction between ritual (elements) and context sheds light on the
particularities of ritual funerary practice in a migration setting.
What is the influence of the migration context? Ritual content: meaning
The concept of ritual meaning makes us look for emerging ritual and ritual reinvention. We focus on the actual performance of Islamic death rites by various
Muslims in Venlo by zooming in on particular ritual elements to gain insight
into their lived religion: the flexible ritual practice derived from clear, unam-
biguous guidelines and prescriptions in Islamic law and tradition. Ritual actors
(a variety of Muslims) in a particular context (Venlo) create a diverse
practice in regard to both ritual structure and ritual meaning.
What ritual content emerges from the ‘lived religion’ practice of death rites in
Mapping ritual elements
We focus on the ritual purification of the deceased, both rites and ritualising enactments, which are studied within a larger body of interconnected funerary
rites. Rites do not exist in the abstract but are enacted in particular forms and
contexts. The ritual elements presented here were studied in the specific context
of Venlo.
The treatment of the dead is an important subject in Islamic legal works, presented either as part of the chapter on prayer or in a subsection about funeral
prayer. On the basis of these sources we discern a ‘ritual/liturgical order’ (Rappaport, 1999, p.169) for the cleansing and shrouding of the deceased.23 The purification rite is part of a larger body of Islamic funerary rites and is generally
understood to proceed as follows. After death the mouth of the deceased is
closed and clothes are removed, whereupon the corpse is completely covered
with a sheet. Every effort should be made to prepare the body for burial quickly.
For the ritual cleansing the body is placed on a raised surface and washed by a
Muslim who knows the procedure. In principle, a male corpse is to be washed
only by men and a female one only by women. However, a woman is allowed to
wash her husband and it is permissible for a young child to be washed by an
adult of the opposite sex. Before undertaking the washing, the washers perform
the wudu (minor ablution) on themselves and audibly or mentally express the
niyya (intention). During the washing the corpse is kept covered from navel to
Many studies of Islamic (death) ritual provide a more or less detailed description of
the ritual cleansing of the deceased (e.g. Bot, 1998; Campo, 2003; Dessing, 2001; Jonker, 1997; Sakr, 1995; Smith, 1998; Sultan, 2003). The description of ritual actions given
here accords with these sources and includes accounts by ritual experts in Venlo. In addition I draw on observation and participation in a ritual cleansing in 2006.
Sometimes the ritual cleansing and shrouding of the deceased is referred to in Arabic
as ghusl al-mayyit and takfin. These terms were not used by our respondents.
knees at all times. The ghusl (major ablution) starts with a first rinse to remove
any impurities, followed by washing the genitals and anus. Then the belly is
pressed gently to empty the intestines. It is recommended to perform the wudu
that usually starts with pronouncing the name of God, the most gracious and
merciful (basmallƗh), followed by washing the hands, rinsing the mouth and
nose, washing the face, washing the forearms up to the elbows, rubbing the
head with a damp hand, washing the feet up to the ankles, and rubbing the spaces between the toes; then water is rubbed into the hair roots and poured over the
entire body. Each washing starts on the right side from the front to the back and
from head to feet, followed by the left side. The body is washed an odd number
of times í say, three or, if necessary, five or seven times. The water is perfumed
with camphor or other aromatics. After purification the body is dried and
shrouded, using one or more pieces of clean cloth. When shrouding the body the
corpse is wrapped in plain white cloth. The distinctive features of the person are
obscured and only the outline is visible: the corpse assumes a more or less
anonymous shape. As the ritual cleansing is not open to the public, it offers a
suitably private moment and space for the bereaved to pay their last respects.
Particularly for women and children – who, due to gender and age restrictions,
are often not permitted to attend the burial – it is the last opportunity to say their
goodbyes: the last time the actual body is available for ritualising and ritualisation. The hours immediately before or after the corpse is washed and shrouded
are commonly used by the bereaved to say their last goodbyes. This is often
done in ritualised ways by those present during this usually most private section
of all death rites. A widow explains:
Relatives and friends gathered at the funeral parlour to pay their last respects.
The children, his brothers and sisters and I said our last goodbyes by pouring
water over the sheet that covered the body. We each poured three small bowls
of water, starting at his head, moving to his feet. Then they removed the sheet
from his face and the children kissed him for the last time. After this the imam
from a local Moroccan mosque came with two men to perform the proper
washing and shrouding while we waited outside. (Personal interview Habo, 6
December 2010)
Another example of ritualisating enactments by the bereaved was cited by
Rianne – a Dutch convert to Islam, married to a Syrian man – who lost her baby
girl shortly after birth:
We lost her… My husband was on the phone to his relatives in Syria all the
time, about what to do and how to proceed. I very much needed to share my
grief with my parents and to involve them in the funeral – but we were all a
bit hesitant about how to do all this, as they are not Muslims… Eventually
they participated in the ritual cleansing and they were able to say their last
goodbyes in their own way. (Personal interview Rianne, July 2010)
The actions described above are not part of the prescribed ritual order but are
improvised to suit the particular circumstances and context and they have the
potential to become part of the ritual order or develop alongside it.
At the morgue the body is placed in an open coffin or on a special bier
to bring it to the place of the funeral prayer (salat al-janaza) that is always performed in the presence of the corpse. If the burial takes place in Venlo, the body
is taken to the general graveyard, Blerickse Bergen, which has a part reserved
for Muslim plots. As this is not within walking distance, the traditional walking
procession with the deceased to the place of burial is limited to the distance
from the entrance of the cemetery to the grave. Participation of women at this
stage is usually considered wrong or even forbidden, which applies very much
in Venlo, although in mixed families/marriages women often do join in in one
way or another.4 Participants should remain quiet, as audible expression of grief
is considered wrong. In the grave the body is turned on its right side, facing
Mecca. Each participant throws three handfuls of soil into the grave, where after
the grave is filled.5
The ritual cleansing is a very bodily event, entailing both the presence
of the corpse and the physical involvement of the washers performing the rite.
The main actions of the rites are performed on the physical body and involve
skin to skin contact as the corpse needs to be rubbed, pressed and turned over.
Although the purification is of a ritual nature (Douglas, 1966, pp. 29ff.) and not
primarily aimed at hygiene, the extensive touching and rubbing serve a cleansing purpose as well. In performing the rite the purity of both the deceased and
those who perform the ritual cleansing is at issue. Cleansing by washing the
body with water is, of course, a common, everyday practice. But performing
these actions in the framework of Islamic purification elevates it. The daily wudu is the most common purification rite and a prominent feature of everyday
As the vast majority of first generation Muslim migrants are still repatriated to the
country of origin, the number of burials in Venlo is quite small.
With minor modifications of the ritual in the case of different schools of law, as presented in Al-Azeri’s Al-Fiqh `AlƗ al-MadhƗhib al-Arba`ah (cited in Dessing, 2001, pp.
Islamic life (Kevin Reinhart, 1990). Although most Muslims are familiar with
these purification rites, in this case they are not performed on oneself but on a
deceased person (a loved one or a fellow Muslim), and because of its hands-on
character, it is not an easy task to perform. There is direct confrontation with the
naked corpse, which can be a harsh confrontation with death.
These concise guidelines are drawn from fiqh literature and present the
core actions of the death rites. They appear to be stripped of all contextual,
hands-on information, which means they are applicable in any context but at the
same time a layperson has difficulty following them in concrete practice. It is
also obvious that different contexts influence the ritual. The difference between
the context of origin and the current context does not really affect the (basic)
actions. In the new context various Muslims introduce actions in addition to the
strict ritual order, of which the foregoing cases of Rianne and Habo are just two
examples. These additional, non-prescribed actions become part of Islamic funerary ritual in Venlo and are products of the new location and circumstances.
Different roles can be distinguished in the performance of death ritual, each
with its own distinct actions and position. The deceased plays a central role, as
the ritual is perceived to facilitate the transition of the dead from this world to
the next. During the ritual cleansing deceased persons are treated as if they are
still sentient and aware of what goes on around them. That is why the washing
has to be performed with care and respect. There have to be enough people to
gently turn the corpse so as not to leave the deceased face down, and lukewarm
water is used for the cleansing. The deceased should not be disturbed by unrestrained expressions of grief and less pleasant acts (like pressing the belly to
empty the intestines) are accompanied by whispered apologies.
The bereaved do their best to fulfil the (assumed) final wishes of their
departed loved one; these often concern the place of burial. For most Muslims
the loss of a loved one in their present context is a novel experience and they
are unfamiliar with how to make all the arrangements. Not knowing what to do
makes people insecure. Another complicating factor is that the next of kin are
not always living close by and their much needed involvement in the funerary
rites may be difficult to arrange. As not all the bereaved involved might share
the same religious tradition and affiliation, the funerary rites have to be adapted,
for instance in the case of this mixed couple:
On the sudden loss of their child the parents started to make arrangements for
a Muslim funeral. This was difficult to deal with for the Catholic grandparents, the parents of the child’s mother, who converted to Islam years ago. In
consultation with a local imam the child was taken to a [Catholic] church for a
memorial service where relatives and classmates were able to say their last
goodbyes. After the service the child was taken to a facility where the imam
and some helpers performed the ritual washing. After the funeral prayer on
the premises of the mosque, the child was buried in the Muslim cemetery.
(Personal interview with imam A, 20 January 2011)
Migration also raises new questions like where the body is to be buried and how
to make preparatory arrangements to meet these wishes, for example drawing
up a will and setting aside some money for funeral insurance. Sometimes repatriation is not an option because of the safety situation in the country of origin.
The bereaved often have a specific frame of reference, arising from personal experiences of death or the lack of it. The next of kin don’t always feel
comfortable with participation in the final washing of their loved one, even
though the ritual order reserves a prominent role for them. This can also apply
in most contexts of origin, but because of the Muslim majority finding a washer
is hardly ever a problem. In both the original and the present context the vast
majority of the bereaved don’t actively participate in the ritual washing of a deceased loved one, even when they are the most appropriate candidates to do so.
This makes ritual experts indispensable.
The imam (of either the local Moroccan or Turkish mosque) is often
considered best qualified to perform the ritual purification in the prescribed
way. But as all imams are men, they are not allowed to perform the ritual on a
deceased woman. That is why local mosque organisations have recently started
to support the training of female volunteers. For decades older women and widows performed the washings, but of late some younger women have joined in.
These ritual experts almost always take the lead, sometimes assisted by relatives
of the deceased. They are connected with either a Turkish or a Moroccan
mosque and are called in whenever their services are needed. So in practice they
actively deal with different Muslim communities. In smaller Muslims communities ritual experts are far less visible, as they are not traceable through mosque
organisations; they are either known in the community or are traced when needed. And since these communities are quite small, their experts often live elsewhere (sometimes not even in the Netherlands), making it harder to secure their
According to Islamic sources the Muslim community is expected to play a leading role in the performance of death rites. But we have noted that there is no
such thing as an unequivocally Muslim community that all Muslims, regardless
of their (ethnic) background, can fall back on. Muslims of Turkish and Moroccan communities, being the oldest and best established communities in town,
can rely on their own customised religious infrastructure consisting of mosques
and imams. Other small groups and individuals have to find ways to deal ritually with this lack of a community.
In chapter 3 we elaborate in detail on the motivation and authority of
these ritual experts.
When asked, respondents typically cite the Qur’an and Hadith as the main
sources on death rites. But although the Qur’an contains a lot of information on
human death and its (religious) meaning, there is nothing concrete about funeral
rites. The Hadith does contain some ritual information, but it is by no means
easy to distil a concrete praxis from it.6 Of all Islamic sources fiqh literature
probably provides the most concrete guidelines.7 Fiqh literature is often not
readily accessible and is rarely consulted directly by ordinary Muslims, as it is
written in Arabic and even when translated is full of legal jargon. Regulations
are often translated into pamphlets, teaching material, sermons and narratives
that circulate in local communities as a source of knowledge.
In Venlo the imam of the local mosques is often seen as the authority to
turn to for knowledge, assistance and the performance of death rites, even when
he is from a different (ethnic, national, cultural and religious) background or the
locals have never met him in person. Often there is a preference for either a Moroccan or a Turkish imam, depending on the language one speaks or the culture
Halevi (2007, chapter 2) sketches Muhammad’s death and funeral rites, including the
ritual cleansing and shrouding as described by Ibn Ishaq (d.767) in the oldest extant
biography. Another frequently cited hadith reports how Muhammad instructed the
woman who performed the ritual cleansing of his deceased daughter (Halevi 2007,
p. 71).
Halevi (2007, p. 6) explains: “Collections of sacred law in the genres of Hadith, or
Oral Tradition, and Fiqh, or Jurisprudence, generally include a chapter or book entitled
‘The Book on Funerary Practice’. These chapters or books differ from each other in
content, focus, and style…Thus most of these books include a section on burial attire in
which they relate a story about the shrouds of Muhammad. The story varies from book
to book … What also tends to vary í sometimes slightly, sometimes significantly í are
the conclusions drawn on the basis of an anecdote.”
one relates to most closely. The imams in the Venlo mosques were all educated
in either Turkey or Morocco and their knowledge of the Dutch language is often
limited. Their role as key religious and ritual authorities is also new or to them.
Other religious or ritual experts – with a less formal role – are also consulted. They are often recommended by others and their advice is sought by
phone, on internet or through intermediaries. These specialists frequently move
between different contexts and provide information on specific cultural and ethnic traditions. Relatives living in either the original or the new context advise on
particular family traditions. Local mosques organise courses and meetings to
educate Muslims in death rites.
Other groups (women, young people or certain religious affiliations) also meet to discuss the topic. These meetings are considered a source of basic
Islamic knowledge. The mosque organisations predominantly teach in either
Turkish or Moroccan Arabic, hence they only reach members of their own
community. A lot of young people consult the internet (for online videos and
documentaries) to get a first impression of Islamic regulations concerning death.
I would go to an Imam if I was in need of information about what to do. It is
what I did when my nephew died. But when I look at my children, they are a
different generation. My son, who is 18, is really interested in things concerning Islam; he searches the internet for information. And many times he comes
to me with the information he finds and then we talk about it. (Personal interview with Khadija, 25 September 2010)
In the original context sources appear to be more entrenched in the immediate
daily environment, knowledge is drawn from people in the community, from
relatives and neighbours or from designated ritual experts. This idea is very
much alive among Muslim migrants, as Mo explains:
Where we are from you are surrounded by Muslims. You really grow up like
a Muslim. So when someone dies everybody knows what to do. You can
simply ask a neighbour. That is so different here. Nobody knows anything.
(Personal interview with Mo, 26 November 2010)
This somewhat nostalgic, idealised image of the context of origin is often seen
as contrasting sharply with the present context.
Attitudes, beliefs, emotions
In Islamic education death plays an important role and Muslims generally are
very much aware of concepts concerning life, death and afterlife. Natural death
is seen as a fact of human life and is part of the order of things. In interviews,
conversations and meetings people spoke at length about religious aspects of
death, afterlife and Islamic eschatology. Putting these (often fragmented) stories
together, a fairly accurate overview of Islamic viewpoints based on Hadith and
the Qur’an unfolds, for instance in studies like The Islamic understanding of
death and resurrection (Smith & Haddad, 2002).8
At death an angel is believed to bear away the soul of a person, which is
later returned once the deceased is in the grave. In this way the deceased is able
to assist in the funeral ceremony and the mourning process. Once in the grave
the dead person is visited by two more angels who will interrogate him and
search for proof of his faith. Other angels are reported to register the deceased’s
good and bad deeds, which will be revealed on the day of judgment. An unbeliever will not be able to answer the angels’ questions and will be punished,
while the believer is rewarded (by widening the grave or opening a window to
heaven). Then starts a waiting period until the day of judgment, when the dead
will be resurrected from their graves and gathered for the final judgment. True
believers will meet and stand before God for their final reward.
These widespread beliefs about the afterlife greatly influence Muslims’
attitudes towards death ritual. On the basis of these teachings choices are made,
as this Senegalese Muslim – member of a Sufi order í explains:
I am a Mouride, a follower of the teachings of Sheikh Amadou Bamba. We
Mourides want to be buried in the holy city of Touba [central Senegal], where
Bamba is also buried. On the day of resurrection we will be close to him, so
our path to paradise will be open. So wherever I spend my life, my grave has
to be in Touba, even if my Dutch wife and children do not agree. I would prefer them to be buried in Touba also, but it is up to them. (Personal interview
with Mbaye, 3 August 2010)
Islamic eschatology and the idea that an intact body is needed on the day of resurrection make the rather widespread custom of cremation in the Netherlands
The beliefs presented here accord with views fount in most studies of the subject
(Campo, 2003; Chittick, 1992; Sakr, 1995; Smith & Haddad, 2002; Tottoli 2012). They
are also reflected in Islamic textbooks used in the courses offered by mosque organisations like Basisboek Islam (Siregar, 2002). These beliefs were frequently cited by our
respondents, albeit in fragmentary fashion.
hard to digest for most Muslims. The flames of the crematorium are also often
associated with the flames of hell. To most Muslims cremation is a horror scenario, as this West African Muslim explains:
My first experience with death in Venlo was when a Dutch friend died. He
had cancer and I was invited to the house after he passed away. He was laid
on a bier in the living room and I was a bit shocked, because I am not used to
this. I found it quite bizarre that people were sitting there, talking and drinking
coffee next to my friend’s body. The next day there was a service in church; I
also spoke some words to express my friendship with him. That was nice.
And then I was invited to the cemetery, or at least I thought I was. Something
happened I wasn’t prepared for… We ended up at the crematorium. Although
I didn’t see the actual fire, I was deeply shocked and couldn’t sleep for weeks!
How can you do this to a person you love? I don’t understand the Dutch people! This experience made me think about my own funeral, as I am all alone
here in Venlo … What will happen to me? I really don’t want to be cremated.
So I made arrangements with funeral insurance that, in case of death, my body
will be repatriated to Guinea and my relatives will take care of everything.
Even the washing and the shrouding I want to be done there by people I trust.
(Personal interview with Amadou, 22 November 2010)
In almost every interview or conversation the issue of cremation automatically
came up, always filling people with dread, with the remarkable exception of
Shukri from Indonesia:
I married a Dutch man 15 years ago and moved from Java to Venlo. My two
youngest children from a previous marriage came with me, two others stayed
in Indonesia. That makes me part of two countries now and makes it complicated when I die. Although I am very much aware of the Islamic objections to
cremation, I see the division of my ashes among my children as my only option. They have to take care of me after I die. But they should not keep my
ashes in their house; they have to bury me so I can return to the earth like
Islam prescribes. Allah will understand that I am in two countries and that is
why I have to take these quite drastic measures. What choice do I have? (Personal interview Shukri, 24 November 2010)
Young men and women who present themselves as pious, living according to
the tradition of the prophet are very articulate about the role of death and the afterlife as a guideline for their daily lives, as Mo explains:
I live with the concept of death every day, because only then I am able to live.
I live with the certainty that the angel of death visits my house four times a
day to see if it is my time. This way I make the most of my life, because when
I am dead there is nothing left to do. Life is your chance to be a good Muslim
and to live according to the teachings of the prophet – peace be upon him.
This is also why I am part of a group of volunteers who perform the ritual
washing of the deceased; it is our religious duty and we will be rewarded in
the afterlife. (Personal interview with Mo, 26 November 2010)
Death rites are part of the so called fard kifaya, the collective duties of Muslims.
It makes the Muslim community responsible for ensuring that each Muslim gets
a proper funeral. From time to time money is collected to provide for the repatriation or funeral arrangements of a fellow Muslim. It encourages them to participate in death ritual, also when the deceased is not a relative or friend. Participation also brings what is called ajr ('plus' points) that are offset against their
‘negative’ points when judged by God after death (Nieuwkerk, 2005; Schacht,
2012). Although merit can be gained through participation in death rites, there
is also a widespread fear of death. People from a refugee background often have
traumatic experiences of death, which exacerbate that fear. Others have no experience of death at all as they live far from their extended family or in an urban
setting where death is largely confined to hospitals. When considering participating in a ritual, people wonder if they can control themselves and not disturb
the deceased with their emotions of grief. For this reason some people stated
that they could only participate in the washing of a stranger, not of someone
they are close to. Others feel they could only participate if they are very close to
the deceased. Women specifically mention the washing of a child or their mother. Those who have actually participated in the ritual bathing of a deceased
loved one value it as a comforting experience. How these mixed emotions intertwine is explained by Fatima:
“I am afraid of death, that is why I find it difficult to participate in the final
cleansing of the deceased,” she explains. But just minutes later she tells how
she, together with her sister, did participate in the cleansing of her one-yearold nephew. She considers the washing of a dead baby something else, something that did not scare her at all as “he was like a sleeping little angel”. She
passionately insists that Islam views little children as pure and sure of an
afterlife in paradise and therefore the ritual cleansing of a child is not a necessity. “But,” she concluded, “for us it was a beautiful and comforting thing to
do.” (Personal interview with Fatima, 17 December 2010)
Attitudes, beliefs and emotions about death and the ritual washing might not
differ fundamentally from those in the context of origin, but the present context
causes exceptional situations that make the ritual practice less self-evident. This
forces people to reinvent and adapt their ritual practice to the new context to
suit their new circumstances.
Chapter 4 on Muslims’ views on life and death is devoted to the ritual
beliefs cursorily described here.
According to the fiqh basically any screened off area is suitable to perform the
ritual purification of the deceased as long as the body is oriented towards Mecca
during the washing, as it is during the funerary prayer. In practice the washing
is far easier to perform in a place that has a special table with a drain, warm water and sprinklers.
Venlo does have what one might call specific ‘Islamic places’ to perform the ritual cleansing of the deceased. They are located on the premises of a
mosque or near the Islamic cemetery and are used exclusively by Muslims. A
new washing room (funded by Islamic organisations and the municipality) was
opened in November 2007. The building is kept by a group of Muslims that are
considered (too) strict by others and therefore some are reluctant to use it. People often use the well equipped general morgue, situated on the site of the local
hospital. This morgue has a more neutral status and relatives feel freer to proceed the way they want to. The ritual purification of the deceased is a private
matter and the last place where women and children can be present and involved, as in most public ritual they are not allowed to participate.
The choice of a final resting place appears to be a topic of on-going debate among Muslim migrants, with arguments for and against burial in the local
context of Venlo, where since 1995 a part of the general cemetery of Blerickse
Bergen is reserved exclusively for Muslims. A walk around the site shows that
the largest Muslim communities í those of Turkish and Moroccan origin í
hardly ever bury their dead here. Almost without exception they are buried in
their country of origin. Other migrants, too, decide against burial in Venlo or
the Netherlands. Their choice is explained in different ways. Some claim that
they just want to return to the land of their forefathers (simply going home or
actually returning to the physical ground of their ancestors) or return to a place
where relatives can take care of their grave and pray for them on a regular basis.
Some find it important to be buried among other Muslims rather than be surrounded by a non-Muslim majority. The assurance that their grave will not be
emptied after some time is another reason to choose a final resting place in an
Islamic country. And sometimes it has just become a (family or community)
tradition to do so. While the expenses for repatriation are high, the cost of the
grave is low compared with prices in the Netherlands.
People’s ideas on their context of origin and the present context greatly
influence their decision on where to be buried. Two women with similar backgrounds focus on different aspects and come to different conclusions, as the following examples show:
Dilek (Turkish) and Nadia (Moroccan) both came to Venlo as little children
more than 35 years ago. Together with their mothers and siblings, they joined
their fathers, who were already working here. Both women feel at home in
Venlo, are working and raising families.
When she dies Dilek passionately wants to return to her home village in central Anatolia. She knows exactly where she wants to be buried (next to her
mother and grandmother) and on several occasions she has pointed out this
place to her husband and her children. For Dilek it is a peaceful place, not only because of the nature that surrounds it, but also because of who her neighbours will be. During the waiting period in the grave these neighbours are the
ones that keep you company. If you know they are good people [good Muslims] the time in the grave will be quiet and peaceful and Dilek hopes to share
in this.
For Nadia being buried in Morocco was self-evident for a long time. When
her father died 30 years ago he returned to his homeland, as it was his clear
and final wish. But as her oldest children are starting their own families, Nadia thinks being buried in Venlo is the next logical step. She wants her children to visit her grave regularly to pray for her, something she could hardly
ever do for her father. (Personal interviews with Dilek, 20 January 2011 &
Nadia, 17 December 2010)
Dutch converts often have different considerations as they have no context of
origin to fall back on, as in this case of the young convert Marco:
With the day of judgment in mind, Marco instructed his non-Muslim mother
to have him buried in an Islamic country when he dies. Although he has no
personal ties with any Islamic country, his request is mainly motivated by the
fact that eternal rest in the grave is not (yet) guaranteed in the Netherlands.
His best friend Muhammad, who fled from Somalia as a child, doesn’t share
Marco’s opinion. For him Islam clearly teaches that one should be buried
where one dies, following the example of the prophet Mohammed. (Telephone interview with Marco, 30 December 2010)
Even though the actual burial is not the main focus of this research, the choice
of a final resting place also affects the ritual washing. In preparation for burial
in the country of origin the ritual washing generally takes place in the Netherlands, where the bereaved can pay their last respects before the deceased is
placed in a specially sealed coffin. Insurance often only pays the expenses of
repatriating the body and tickets for one or two chaperones. So other relatives
are left behind and are unable to attend the funeral. The funerary rites are split
between places and people. Sometimes it may happen that on arrival in the
country of burial relatives arrange for the deceased to be washed again.9 Repatriation takes time, which conflicts with Islamic prescriptions of an immediate
funeral in the place where one dies. For some Muslims in Venlo (refugees in
particular) a funeral in their home country is not even an option. So the Muslim
part of the cemetery does not provide a standard image of Muslims actually living in Venlo.
Islamic regulations strive to bury the deceased as soon as possible after death,
an urgency that is clearly felt by the bereaved. Prompt burial is one of the first
things mentioned when asking about Islamic death practices. Interment within
24 hours is possible since the new Dutch Corpse Disposal Act (Herziene Wet op
de Lijkbezorging) passed in 1991, but one still has to get permission from the
local authorities.
If insured, an insurance representative will assist in making all the necessary arrangements and as they are quite experienced in that field, they are
usually able to speed up the process considerably. But there is no guarantee that
the burial will take place within 24 hours, as a death after office hours or on a
public holiday might slow things down. Repatriation of a body to another country entails a lot of paperwork and travelling time and also delays the funeral.
People believe a speedy burial is needed to prevent the body from decomposing
so the deceased can appear before Allah intact. The anticipated peaceful state
the deceased will enjoy once in her grave is another reason for speeding things
up. On the other hand one finds that when it comes to deciding on the place of
burial (see 2.2.5) people are willing to compromise on the time it takes.
Friday is a holy day, hence the day that most mosques are full for the
special Friday prayer. And although one is not supposed to wait for a full
mosque to have a funeral prayer, people are pleased when it does turn out that
As witnessed by Dilek when attending a funeral in Turkey. (Personal interview 20
January 2011)
My husband died on Thursday evening and we tried our very best to make all
the arrangements for a funeral on Friday. We Somalis are such a small community in Venlo, so it was good we could bring the body to the mosque on
Friday afternoon. This way all the regular visitors could pray the special funeral prayer with us. It reassured us. A substantial number of people praying
for a good passover is good for the deceased. (Personal interview with Habo,
6 December 2010)
Especially in very small communities the attendance of other Muslims – in this
case provided by the Friday prayer service in the mosque í is considered important for a successful ritual performance.
According to the ritual order there are no special or sacred objects needed to
perform the ritual bathing, just clean water that is available at the facilities.
Practical requirements like gloves and towels, small bowls to pour the water or
a sprinkler make it easier. Additives to the water like camphor, sidr leaves,
flowers or soap are not explicitly prescribed but are often part of cultural traditions. These traditions appear to be so strong that people go to great lengths to
get the ‘right’ additives to ensure that their funerary duties and customs are
properly observed. Additives from the original context become a vital ingredient for the ritual in the present context. Alternatives that are readily available
and perfectly suitable according to Islamic regulations are often not sought
The plain white cloth used for shrouding (4 metres, cut into three to five
pieces) is either bought by the bereaved or provided by the volunteer washers.
Some people buy the cloth when on pilgrimage to Mecca (or have someone
bring it for them) for the purpose of shrouding them after death. Even though
the fabric varies, simplicity is preferred.
Languages, sounds
Opinions differ on whether recitation of Qur’anic texts is part of the cleansing
rite or not, but many people assume they are. There is no text available and
most respondents said they were worried about getting the recitations right as
they are generally not conversant with classical Arabic.
Muslims in Venlo who don’t speak Turkish often find the use of that
language problematic. Even if they have never actually visited a Turkish
mosque, they are under the impression that there Turkish is mixed into ritual
performances. It is a widespread and very persistent assumption. Arabic is seen
as the only proper ritual language and that is why some minorities prefer a Moroccan mosque/imam to a Turkish one, as the lingua franca is Arabic.
In general voices are lowered during the ritual washing and any emotions that might surface are repressed. Most of the rite is performed in attentive
silence and in the preparation phase silence is said to be crucial. People participating in the washing often talk to the deceased in their mother tongue. Dutch
doesn’t play a role in the ritual, but is increasingly the language of instruction.
2.2.9 Senses
Respondents often refer to (the idea of) the scent of death, considered a bad
thing or sign when it surfaces. To avoid or mask unpleasant odours incense is
burnt during the washing. The burning of incense is common in African and
Asian cultures, a custom migrants take with them.
Some respondents explicitly referred to the prophet Mohammed who
could be recognised by the sweet smell of roses. Because of this oral tradition,
rosewater is often used to perfume the water for the final ritual washing; it
might also be applied to the parts of the body that touch the ground during prayer or to the shroud. It is considered important that the deceased should appear
before God clean and sweet smelling.
One imam was very outspoken about the burning of incense and stated
that regular soap will do the job. Another imam emphasised moderate use of
any fragrance. They both recommended adding camphor (kƗfnjr) to the water for
the final washing, as this substance is readily obtainable in the Netherlands and
the fact that it is mentioned in the Qur’an seems to add to its suitability (personal interview Imam A, 20 January 2011 and personal conversation with Imam C,
28 November 2010).
2.2.10 Comments and criticism
Muslims from different backgrounds living in the migration context of Venlo
are confronted with different ideas and practices. This often occurs in discussions about what is ‘real Islam’, commonly regarded as Islam stripped of cultural influences. The largest, best established and best equipped Muslims groups in
Venlo are those from Moroccan and Turkish backgrounds. They are able to preserve and develop their own ritual clusters and present them as ‘real Islam’ or
‘correct ritual’ to their own communities and at the same time differentiate
themselves from other communities. But within those communities, too, we find
that young people í the second and third generation í are actively (re)defining
their religious identity that differs from that of their parents (De Koning, 2008;
Entzinger & Dourleijn, 2008). This generation gap is also apparent in ritual criticism, a process of ritual revision and reinvention, and has an impact on the
death ritual repertoire.
Death brings separate Muslim communities together, as in the case of
the funeral prayer for a deceased Somali man during the Friday prayer gathering
in a Moroccan mosque. Because of this shared experience they begin to see
each other as fellow Muslims who actually share the same faith and ritual.
The role of close relatives in the ritual washing of the dead is a sensitive
issue, as most people acknowledge that they have a role in the ritual but are too
afraid or insecure to participate. One of the imams actively strives to change
this by motivating relatives to fulfil their responsibilities. His policy is to participate in a supportive rather than a leading role in the ritual cleansing of the deceased. This enables relatives to perform the washing themselves, with the help
of a ritual expert.
2.2.11 Mapping ritual elements: summary
The ten ritual elements guided us through the ritual practice and yield the outline summarised below. The findings concerning each ritual component are
briefly listed.
Ritual purification of the deceased is part of a larger body of interconnected funerary rites. Basic actions stay the same but the parties
present, the location and circumstances change in the new context
and additional actions are improvised to meet the needs of the bereaved.
The deceased plays a central role, the bereaved struggle with their
own roles to do the right thing by the deceased and themselves with
due regard to feasibility. New roles emerge. Ritual experts (washers) are indispensable as most people don’t know the procedure. An
actual Muslim community is not self-evident in the new context.
Qur’an and Hadith are frequently mentioned sources. Although fiqh
literature offers the most tangible guidelines, it is often inaccessible
to lay people. Imams become a primary source in the new context.
Additional information is provided by courses, meetings and the
internet. In local narratives all these sources converge and become
an important source in the Venlo context
Muslims in Venlo are very much aware of death, the afterlife and
Islamic eschatology, which affect attitudes towards ritual practice.
The awareness of fard kifaya can reinforce a Muslim community.
The current context creates exceptional situations that make the ritual practice less predictable.
The washing can be performed in any screened off area and may be
a very private ritual. The actual place of burial has a direct impact
on the way the ritual cleansing is performed and perceived. It might
cause funerary rites to be split between people and places.
The bereaved feel pressurised to conduct the funeral within 24
hours of death, which is not easily arranged in the present context.
Repatriation of the body also obstructs prompt burial.
The washing requires mainly practical items that are readily available. But people appear to go to great lengths to get additional material (incense, leaves, shrouds) from their original context.
The primary ritual language is Arabic – a language not many have
mastered. That and the unavailability of clear texts make people
feel insecure about participating. Dutch is only used as language of
instruction (outside the ritual performance)
The scent of death is feared and counteracted by burning incense or
adding rose water or other perfumes to the water. Camphor is recommended in the current context: it is easy to obtain and is also
mentioned in the Qur’an.
The diversity of Muslims, their different origins and their migration
to a new context trigger debate about what is ‘real Islam’ or ‘correct ritual.’
Figure 3. Elements of death rites
Mapping the ritual elements of the purification of the deceased and connected
death rites clarifies the practices of the performers of the ritual repertoire í the
various Muslims living in the Dutch town of Venlo í by zooming in on the ritual elements and how they are (re)shaped in the current context of Venlo.
After analysing the actual practice using the separate ritual elements as
stepping stones, we now take a step back so as to look at the glue that seems to
hold all these findings together: a ritual process of ‘reinvention’, closely linked
with our three key concepts í ritual practice, the ritual context of migration and
ritual content (meaning).
Ritual practice
What is the character of the ritual elements we have identified?
The description of the building blocks of ritual – the elements – enabled us to
provide a substantiated picture of the actual ritual practice. The ritual practice
presented through these elements displays the dynamics inherent in all ritual. It
also clarifies how rites as hand-me-downs take shape in a particular context and
affords insight into the reinvention of death ritual to make it fit the particular
context. It shows us how Muslims ritualise in the face of death.
What emerges is a twofold picture. We conclude that Muslims in Venlo
have a rich ritual repertoire at their disposal, provided and prescribed by Islamic
sources. At the same time there is manifest transformation of this repertoire to
fit the new context.
Ritual context: migration
What is the influence of the migration context on the ritual elements?
Islamic funerary tradition has taken shape over time and space í from the early
days of an emerging Islam in the Arabian peninsula to our modern world where
Islam is found in all corners of the world. As a result of migration Muslims are
on the move and so is their ritual repertoire. Muslims in Venlo find themselves
in a contrast position, as they are now a religious minority and even their own
Muslim ‘community’ is marked by diversity. This makes being a Muslim in the
migration context less matter of course than in their context of origin. That at
least is a common view among Muslims in Venlo: there is a strong tendency to
romanticise and idealise the context of origin.
This process of re-imagination manifests itself in vivid narratives that circulate
in Muslim communities and play an important role in constructing meaning. We
shall dwell on this in chapter 5.
Again we see a twofold development. Migration and the new context
make it necessary to review the ritual repertoire and reinvent and adapt its elements to the current context. On the other hand it is a selective process in which
certain elements are chosen rather than others. For example, in case of repatriation of the corpse prompt burial no longer seems to be a priority. The same applies to the primary role of relatives as washers in the ritual cleansing of the deceased: in the migration context the function has been taken over almost completely by ritual experts.
Ritual content: meaning
What ritual content emerges from the ‘lived religion’ practice of death
rites in Venlo?
The dimension of lived religion concerns the way religion is experienced in the
practice of death rites in a particular context. We see that Muslims are keenly
aware of images of death provided by Islamic sources. This colours their perception of death, often reinforced by the contrast situation they find themselves
in. Although standard ritual prescriptions are available, actual ritual practice is
far from uniform. Nonetheless the diverse practices are generally labelled ‘Islamic’ by participants.
Once again there is a duality. It appears that all Muslims in this context
actually have is ‘lived religion’. The common practice, in all its variations and
adaptations, is primary. Interestingly, this seems to go hand in hand with lively
debates on ‘correct ritual’ and ‘real Islam’, being Islam free from cultural influences.
In chapter 2 we examined the common ritual practice of cleansing and shrouding the deceased, using ritual elements as stepping stones. In the process we
came across various ritual actors: those who perform the most prominent or
most significant ritual actions (Grimes, 2003, p. 10). The actors assume a particular role or ‘ritual identity’, as Grimes (1995, p. 27) calls it. In Venlo the
Islamic ritual of cleansing the deceased is mainly performed by what can best
be described as ritual experts. In defining the ritual repertoire of Muslims in the
face of death we focus on these experts and the way their roles are shaped in
this small town migration context: which roles can be identified in the practice
of the ritual of cleansing and shrouding the deceased?
We shall clarify exactly who participates in the ritual cleansing and shrouding
of the deceased, and in what way.1
Ritual identity: reinventing the role of the ritual washer
A first differentiation is between two parties participating in and playing active
roles in funeral rites: the deceased and the survivors (Van Gennep, 1960,
p.147). The principal ritual actions are performed by the ‘washers’; those who
perform the actual, hands-on ritual cleansing of the deceased. The procedure is
laid down in Islamic legal sources. Fiqh literature explicitly assigns the role of
washers to the closest relatives of the deceased. Actual practice shows that these
clear instructions do not guarantee a problem-free exercise. Particularly in a migration context – by definition a context of change í the role of the washer is
daunting. The bereaved, we found, have difficulty participating as they are un1
A version of this chapter will be published in Mortality (Venhorst, Quartier, Nissen,
& Venbrux, forthcoming 2013).
certain about the procedure and often feel inadequate. The regulations might be
clear and fixed, but ritual practice in this context is not. The migration context
certainly makes it harder to observe the death rites prescribed by Islamic
sources or to perform them in the way that is customary in the context of origin.
For the bereaved (both the next of kin and the Muslim community) in particular
it is hard to live up to the important role that is reserved for them in Islamic
death ritual. In the diaspora close relatives might be completely unavailable,
few and far between or simply incapable of performing the death rites. Muslims
in Venlo are a minority of hybrid origins, a mosaic of bigger and smaller pieces,
each with its own features. So support and participation by what is conveniently
called ‘the Muslim community’ cannot be taken for granted. In this context we
see the emergence of a new role, that of the ritual expert (Quartier, 2010), who
meets the specific needs of Muslims in the diaspora and can take the lead in the
ritual purification of the deceased.2
The changing context of Muslims in Venlo challenges them to adapt
their ritual repertoire to the circumstances. To ensure the practice of their death
rites a process of reinvention is negotiated and we see the role of the ritual expert developing. Ritual experts provide help and guidance in this dynamic,
complex situation that challenges all the interrelated parties involved. The deceased, the bereaved, the Muslim community/communities, ritual experts and
secular authorities all have to be attuned to each other and to the specific context. Not only do the ritual actors have to deal with new and unfamiliar situations, but the ritual itself is subject to change as it moves from the original to the
new context (Campo, 2006; Venhorst, Venbrux, & Quartier, 2011). Dutch converts generally lack this migration background and although their number is
small, their praxis is interesting.
Although detailed descriptions of the core ritual actions are available,
they are stripped of all contextual information so they are applicable in any situation and context. At the same time this means that a layperson finds them difficult to perform without guidance. The ritual involves extensive touching of the
deceased, as the whole body needs to be systematically washed at least three
times and the intestines have to be emptied by pressing the belly. This has to be
done with great caution, as it is widely believed that the deceased is still sentient
at this time (Jonker, 1997, p. 53; Smith & Haddad, 2002, p. 37). Washers should
The term ‘ritual expert’ is chosen as it is a role that is still under construction. Both
religious and ritual specialists (like Imams) are involved as are volunteers without any
formal training.
not display their grief or be overwhelmed by emotion, as it will disturb the deceased in this already difficult phase before the burial. The bereaved often fear
that they will not be able to control their emotions. All this makes them very
aware of the risk of ritual failure (Hüsken, 2007). So although the fiqh clearly
appoints the next of kin as the most suitable ritual actors, most of them consider
this to be overruled by the requirement – also prescribed í that the washer
should be ‘a Muslim that knows how to proceed’. The need for ritual experts is
apparent in these circumstances. They are expected to be competent to deal with
all these facets and are widely used in a migration context. But what motivates
someone to become a ritual expert? And how does the role become authorised
by others? Both motivation and authority are important markers of the role of
the ritual experts – the washers.
Applying the key concepts
Although the employment of ritual experts in the migration context is common
nowadays, they are fairly low profile. The world of Islamic ritual experts in a
migration context still has to be discovered and examined. Their motivation and
authority need to be studied on a personal level as well as in relation to the people and communities around them – the social level. Besides, motivation and
authority deriving from a transpersonal, religious level should not be overlooked (Quartier, 2011b).
In order to gain insight into the ritual expert’s motivation and authority
we once again apply our key theoretical concepts. Having focused on the ritual
elements in the previous chapter, we now look at the ritual roles in the cleansing
and shrouding of the deceased. Ritual practice
Ritual practice shows that of all funerary rites the ritual cleansing of the deceased is probably the most daunting, as it is hands-on and requires direct physical contact with the deceased. Ritual knowledge, skills and experience are considered essential for correct performance of the ritual í qualifications few relatives possess so they are not able or willing to perform the rite, making ritual
experts indispensable. In practice the latter take over as primary actors in the
ritual cleansing and shrouding of the deceased. How does this affect the washer’s role? And what does it mean for the other participants, the bereaved and the
Muslim community? How can these roles be unravelled and defined?
What roles emerge in the ritual practice and how can they be defined?
CHAPTER THREE Ritual context: migration
The ritual context of migration is a new social context for those involved in Islamic death rites. Being migrants, many of them are no longer actively involved
in and frequently confronted with death in their midst. We see a privatisation of
death in the new context: generations no longer live under the same roof and
most deaths occur in hospital. In addition the paucity of relatives and absence of
a like-minded Muslim community complicate the performance of death rites
and exacerbate the anxiety. Being in a minority position causes insecurity about
how to gain the necessary knowledge and confidence to participate in such a
hands-on death rite. The emergence of ritual experts certainly solves some of
these problems, but what about their motivation and authority? How does the
migration context define the role of these primary actors?
How are ritual roles shaped by the small town migration context? Ritual context: meaning
The concept of ritual content í meaning – enables us to determine how participants experience the roles they play in the ritual cleansing of the deceased.
What motivates experts to take the role of ritual washer and serve fellow Muslims they often don’t personally know? And as the role of the ritual expert is not
prescribed and sanctioned by Islamic sources, it raises the issue of how roles in
this context are authorised by others. To come to grips with these questions we
take a closer look at the ritual expert’s motivation and authority. First we look
from the perspective of the experts themselves: what motivates them to become
involved in the performance of death rites? Then we shift to the perception of
others and their acceptance of these people as ritual experts. For the sake of a
complete picture both motivation and authority are studied from three interrelated angles: personal, interpersonal and transpersonal.
What motivates people to take the role of ritual expert and how is their ritual
authority recognised?
Ritual experts at work
The involvement of ritual experts in the ritual cleansing of the deceased has become widespread. Muslims in Venlo refer to these experts in general, using descriptive Dutch terms like ‘de mensen die de doden wassen’ [‘people who wash
the deceased’], ‘de wassers’ [‘washers’] and ‘wasvrouwen’ [‘washer women’];
no specific designations have been coined (yet).3
After death, either at home or in hospital, the experts are called in to
perform the ritual washing. In Venlo this usually happens at the general
morgue, which is seen as the best equipped facility.4 The morgue provides the
prescribed screened off area and convenient tables and ablution facilities. Ritual
experts often work in teams, with a clear division of roles. The senior team
member (in age or experience) takes the lead to ensure a smooth performance.
This person also keeps a close eye on the others’ mental ability to handle the
situation. About three people are needed to perform the washing respectfully, as
the body should be turned and treated gently. The team consists either exclusively of experts or of an expert guiding participating relatives of the deceased.
These experts that actually lead the performance of the ritual are a select
group, and they are the main focus of this chapter. But we should at least mention the much larger number of people and organisations that function as ritual
experts in a counselling capacity (Quartier 2010), providing information on Islamic death rites. Information is provided through various media (e.g. narratives, conversations, courses, books, websites and audio-visual material) and
people (e.g. Islamic scholars, family members and peers), and is absorbed during one’s life course. They are a primary source of basic ritual knowledge and
shape what is perceived as ‘correct ritual performance’ – often culminating in
the choice of a specific ritual presider.
The most visible, most frequently employed experts are the imams of
the local mosques; they are active both as ritual presiders and as ritual councillors. These are so-called professional imams (Shadid & Van Koningsveld, 2008,
p. 62), paid either by the local mosque organisation or by the Turkish government (Diyanet).5 These imams are generally recruited in the country of origin,
highlighting the identity (‘Turkish’, ‘Moroccan’ and specific religious affiliation) of the local mosque and indicating the community they primarily serve. To
The common Dutch expressions lijkwassing/lijkwasser [‘corpse-washing’/‘corpsewasher’] and afleggen/aflegger [‘laying out’/‘layer-out’] with reference to the preparation of a body for burial were not used by our Muslim respondents. In some texts the
word ‘bewassen’ appears to refer to washing the dead.
Interestingly, in 2007 a state-of-the-art Islamic washing facility (funded by various
Islamic organisations and the municipality) was opened near the cemetery in VenloBlerick. So far it has been used only sporadically. In interviews and conversations people say that the general morgue is a more neutral place that allows greater privacy.
Diyanet is the Presidency of Religious Affairs of the Turkish republic that provides the
majority of imams for Turkish mosques in the Netherlands.
these communities they are most readily accessible, but other Muslims also refer to imams as the persons to turn to for ritual guidance, as the mosque and its
representatives are the most visible Islamic institutions in the migration context.
Whether people actually do so in practice does not necessarily follow. An imam
in the Dutch town of Venlo relates his experiences:
Before being sent to Venlo some years ago, he was an imam in Turkey where
he worked under very different circumstances: ‘In Turkey my main responsibility was to preside at the daily prayers in the mosque – one of many
mosques in a predominantly Islamic environment. Here leading the prayers
was just a small part of my duties. In Venlo I am educator, psychologist and a
friend for the Turkish Muslim community; we are a minority position.’ In
Turkey he was hardly ever involved in the performance of death rites, whereas
in Venlo he is almost always called in when a member of the community dies.
‘Most people have insurance that is offered through our mosque organisation.
It ensures them an Islamic funeral and repatriation to Turkey. In this way
mosques and their imams become involved in the diaspora’ He has presided at
many ritual cleansings of deceased males or was asked to provide detailed ritual knowledge. ‘This is not something an imam normally does. I don’t mind
doing it, but at the same time I think it is very valuable for family members to
perform the washing themselves and it is also what Islamic regulations prescribe. But I also see people struggling with their uncertainties and their fears.
I encourage them to assist me, but I have volunteers I can call on who will
help me with the ritual when family members are not available or not able to
help.’ He emphasises that this is not the right way and he sees it as an important task to make young people aware of their duties towards deceased relatives. (Personal interview Imam A, 20 January 2011)
For imams in the Netherlands the performance of death rites has become a
standard part of their professional responsibilities. In their role as ritual presiders individual imams can’t fully serve their community. To perform the ritual
cleansing properly and respectfully a single person is not sufficient, and because
of strict gender regulations a deceased woman can only be washed by women.6
Initially individuals took it upon themselves to organise and perform the washing of women within their own (Turkish and Moroccan) communities. Only recently some (mosque) organisations have started training predominantly young
women for this task. How they will be deployed eventually is not clear yet. Not
being professionals, their motivation and their authority differ. Samira has been
involved in the ritual cleansing of Muslim women for over a decade now:
More on roles of Muslim women in transnational death rites can be found in the work
of Gerdien Jonker (1997, 1997b), Katy Gardner (2002) and Gardner & Grillo (2002).
‘I got involved in the ritual cleansing of the deceased by chance. When the
three-month-old child of one of my friends died she asked me to help her do
the washing –and although it was sad, it was also a very impressive and beautiful experience. Later I was closely involved in taking care of a young teenage girl who was very sick, she had a brain tumour. When she eventually died
it seemed natural to participate in the ritual cleansing. For me and the others
involved it was a closure that helped us cope with her untimely death.’ Samira
explains that on both occasions she met Farida, an elderly Moroccan woman
who had been leading the washing of deceased women in Venlo for years. Farida’s expertise is usually called in by the local Moroccan mosque organisation. ‘She guided us through the procedures of the ritual. Once she called me
when someone died and they didn’t have enough people to perform the ritual
cleansing. Now I am a more or less regular member of a group of women that
perform the washing of the deceased.’ Although Samira herself is not originally from Morocco and never visits the Moroccan mosques, she is an active
member of this group. They have been involved in numerous washings of
women from various backgrounds. ‘For me being involved is an act of love
for people and for God. It is the last thing you can do for somebody on this
earth… This idea helps me through it, because I still find it hard to deal with a
dead person. You have to be very nice and gentle with them, as it is also hard
on the deceased. But I learned to do it over the years. God was very gentle
with me, as washing the baby and the 14-year-old girl were my initial experiences and they were beautiful experiences, not scary at all. God guided me
step by step, so now I can also do more difficult washings of older people or
people that are disfigured by a long illness.’ (Personal interview Samira, 9
June 2011)
Cultural, ethnic, religious and social background greatly influences the way
death is perceived and how one should (ritually) deal with it; it also determines
one’s expectations. The pressure to do the right thing often features in the crisis
situation of the death of a loved one. Especially in a migration context, with its
diverse Muslim communities, ‘correct performance’ can be a relative notion.
This is most strongly felt among the smaller Muslim communities that are often
relatively new to Venlo and sometimes consist of only a few people. They are
not as well equipped as the larger Turkish and Moroccan communities. Being
mainly refugees from countries like former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Iraq, Iran,
Afghanistan and Guinea, their migration experience is very different from that
of labour migrants. Because of this they make up small and very diverse groups
with an overrepresentation of young men, single people and broken or incomplete families. For these small communities ritual experts with a similar background are hard to come by in Venlo, so in the event of a death the bereaved
have to turn to experts from the larger communities or find a suitable expert
elsewhere in the Netherlands or in Europe. Finding a suitable expert is not easy
because of the time pressure exerted by Islamic regulations that demand prompt
burial. And although Muslims of various backgrounds refer to local imams as
people to turn to for ritual guidance and assistance, there are also objections
(founded or unfounded). The following case illustrates typical considerations
that small communities have to deal with:
A Somali woman died. Just a few years before she had left the unstable situation in her home country and fled to the Netherlands. There she got ill and it
was discovered that she was suffering from cancer and had only a few months
to live. As the woman had no relatives with her, the Dutch social worker approached the small local Somali community for help. Three young Somali
women who grew up in the Netherlands took it upon themselves to see this
woman through the final stage of her life. They took care of her and comforted her. The social worker urged the young women to discuss her final wishes
so proper funeral arrangements could be made. ‘This was hard, as we are not
used to discussing this kind of things in our culture,’ one of the women explained, ‘we don’t talk about death.’ They had some vague ideas about the
proper Islamic rites that have to be performed but had never actually participated in them before. The dying woman expressed a wish that they should
take care of the ritual cleansing after her death. ‘We agreed, but we were in no
way prepared. We spent quite some time organising certain traditional aromas
that are used in Somalia for this washing of the dead. That was what we had
when she actually died.’ After dying in hospital the body was taken to the
general morgue for the ritual cleansing. ‘We had never done something like
this before. We found a lot of information on-line. Yes, we googled and
downloaded a detailed step-by-step manual with pictures and thought we
could do it like this … I didn’t think of going to a local mosque for information or help as they are Turkish or Moroccan mosques.’ Guided by their
printed manual the young women tried to perform the washing but immediately encountered problems. Although the manual provided clear guidelines on
what to do, they were somewhat general. Practical details like how much water, what temperature, how to pour the water on the body were not described.
Also handling a dead body proved to be very difficult and emotional. ‘So we
decided not to continue, we were afraid we couldn’t do it the right way. After
a frantic search we found a specialist, a Somali woman in Brussels who came
over immediately. She took care of the rites and we assisted her…. It was only
much later that I found out there are also female washers in Venlo that could
have easily helped us, but somehow we were intent on having a Somali doing
it.’ (Personal interview Imani, 25 September 2010)
In these small communities it appears that in the case of a female deceased the
bereaved tend to be much more cautious in their choice of a ritual expert. In the
case of a deceased male they feel less hesitant to call in a local imam (Moroccan
or Turkish) to perform the washing and it is not uncommon to negotiate a suitable ritual practice with him.
To complete the picture of diversity in the Muslim community of Venlo
today I should mention the growing number of second and third generation
Muslims, born and raised in the Netherlands. Although by and large they still
relate to the original context of their (grand)parents, they are also very much
part of Dutch society – something that will have an impact on their perceptions
and wishes concerning death and death ritual. And although the number of
Dutch converts to Islam is quite small, when they (or their close relatives) die
things can be complicated, as they are part of families that comprise both Muslims and non-Muslims who have their own views of what is an appropriate
death ritual. The same applies to mixed marriages. These various backgrounds
can influence the practice of death rites and the employment of ritual experts.
On a national level there have been several initiatives to serve these
groups by offering a more general Islamic alternative that is not directly connected with a particular ethnic or cultural background. Recently we have seen
the rise of Islamic undertakers (commercial businesses, predominantly in the
Randstad) and (non-profit) organisations like Stichting Islamitisch Begrafeniswezen (Islamic Burial Society), whose focus on Islamic death ritual and
burial in the Netherlands is evident on their website:
The Islamic Burial Society (IBS) was born of the needs of Muslims in the
Netherlands concerning Islamic burial customs. The IBS’s main objective is
to ensure eternal rest for the dear departed/deceased. In addition the IBS is
currently negotiating with local authorities to establish one or more dedicated
Islamic burial sites in the Netherlands. The IBS has also set itself the goals of
promoting the transfer of knowledge concerning Islamic burial traditions and
customs, promoting jurisprudence regarding Islamic burial laws and founding
a body of Islamic undertakers.7
These organisations provide information adapted to the Dutch context as well as
ritual experts recommended through websites and word-of-mouth advertising.
accessed 14 November 2012.
Becoming a ritual expert: motivation and authority
Although death is part of life and Islamic sources elaborate on the topic of death
and the afterlife, Muslims’ actual participation in death rites is less common.
Dealing with the abstract notion of death is different from actually handling the
dead body of a loved one. The earliest Muslim communities in Venlo have an
aging first generation, which means that in the years to come they will have to
deal with death in their midst more frequently. This raises new questions and
challenges for these Turkish and Moroccan communities. Other Muslim communities are relatively young and death occurs only now and then, taking people by surprise and leaving them to react on the spur of the moment. For most
Muslims now living in a Western context death is no longer a natural part of
daily life; generations no longer share the same house and most deaths take
place in hospitals. This lack of visibility and unfamiliarity with death adds to
people’s fear, which doesn’t make dealing with it any easier. So it is legitimate
to research the motivation of people who actually get involved in the ritual
washing of deceased fellow Muslims that they often don’t even know personally. What motivates them to become ritual experts? As the role of the ritual
expert is often not formally sanctioned, we focus on their so called ‘performance agency’ (Krüger, Nijhawan & Stavrianopoulou, 2005, p. 22). What
makes others accept them as ritual experts?
A comprehensive picture of ritual experts’ motivation and authority requires study on three levels: personal, interpersonal and transpersonal. On a personal level we study their personal background: their cultural and ethnic heritage, their traditions, their life experiences, convictions and beliefs, and the
knowledge and skills acquired in life. The interpersonal level is social and
includes the way ritual experts relate to the others involved; their relationship
with the deceased, the bereaved, the community/communities and other ritual
experts. The transpersonal level refers to what we could call a religious (in a
broad sense) dimension: the ritual expert’s relationship with God and Islam, local Islamic institutions, religious traditions, regulations and beliefs. The discussion of each of the three levels is preceded by a vignette.
As already indicated the motivation of the ritual expert is studied on three levels
personal, interpersonal and transpersonal.
63 Personal
‘When I started working in a nursing home many years ago I was for the first
time confronted with a dead patient. It was a very old woman whom we had
nursed for a long time and I thought I would be horrified to see her dead – let
alone touch her. But as it was our task to lay her out before the relatives came,
there was no way to avoid it. When I saw her I was struck by her peaceful appearance. This experience made me think about death and dying a lot and it
motivated me to do a course at our local mosque to be trained in the Islamic
ritual of washing the deceased.’ (Personal interview Dilara, 27 January 2011)
Dilara describes her becoming a ritual expert as a conscious choice to undergo
ritual training after personal experiences of death in her work. Many others get
involved in the ritual practice more gradually and, as they often describe it, ‘by
chance’. Experience of and confrontation with death in one’s intimate circle can
be a major factor: death is no longer distant, unknown and frightening. Sometimes people were active ritual experts even in their country of origin (or their
relatives were) and they continue in the new context. For professional imams,
too, death rites are an obvious part of their work in the migration context.
Through these personal experiences people acquire ritual skills and knowledge
and are able to perform the ritual cleansing of a deceased person. Personal experience of the actual absence of a suitable ritual expert when a relative dies can
motivate someone to come forward as an expert for the community.
Thus a wide range of personal experiences motivate people to participate in the performance of death ritual and continue to become a ritual expert in
this area. Similar experiences also lead to rather different considerations, like
whether one is capable of performing the ritual cleansing (only) on people you
know and have a bond with or (only) on people you don’t know. Interpersonal
‘I converted to Islam and it is still a bit confusing to which community I belong. My Muslim friends are from various backgrounds and my close relatives
are all non-Muslim… This made me think a lot and in my regular talks with
an imam of the nearby mosque volunteering for the performance of the ritual
cleansing of the deceased came up. It is a very important ritual for the deceased and for the Muslim community. Participating in something so important and the fact that they trust me to do this make me feel part of the Muslim community more than anything else!’ (Personal conversation Marco, 7
January 2011).
Motivation to participate in the ritual cleansing of the dead often derives from
other people. Actual participation moreover puts you in direct contact with others, as one always relates to the other participants: the deceased, the bereaved
and the (Muslim) community/communities, and other ritual experts. A personal
connection with a sick or deceased person or their relatives can be the initial
motivation to get involved. Many are also motivated to be meaningful for their
community and find ritual support of the deceased a good opportunity for that.
Some communities offer a formal structure (training course or an apprenticeship) that a candidate can enrol for.
Participation in the performance of death rites is considered a respected
thing to do and secures or strengthens one’s position in a Muslim community.
This can be important for individual Muslims who have no (or just a very small)
community to fall back on. Sometimes it is not so much a conscious decision
but simply a call from a ritual expert one knows who is short of a pair of hands
and thinks you might be suitable to participate in the ritual. The general idea is
that if one is asked, one cannot refuse. Transpersonal
‘Death makes you very conscious of your life, to live it like you should, like
the Qur’an teaches you... That is why I am not afraid of death. When I realised this I became active in the mosque organisation to start training women
to perform the ritual cleansing of the deceased. It is your duty as a Muslim...
you will be rewarded …it has already strengthened my beliefs and my relationship with God.’ (Personal conversation Sahar, 26 November 2010)
Sahar describes herself as a pious Muslim who lives according to the tradition
of the prophet. She is very articulate about the role of death and the afterlife as
guidelines for her daily life. Various aspects of religion motivate people to become involved in the performance of death rites. The fiqh (cited in Dessing
2001, p.145) authorises close relatives of the same sex as the deceased to perform the ritual purification and adds that it should be a Muslim who knows how
to proceed. First there is a more general message presented by Islamic sources
on the importance of people’s awareness of death. The Qur’an vividly and frequently refers to death and the afterlife, and to eschatological representations
and expectations. All rites concerning death and dying are seen as fard kifaya –
collective duties for all Muslims, making the Muslim community responsible
for ensuring that every Muslim gets a proper funeral. It encourages them to participate in death ritual, even when the deceased is not a relative or friend. Partic-
ipation also brings what is called ajr (‘plus’ points) that are weighed against
their ‘negative’ points when God judges them after death. Participation in death
rites in particular is connected with immense immaterial rewards, hence acceptance of financial payment is seen as makruh (reprehensible).8 Based on this
same principle ritual experts explain their motivation in personal terms: they
participate to serve and be directly connected with God by taking care of God’s
creatures in their hour of need.
Also the authority of the ritual expert is studied on the indicated three levels:
personal, interpersonal and transpersonal. Personal
‘I didn’t know what to do exactly. I heard you need to wash the person and
you need to recite from the Qur’an. It is not simply washing… It needs to be
done by someone who is experienced, who has studied this. Like the imam,
for example, he knows exactly what verses to recite and how the washing
should proceed... It needs to be someone who knows exactly what to do.’
(Personal interview Ammar, 13 December 2010)
The personal background of a ritual expert is seen as important: not only their
abilities but also their ethnic background and the community they belong to are
seen as indicators of their authority. Another interesting fact is that most people
don’t personally know the ritual experts who will perform the washing of their
deceased loved one, but they are nevertheless perceived as people of irreproachable conduct that have the required ritual knowledge and skills í the ability to
perform the ritual correctly. Their personal virtue and ritual skills are generally
just assumed on the recommendation of others (mainly trusted members of the
community). The experts are considered ritual guides who will ensure correct
ritual performance on behalf of the bereaved that hire them. Interpersonal
‘When I die I want to return to my home country, to my family. They will
take care of me and will bury me there; also the washing and shrouding I want
It refers to one of the five legal values in Islamic law (fard or wajib, obligatory; mustahabb or mandub, preferred; halal, permissible; and haram, prohibited). Makruh acts
are not legally forbidden but are discouraged in that Muslims are advised to avoid them,
as continued and persistent commission of such acts will lead to sin (Esposito, 2012).
to be done by people I trust… I was never part of a mosque community in
Venlo as they are quite different from what I am used to. And with the Dutch
authorities you always have to worry, as they might cremate you. So I made
arrangements – insurance and a will – that will guarantee my repatriation
when I die.’ (Personal interview Amadou, 22 November 2010)
Trust and authority are clearly a two-way street and depend heavily on how the
expert is perceived by others. For the experts it can be necessary to be or become part of a community, which then provides them with authority that may
be limited to this specific community. Amadou’s case shows, that the living (the
future deceased) can make their preference known. But more often it is up to the
bereaved to arrange a suitable ritual expert to perform the ritual cleansing. For
the bereaved ritual experts fulfil an important role in facilitating a smooth transition of their deceased loved one from this world to the next. Preferably ritual
experts are part of the community they are serving, sharing the same background and values. That is difficult to achieve for small Muslim communities,
as they often have no appropriate experts at their disposal. A creative solution
such small communities come up with is to choose an imam or female washers
(from one of the larger communities) to perform the ‘formal washing’, in which
the bereaved do not participate but who ensure that ‘what has to be done’ is
done properly. This is preceded or followed by an ‘informal’ ritual performed
by the bereaved only; it reflects their personal or cultural interpretation of the
ritual cleansing and includes their final goodbyes. Transpersonal
‘If someone dies you can always turn to one of the local mosques. Even if
they don’t speak your language they know how to perform all rites and they
have to help you – they are Muslims, aren’t they? They will do it according to
the rules of the Islam. If you can’t go to the mosque for this, where else
should you go?’ (Personal conversation Ismael, 6 September 2011)
The role of the ritual expert takes shape in actual practice as it is not explicitly
defined in the fiqh. Islamic legal sources clearly state that close relatives of the
same sex as the deceased should perform the washing, but the fiqh also specifies
that the washing should be done by a Muslim who knows how to proceed. This
point is widely recognised and leads people to conclude that the employment of
experts is not prohibited. The widespread fear of ritual failure and the consequences that it could have for the deceased’s salvation greatly increase the demand for ritual experts. Although Islam has no central authority, in the migra-
tion context of Western Europe we see an important role in the dissemination of
Islamic (ritual) knowledge through local mosques and their imams (Van
Bruinesse, 2010). They not merely lead the congregation in prayer but also take
on many pastoral duties and play a leading role in education on and performance of
Islamic rites of passage from birth to death (Boender, 2007). In the
local setting of Venlo mosques are the most visible Muslim institution and the
imam officiating in this mosque the most prominent Muslim authority.
Motivation and authority: summary
Although the practice in Venlo shows that ritual experts are widely employed in
the ritual purification of the deceased, they are nonetheless fairly low profile.
Who they are, what motivates them and what their performance agency is based
on is a complex puzzle. To study Muslim ritual experts and their practice in
Venlo a multi-layered approach was indispensable. Diverse factors surfaced that
afforded insight into the various configurations that make up each individual
expert’s motivation and authority. Here is a short overview of our findings:
Often a result of various
personal experiences
Service to the community
Being part of a community
Religious duty
Reward in the hereafter
Serving God through serving people
Figure 4. Levels of motivation and authority
Found in (assumed)
personal qualifications
Trust is a two-way street
Shared background
(recognisable) provides
Mosque (organisation)
most visible religious
authority in migration
Unravelling ritual experts’ motivation and authority on a personal, interpersonal
and transpersonal level gives us a clear picture of experts involved in ritual
cleansing in Venlo. For greater insight into the concomitant ritual roles we need
to connect our findings with our key concepts: ritual practice, migration context
and lived religion. The role of the washer and the way the rite is performed and
takes shape in the actual context offer an insightful view of ritual roles in
Ritual practice
What roles emerge in the ritual practice of death rites and how can they
be defined?
Ritual cleansing of the deceased involves various actors. When we focus on the
actors performing the most prominent ritual actions we observe a leading role
for the so-called washers. The washer’s role is prescribed in Islamic legal
sources and is assigned to close relatives of the deceased. Changing and practical circumstances mean that the role of relatives as designated washers is
strongly challenged and reinvented. Actual practice in Venlo shows that the relatives hardly ever take the leading role of the washer; they leave it to a ritual
expert. Thus a new role emerges, but that of relatives, often confined to the minor role of bystanders or audience, needs re-evaluation and reinvention.
Most ritual experts don’t know the deceased (well), which makes their
relation to the deceased rather different from that of the bereaved. The experts’
distance from the deceased seems to make it easier to perform this hands-on
rite, but it also is also a matter of concern for the next of kin, who have to leave
their loved one in the hands of ‘strangers’.
Although the ritual experts are the main actors, the deceased’s relatives
are the initiators of the rite, as they decide who to ‘hire’ to perform the cleansing and when and where it will take place. As a rule the relatives also pay for
the facilities. The ritual experts, although leading the performance of the ritual
actions, play a supportive role. We observed very few relatives participating actively. Some did, with the guidance of an expert, but most relatives actually
waited outside the room where the washing took place, entering it only after the
shrouding to say their last goodbyes.
Migration context
How are ritual roles shaped by the small town migration context?
The involvement of ritual experts is not peculiar to the migration context, as in
many Muslim countries – particularly in cities – specialist washers are available. But the small town migration context has its own dynamics and peculiarities. When confronted with death one is forced to deal with the concrete context
where one is living at the time. As the ritual cleansing of the deceased is almost
always performed in Venlo, in contrast to the actual burial that might take place
in the country of origin.
Muslims are forced to operate in the local circumstances. The minority
position of Muslims in Venlo makes that the performance of death rites problematic and people are very conscious that they might not be adequately
equipped to participate in the ritual cleansing. It raises the question of who actually is adequately equipped. The anxiety is exacerbated by diversity in the
Muslim community; it makes people even more aware of what they perceive as
‘correct’ ritual.
Although imams already operate as religious and ritual specialists, their
emergence as experts in death ritual is specific to the migration context. And as
one person is not sufficient to perform the ritual cleansing and gender regulations disqualify him when the deceased is female, other ritual experts are indispensable. This has led to the emergence of ‘volunteer’ ritual experts. In this particular context it is helpful to distinguish between ‘professional’ experts
(imams) and ‘volunteers’, as both their motivation and their authority are subject to a different dynamics.
Ritual content: meaning
What motivates people to take on the role of ritual expert and how is
their ritual authority recognised?
Becoming a ritual expert and the definition of their role are very much a product
of lived religion, which is the best perspective for studying the expert’s motivation and authority. Imams perform death rites as part of their professional duties
and their position as professional, diaspora imams almost automatically ensures
their authority. The motivation of volunteers derives from a wide range of personal experiences that are a strong push factor. In actually becoming a ritual expert other people (often already functioning as ritual experts) play a decisive
role – they are a pull factor. The religious or transpersonal motivation accords
with the personal motivation and provides the expert with a framework of
meaning. Where the authority or ritual agency of the experts is concerned it is
always based on recognition by others. Even at the personal level – the personal
qualities and skills of an expert í it is very much defined by others. Often others
who are already active and recognised experts or trusted members of the community recommend them and vouch for them. This two-way street also means
that becoming a ritual expert on the recommendation of others almost automatically makes you a respected member of the community. It is often not clear why
a person is granted authority, as it is very much the personal choice of an already active ritual expert.
Mosque organisations and imams delegate ritual agency to volunteers,
as they are often the contacts through which the experts for the ritual cleansing
operate. Interestingly, the ritual and religious view of the specific mosque is not
necessarily in line with the personal and transpersonal motivation of the ritual
experts employed. New – in the small town context of Venlo í are courses organised by mosque organisations to train prospective experts in the ritual
cleansing. These courses clearly disseminate the views and tradition of the organisation and focus on the needs of the primary community they serve. This
could add a new professional dimension to their ritual authority, but it might also alienate these experts from other Muslim communities. If it will actually lead
to a new category of professional ritual experts (alongside the imams) and the
consequences this will have for their approachability are not yet clear.
Eschatology (beliefs concerning the last things í the beliefs, we associate with
death rites) has strong roots in Islamic primary sources. The afterlife is a major
theme in the Qur’an; it frequently speaks about death, the end of the world and
resurrection, as does the Hadith. Belief in the day of judgment and resurrection
is explicitly mentioned as one of the five articles of the Islamic faith.1 We dealt
briefly with these beliefs when we enumerated the ritual building blocks in
chapter 2 (§2.2.2). In this chapter we consider the question: what ritual beliefs
are connected with death rites?
The Islamic eschatological narrative has been studied thoroughly over
the years. A good example is The Islamic understanding of death and resurrection (Smith & Haddad, 2002), which provides an in-depth analysis of the eschatological myth and its development over centuries. Underexposed in this theological understanding of the end of time and the hereafter is the way these eschatological perceptions are actually lived and ritually enacted by Muslims. We
take a close look at the eschatological meta-narrative as an organising principle
for thinking and action (Cortazzi, 1994, p. 157) and locate ‘lived eschatology’
in the ritual process.2
Introducing lived eschatology
In our search for the ritual repertoires of Muslims in a migration context we
now turn to Muslim views of life and death. These views or religious perspectives that look beyond the realities of everyday life are what Clifford Geertz
Aqidah: Islamic creed or articles of faith. The Qur’anic formulation includes belief in
God, angels, prophets, scriptures and the day of judgment (Esposito, 2012).
An earlier version of this chapter is to be published in Changing European death ways
(Venbrux & Quartier, 2013 forthcoming)
(1973, pp. 111-112) calls belief. A myth like the eschatological myth can impose order and dispose people to experience that order in the world around
them; it is made tangible in ritual (Bell, 2003, p. 83).
This takes us into a rather complex field where Muslim beliefs, Islamic
myth and death ritual converge. Disentangling this field entails exploring the
interactions between thought and practice, ritual actions and interpretations, and
ritual structure and meaning. Unavoidably we shall touch on the longstanding
debate on the relation between myth and ritual.3 We shall not delve into the
matter too deeply, but we can’t completely ignore the question. The point is to
fully acknowledge that myth and ritual are related, even inextricably so.
To answer the main question in this chapter í what ritual beliefs are
connected with death rites? í we should not separate thought and action. Hence
we study the eschatological myth from the angle of its meaning and place in the
ritual structure. This offers an interesting slant on that myth, which differs from
the common, more theological approach that tends to separate the two aspects.
Separation of thought and practice is not really useful, as fieldwork shows that
the two are closely intertwined. A thought can only be understood in terms of
the practice that embodies it (Bell, 2002).
Applying the key concepts
By analogy with the idea of lived religion we want to focus on ‘lived eschatology’ as reflected in the practices, experiences and expressions of ordinary Muslims in everyday life. Lived eschatology affords insight into the way Muslims
deal with questions about the final destination of human beings and how this is
ritually enacted. In this chapter our key concepts – ritual practice, migration
context and ritual meaning í provide a framework to study ritual beliefs and
practice connected with the eschatological myth. To this end we need a framework for studying the ritual structure of death rites (ritual process as practised),
in conjunction with ritual meaning (external meaning). Ritual practice
In studying concrete death rites we take a closer look at how myth and rite interact. But before moving to the practice we need a theoretical framework to
help us interpret the concrete rites. Death rites are typical life cycle rituals or socalled rites of passage: ritual marking changes, shifts and transitions in the
Overviews of this debate are provided by Bell (2002) and Segal (2006).
human life cycle. The French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep (1961, pp.
189-191) concluded that rites of passage display a typical pattern in a multiplicity of forms. He discerns three phases: separation, transition and incorporation. In The ritual process, Victor Turner (1969) elaborates on this threefold
structure, underlining the dynamic character of rites of passage. The first phase
comprises rites of separation from a previous world í preliminal rites, signifying detachment. The second phase are rites executed during the transitional
stage í liminal rites, in which one has left one place or state but has not yet entered or joined the next. Finally there are rites of incorporation into the new
world – post-liminal rites indicating that the ritual subject has completed the
passage (Turner 1969, pp. 80-81). The same structure applies to Islamic death
rites, in which three phases can be distinguished: (1) before the funeral, (2) at
the grave, and (3) at the end of time.
Analyses of death rites tend to focus on the bereaved and their rites of
passage. From this perspective the separation phase is concerned with dying, the
transformation phase with the funeral and the integration phase with mourning
(Sörries, 2005). This approach manifestly assigns a central position to the bereaved, who are making a transition from life with the deceased to a life without
their loved one – death rites as mourning rites. This focus on the bereaved bypasses Islamic eschatology and the corresponding ritual. The basic eschatological narrative centres on the deceased, a focal point also recognised by the bereaved. The bereaved actively participate in the performance of death ritual, but
these rites primarily support the deceased in their final transition. At the same
time the bereaved are reminded that they are the future deceased. Both personal
and collective eschatological impressions and concrete death rites function as
coping mechanisms in anticipation of death and the great unknown. Most Islamic death rites are designated fard kifaya – collective duties – that makes taking
care of the dead a responsibility of the Muslim community.4 These fard kifaya
are thought to earn ajr í 'plus points' gained by doing good deeds that are offset
against negative points at the final judgment (Schacht, 2012). This implies interaction between the deceased and the bereaved, so death ritual is always twoway.
This means that as long as the deceased is taken care of others need not be involved,
but if a fellow Muslim is not taken care of the whole community is responsible.
The interaction is directed to repose of the soul of the deceased, as well as future salvation of the bereaved. Where and how this interaction takes place also
depend on the actual relationship between the bereaved and deceased. The bereaved can be next of kin, close friends, casual acquaintances or fellow Muslims
within the same community. The type of relationship also influences the way
the bereaved (can) participate in death rites. Studying the practice of death ritual
gives us insight into the enactment of the eschatological myth in concrete rites
and how the personal and collective levels interrelate in the process. The interaction between deceased and bereaved is also explored. A practice approach to
ritual (Bell, 1992) provides a framework for the study of concrete death rites.
This approach not only takes into account what people do and how they do it,
but also what the rites do. Rites as vehicles of lived eschatology are not regarded merely as communicators of meanings and values, but also as a set of activities that constructs particular types of meanings and values in specific ways.
How do death rite practices emerge from interactions between myth and ritual? Ritual context: migration
This study focuses on lived Islamic eschatology in a migration context. In this
context it is not clear how the meaning ascribed to the ritual by participants relates to the meaning found in Islamic sources. The meaning might change; it
might be lost or acquire a different emphasis when the practice changes in a
particular context (Bell, 1992). Our goal is to determine how changes in ritual
enactment of Islamic eschatology affect the way Muslims live and perceive it.
To grasp these changes in meaning we need to determine how the eschatological narrative relates to its ritual enactment and the participants.
Eschatological narratives and enactments take place and shape in, and
interact with, a particular context í in this case a migration context in the Netherlands where a variety of Muslims live together. They share the same religion
but their backgrounds differ, for they originate from various countries and regions, have different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and their own personal
biographies. Their migration experience might vary, as might their religious
affiliation. These are the Muslims who perform funerary rites. What they have
in common is that most of them originate from a context with a Muslim majority, whereas in the Netherlands they have become part of a (religious) minority.
What impact does the migration context have on the ritual myth and beliefs?
75 Ritual content: meaning
Our focus is the transition the deceased has to make from the world of the living, through an in-between stage (the so-called ‘life in the grave’) to the final
judgment at the end of time. This final destination is a collective image closely
intertwined with the destination envisaged for each individual Muslim. It is useful to distinguish between the two levels: a personal eschatology, directed to
what awaits each human individual after death, and a collective eschatology that
deals with the end of time in general (Quartier, 2009). Collective eschatology is
expounded in Islamic sources and takes the form of an eschatological myth. It is
set in a time frame that can be qualified as mythical time. It is a collective
timespan that starts with the birth of humankind: creation from nothing by God.
At the end of time the signs of the hour herald the end of the world. The complete destruction of the world and everything in it signifies a death that leads to
the resurrection or rebirth of all humankind. It is followed by the final judgment, and culminates in an eternity (akhira) of either heaven or hell. For every
Muslim there is also a personal eschatology with an individual timespan, which
is temporal and should be understood as clock time. A person is born. At death
she leaves the temporal world (dunya) and slides into barzakh, perceived as the
time between individual death and resurrection, a period that in popular imagination is seen as life in the grave. With the destruction of the temporal world at
the end of time, followed by the resurrection, personal and collective eschatology blend, as participation in these events is envisaged as a collective experience.
The final destination of the deceased is a collective image, meaning that
personal and collective eschatology need to be interwoven. This interaction between personal and collective eschatology happens in ritual. Eschatology comes
to life in the ritual enactment of the transition of the deceased, which can be understood as a rite of passage with a connective structure (Assmann, 1992) that
unifies personal and collective eschatology.
The deceased occupy a prominent position in Islamic eschatology, as
their salvation or final destination in the afterlife is at stake. The bereaved have
a crucial role of supporting the deceased, as well as their own position as future
deceased. In the ritual enactment of eschatology they are the key actors, whose
roles interact in lived eschatology.
How are these beliefs enacted in lived eschatology?
The grand eschatological narrative
To understand the field of shared meaning we have to trace the eschatological
myth, the grand narrative that deals with the origin and destination of human
life. Islam, like all religious traditions, seeks to turn the mere sequence of moments and events into a significant past, present and future. Thus it has created a
sacred history that knits these moments of life into a continuous narrative with a
beginning, middle and end (Fenn, 2003). Islamic eschatology, as expounded in
the Qur’an and Hadith and elaborated on by generations of scholars and teachers, has developed into a grand narrative. This eschatological myth, derived
from various sources, is generally understood as kind of official doctrine that
proceeds as follows.5
At death life leaves the body through the nose. God (or angels on his
behalf) removes the soul of the deceased í a dreadful event, accompanied by
feelings of desolation and loneliness. The dying person suffers a terrible, burning thirst, ingeniously exploited by shaytan (Satan) by offering cold water, taking advantage of the vulnerability of dying persons. It is seen as an attempt to
get them to give up their faith. Although the soul is taken from the body, it is
believed that it will stay close by or that at least some aspect of the human person will survive until the day of resurrection (Qur’an 39:42). So life may continue in some form either in the grave or in another state, but is commonly
referred to as life in the grave.
There is no agreement on what happens next, but a dominant idea is interrogation in the grave by two angels. They order the deceased to sit up and answer questions on faith, God and the prophet. If one gives the right answers, one
might be taken up to God or a window will open through which one can
glimpse the beauties of heaven. For those the remaining time in the grave will
pass quickly and agreeably. The unfortunates whose answers were incorrect will
endure terrible torments. Their time in the grave will pass extremely slowly and
painfully. So the outcome of this preliminary judgment determines conditions
while waiting for the day of resurrection and the final judgment. Life in the
grave comes to an end with what is called the signs of the hour, frightening
events that will culminate in the complete destruction of the earth and all that
live on it (Qur’an 55:26-27). At the sound of the trumpet the resurrection will
This generic eschatological myth is recounted in various works on the subject (e.g.
Campo, 2003; Chittick, 1992; Sakr, 1995; Smith & Haddad, 2002; Tottoli, 2012) and is
also commonly recited by ritual experts (imams in particular) in Venlo.
take place and all people will be gathered. Each person will be offered his or her
book í a written record of good and bad deeds accumulated during life on earth.
Good deeds are carried by an angel on the right shoulder, bad deeds by an angel
on the left shoulder. For the final judgment these deeds are balanced, often depicted by an actual pair of scales. If the angel of the last day places the book in
your right hand, you are allowed to enter heaven and enjoy its bliss. An offer to
the left hand means hell, the torments of fire. Another image that is often cited
is that of a final crossing of the bridge over the fires of hell: a bridge ‘bristling
with hooks and thorns and narrower than a hair and sharper than a sword’,
which believers cross in the wink of an eye and from which the sinful fall into
the fires of hell (Monnot, 2012). Graphic images of the pleasures of heaven
(garden, paradise, Eden) and the torments of hell (Gehenna, fire) are shared by
Muslims, backed up by extensive Qur’anic references. Even though the events
at the end of time and at the fountains of paradise and the fire are often vividly
depicted, for Muslims this final phase remains the great unknown, also described as ‘the unseen’.
The eschatological myth underlines that God, the creator and originator
of all things, is the sole authority over the beginning, duration and end of all
things. Human life has a beginning and an end – a lifespan that Muslims believe
to be a fixed term. Ajal means that the outcome of human life lies in God’s
hands and so comes to an end at an appointed time (Abrahamov, 2012). At the
same time it teaches Muslims that their actions during their life on earth determine their destination after death.
This particular narrative doesn’t adhere too closely to the generic Islamic eschatological myth presented by Smith and Haddad (2003). Although a
more or less coherent eschatological myth is presented here, in practice it is
much more fragmented. Individual Muslims tend to focus on certain elements
of the narrative. They elaborate on these elements, drawing on personal experiences and family or cultural traditions. How these different accents work out in
practice will become clear in the ritual enactment of the grand narrative.
Enacted eschatology
The foregoing eschatological myth is ritually enacted by Muslims and takes
shape in particular death rites, a ritual practice described in chapter 2. The ritual
enactment of the Islamic eschatological myth takes the form of several inter-
connected rites. These death rites are numerous and although it might be interesting to map (through its ritual elements) each of them individually at a later
stage, here we focus on the ritual process as a whole. This means that we first
look at the level of ritual structure and the place of lived eschatology in it. Islamic death rites are clustered in three phases – the typical pattern of rites of
passage distinguished by Arnold van Gennep (1960): before the funeral (rites of
separation), at the grave (rites of transition) and finally at the end of time (rites
of reintegration/post-liminal rites).6
Before the funeral
The rites in this phase mark separation from earthly life on the level of both personal and collective eschatology, enacted in concrete rites:
- Dying rites
- Washing and shrouding of the deceased
- Funeral prayer Dying rites
It is not always foreseeable when, where and in what circumstances someone
will die. As the death of a Muslim in the Netherlands can easily happen in a
‘non-Muslim environment’ like a hospital or a road accident, it does not follow
that bystanders are able to act (ritually) according to Islamic prescriptions. Even
born and bred Muslims might not immediately know what rites should be performed. For advice or instruction on how to proceed ritually an imam or other
ritual expert is called in. When it is clear that someone is about to die í in a
more controlled environment, at home or in hospital í the right surroundings
can be arranged and the proper ritual actors called in.
Dying with your face turned to the qibla (the axis directed to the Ka૽ba in Mecca, also the direction of prayer) is considered a good thing. This can be achieved
by turning the dying person on her right side or, if lying on her back, propping
up the head slightly and turning the bed; in both cases the person faces Mecca.
An effort is made to die with the words of the shahada (the Islamic profession
of faith: La ilaaha illal lah í‘there is no God but God’) on your lips or in your
Our overview of death rites, ritualised practices and ritualisings is based on common
Venlo practice. The sketches of the various rites derive from (often fragmented) descriptions obtained from our fieldwork: interviews, conversations and observations. To
supplement the ritual sketches we made use of existing studies that describe these practices or parts of them (Bot, 1998; Campo, 2003; Dessing, 2001; Jonker, 1997; Sakr,
1995; Smith, 1998; Smith & Haddad, 2002; Sultan, 2003; Van Bommel, 1989, 2006).
heart if speech is no longer possible. Doing so eases the pain of dying and might
open the doors to paradise. Those present at the deathbed can soothe the dying
person by also whispering the shahada or by reciting from the Qur’an. In particular sura Yasin (Qur’an 36), known as the ‘heart of the Qur’an’, is believed to
ease the pain of dying and possibly diminish punishment in the hereafter. This
sura emphasises the divine source of the Qur’an and it warns of the fate of men
who are stubborn and make fun of God's revelations. It reminds of the punishment that befell earlier generations, and of God's power. The end of the sura
forcefully insists on the reality of the resurrection (Abdel Haleem, 2004). Sura
Yasin is quite long and not easy to recite for a layperson and as most Muslims
in the Netherlands are not fluent in (classical) Arabic, they are probably not capable of reciting it themselves. Instead of reciting, some people dissolve
Qur’anic texts in water that is then drunk by the dying person. In this way the
baraka (blessing) of the specific text is imbibed. The much shorter suras 113
and 114, known as the ‘verses of refuge’, serve as duas (supplicatory prayers) at
the deathbed. They are invoked against evil in general (Abdel Aleem 2012):
‘In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy. Say [Prophet], ‘I
seek refuge with the Lord of daybreak against the harm in what He has created, the harm in the night when darkness gathers, the harm in witches when
they blow on knots, the harm in the envier when he envies’ (Qur’an 113).7
‘In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy. Say, ‘I seek refuge with the Lord of people, the Controller of people, the God of people,
against the harm of the slinking whisperer í who whispers into the hearts of
people í whether they be jinn or people’ (Qur’an 114).
At the actual moment of death the eyes and mouth of the deceased are closed.
All clothes are removed, or one may wait until the ritual cleansing. The arms
are gently stretched along the sides and the legs are kept straight; finally the
body is covered with a sheet or a piece of cloth. Qur’an verses can be recited
while doing this. Loud weeping by the bereaved is believed to be very disturbing for the deceased, whose soul is taken by now but who is still aware of what
goes on around him. For the same reason the deceased is not left alone or left in
the dark. Most dying rites are performed by close relatives in a very private setting; sometimes a ritual specialist is involved to recite more extensive Qur’anic
All suras cited are taken from the English Qur’an translation by Abdel Haleem (2004).
The original Arabic text, phonetic transcriptions and several English translations are
easily accessible online, for example on http://www.sacred-texts.com/isl/htq/index.htm.
The next of kin are also responsible for paying all debts the deceased might
have, a necessary step for the deceased to deal with the judgments that await
her. In this stage the bereaved greatly fear the bad influence Shaytan might have
on the deceased, an influence that will diminish once the person is buried. This
underscores the need for quick interment.
The process of dying is perceived as a test of one’s personal faith, a battle with demons, and those present at the deathbed are trying to ward off that
attack through the performance of rites. Although the suffering involved with
dying is feared, it is also perceived as necessary, as it cleanses the soul and tests
one’s faith in God. The end of the personal lifespan is on a collective level, believed to be determined by God. Dying puts an end to the possibility of doing
good deeds that will pay off in the afterlife. Purification and shrouding of the deceased
The deceased is taken from the place of death to a suitable facility for the performance of the ritual purification and shrouding. Although any screened off
area will do, better equipped places like funeral parlours are preferred. The ritual cleansing and shrouding of the deceased are specifically mentioned as a fard
kifaya and are explicitly prescribed in the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Although
the fiqh calls on direct family members to perform the ritual, it is commonly
done by ritual experts – volunteers that can be contacted through local mosque
organisations. Relatives are present in the room or waiting close by but in general do not take part in the ritual cleansing of their loved one. This rite is very
much hands-on and many are afraid of touching a dead person or fear that they
are not able to perform the ritual correctly. They fear they will not know how to
proceed or will be overwhelmed by emotion and unable to behave calmly. At
the washing place the body is laid on a raised surface and stripped of clothes (if
that wasn’t done already). The corpse should at all times stay covered with a
piece of cloth from navel to knees.
In principle the corpse of a man is washed only by men and that of a
woman only by women. However, a woman is allowed to wash her husband and
it is permissible for a young child to be washed by an adult of the opposite sex.
It is prescribed that close relatives should perform the washing and shrouding,
but this hardly ever happens, as it is considered very important that the deceased
should be washed by a Muslim who knows how to proceed. In the Netherlands
the majority of cleansings are performed by ritual experts. Before the cleansing
starts the washers perform their ablutions so as to be in a state of ritual purity
themselves and they express – audibly or mentally í the niyya (intention) to
perform the ritual act.
First the corpse is thoroughly cleansed of all impurities, using soap and
lukewarm water. The ghusl (full washing of the body) starts with the genitals
and anus, then the belly is pressed softly to empty the intestines. It is recommended to perform the wudu (ablution), consisting of washing the hands and
arms up the elbows, feet, face, neck and ears, and rinsing the nose and mouth
with water as Muslims do when preparing for their daily prayers. The body is
washed an odd number of times í at least three, if necessary five or seven times.
Each washing starts with the right side from the front to the back and from head
to feet, followed by the left side. The water for ablution might be mixed with
perfume, herbs, rose water, lotus or camphor. After the bathing the body is dried
and often some kind of perfume (like camphor) is put on the places that touch
the floor while praying: top of the feet, knees, hand palms, nose and forehead.
The washers are very careful to treat the deceased as if still alive, as it is
widely believed that they are still sentient and aware of what is going on around
them. That is why lukewarm water is used and all actions are executed respectfully. There should be enough washers so the deceased can be turned gently and
should not be turned face down. The deceased should not be disturbed by unrestrained expressions of grief, and less pleasant acts (like pressing the belly to
empty the intestines) are accompanied by whispered apologies. In the performance of these rites, the emphasis is very much on the wellbeing of the deceased, who is believed to be in a very vulnerable state. Then the body is
shrouded, using one or more pieces of clean, plain white cloth. As a rule the
shroud of a male consists of three pieces and that of a female of five. The final
sheet covers the entire body and is tied with cotton strips at the head, waist and
feet. This plain white shroud makes all equal in death. After the washing and
shrouding are done the washers ritually cleanse themselves.
The ritual purification has a very private character, as the bereaved are
gathered in a closed off area and they monitor who is attending. For women and
children it is often the last opportunity to say their final goodbyes. The moment
and place are also open for additional ritualising practices to accompany these
last private moments with the deceased. The funeral prayer
The next fard kifaya is the funeral prayer for the deceased, often said in the
courtyard of a local mosque. Sometimes the prayer is said inside a mosque, at a
funeral parlour or at the graveyard. The deceased has to be present and the bier
or casket with the corpse is placed in front of the men gathered for the prayer.
As a rule women do not take part in this ritual. Like for a regular prayer, the attendants have performed the ablution and face the qibla, but the funeral prayer
is said standing, without prostration.
The prayer starts with inner expression of the intention (niyya) to pray
the janaza and is generally followed by four takbirs (the utterance Allahu akbar,
‘God is the greatest’); it ends with the taslim (the formula Salam alaykum wa
rahmatullah, ‘Peace be upon you and the mercy of God’). Only the takbirs and
the taslim are spoken aloud by the person leading the prayer; the rest is recited
silently.8 After the first takbir a silent opening prayer is prayed, such as the
opening chapter of the Qur’an, Al-Fatiha (Qur’an 1):9
In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy!
Praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of
Mercy, Master of the Day of Judgment. It is You we worship; it is You we ask
for help. Guide us to the straight path: the path of those You have blessed,
those who incur no anger and who have not gone astray.10
The second takbir is followed by an attestation of faith like the so-called Ibrahim prayer:
O God, bestow Your favour on Muhammad and on the family of Muhammad
as You have bestowed Your favour on Ibrahim and on the family of Ibrahim,
You are Praiseworthy, Most Glorious. O God, bless Muhammad and the family of Muhammad as You have blessed Ibrahim and the family of Ibrahim.
You are Praiseworthy, Most Glorious.
After the third takbir a supplication for the deceased is directed to God, like this
well-known dua:
This makes it difficult to form a clear picture of how the prayer is actually said. It was
explained to me by one of the local imams (Personal interview Imam A, 20 January
2011 )
Depending on whether the funeral prayer is seen as a kind of salat (Fatiha is required)
or a dua – in this case dua al-istiftah í is recited: ‘Glory be to you, O Allah, and all
praises are due unto You, and blessed is Your name and high is Your majesty and none
is worthy of worship but you.’
The opening sura of the Qur’an is seen as a précis of the Qur’anic message. It is very
important in Islamic worship, being an obligatory part of the daily prayer repeated several times during the day.
O Lord! Forgive those of us that are alive and those of us that are dead; those
of us that are present and those of us who are absent; those of us who are
young and those of us who are adults; our males and our females. O Lord!
Whomsoever You keep alive let him live as a follower of Islam and whomsoever You cause to die, let him die a believer.11
Then a fourth takbir is recited, followed by a brief pause and a final taslim:
"Peace and blessings of God be unto you.” It is spoken with the head turned to
the right, with an option to repeat it with the head turned to the left. This concludes the prescribed prayers. In Turkish mosques – Muslims of Turkish descent make up a large proportion of the Dutch Muslim population í an additional rite is performed where fellow believers explicitly grant the deceased absolution.12
Before leaving the mosque the attendants offer their condolences to the
bereaved males and pay their last respects to the deceased by passing by the bier
or coffin. The funeral prayer is a public ritual that offers the local Muslim
community an opportunity to participate: the deceased is granted absolution and
the community can earn ajr. After this ritual the body is transported to the place
of burial. The vast majority of first generation Muslim migrants in the Netherlands still opt for burial in the country of origin, even though Islamic regulations prescribe burial at the place where one actually dies. The repatriation of
the deceased disrupts the usual order, place and time pattern and requires adaptation of the ritual practice, as we saw in chapter 2.
At the grave
Entering this phase entails crossing a threshold (limen) that Islamic eschatological narratives often refer to as barzakh (‘barrier’, Qur’an 23:99-100), representing an unbridgeable barrier between the deceased and the realm of the living.
The term ‘barzakh’ is also used to indicate the time between individual death
and resurrection: the so-called ‘life in the grave’ starts with the burial of the
body. 13 Both personal and collective eschatology are enacted in concrete ritual:
Collections of duas are available to believers through mosque organisations, pamphlets and on the internet, for example on http://www.duas.org/death.htm.
Referred to as helal etmek or tezkiye etmek by Dessing (2001, p.157).
References to barzakh are minimal in the Qur’an and although the Hadith provides
more information, it has become common knowledge mainly through popular imagery
(Lange, 2012). The rich barzakh imagery that evolved from the early centuries onwards
is a “genuine Islamic product, a rare phenomenon on the eschatological market”
(Eklund, 1941, p.82)
Funeral rites
Mourning rites
Grave visits Funeral rites
The final fard kifaya concerns the burial of a fellow Muslim. When interment
takes place in the Netherlands the deceased is commonly buried in the Islamic
graveyard – often a special part of the public cemetery. From the place where
the Salat al Janaza was performed the corpse is taken to the cemetery by car, as
distances are too great to be covered on foot. The bier is then carried from the
car to the grave, the carriers switching every few steps as it is widely believed
that ajr can be earned from this practice.
The construction of the grave is important, as it has to facilitate the eschatological events to come. It is dug in such a way that the deceased can be
laid facing the qibla and room is available for the angels to do their preliminary
questioning. Hence the sides of Muslim graves are often supported by wooden
scaffolding so that the body it will not be directly covered with soil. Since the
passing of the Dutch Corpse Disposal Act in 1991 the use of a coffin is no longer mandatory, but a coffin is also seen as convenient for transporting the body.14
When a coffin is used for moving the body from one place to another
the shrouded body is often taken out for the actual burial and the coffin is
placed upside down on the wooden scaffolding to create a kind of roofed
house.15 This enables the deceased to sit up for the preliminary interrogation.
Three men (preferably close relatives) place the corpse in the grave and turn it
to the right facing Mecca. A piece of cloth might be spread over the grave when
lowering the body of a woman. While doing so sura Taha (Qur’an 20:55) is recited: ‘from the earth We created you, into it We shall return you, and from it
We shall raise you a second time’. In the grave the right cheek of the deceased
is positioned to touch the soil and the ties at both ends of the kafan are unfastened. Everybody present throws three handfuls of earth into the grave while
also reciting sura Taha, whereupon some men fill the grave. Sometimes the
Fatiha (Qur’an 1) is prayed by all just before and after the burial, and sura Yasin (Qur’an 36) is recited once more. Immediately after the interment talqin
For repatriation a special coffin is still mandatory; this leaves the problem of whether
to burry with or without a coffin to the bereaved in the country of origin.
Or the open coffin is placed in the grave and the coffin lid is placed on some stats to
create the same effect.
(lecturing and learning by heart) is performed to prepare the deceased for the
preliminary judgment that is about to take place in the grave. It can be done by a
family member, but more commonly the imam sits down at the head of the
grave and addresses the deceased directly by name to ‘teach’ (prompt) him or
her about God’s role in life and death, life in the grave and the articles of faith
that the deceased has to present in the interrogation by the angels. An imam is
involved, even though this practice is considered a new invention with no roots
in primary sources. The talqin can take place after everyone has left but often
happens in the presence of the bereaved, as it is believed to be a lesson not only
for the deceased but also for those still alive. The first night after the burial
close relatives often add some duas to their regular prayers at home for the pardon and peace of the departed soul.
Burial rites are considered to be very public, open to all members of the
(adult male) Muslim community, an opportunity for even relative strangers to
earn ajr for their hereafter. Mourning rites
The fiqh allows grieving for a period of three days, the only period that the bereaved take centre stage.16 During this mourning period, starting after the funeral, friends and neighbours prepare food – mourning meals í for the bereaved
family and encourage them to eat.
The time my husband died was very hectic, there were so many things to do
and to organise, you go on and on… There is no time to think about yourself
and what you are feeling. When I got home after the funeral, I found all my
friends there… they cooked and they were there to take care of me. It brought
tears to my eyes, it was heart-warming… (Personal conversation Samira, 9
June 2011)
Although Islamic sources limit mourning to these three days and the majority of
Islamic scholars reject memorial gatherings as they don’t want grief to be
revived, they are very common. The bereaved gather after the burial and mourning gatherings are often held on the first three days, on the 7th and 40th day
after the death of their loved one (sometimes also after a hundred days and on
the first anniversary).
Only the mourning period of the widow (idda) is set at four months and ten days, the
legally prescribed waiting period during which a woman may not remarry after being
widowed or divorced (Qur’an 2:234).
Figure 5. The entrance of the general cemetery ‘Blerickse Bergen’. Through this gate
the body is carried to the Muslim parcels
Figure 6. The plaque at the entrance
These gatherings are organised at home and commonly consist in reading the
Qur’an (the whole Qur’an or certain verses) and preparing and serving of
mourning meals.
After my father’s death we prepared a lot of meals, we even had some sheep
killed, as a sacrifice… and we bought Fanta. We brought all of this to the Moroccan mosque my father always used to go to – they will give it to the people
there. It is what we are used to doing in our own country. I don’t know if they
were used to it in this mosque, but it is something we had to do. (Personal interview Ammar, 13 December 2010)
During the first three days the focus is on the bereaved and their loss and provide an opportunity for the bereaved and the community to interact. Offering
condolences, comfort and sympathy is seen as a good deed. During these first
days there is also a practice of loud expressions of grief (like wailing, lamentations, chest beating, tearing hair or clothes í mainly practised by women),
something strongly condemned by Islamic scholars. These expressions of grief
occur at a distance from the deceased so they will not be disturbed by it.
After the period of condolences, the focus shifts back to the deceased:
mourning gathering turns into memorial gathering. The practice of sadaqa
(Weir, 2012) í donating voluntary alms in name of the deceased í is common.
Some families have meals and bottled soft drinks brought to the local mosque to
be distributed to the community and close relatives take over certain duties of
the deceased, like the zakat (charity, donating to a good cause – one of the five
pillars of Islam), debts are paid, the Qur’an is recited, food is distributed, even a
hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) may be undertaken in the deceased’s name. The departed loved one is remembered in the niyya that is expressed inwardly before
performing any of these rites. Grave visits
Whereas mourning gatherings are collective, grave visits tend to be more personal. Visiting the grave of a loved one is seen as important for both the deceased and the bereaved. Perceived as the physical or symbolic place where
‘life in the grave’ happens, it is a tangible place where contact with the deceased
is sought. When visiting the grave, the deceased is greeted. One can pray (duas)
at the grave to seek forgiveness for the deceased, thereby earning merit. It
makes the people left behind very aware of what is awaiting them and that they
should use their time on earth wisely. It is also widely believed that the
deceased can mediate for the living, as they have more direct access to God
now. So personal problems of the living are brought to the grave, and when the
grave is too far other solutions are found.
The graves of my deceased relatives are not in Venlo, they are far away in our
village in Turkey. I know where they are and I can be in contact with them.
You can pray to God to give a message to your departed loved one. It is really
a strong connection that I feel. I do this almost every Thursday evening – that
is the best day for it. When I read from the Qur’an I say out loud the names of
those who are no longer here… I am one hundred per cent sure that my messages will be given to them by God. I think they are waiting for my prayers on
Thursday… (Personal interview Dilek, 20 January 2012)
A remarkable example of ritual creativity was proposed by Shukri. She actually
opts for cremation in order to suit her changed circumstances and give her children the opportunity to visit her grave:17
I married a Dutch man 15 years ago and moved from Java to Venlo. My two
youngest children from a previous marriage came with me, two others stayed
in Indonesia. That makes me part of two countries now and makes it complicated when I die. Although I am very much aware of the Islamic objections to
cremation, I see the division of my ashes among my children as my only option. They have to take care of me after I die. But they should not keep my
ashes in their house; they have to bury me so I can return to the earth like
Islam prescribes. Allah will understand that I am in two countries and that is
why I have to take these quite drastic measures. What choice do I have?
(Personal interview Shukri, 24 November 2010)
The major holidays (especially Fridays, Ramadan, 27th or last day of Ramadan)
and death anniversaries are considered particularly suitable days for grave visits. Although Islamic scholars write a lot about the prohibition to erect any
structure on the grave or decorate it, this creed is widely ignored: material traces
of grave visits are visible (plants, flowers, pictures, etc.) and headstones are
placed on the grave.
At the end of time
In this final phase both personal and collective eschatology will come to completion with the transition from dunya to akhira. It is also the phase that features
prominently in the Arabic terminology referring to Islamic eschatology: kiyama
This exceptional example was also cited in chapter 2 (§2.2.4).
Figure 7. Muslim graves at the Islamic burial site in Venlo-Blerick. There are in total
approximately 40 graves.
Figure 8. Muslim children’s graves at the Islamic Burial site ‘Blerickse Bergen’
(‘raising oneself’, ‘rising’, ‘resurrection’) or al-maad (‘the return’) (Gardet
2012). The Islamic eschatological myth promises a rebirth at the end of time
that will enable all deceased to live eternally in either heaven or hell. With the
complete destruction of the world at the end of time life in the grave and on
earth comes to an end and a final transition from the temporal to the eternal is
made collectively. The resurrection of all humankind leads up to God’s final
judgment of each individual, based on their deeds during their life on earth. But
although participation in these events is vividly described and often ardently anticipated, the final phase is very much a virtual one.
Rites, being concrete, temporal acts, are not applicable in eternity,
which is mythical time. One could speak of an ‘eschatological reserve’, a final
completion that is foreseen and expected but cannot be fully experienced (yet) –
it is reserved for the future in which both personal and collective eschatology
will be completed.18 The fact that the completing event is future or virtual
doesn’t mean it can be brushed off, as happens when mourning is considered to
be the final phase of the rite of passage (Sörries, 2005). Even though not lived
on earth, the events at the end of time are a vivid part of lived eschatology.
Enacted eschatology: a summary
In the phase before the funeral we see that at death the person’s active, physical
life comes to an end; and with it the possibility of earning merit for the hereafter. But the body is still present in dunya, earthly time. The focus is very much
on the deceased (or dying person), who is believed to be in a vulnerable state
and under constant ‘attack’ by evil influences, against which she has hardly any
defence. It is up to the bereaved to protect the deceased and engage in ritual enactment, for which the eschatological myth provides a framework on both a collective and a personal level. It is up to the bereaved and the wider Muslim
community to bring the personal lifespan of the deceased to a good close by
making the first transition as safe and as pleasant as possible through the performance of specific rites. Close relatives take the lead in the performance of
dying rites and the ritual cleansing and shrouding of the deceased, as they take
place in a private setting.
The funeral prayer is a public event open to all who are able to attend at
the mosque, making the body available to the broader (male) community.
It comes close to the concept of eschatological reserve in Christian theology, but the
way it works out in Islamic lived eschatology is rather different.
The funeral – the actual burial of the deceased í marks the transition to a new
phase at the grave. Funeral ritual entails intense interaction between bereaved
and deceased and, being public events, (male) relatives as well as the wider
Muslim community is involved. Ritual enactment is directed to the body. It is
the last time the deceased is visibly present in dunya, as the burial initiates the
slide into the in-between state of barzakh. Whereas the funeral is a peak of ritual support of the deceased by the Muslim community, once in the grave he has
to deal with the preliminary judgment on his own. At this point the focus shifts
to the next of kin for a mourning period of three days, during which the community takes care of them.
At the end of time there will no longer be deceased and bereaved and the
events that await all will be experienced collectively: the personal level dissolves into the collective.
Before the funeral
At the grave
At the end of time
Washing & shrouding
Funeral prayer
Grave visits
Figure 9. Dimensions of eschatology in death ritual
Final judgement
Paradise / Hell
We have constructed a framework for our analysis of enacted eschatology, in
which myth and ritual meet. To answer our research questions we once again
turn to our key concepts.
Ritual practice
How do death rite practices emerge from interactions between myth
and ritual?
To understand the ritual practice of enacted eschatology we first looked at the
organising principle of the meta-narrative (myth). This organising principle underlies death ritual as a whole, in which the separate death rites can be placed.
Hence the practice of concrete death ritual is described and further interpreted,
using the threefold structure of rites of passage as a steppingstone.
Ritual practice is very much moulded by the interaction between the bereaved and the deceased, occurring in a framework of personal and collective
eschatology. Bereaved and deceased take various roles and positions towards
each other and the significance and intensity of their interaction varies. The rites
of separation í the phase before the funeral í are clearly prescribed in fiqh literature. For the rites of transition – at the grave – there are just a few guidelines,
in particular from the moment the deceased is buried. The rites of reintegration
are preliminary rites that are not prescribed at all. But here we see myth at work,
as collective perceptions of barzakh shape the interaction between bereaved and
deceased, who are still available for ritual action. As primary Islamic sources
provide hardly any information on the period between personal death and resurrection, this gap is filled by popular imagination mainly in the form of narratives, resulting in additional, semi-public mourning rites (gatherings at death
anniversaries) and more private ones, like grave visits that entail personal interaction between close relatives and the deceased.
It is commonly believed that the deceased in the grave gain insight into
the unseen – God and eternal afterlife – and can therefore function as intermediaries between the living and God. During this period of life in the grave we find
not only that rites are performed for the deceased to ameliorate their fate, but
the deceased remain available for ritual action to serve the bereaved either in
their present state or as future deceased. Although the final incorporation is
purely virtual, life in the grave is perceived as giving the deceased a (fairly extensive) glimpse of what awaits them.
Ritual context: migration
What impact does the migration context have on the ritual myth and beliefs?
In most academic studies the Islamic eschatological myth is expounded as a
complete, coherent and self-contained unit. Although on the whole Muslims in
Venlo are familiar with this eschatological myth, their knowledge appears to be
much more fragmented. Certain aspects, certain stories are singled out and
elaborated on extensively in popular narratives. These vivid narratives circulate
in various Muslim communities in Venlo and are strongly influenced by the migration context. As noted before, in the case of death the migration context is a
somewhat insecure setting; being a religious minority, the diversity of the Muslim community or simply unfamiliarity with death in the new context makes it
difficult to adequately deal with the situation. It is this challenging context that
colours the detailed stories highlighting certain aspects of the eschatological
myth. The stories – they can be reassuring or frightening – reveal various attitudes towards death. The fragmentation of the eschatological myth as represented in the lived eschatology of Muslims in a particular context (migration context of Venlo) has obvious implications for both the ritual order and the frame
of reference it creates. As Rappaport (1999, p.135) puts it: ‘In contrast to myths,
rituals even when they seem to be no more than detailed re-enactments of myths
always stipulate a relation between performers and that which they perform.
Such rituals communicate more than their myths. They communicate the indexical message of the participants’ acceptance of those myths as well.’
It has become clear that in this particular migration context, along with
the meta-narrative, popular narratives play an important role. Hence we need to
research this popular eschatological imagery and the way it takes shape in popular narratives in Venlo carefully. Chapter 5 í ‘Ritual narratives. Re-imagining
death rites in a small town context’ – is devoted to that.
Ritual content: meaning
How do these beliefs function in lived eschatology?
In terms of Van Gennep’s structure it is clear that in this world we have an ‘incomplete’ rite of passage, as the final phase of reincorporation í at the end of
time í is purely virtual. At the same time it is much anticipated by Muslims as a
phase of completion, strongly advocated by the Islamic myth and enacted in ritual. The Islamic myth presents a powerful collective image of the final eschatological fulfilment that result in a practice where the deceased takes centre stage,
with rites of passage that focus on their final crossing over. At the same time
various bereaved (always in a certain relation to the deceased) are the ones who
initiate and perform these rites.
The eschatological expectations conveyed by the Islamic myth make the
bereaved strive for a prompt burial to relieve the deceased. Ritual enactment in
this phase is strictly regulated, as it is driven by the collective perception of an
‘eschatological reserve’ that is expected and foreseen but not experienced (yet).
In the migration context the focus on the deceased is still obvious in this first
phase, but the ritual enactments are not always in keeping with the meaning the
eschatological myth provides. In practice the requirement of a prompt burial often turns out to be secondary to personal wishes, like the wish of the vast majority of first generation migrants to be buried in their country of origin. This clearly stands in the way of prompt burial, as repatriation takes time. The burial of
the deceased initiates a fairly undefined waiting period that has to be bridged. It
entails a strong sense of uncertainty, as no one knows when the end of time will
come. Islamic primary sources don’t expand on the period of barzakh. This
lacuna has given rise to a rich popular imagery, resulting in less regulated ritual
In contrast with the phase before the funeral that is completed within
hours (a few days at most) of death, ritual enactments at the grave stretch over a
long period of time. They can take a lifetime or even longer, with new generations still visiting graves of their ancestors. In this phase í and our fieldwork
highlights it í the bereaved are more ready to break regulations, particularly in
the practice of extended mourning rites and grave visits. In these cases we see
that the eschatological myth is adapted to accord with the ritualising enactments
performed by the bereaved. People create additional narratives, for example to
explain why it is better for the repose of the deceased’s soul to be buried in their
country of origin. Either one emphasises some aspects more than others, or one
simply ignores certain aspects of the eschatological myth. The fragmentation of
the eschatological myth discussed in 4.4.2 is also apparent here. Lived eschatology largely takes shape in this ‘in-between’ phase (at the grave), where there is
room for a more personal beliefs and images of life after death and where meanings can be adapted to the context, resulting in more personalised ritual enactment conveying more personalised meanings.
In search of the ritual repertoires available to Muslims faced with death in a migration context we encountered ritual elements, ritual actors and their roles, and
ritual myths and the beliefs associated with death rites. In this chapter we expand the ritual repertoire by focusing on narratives: what is the role of narratives in constructing the meaning of death ritual?
In chapter 4 we concentrated on the content and ritual use of narrative
on a meta-level. We showed how both lived and ritually enacted eschatology
defines the ritual process and structure. We also noted that in the process of
constructing ritual meaning the eschatological myth has become very fragmented and personal and popular narratives are invoked to cope with the challenges
of the small town migration context.
In this chapter we leave the meta-perspective of the grand narrative,
take a step back and look at the glue that apparently holds all these findings together: a process of (re-)imagination reflected in and instigated by popular narratives.1
Introducing a world of narratives
In this chapter we explore popular narratives relating to death ritual, micro level
stories of ordinary Muslims in the Venlo context. It is a vibrant body of popular
narratives, much more fluid than the eschatological myth, which is often perceived as unchanging. We are referring to narrative in the sense of storytelling:
people’s own accounts of their lives and experiences. Note that these personal,
individual stories are always linked to the collective or community; they accord
Like Roof (1993) we focus on the actual stories and themes rather than submerging
ourselves in semiotics, hermeneutics or deconstruction – however intriguing these might
be. Our approach is reflective and interpretive, more in the verstehen tradition, as Roof
puts it.
with broader social narratives (Lawler, 2002, p. 251). And as they have implications for major interpretive questions, they are more than just illustrations
(Roof, 1993, p. 297). These are highly interactive stories that both depict and
shape the context in which they occur. In addition people act (ritually) on the
basis of these narratives, hence they shape ritual practice. The narratives are part
of constructing ritual meaning, a process of re-imagining directly linked with
ritual creativity (Grimes, 2000). Thus studying these stories affords necessary
insight into the ritual dynamics of death rites. It is an approach Ronald Grimes
passionately advocates for studying ritual – as it is ‘entanglement with narrative’ (Grimes, 2007, 14) – and of which his book Deeply into the bone (2000) is
a fine example.
We are not only interested in the content of narratives – what the story
is about – but also in their function and purpose. In the case of content we look
at the ideas, attitudes and fantasies (regarding death and death rites) expressed
by Muslims in Venlo: how do they perceive death and the practice of death rites
in both their context of origin and their present context – and how do these contexts interact? Through narratives people paint a picture of the world they live
in: they portray themselves, others and their views of the world. Hence these
stories are an important tool for making sense of experiences and provide a collective understanding of how things (should) work (Riessman, 2008, p. 193). It
is also worth noting that stories are told not so much to illustrate as to affirm
who we are and what gives identity, purpose and meaning to our existence
(Roof, 1993, p. 198).
Narratives are social products of people in a specific context. They take
us into worlds of meaning or, as Geertz (1973, p. 5) puts it, into ‘webs of significance’. So stories are motivated by a search for meaning and a drive for coherence: they bring things together, sharpen the focus and help people see things
differently (Roof, 1993, p.299). This points to another function of narratives:
that of transmitting information. We saw in previous chapters that information
on death rites is desperately needed, as Muslims in Venlo operate in the often
challenging circumstances of a small town migration context. Narratives build a
body of local knowledge that is not in the first place based on factual information. These stories don’t primarily transmit facts; they are produced by people in a specific context and convey the teller’s version of events, experiences
and emotions. Storytellers and their stories are closely interwoven, hence these
stories are able to persuade or induce scepticism. They have the ability to awaken emotions and trigger responses, they are able to mobilise people (whether in-
tentionally or not). A final significant quality of narrative, important for our research, is the way it links past and present (Lawler, 2002, p. 248). It has a way
of synthesising two different dimensions of time (Lawler, 2002, p. 245). In narratives we see how the past is remembered, revised and edited to fit the present
The continuous interaction between personal narratives and their context means that they can’t be reduced to mere personal experiences. Stories both
reflect and shape the social context they interact with and they also evoke a response from an ‘audience’. Thus narratives have unique potential to reveal how
Muslim communities in Venlo ritually deal with their deceased. This makes
them an interesting subject of study, as they reveal nuances and subtle shades of
meaning (Roof, 1993, p. 301).
Applying the key concepts
By applying the key concepts of our research we want to gain insight into the
role of narratives in the practice of Muslim death ritual in the small town context of Venlo. How do these narratives interact with ritual structure and meaning? Ritual practice
That ritual practice is not simply regulated by Islamic rules and regulations has
become clear from the previous chapters. Narratives í both their content and
function í play a part in ritual practice. The ritual practice is presented through
narratives and at the same time it is evaluated. This shows the ability of stories
to interact with death rite practices. In and through these narratives ritual (re-)
imagination takes place. But how does the interaction take place? How can we
deepen our insight into this complex process?
How are narratives and death ritual interlinked? Ritual context: migration
Death ritual takes shape in a certain context, in our case the migration context of
small town Venlo. We have designated it a context of change that challenges
individual Muslims and various Muslim communities in the way they deal with
death and the performance of death rites. In Venlo most Muslims refer to a context of origin that is often seen as the point of departure, both literally and figuratively. For migrants it is their home country and the culture they physically
left at a certain point in time. For others it is the context they feel strongly con-
nected with – possibly the home of their parents or ancestors. The present context (the context of arrival) is where they are living now. Here a new context is
configured in which these diverse Muslims have to relate to each other and to
How do migration, context and narratives interact? Ritual content: meaning
Muslims in Venlo express their social and religious experiences of death and
death rites in narratives. These narratives (story fragments, elements of the meta-narrative, stories and counter-stories) are woven into a meaningful pattern.
Popular narratives circulate in the various communities, some for a short time
(e.g. in reaction to recent events) while others persist for years. They become a
way of presenting and transferring the ‘knowledge’ that is typical of lived religion in that it represents experiences, events and ideas of ordinary Muslims in a
particular context. It is a vivid part of the ritual process of constructing meaning. Narratives are interpretive devices through which people portray themselves and their views to themselves and to others. Apart from constructing
meaning, these stories are also used to mobilise others and can bring about
What is the role of narratives in the construction of ritual meaning?
Popular narratives in Venlo
Our field research in Venlo – interviews, conversations and observations í involved a wide variety of Muslims. Within the various communities we found
that certain narratives concerning death rites kept recurring. Our research data
yielded many stories about how and where death rites are (or should be) practised. There are two main themes: (fear of) cremation and (the quest for) a place
of burial – themes to be elaborated on in this chapter. When confronted with
death people turn their personal experiences into stories. They show us how
these events raise questions and issues. The narratives that evolve present
worldviews of Muslims in Venlo and how they deal with the dominant culture
in their particular context. Many personal stories dwell on the theme of cremation, which is seen as typically Dutch:
A few years ago one of our fellow countrymen died unexpectedly. He was a
young guy and no one expected him to die! And as he has no relatives in this
country it was very difficult for us, his friends here in Venlo, to decide what
we should do. We were very, very worried when it became clear that someone
from the municipality was in charge…. They have no clue how we deal with
our deceased loved ones! They have no clue at all! We were so worried that
they would cremate him. That is what they do! I heard it is cheaper to cremate
than to bury a dead person – so the choice is easy for them. If it is cheaper, the
Dutch will do it… And of course there is not much space in this country, you
are so many! And probably it is necessary to burn your deceased otherwise
there will be too many corpses in the cemeteries. In Islam it is forbidden to
cremate a body … I find it so harsh… You know, my relatives are not here, so
I worry about what will happen if I die. Will they cremate me? I have to make
arrangements that this will not happen! (Personal interview Boubacar, 11 February 2011)
The other main theme is eternal graves that are not common in the Netherlands.
Narratives on this topic often contain horrible details of the way graves are
emptied after some time:
Can I ask you something? You are Dutch and you might know about it… I
hear so many stories about the way the Dutch handle their deceased. Is it true
that they empty the graves after some time? I heard they empty the graves
with a shovel and then all bodies are dumped in one place…. Or do they burn
them? It is like a horror movie! If it is like this, it would be very difficult for
me to be buried here in Venlo when I die… In Morocco this would never
happen! Impossible! So it might be safer to be buried there… (Personal interview Soraya, 23 November 2011)
Some narratives deal with the question of where you want to be buried in a single phrase:
Let me be short on this: when I get buried I prefer ezan [Islamic call for prayer] to church bells. (Personal conversation Ebru, 24 April 2010)
Financial considerations were often mentioned to explain the choice (or wish) to
be repatriated after death:
I checked what it would cost to be buried in the Netherlands, and I was
shocked by the prices… Not so much the price for the funeral but how much
it costs to be buried in Dutch soil! You only pay for ten years or so and then
your relatives have to renew the grave rights, and pay again! I know that it al-
so costs a lot of money to transport my corpse to Morocco but the grave is for
free… (Personal conversation Hassan, 8 December 2010)
We have funeral insurance through our mosque [Diyanet]. They arrange for us
to be buried in Turkey when we die, all costs are covered… For this we pay
something like 50 euros each year, for me and my wife and for the children
that still live at home. I think it is a good deal… (Personal conversation
Ismael, 18 February 2011)
The foregoing narratives reflect a kind of mistrust of their present context in
Venlo and they oppose ritual practice in the Netherlands. There are also narratives that deal mainly with the glorious context of origin:
Of course I want to return to Turkey when I die… or maybe not so much to
Turkey in general, but to my village. I love that place! I have such good
memories of my childhood there. It is surrounded by beautiful mountains and
stunning views and all my relatives are buried there… It is my personal
choice. (Personal conversation Gulsen, 21 February 2011)
The narratives in circulation are evaluated (Labov, 1972) by the receivers and
may lead to counter-narratives that oppose these stories in some way. For
example, there are narratives told by Muslims who don’t have a choice in where
to be buried due to the situation in their home countries:
I respect the rules the prophet Mohammed has given me, they are a guideline
in my life. When I die I want to be buried in that place – like our religion prescribes, like the prophet was buried where he died. I have visited the Muslim
cemetery in Blerick, it is not a bad place at all! The views from the new Maas
Boulevard [a new shopping centre in Venlo on the river Maas; Blerick is situated on the other bank] are splendid! No, I am just joking a bit. Being buried
in Venlo will be fine… (Personal interview Mo, 26 November 2010)
My brother died and was buried here in Venlo... and I can tell you, I was very
content with the help we received from our funeral insurance. They really did
a good job! First I was a bit worried because Nationale Nederlanden is a real
Dutch company and we had an Islamic funeral, but it worked out fine. They
made all the arrangements, only the religious things we organised ourselves.
They even paid for the food we served to all the people staying in our house
on the days after the funeral. Now I tell all my Muslim friends about it … to
take out insurance in the Netherlands, it is so much easier… (Personal interview Ahmad, 13 December 2010)
These narratives are numerous and they seem to crop up over and over again.
Of course, the stories are not repeated verbatim; they are adapted and altered in
accordance with personal experience and the circumstances of the context they
interact with. Although they originate from personal experiences, conveying
personal thoughts, the narratives are recognised by others living in similar circumstances. We also see how narratives interact and are often triggered by incidents reported in various media. They challenge people to react and express an
opinion about it, resulting in storytelling.
Narrative themes on death rites in various media
On these themes respondents frequently referred to what they heard or read in
national news media (papers and television), books and the internet. These media both represent and instigate personal and popular narratives. That is why
one needs to investigate narratives concerning cremation and place of burial in
various media.
Clearly the media do more than communicate information. Through the
media people share (often personal) experiences. This sharing makes personal
stories ‘common knowledge’ (Hjarvard, 2006, p.10); at the same time they interact with other personal narratives, creating popular narratives that circulate in
Muslim communities. They become persistent stories that are told and retold,
over and over again. The following sections present some concrete examples of
these interacting popular and media narratives.
News media
Some news items are directly connected with the practice of Muslim death rites
in the Netherlands. From time to time (national) news media pick up on cases
that they see as newsworthy, which trigger debates in the various Muslim communities in Venlo.2 During our research people frequently referred to items that
were in the news in recent years.
In 2007 the intended cremation of a 34-year-old policewoman Habiba
Yaakoubi (Rotterdam region) of Moroccan descent was a hot item in the news-
The book Religie in de krant (‘Religion in the newspaper’ – Wiegers & Beck, 2005)
shows how newspaper clippings make interesting research material. It deals with questions like to whom and how the presented cases are explained.
papers for some time.3 A court order – applied for by the mother of the deceased
– put a stop to the cremation ceremony that was already being arranged. Habiba’s non-Muslim partner stated it was her last wish to be cremated, a wish that
was also documented. Her relatives successfully contested the authenticity of
that document in court and eventually, after three months, Habiba’s body was
buried in the Islamic part of the cemetery in Rotterdam. The narrative about this
event includes discussions about the role of the relatives. Habiba’s mixed relationship with a Dutch non-Muslim and her personal wishes were ignored.
Every now and then there are news stories in which the absence of relatives creates a dilemma. Thus there was a Muslim in Eindhoven whose funeral
was taken care of by the municipality and a non-Muslim neighbour, who opted
for cremation. National newspaper Trouw (Hakkenes, 2012) picked up on this
case in a short interview with Ibrahim Wijbenga, chairman of IBW (Stichting
Islamitisch Begrafeniswezen) on how to prevent this from happening again.
Wijbenga and his foundation actively raise awareness of the reason why cremation is not an option in Islam and calls on Muslims to make their final wishes
known (e.g. through a codicil). Wijbenga himself is a Muslim of mixed descent
í his mother is Moroccan and his father Dutch í and is strongly motivated by
his personal experiences. Other narratives originate from the strained political
situation in the Netherlands. Political parties like the PVV (the far-right ‘Freedom Party’) and its leader Geert Wilders openly express anti-Islamic viewpoints. In 2007 the PVV caused a stir about the appointment of two state secretaries, Ahmed Aboutaleb and Nebahat Albayrak. Their loyalty was questioned
because of their dual nationalities (Dutch and Moroccan/Turkish). Aboutaleb
countered this attack on his integrity by stating that when he dies “he entrusts
his body to Dutch soil” (Etty, 2007; RTVNH, 2007). Being buried in the Netherlands became a statement of full integration of Muslim migrants with Dutch
society, which was repeated in various news media. A few years later a DutchMoroccan Muslim, Ahmed Marcouch – a public figure, role model and member
of parliament í spread the same message (Marcouch, 2010; AT5, 2010).
More substantial was the contribution of Nadia Zerouali in the TV programme De halve maan, (‘The crescent moon’, NTR, 2012), a weekly, opinion
forming news show with a sharp eye for developments in the Muslim communi3
The case is also is also described in “Moslims doen het helemaal zelf” (Woytkowiak
& Wiegers, 2008). Some newspaper reports: Justitie eist lichaam agente op tijdens crematie, Algemeen Dagblad, 20 February 2007; Onduidelijkheid over wilsbeschikking
agente blijft, Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau. 26 April 2007; Laatste juridische strijd
om begrafenis Vlaardingse, Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau, 15 May 2007.
ty.4 The programme showed Nadia’s family í her parents (first generation migrants from Morocco) and siblings, all living in the small town of Winterswijk
í discussing where they want to be buried when they die. All facets were
covered: the mother’s wish to be buried with her family in Morocco, the
father’s wish to die in Mecca or to be buried where he dies (probably in Winterswijk), the need of the children to be able to visit their parents’ graves and to
be buried in Dutch soil in an Islamic way. In the studio Nadia explains that
some years ago when her husband unexpectedly died, his relatives automatically assumed that he would be repatriated to Morocco. Nadia resisted and, in
keeping with her late husband’s wishes, opted for interment in the Netherlands.
As Winterswijk had no Islamic cemetery, he was buried in Lelystad (150 km
away). Because of this personal experience she wants to raise awareness of this
issue in Muslim communities, breaking the taboo on talking about death.
For some years now more and more ‘Islamic’ books í mainly translations of
existing Arabic texts – have been available in the Dutch language. They are
available via specialised Islamic internet bookshops and sometimes (a small selection) at local mosques.5 In regard to death and dying there is a variety of
books on topics like the afterlife, life in the grave and the practice of Islamic
death rites.6 Many books provide guidelines for ‘correct ritual practice’ or, as
the preface to Begrafenissen: voorschriften en vermaningen [‘Funerals, prescriptions and admonitions’] (Al Djibaaly n.d.) puts it:
This work is a humble answer to the idea that we have a great responsibility to
help generate books for a Dutch speaking readership í books that clarify Islam and present it purely and simply, adhering meticulously to the way it was
understood and executed by its first righteous pioneers: the selef.
The program’s website: http://dehalvemaan.ntr.nl
Some of the on line bookstores: http://www.islamboeken.nl/levensloop/de-dood
http://www.islamboekhandel.nl/25-dood-en-het-hiernamaals-25, http://islam-boek.nl
With titles like: De dood, het graf en wat erna gebeurt (‘Death, the grave and what
happens afterwards’, As Soejoethie, 2005), Het graf, bestraffing en genieting (‘The
grave, punishment and enjoyment’, Al-Wassaabie, 2010), Begrafenissen, voorschriften
en vermaningen (‘Funerals, prescriptions and admonitions’, Al Djibaaly, n.d.) and De
dag der opstanding (‘The day of resurrection’, Al-Asjqar, 2008).
The blurbs generally provide clear descriptions of what can be expected of the
book, like the one on the cover of Begrafenisrituelen in de islam [‘Funeral rites
in Islam’] (Brahmi, 2007):
How many Muslims die in the pretended and general indifference of their
‘brothers’ in faith? How many of them died while the religious community
denied them their God-given rights? How many of them were cremated and
cast into oblivion, unattended and without prayers? The intention of this book
is to fill this horrendous gap.7
Or this fragment on the back of Het graf, morgen is het jouw beurt [‘The grave,
tomorrow it is your turn’] (Ya’qûb, 2010):
My brothers and sisters in Islam, my loved ones. Hold a moment. Meditate!
Think about your next stage. No one will escape Allah the almighty. Let’s feel
the fear of the tortures of the grave. What will happen? You will be in the
grave all alone. The address of the grave, the pressure of the grave, the questioning of the angels, the opening of the door to paradise or hell, the causes of
agony: how can one protect oneself against the torments of the grave?
These books mainly contain quotations from the Qur’an, collections of ahadith
and fiqh literature complete with explanations, lessons to be learnt and practical
guidelines. They often explicitly warn against ‘innovations’, additional practices that don’t correspond with Islamic sources. Although many of them attempt
to provide guidelines for localised contexts (Muslim minorities in the West), it
is striking how they all present a highly uniform, static picture of Islam. The
books are bought and read mainly by young people in search of answers to their
questions. Quotations from these books are often used in peer group discussions.
The World Wide Web offers an abundance of information on Islamic death
rites. This information is not always easy to assess, as the sources are not al7
Hoeveel moslims sterven in de quasi algemene onverschilligheid van hun "broeders"
in het geloof? Hoeveel van hen zijn overleden zonder dat de geloofsgemeenschap hun
laatste rechten die door god voorgeschreven zijn, vervuld heeft? Hoeveel onder hen
werden gecremeerd en in de vergetelheid gegooid, zonder begeleiding en zonder
gebed? Dit boek heeft de bedoeling om op dit vlak een verschrikkelijke leegte op te vullen.
ways clear and the information is diffuse. For young Muslims in Venlo the internet is a source of reference and a place (various internet forums, cyber
imams) where questions can be asked freely: where and how to be buried,
whether a Muslim can attend the funeral of a non-Muslim and how to ensure an
Islamic funeral when your relatives are not Muslims (as is the case with converts), how to live your religion in this day and age and in this particular context. In his research into the religious identity of young Moroccan-Dutch Muslims, Martijn de Koning (2008) finds that youngsters resort to the internet in
search of answers to their questions as they often feel that they cannot turn to
their parents for these. Different perceptions and interpretations of religion and
religious practices seem to create a generation gap, making the parents unsuitable conversation partners. De Koning also points out that the online and offline
worlds of exchanging ideas and knowledge are highly interactive: ‘they influence, complete and change each other’ (De Koning, 2008, p.307). The internet
is also a great source of books and news items – including those that don’t make
it to national TV or newspapers – and of instructive videos on various death
The Stichting Islamitisch Begrafeniswezen (IBW) runs a highly informative website, providing clear information on Islamic death rites – all in
line with their mission to provide Muslims in the Netherlands with a proper Islamic burial (place).8 They explicitly focus on the establishment Islamic graveyards that contain perpetual graves only, a message they keep repeating (on the
site and in various media through their spokesperson Ibrahim Wijbenga) and
that is non-negotiable.9 In this way they contribute greatly to the popular narrative on this theme.10
The IBW website: http://www.stichtingibw.nl/
This episode in the television programme InFocus (NMO, 2010) contains a discussion
on Islamic funerals between Dr Umar Ryad, Islamic scholar at the University of Leiden,
and Ibrahim Wijbenga (IBW). Interestingly, they disagree on the idea of perpetual
graves as an absolute requirement in Islam. Wijbenga’s consistent message can be
traced in all his media appearances (like van Veen & Pietersen, 2007; van Hoof, 2008;
van der Heijden, 2011; van Es, 2012; van den Hoven & van Hunsel, 2012).
The internet has become an important source of information and an arena for discussion, in particular for young Muslims. The significance of these developments and its
actual effect on Muslim death ritual in the Netherlands is an interesting lead for further
Between two contexts: a process of re-imagination
As described in the previous section, popular narratives have made the themes
of cremation and burial ‘common knowledge’ (Hjarvard, 2006, p. 10) in Muslim communities in Venlo. It is a type of knowledge that is still fluid, as there is
still lively interaction that both presents and moulds their views on the context
they live in right now. Although these popular narratives centre on cremation
and burial, they offer a much broader view that transcends these topics. In their
narratives Muslims in Venlo evolve their perception of the context they are
living in. This migration context challenges them to deal with death and it is also the context in which they actually perform their death rites. Personal and
popular narratives define the real-life context and show that this context is
closely connected with the context of origin. This affects the way they (ritually)
act. Narratives instigate, represent and mould a process of re-imagination that
warrants a closer look.
Where we come from you are surrounded by Muslims, you really grow up
like a Muslim, so when someone dies everybody knows what to do. You can
simply ask the neighbours. That is so different here, nobody knows anything.
(Personal interview Mo, 26 November 2010)
We have referred to Amadou’s shock on finding himself at the cremation ceremony of a Dutch friend (chapter 2, §2.2.4). But even less confrontational experiences at ‘Dutch funerals’ make Muslims think about their own death rites, in
relation to either their context of origin or the current context of Venlo:
I’ve been to several funerals here in Venlo, you hear from colleagues or their
relatives… And some things were really beautiful, like the way the Dutch can
express their emotions in words. It is so much more dignified than the unrestrained emotional crying and shouting that I am used to. I know Islam is
against this kind of extreme emotional expression of grief, but people do it
anyway – they can learn from the Dutch in this regard… But then there is this
music! Bang! That I can’t get used to, with loud music like this you have no
respect for the deceased… (Personal interview Dilek, 20 January 2010)
My husband is from here [Venlo], he is a Catholic … so I did go to Catholic
funerals here with him. What really surprises me is that you don’t see the person getting buried! You leave the cemetery and the coffin is still standing
there… How can you be sure that your loved one is actually buried there? It is
important to know that they are there when you come back to visit their grave,
it is what I am used to. If I have to burry people that are close to me, I really
want to stay and see the coffin go into the soil… (Personal interview Shukri,
24 November 2010)
It is such narratives that make people rediscover and re-imagine death ritual that
might lead to a re-invention of death rites that accord with the given circumstances.
Re-imagining death rites
When confronted with death in a new context people often have to improvise
because of the very different context. But they also rely on experiences, memories and (family) traditions they know from their home countries. Thus for most
Muslims in Venlo (death) ritual is closely connected with their context of
origin. People re-imagine how the ritual was performed or, even more compellingly, how it should be performed in the original context and how to translate
this to their new context. This powerful form of re-imagination is what Ronald
Grimes (2000, p. 111) calls fantasy: “the fantasy of a ritual, more than the
memory of it, often determines practice.” Grimes defines this particular way of
imagining as self-preoccupied and projective, leading to reinvention of ritual.
This process of re-imagining/fantasy involves both the context of origin and the
present context, and the way people relate to them is expressed in an extensive
body of narratives.
Narratives originate, circulate and are adapted in different communities
(ethnic groups, social groups, families; also internet forums and refugee centres). There are stories about personal experiences, religious regulations (like
eternal grave rest), the Dutch ritual practice of death rites (especially cremation), Dutch government regulations and how other Muslim communities in the
new context practise Islam and Islamic ritual. They not only interact with the
current context but also influence Muslims’ perception of their original context.
The narratives link past and present, creating a ‘remembered past’ to fit the present – it constitutes past experience and at the same time makes sense of it
(Lawler, 2002, p. 248).
We see that the original context is often romanticised and presented as
an ideal world where in the event of a death one can go to any neighbour, who
will know how to proceed. This often contrasts with narratives about the present
context, which are strongly influence by the fact that here Muslims are a minority – and one has to be wary of cremation! In some cases this disoriented,
marginalised position makes it impossible to perform the ritual washing and
shrouding according to a fixed tradition (religion, culture, family), necessitating
re-imagination, improvisation and re-invention of (parts of) the ritual practice.
To determine the role of narratives in the construction of meaning we studied
personal and popular narratives. These narratives guided us through the process
of re-imagining that afforded insight into the ritual dynamics of a migration
context. In answering our research questions we again turn to our key concepts.
Ritual practice
How do narratives impact on ritual practice?
Through narratives Muslims interact with that context in order to construct
meaning and bring order to their lives. Thus narratives define both the present
context and the context of origin, expressing ideas, attitudes and fantasies. Ritual practice in Venlo takes shape between those two contexts that are presented
as opposites: an ideal, glorified original context and a problematic present context. Muslims in Venlo deal with this tension by genuinely seeking clear guidelines on how to perform death rites (or have them performed) ‘correctly’. They
consult or hire imams or other specialists, they attend courses, read books and
visit internet sites that offer clear, fixed guidelines and proceed on their authority. They don’t (often simply can’t) just take over a ritual repertoire from the
context of origin: it won’t fit their present circumstances and usually they have
no knowledge or experience of the ritual practice. So through narratives death
rites are re-imagined and reinvented to suit the present context. In this reimaging process people draw on experiences that might vary greatly among the
Muslims communities in Venlo: originating from different countries and regions, having different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and their own personal
biography. Besides, people’s migration experience might vary, as might their
religious affiliation. These nuances can be traced in people’s narratives and
counter-narratives and they affect ritual practice. In particular public death rites
(like burials) are reshaped by popular narratives and seem to become fairly uniform, whereas more private rites (like the ritual cleansing of the deceased and
grave visits) become refuges for ritual creativity that reflect greater diversity.
Migration context
How do migration, context and narratives interact?
Muslim migrants in Venlo find themselves in a context where they experience
disorientation and marginality, which becomes more evident in the face of
death. Dying in this particular context raises unavoidable issues and questions.
The confrontation with Dutch society and the way people handle death and
death rites in Venlo, personal experiences of death and death rites are slotted
into stories that both reflect and shape the context they are living in. The context
of origin is an unmistakable part of the current context and in narratives that
past and the present are brought together, trying to make sense of experiences in
both contexts. These narratives show that death rites are shaped ‘between’ contexts.
Ritual content: meaning
What is the role of narratives in the construction of ritual meaning?
Narratives define both the present context and the context of origin, and they do
not necessarily do it in a factual way. They weave worlds of meaning, ‘webs of
significance’, in which death rites are performed. Via the themes of cremation
and burial we can see how Muslims in Venlo try to make sense of their experiences and turn them into a collective understanding. We see fragments of the
meta-narrative (eschatological myth) crop up, which interact with the context
and become part of popular narratives; they become part of a miscellany of subjects that are thrown together in order to make sense of it all. In the weaving of
meaningful patterns we also see ritual construction of meaning. Narratives make
us perceive how lived religion takes shape and how ritual meaning is ascribed.
Throughout this study we have been exploring various ritual repertoires used by
Muslims dealing with death in a migration context. Spotlighting the pivotal rite
of washing and shrouding the deceased, we were able to unravel and interpret
the practice of death rites in a small town context in the Netherlands. The previous five chapters showed how Muslims negotiate and appropriate their ritual
repertoires in the migration situation. Each chapter focused on how a specific
ritual repertoire is practised and shaped to fit the context.
Research questions and outline of conclusion
In this final chapter we collate the identified repertoires in an overview. It will
enable us to answer our research questions:
When confronted with death, what ritual repertoires emerge among Muslims
in the small town migration context of Venlo and how did these ritual repertoires evolve?
What elements of death ritual are significant to contemporary Muslims?
Which roles can be distinguished in the practice of the ritual cleansing
and shrouding of the deceased?
What ritual beliefs are connected with death rites?
What is the role of narratives in the ritual process of constructing meaning?
Our key concepts – ritual practice, ritual context, ritual content (see 1.2) were
vital in unravelling these ritual repertoires. They will obviously feature in this
concluding chapter. In previous chapters we saw how ritual repertoires and key
concepts are interlinked and were able to refine our insight into both the repertoires and the concepts.
Concepts ĺ
Repertoires Ļ
Ritual context:
Ritual content:
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Figure 10. Recapitulating repertoires and concepts relating to death rites
The key concepts are discussed in section 6.2 on the situation in which Muslims
negotiate and appropriate death ritual in a particular context. Section 6.3 describes the emergence and development of these repertoires by answering the
sub-questions before moving on to the main research question. This achieves
our first research aim: understanding the negotiation of Islamic death ritual in
the small town context of Venlo. In section 6.4 we streamline the theoretical insight gained, followed by the practical insight acquired in this study. Although
the role of care professionals (health, social and spiritual) was not an explicit
research subject, they unavoidably entered into it. Some practical guidelines for
appropriate professional care for Muslims in the face of death are presented in
appendix II.
Negotiating ritual in the face of death: ritual practice, context
and content
Islamic sources – like the fiqh, also the local imam í provide practical guidelines and prescriptions of how to act (ritually) when a relative or a fellow Muslim dies. Other sources like the Qur’an and the Hadith, and narratives derived
from them, give the bereaved and future deceased a mental image of how to approach death and dying. These Islamic sources are universally oriented and apply to all Muslims everywhere, but when practised in a specific context the general regulations crystallise in highly diversified practices: ‘orthodox’ regulations
don’t necessarily lead to orthopraxis. The common practice of Islamic death
rites appears to be a heteropraxis, since the regulations are always implemented
Because ritual tends to be seen as static, its dynamics is often overlooked or disregarded. The term ‘Islamic rites’ is taken to mean traditional rites,
reinforcing the idea that rites are not created or invented. But there is no such
thing as an everlasting, fixed rite. Rites are not created out of nothing and ritual
dynamics is a fact. Even in long-standing ritual traditions there is great scope
for both ritual creativity and ritual loss (Grimes, 2000, p. 57-58). Studying the
ritual of cleansing and shrouding the deceased in a migration context is a study
of the rite in a context of change. Muslims in Venlo are shaping and negotiating
their ritual repertoire in the context of the small town where they live. The
Islamic guidelines are generic in that they are meant to apply in any given context. This means that there is plenty of room for translation into particular contexts.
We call our research context a migration context because the vast majority of Muslims in Venlo have a migration background, having arrived in the
Netherlands during the latter half of the 20th century and subsequently. There
are also Muslims in Venlo who have no personal migration background, having
been born and raised in the Netherlands. These include converts and second and
third generation migrants. But for them, too, migration in many respects informs the context. To understand this we have to define migration more precisely. Although migration refers primarily to dislocation and relocation of people –
that is, physical movement from one country to another í it is not so much the
actual migration but its outcomes that determine our context. It is not just people who relocate; their cultural practices and social networks are also transferred
and need to be re-established. Diaspora is very much a social phenomenon, a
type of consciousness and a mode of cultural reproduction (Vertovec, 2008) It is
a significant part of the process of re-evaluating, re-imagining and reinventing
ritual repertoires in the new context. Thus migration or diaspora is an intrinsic
part of the local context and should not be perceived as a foreign import. The
Muslims whose ritual repertoires we studied are definitely part of the Dutch
small town context where they practise their rites.
The ‘Muslim community’ in Venlo is very diverse and it would be more
accurate to speak of Muslim communities in the plural. Muslims in Venlo originate from different countries and they (their parents or grandparents) arrived at
different points in time in varying circumstances. They have different ways of
relating to both the context of arrival and the context of origin. The context of
origin is not simply the country the migrant left behind; it is also a concept, a
construct that is by no means fixed. The context of origin is a fluid idea arising
from migration experiences and the context the person is living in now. It is between those two contexts that ritual repertoires take shape. Ethnic or national
background is often considered a primary marker, particularly when referring to
the large communities of Turkish and Moroccan Muslims. But there are other
markers, like cultural, linguistic, sectarian and class attributes. There are also
the disparate migration experiences of labour migrants and refugees that affect
the way people perceive their original and current context. The number of people in a community and the time that they have been in Venlo also influence the
demographic structure. It means that some Muslim communities comprise several generations with a balanced composition of men, women and children,
whereas others consist of few people and have an unbalanced composition, such
as a surplus of single young men or women. Although they come from diverse
backgrounds, a common denominator is that they usually originate from a context with a strong Muslim majority and are now a minority. Being a minority,
being surrounded by ‘others’ makes their Muslim identity less self-evident.
Muslims of Turkish and Moroccan descent are the largest, most established and best equipped Muslim communities in Venlo. They were the first
communities that have settled in Venlo since the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Their numbers are considerable and they are demographically well balanced,
comprising men, women and children of various generations. Both communities
have their own mosques (organisations) that offer religious, ritual and social
back-up. These mosque organisations also mediate between the context of
origin (that they still identify and are identified with) and the present context.
People turn to them, their volunteers and imams for ritual guidance and the
imam is often considered the most qualified ritual presider. So Turkish and Moroccan Muslims in Venlo are well equipped, are often part of a larger social
network of relatives and acquaintances and have a Muslim community with a
similar background to fall back on when somebody dies. Many of them also
have access to funeral insurance tailored to their specific (migrant) situation, offering an affordable and trouble-free repatriation to, and funeral in, the country
of origin. It is in these circumstances that they negotiate their ritual repertoires
and practice. We have said that Muslims’ ideas about their context of origin and
the current context are fluid, meaning that they are perceived differently depending on circumstances, resulting in different ritual repertoires. Most of the
facilities available to the larger Turkish and Moroccan communities are not
there for other, smaller Muslim communities or individuals handling the death
of a loved one. They generally don’t have an institution or ritual expert to turn
to, and for many refugees burial in the country of origin is out of the question.
This makes the process of negotiating their ritual death practice even more
complex and stressful.
To perform the ritual cleansing and shrouding of the deceased and prepare them for burial one also has to deal with various Dutch authorities like
hospital staff, municipal officials, social workers and undertakers. The small
communities í minorities within the Muslim minority í also depend on the
larger Muslim communities for certain facilities. They might need an imam or
volunteers to help them with or preside over the cleansing and shrouding rites,
or they might want the funeral prayer to be performed in a mosque. These are
occasions when Muslims are actively confronted – often for the first time í with
diversity and various practices within their own religion. This contrast with the
context of origin and with others in society makes Muslims more self-conscious
(Metcalf, 1996). The migration context is marked by diversity.
The migration context is much more than just a backdrop to Islamic
death ritual. We can’t separate ritual from the context in which it is enacted í it
is the key to the re-evaluation, re-imagining and reinvention of ritual repertoires. Ritual context interacts with ritual practice and ritual content, our other
key concepts. That clarifies the ritual dynamics. In using and developing our
key concepts we were constantly aware of the two fundamental aspects that
converge in ritual: structure and meaning (Bell, 1997, pp. 23ff, 61ff). Examining both ritual structure and ritual meaning makes it possible to distinguish between ritual practice and content and at the same time discover their coherence,
in that all aspects are interrelated. In studying ritual practice we differentiate be-
tween an internal structure (the one ritual has) and an external structure (the one
it brings about).
The internal structure of the ritual purification of the deceased is basically laid down in the Islamic fiqh. Different law schools, cultural and family
traditions introduce minor modifications to ritual, but one can still discern a solid structure that is perceived as the ideal ritual order. It is this perceived ritual
order that is often challenged by contextual circumstances. Particularly in a migration context the ritual order needs to be revised, as the actors are insecure
and fear ritual failure as a result of insufficient knowledge and lack of practical
experience. This results in additional ritualising actions and enactments that fit
the actual circumstances. On a more abstract level we recognise the structure of
rites of passage. These are rites marking transitions in the human life course and
proceed through three phases: separation from the community, transition into a
formative time and space (liminality), and reincorporation into the community.
The unfolding of the ritual process underlines the dynamic and formative character of the liminal stage. The (external) structure that is í or seeks to be í
brought about is an ordering one. It defines how the ritual actors – bereaved,
deceased, fellow Muslims (community members) and others í relate to each
other. Their roles are revised and reinvented to suit the particular circumstances
of the migration context. Relationships between the ritual actors are restructured
and this redefinition is a dynamic process, varying from case to case, as it is not
a matter of course.
Ritual not only possess and effect structure: they also have meaning, the
ritual content. Here we again distinguish between internal meaning (the meaning ritual has) and external meaning (something that transcends the actual performance). What we see is how the ritual practice in the specific (migration)
context is perceived by participants. The internal meaning is one that the participants discover in ritual, and should therefore be recognisable. It is not always
self-evident in a context of change. The meaning ritual conveys has clear roots
in Islamic sources that specify the beliefs ritual actors draw on. That meaning
needs to be negotiated in the context of change, depending on the parties involved. Although Islamic sources clearly colour these perceptions, they don’t
result in an unambiguous, universal web of significance. Meaningful patterns
are certainly influenced by the beliefs presented in Islamic meta-narratives, but
are modified in popular narratives that attune the perceptions to the given context. In the case of ritualising actions the referential link with an ‘Islamic’ belief
system is not always obvious, as they are not (yet) explicitly defined in this
tradition. Hence their meaning lies in their performance and unfolds in the ritual
action itself (Grimes, 1992, p.36; Mitchell, 1999, p. 49). Both ritual structure
and meaning are revised in the in the migration context of Venlo. It provides a
setting in which ritual dynamics takes place, that is, a framework for negotiation.
Emerging Muslim ritual repertoires: elements, roles, beliefs
and narratives
The key concepts provide a framework for negotiation and appropriation of
death ritual in this particular Dutch context. For the emergence and development of ritual repertoires in this context we return to our research questions.
What elements of death ritual are significant to contemporary Muslims?
The defined ritual elements (actions, actors, sources, attitudes, places, time, objects, language and sound, senses, commentary and criticism) enable us to map
the ritual cleansing and shrouding of the deceased in a fairly detailed overview
of this ritual practice in a particular context. At the same time they provide an
interpretive framework that deepens our research. They enable us to unravel
complex, multi-layered practices without losing sight of the whole, as the elements remain closely interconnected. This approach enables us to go beyond the
often isolated and generic descriptions of rites and their ritual order that tend to
focus on specific aspects like actions, actors and (written) sources.
Studying the ritual elements opens up a broader field, in which the various death rites are interconnected, and opens our eyes not only to the particular
rites of cleansing and shrouding the deceased but also to ritualising procedures
accompanying the established rites. Repatriation of the corpse or the fact that
relatives are geographically dispersed separates the bereaved in place and time,
breaking up the ritual process. Study of the individual elements also shows that
in some circumstances typical of the migration context different elements are
emphasised. Muslims in Venlo consciously choose to highlight certain aspects
to fit their situation. As the ritual cleansing and shrouding are performed in private, it is often the last time women and children can be with the deceased and
say their final goodbyes. These are often highly ritualised and go beyond the
prescribed Islamic death ritual. This is another example of the discrepancy between what is prescribed and what is performed.
Although people refer to a rich ritual repertoire available in Islamic sources,
they seldom draw on these sources directly. In fact they rely more on lived religion, a heterodox common ritual practice that evolves between the context of
origin and the present context. In many cases lived religion predominates and
becomes the principal source of ritual action. It is interspersed with ritual reimagination and reinvention to make rites fit the context they are practised in.
Interestingly, this coincides with lively discussion of what is correct ritual according to ‘real’ Islam.
As the ritual cleansing and shrouding of the deceased is almost always performed in Venlo, unlike the actual burial that might be in the country of origin,
Muslims are forced to deal with local circumstances.
Which roles can be distinguished in the practice of the ritual cleansing and
shrouding of the deceased?
When it comes to roles in the practice of washing and shrouding the deceased,
Islamic sources assign prominent roles to the deceased and the bereaved relatives. But in practice the most active role, that of the washer, is performed by a
so-called ritual expert. This is an emerging role, performed by a very small
number of people. Relatives rarely act as ritual presiders; they might be involved as assistants or merely as an audience.
Again there is a discrepancy between what is prescribed and common
practice. Whereas Islamic sources clearly state that the deceased’s closest relatives are the designated washers, in the reality of the migration context this
hardly ever happens. There are various reasons for this development, some of
them peculiar to the migration context or at least intensified by it. In some cases
there are simply no (close) relatives available: they might live in other countries
and be unable to come (in time) to perform the washing and shrouding in the
hours after someone’s death. In cases of mixed marriages or conversion there
might be no suitable relatives available to perform the washing, as they are nonMuslims and being a Muslim is a precondition for participation. But most bereaved consider themselves unqualified to perform the rite. Cleansing and
shrouding a deceased is a very hands-on rite, which means one has to physically
handle the corpse of a loved one and most people are fearful of that. At the
same time it requires knowledge and practical skills to perform these rites adequately and respectfully, which many Muslims in the migration context lack as
they are not (frequently) confronted with death and death rites. This adds to fear
of ritual failure.
In Venlo the washing and shrouding of a male body is generally presided over
by a local imam from one the Moroccan or Turkish mosques. These imams perform the rite as part of their professional duties and are assisted by regular volunteers or by relatives of the deceased. In the case of female corpses things tend
to be more complicated, since there is no ‘professional’ body of washers to turn
to. At present female washers in Venlo have no formal status or training. They
volunteered for the task at a certain point in time, often out of necessity, or they
got into it by chance. Although not officially associated with a specific mosque
(organisation), they generally can be contacted via these.
The way ritual experts interpret and carry out their role is largely determined by their own motivations and the authority they are granted. Becoming a
ritual expert and the definition of the role happen mainly in lived religion.
Recently some mosque organisations have proposed more formal training for
female washers, who will be able to volunteer for ritual cleansing of the deceased. Although quite a few (mainly young) women have shown interest, the
actual training has not been finalised. The smaller Muslim communities (nonTurkish/non-Moroccan) are often not organised in this respect and as most
members are quite young, they are not much concerned with death. They tend to
take on the task when it arises – and when it does this often leads to stressful
and difficult situations.
What ritual beliefs are connected to death rites?
To determine what ritual beliefs are connected with death rites one has to study
the Islamic eschatological myth and the way it is enacted. It is also a rich source
of ritual meaning. The eschatological myth has strong roots in (primary) Islamic
sources and deals with the origin and destination of human life. This metanarrative is a close-knit, coherent whole that developed over centuries and covers all aspects of people’s destination after death. These ‘religious perspectives’ that transcend the realities of everyday life are what Geertz (1973,
pp.111-112) calls beliefs. They are not mere passive ideas in people’s minds but
an organising principle that imposes order and disposes people to experience
that order in the world around them. Ritual makes it tangible (Bell, 2003, p.83).
So as not to separate thought from practice we prefer to refer to these beliefs
connected with death rites as lived eschatology – an eschatology ritually enacted by Muslims.
The body of death rites comprises rites of passage, marking changes,
shifts and transitions in the human life cycle. Their typical threefold structure is
apparent in the body of death rites and classifying death rites in the three ritual
phases clarifies both the internal and the external ritual structure. The phase before the funeral consists of clearly prescribed rites of separation. The next
phase, at the grave, consists in transitional rites, for which few guidelines are
available. The rites of reintegration anticipated at the end of time are not prescribed at all and are can be described as preliminary or virtual rites. The eschatological myth operates mainly in these lacunae. It fills the gaps with collective
perceptions. The final phase is anticipated by Muslims as a phase of completion.
The Islamic myth presents a powerful collective image of the final eschatological fulfilment, resulting in a practice where the deceased’s final transition takes centre stage. As primary Islamic sources provide hardly any information on the period between personal death and resurrection, the gap is filled
in by popular imagination. This results in additional ritualising acts that develop
alongside formal Islamic death rites. They include mourning rites1 with a semipublic character (gatherings at death anniversaries) and grave visits that are
more private in nature. Barzakh – the time between death on earth and the day
of resurrection at the end of time í takes shape in lived eschatology and these
beliefs largely determine the interaction between the bereaved and the deceased.
A firm belief has developed that the deceased remains available for ritual action. It is often considered a two-way process, as the ritual practice not only
benefits the deceased and their fate, but they can also serve as intercessors to
improve either the current state of the bereaved or their state as future deceased.
In spite of its static character the eschatological myth is adapted to the
ritualising actions of the bereaved í fixed scripts are unavailable or are used
flexibly. Such adaptations are subtle and consist of additional narratives or the
omission or highlighting of certain aspects of the eschatological myth. These
fragments of the meta-narrative interact with the context and become part of
popular narratives, a miscellany of subjects thrown together in order to make
sense of it all. These additional narratives explain, for example, whether it is
better for the repose of the deceased’s soul to be buried in his country of origin
rather than in Venlo or elsewhere in the Netherlands. The ‘horrors’ of repatriation í being transported in a lead casket in the freight section of a plane, and
the often considerable delay of the interment í are conveniently ignored.
As they are often not formal Islamic rites prescribed in primary Islamic sources, they
could be called ritualising enactments. But over time they have developed into rites and
are widely practised among Muslims.
The fragmentation of the eschatological myth both represents and shapes the
particular circumstances of the migration context. Lived eschatology takes
shape in this ‘in-between’ phase at the grave. Here there is room for more personal beliefs and images of life after death. Meanings can be adapted to the
context, resulting in more personalised ritual enactment conveying more personalised meanings.
What is the role of narratives in the ritual process of constructing meaning?
The Islamic eschatological myth is surrounded by numerous popular narratives.
Whereas a meta-narrative tends to be generic and static, these popular narratives
are much more contextual and fluid. These supplementary narratives í shared in
social engagements and through various media í deal with current, pressing
topics encountered by people in a given context and reflect their own account of
their lives and experiences. They are social, highly active narratives linked to
communities, which in their turn are both represented and shaped by the stories.
The narratives are a key to people’s experiences and provide a collective conception of how things (should) work. In our context we see that narratives have the unique ability to link past and present, context of origin and current context. The context of origin and its ritual death practices are remembered
and revised; death rites are re-imagined and reinvented to fit the new context. In
this way narratives define both the current context and the context of origin, and
between the two ideas, attitudes and fantasies are expressed and shaped. The
contexts are often presented as opposites: an ideal, glorified context of origin
and a problematic present context. In defining both the current context and the
context of origin narratives are not necessarily factual. They are vehicles of information and are perceived and applied as important sources of knowledge by
Muslims in Venlo.
They also reflect their diversity, being based on people’s individual experiences that are as varied as their backgrounds. The diversity in people’s narratives and counter-narratives affects their ritual practice. Particularly public
death rites like the burial are reshaped by popular narratives and tend to become
quite uniform. More private rites, like the ritual cleansing of the deceased and
grave visits, become refuges of ritual creativity that reflect the diversity of Muslims in Venlo. Narratives show how lived religion takes shape and how ritual
meaning is ascribed.
When confronted with death, what ritual repertoires emerge among Muslims in
the small town migration context of Venlo and how did these ritual repertoires
Our ritual repertoires (elements, roles, beliefs and narratives) emerged and developed in the small town context of Venlo. They are products of vibrant, multilayered negotiation processes, in which rites and ritualising enactments interact
with ritual actors and their (changing) contexts. Studying the ritual cleansing
and shrouding of the deceased in a small town migration context affords insight
into the dynamics and creativity of ritual. The ritual practice is dynamic, comprising both subtle and more obvious changes always embedded in a specific
context. Rites have biographies, progressing through various highly complex
stages and different domains (Brosius & Hüsken, 2010, p. 7). And although
rites are often no longer perceived as static, repetitive, formalised actions, their
dynamics is widely overlooked in the study of an institutionalised, traditional
religion like Islam. This is something we have to avoid in order to discover the
emerging ritual repertoires.
Perspectives for further theoretical reflection
Death in a migration context is challenging in many respects, as Muslim migrants in Venlo face unfamiliar circumstances. Often the next of kin lack experience and knowledge of actual death rites they are expected to perform. This
causes insecurity – everyone being in transition – and contributes to profound
fear of ritual failure among the bereaved. It not only affects the actual migrants
but also rubs off on their children (second and third generation), members of
mixed families (Muslim and non-Muslim) and Dutch converts to Islam. They
all have to deal with the realities of a migration context. Smaller communities
or individual Muslims – a minority within a minority í have to rely on larger,
more established Turkish and Moroccan communities and their facilities. This
often means that in these already difficult circumstances Muslims are confronted with diversity within their own communities. This context that can be described as liminal appears to be a fertile breeding ground that triggers ritual creativity on the one hand and makes people receptive on the other. This study
opens up some interesting perspectives on ritual theory. Two topics surfaced
regularly and offer tempting prospects for further theorising.
The first is ritual negotiation that focusses on the ritual actors, their competences and the way they influence ritual practice. The second is emerging ritual that
reveals the flexibility of ritual.
Negotiating ritual
In this study we considered how Muslims negotiate their role in death rites performed in a particular migration context. It is an insecure situation in which the
designated washers – the closest relatives of the deceased – don’t see themselves as qualified to perform the ritual cleansing and shrouding of the deceased. And although Islamic law is quite clear on who should participate and
how, the regulations are often debated and bent in a given context. Such ritual
negotiation appears to be a key to the development of our defined ritual repertoires. We saw how people are often caught up in processes of interaction, in
which their ritual roles are debated and constituted. Because of ignorance and
fear of ritual failure many bereaved relatives are unable to participate in an active, presiding role. Who should play that leading role and ensure smooth ritual
practice? Through motivation and authority others are able to negotiate the role
of primary ritual actors. Ritual agency is both granted and claimed. At least, that
is the position at present, as this negotiation appears to be on-going and still in
Hüsken and Neubert (2012, p.2) consider engagement in negotiation a
hallmark of ritual. They define negotiations as processes of interaction in which
different positions are debated and/or acted out. Negotiation is associated with
disagreement, interaction, reinterpretation and discussion. It also means that the
parties have to (re)define their mutual relations and their relation to the context
they are living in. It mercilessly exposes critical issues. Although negotiation
stems from disagreement, its aim is some form of agreement (Hüsken & Neubert 2012, p. 3), in our study referred to as ‘correct’ ritual performance. But
does this automatically lead to uniformity? What about the diversity of Muslims
and Muslim communities even in a small town context in the Netherlands? Is
agreement not contextual and purely temporary? Is it not a dynamic context that
will continue to generate a chain of interactions, re-interpretations and discussions? Isn’t it a cycle, an on-going process?
Further reflection on ritual negotiation will deepen insight into the
complexity of ritual creativity and the roles of ritual actors that we identified in
this study. A focus on ritual negotiation will highlight key issues and what exactly is at stake, probably via vivid narratives that people can act on in either
agreement or disagreement. They trigger activity and critical thinking, create
reflexivity and awareness of one’s own and others’ positions (Hüsken & Neubert, 2012, p.4). The concept of ritual negotiation is interesting when it comes to
lived religion and the discrepancy between ritual prescriptions (as provided by
Islamic sources) and the actual ritual practice in a particular context: research
into ritual negotiation over longer periods of time; who is involved and how
changes happen and take shape in ritual re-imagining and ritual reinvention.
Here Hüsken and Neubert’s recent study produced interesting findings that are
worth looking into.
Emerging ritual
While negotiation clarifies the process of ritual re-invention, emerging ritual
highlights ritualising enactments. Both concepts clearly contradict the idea of
ritual as a stable entity.
When ritual is designated ‘Islamic’ the term usually refers to an ‘established’ or ‘traditional’ ritual system, in which rites are clustered and prescribed.
In practice formal Islamic death rites, usually perceived as strictly prescribed,
are always mixed with social custom and personal input. Contexts change and
rites are transferred and are ‘translated’ into the new context, where they usually
undergo subtle or even significant changes to meet the requirements of changed
circumstances. We showed how ritual re-invention goes hand in hand with ritual imagination (Grimes 2000, 4) also in the case of highly traditional and conventional Islamic death rites. We cannot ignore the dynamic properties of ritual,
since that would mean overlooking actual ritual practice. In the wake of formal
death rites we see ritual creativity. The bereaved cultivate, revise and reinvent
their ritual repertoires: they are ‘ritualising’. They are deliberately cultivating
rites, a process of birth or emergence (Grimes, 1990, p.10). This urges us to
look beyond the prescribed formal rites and look for what else is going on. The
ritual cleansing and shrouding rites in particular were supplemented with other
ritualising acts, which the bereaved added to the existing rites. The ritual cleansing of the deceased allows for that.
Regardless of where the deceased is buried afterwards, the rites of
cleansing and shrouding generally take place in Venlo. It is a suitable moment
for final goodbyes, particularly for those who will not be able to attend the subsequent rites (funeral prayer and burial), either because they are not allowed to
participate (on account of gender and age restrictions or because they are not
Muslims), or are not able to do so because only a limited number of people can
accompany the body to the country of origin for the burial. We observed various ritualising trends in the performance of these rites; partly their private character facilitates these. They are performed in a special place and are generally
attended only by an invited few. And although close physical contact with the
corpse deters the bereaved from actively participating in the cleansing and
shrouding rites, they do want to pay their last respects. The migration context
intensifies this wish, as the ritual order will be disrupted by the repatriation of
the body, or the general situation is unfamiliar and the bereaved feel insecure.
These ritualising acts can be seen as critical and creative responses “to radically
altered social configurations” (Grimes, 1992, p.21).
These ritualising actions also shed light on the conditions that give rise
to ritual. What or who exactly is the subject í the actor í of ritualising is a
complex question. There are many animating factors, including the various ritual actors, the context of origin and the present context, ritual beliefs and narratives. The ritual actors in ritualising enactment can be identified according to
two models of ritual creativity: the ritual plumber and the ritual diviner (Grimes,
2000, p.12), each typifying a certain approach. The ritual plumber model seeks
to fix what is broken or dysfunctional. It is a practical approach without lofty
expectations, associated with inventiveness rather than creativity. The ritual
‘diviner’ works indirectly and much more cautiously: you wait, contemplate,
stay attuned and see what emerges.
When sustained and developed ritualising initiatives could become rites,
but we should be aware of their ‘fragile first presence’ (Grimes, 2010, p. 51). It
affords insight into a sophisticated spectrum of death ritual, the way it emerges
and works out in changing circumstances. So what elements, roles, beliefs and
narratives emerge, and in which circumstances? How do they relate to what Nathan Mitchell (1999, pp. 16-37) calls orthodox consensus, which ensures that
rites are performed as prescribed even in a changed context? For further research we suggest more comparative studies, where emerging death rites are
studied in various contexts (urban and small town) and among various Muslim
Figure 11. Venlo, The Netherlands
Figure 12. Venlo, an agglomerate of Venlo, Blerick, Tegelen, Belfeld, Arcen,
Velden and Lomm.
With the growing number of Muslims in the Netherlands and the aging population of first generation labour migrants the number of Muslims dying in Dutch
hospitals has also risen. For staff and spiritual caregivers working in these hospitals it is not always easy to obtain usable information on Islamic death ritual
and the regulations concerning dying and death. One of our research aims was
to arrive at practical guidelines that would be helpful for professional (health,
social and spiritual) caregivers. By sharing our perspectives we hope to provide
tangible guidelines for more tailor-made care for Muslims in cases of death.
They concern the field of education, communication with clients and information for professionals.
Although some introductions to Islam are available, they tend to be generic in their focus on the five pillars and Islamic law. Ritual practice and context are often just touched upon. The result is a somewhat narrow, oversimplified image that does not take into account the diverse backgrounds and
migration experiences of Muslims. A more helpful approach would focus not
only on the prescriptions by various Islamic authorities, but also on the practicalities of death and dying. To this end it is crucial to distinguish between Islam
and Muslims (Campo, 2006, p. 149-153). Islam refers to religious principles
and regulations, in this case derived from the Qur’an and the Hadith (tradition).
Who the Muslims are is far less easy to answer, because there is no such thing
as an unequivocal Muslim community, although references are often made to a
united Muslim community, not least by Muslims themselves. Lived Islam
shows that this religion with its supposedly clear and uniform rules results in
diversified practice by a variety of Muslims in a variety of contexts. One also
has to take into account the impact of a small town context on ritual practice.
Especially the small Islamic communities are heavily dependent on others (both
Muslim and non-Muslim) and their practice is greatly affected by it.
Publications and views on the well-organised Muslim majorities of
Turkish and Moroccan background should not narrow our view. There seems to
be a widespread idea that “Muslims do everything themselves” (Wojtkowiak &
Wiegers, 2008; Van Bommel, 2006). Certainly specific (prescribed and traditional) Islamic rites need to be performed by Muslim ritual experts. But (nonMuslim) professionals can be involved in other areas by being available as
broadly oriented partners. They can play a mediatory and facilitating role by
supporting Muslims who have no clear-cut community to fall back on.
A more detailed guide for professionals was published in Omega. Journal of Death and Dying (Venhorst, 2012). The article is presented in the following section.
Islamic death rituals in a small town context in the Netherlands: explorations of a common praxis for professionals
Professionals in hospitals work in a dynamic context as they are dealing with a
colourful variety of religious beliefs and practices. Nurses, doctors, social
workers, and spiritual caregivers are constantly challenged to be aware of social
changes and to convert their findings into suitable care for their patients. As
Dutch care institutions are legally obliged to provide spiritual care for their patients, specially appointed spiritual caregivers are available at all facilities
(Quartier, 2010). It is also these professionals that fulfil an important role in taking care of the needs of dying persons and their loved ones. Even though there
are some professionals with an Islamic background, most of the time Muslim
patients have to rely on professionals with a different background.
This article focuses on Islamic death rituals in the Netherlands, in particular on the ritual purification of the deceased. Muslims will always perform
this specific rite in the Netherlands regardless of where the deceased will be
buried (in the Netherlands or the country of origin). It aims to develop an eye
for Muslim diversity, so professionals in the field can be better equipped to assist Muslims in cases of death. I will do so by providing examples from the actual practice and by raising questions.
The presented vignettes are drawn on qualitative research data from interviews
and (participant) observations. They will draw attention to the different contexts
that shape the religious and ritual practice of a variety of Muslims in the Netherlands. That is also why this research is located outside a metropolitan context, in
the municipality of Venlo. A conglomeration of the towns of Venlo (65.453 in-
habitants), Tegelen (19.337), Belfeld (5.449), Arcen, Velden, and Lomm
(8.681) are situated in the South of the Netherlands directly at the border with
Germany. In this small town context the actual practice takes its own shape because different, very small Muslim communities are depending on each other
and are negotiating their position toward the somewhat larger Muslim communities and their facilities. This context, although widespread, is underexposed in
current research.
By presenting cases from this research on specific Islamic death rituals,
this article wants to contribute to a higher level of perceptibility. By offering insights into actual practices, it aims to offer tangible leads for a more tailor-made
care for Muslim patients and their relatives. The questions and viewpoints
raised here are not unique to the Dutch context, so they might be helpful to professionals in hospitals everywhere.
Religion in practice
Islamic tradition seems to present death rituals in a quite univocal way; clear
and unambiguous instructions where death is concerned. An interesting given is
that the performance of those rules actually presents a very diverse practice.
This discrepancy between the ritual order (Rappaport, 1999, p. 169) and the actual practice is often confusing. The divers praxis within a single, institutionalized religion is not always easy to comprehend.
The number of Muslims in the Netherlands has increased significantly in
the past decades and with this the number of Muslims dying in Dutch hospitals
has also risen. For staff and spiritual caregivers working in these hospitals it is
not always easy to get usable information on Islamic rituals and the regulations
concerning dying and death. A lot of the available literature on the subject
seems to stress Islam as a religion of uniform rules and regulations. Introductions to Islam are often built around the central five pillars and Islamic law. The
ritual practice concerning death and dying are often just touched upon. This creates a somewhat narrow and over-simplified image. An image that does not take
into account the different backgrounds and migration contexts of Muslims.
Generalization like “Muslims do everything themselves” (van Bommel, 2006,
Wojtkowiak & Wiegers, 2008) can make professionals hesitant to step in as was
illustrated by Sadaf’s story (personal interview, January 8, 2010).
Her father unexpectedly died in the hospital in Venlo after a short illness. A
tough experience for her, her mother, and her sister who were overwhelmed
by the death of their loved one. Soon, grief mixed with strong emotions of
panic about what to do. The women were generally aware of what should be
done in case of the death of a Muslim; the ritual bathing of the deceased, the
shrouding, and the burial but in Afghanistan the arrangements would mainly
be made by men. The family was just starting to build their life in Venlo
where they were relocated after a long asylum procedure. They were not yet
part of a local Muslim community and had never been in contact with any of
the local mosques. The hospital staff and the spiritual caregivers kept their
distance because they were on the assumption that Muslims do everything
And eventually this is what happened here: relatives elsewhere in the Netherlands were able to organize their community to make all the appropriate religious and practical arrangements for the last journey of the deceased.
A more usable perception will become available when one not only focuses on what is prescribed—as laid down by various Islamic authorities—but
also takes the actual practice of death and dying under consideration. So it is
crucial to distinguish between Islam and Muslims. Islam refers to the religious
principles and regulations—in the case derived from the Quran and the hadith
(the tradition). Who the Muslims are is far less easy to answer because there is
not such a thing as an unequivocal Muslim community. Although referrals are
often made to a united Muslim community, not in the last place by Muslims
themselves. Lived Islam shows that the religion of supposedly clear and uniform rules creates a diverse practice, lived by a variety of Muslims in a variety
of contexts. The dynamics between Islam and Muslims makes research on death
rituals interesting but at the same time complex. For those working with Muslims in the situation of bereavement it is necessary to come to grips with this
There is always a degree of tension between what is prescribed and
what people, in different contexts, perform. A clash between formalized rules
and the actual praxis is not unusual. Islamic regulations are laid down in legal
texts and are established by religious authorities. The imperative character of
what is prescribed finds a pendant in the actual practice. A practice of Muslim
funerary and bereavement, as Juan Eduardo Campo (2006, p.160) so well puts
it: “. . . takes shape in the space between what is prescribed and what is performed, where the performed might also contradict or resist the prescribed.”
The performed dimension of religion tends to be more flexible, while people
express their religious and cultural norms they also adapt or contest them. A
fascinating, creative dynamic unfolds and lived Islam takes its shape.
Diversity: Muslims in the Netherlands, Muslims in Venlo
In the Netherlands live an estimated 857,000 Muslims (van Herten & Otten,
2007). Muslim migrants settled in this country in roughly four stages (Shadid &
van Koningsveld, 2008, pp. 22-23), each stage with its own typical features. At
first there were small groups from Indonesia and Surinam that came to the
Netherlands as part of the decolonization process. In the 1960s, the number of
Muslims grew substantially with the arrival of foreign workers from Turkey,
Morocco, and Tunisia. From 1974 on, residence permits have been issued for
the wives and children of those workers, so families are reunited. Later, mainly
in the 1990s, refugees with Muslim backgrounds came to the Netherlands due to
political instability in their home countries. Muslims from all those phases of
migration are present in the Venlo-context. The Islamic infrastructure consists
of four mosques (two Turkish, two Moroccan), a number of cultural-religious
associations, and, since 1995, an Islamic cemetery. While most initiatives are
taken by the larger, most established groups, there is an increasing number of
activities in which other Muslims are also involved. In Venlo, I came across a
very diverse group of Muslim women that gather monthly.
The women get together in a living room to study the Quran together
and discuss various subjects that concern being a Muslim. It is a colorful group
of people in many aspects; they are of different ages and some dress conservatively while others dress according to the latest fashion. Head-scarves are worn
in different colors and styles, while others are not veiled at all. Their personalities differ and they are from various ethnic origins, some are Dutch converts or
they have Turkish, Moroccan, Egyptian, Somali, and Surinam backgrounds.
Today the group invited a guest who works at a local mosque as a volunteer
that assists in the ritual cleansing of the dead. She shared her experiences and
it opened up the other women to talk about the difficult subject of death. In
general they agreed on how to proceed on the rituals that should be performed
but it was small differences that heated up the discussion. A passionate discussion unfolded about what is “real Islam” and what should be considered
superstitious notions. But it was the realization that none of the women present had a clear-cut tradition to fall back on that brought confusion. (C. Venhorst, observations, November 18, 2007)
The diversity of Muslims that is a given, is often masked by the focus on numerical majorities. Research on Islam in the Netherlands refers predominantly
to Muslims of Turkish, Moroccan, and sometimes Surinam (Javanese) descent
as they are the largest and well-established communities. Hardly any attention is
paid to the rather recent arrival of refugees, students, economic immigrants, and
those joining their relatives for family reunification from countries like former
Yugoslavia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other parts of Africa. They
make up a rather diverse Muslim community with people from various cultural
backgrounds and from specific contexts like that of refugees. Today there is also a second and third generation of Muslims, born and raised in the Netherlands, that clearly find their way into Dutch society. There is a small number of
Dutch converts and due to mixed marriages, Muslims and non-Muslims become
part of the same family. To develop an eye for the common praxis among Muslims, it is important not only to be aware of the religious dimensions but also of
these social dimensions as both impact the actual practice of death ritual.
The large-scale survey research Moslim in Nederland (Muslim in the
Netherlands) (Phalet & ter Wal, 2004) does actually speak about very diverse
Muslim communities in the Netherlands but at the same time chooses to focus
on the two largest groups: Muslims of Turkish and Moroccan origin that make
up about 73% of all Muslims living in the Netherlands (Forum, 2010, p. 4). On
the lived religion of these groups can be concluded that the Turkish and Moroccan Muslims in the Netherlands—also those of the second generation, born
here— still strongly identify with their religion. In the mean time they are also
influenced by secularization. Their religious praxis is clearly less orthodox than
the praxis of their elders and they consider religion a personal subject (Phalet &
ter Wal, 2004). This raises the question of how this personal interpretation takes
form. It also arouses curiosity about the other, smaller groups of Muslims and
their communities. The perception of Islam differs within groups and is influenced by traditions and practices of their countries of origin and also by migration. The social, religious, economic, and political circumstances in the Netherlands are also of influence. What is the impact of those circumstances on the
way rituals are being performed and experienced?
Ritual order: ritual purification of the deceased
The ritual purification of the deceased must be performed by a Muslim who
knows how to proceed. In principle, a corpse of a man is to be washed only by
men and that of a woman only by women. However, a woman is allowed to
wash her husband. It is permissible for a child to be washed by an adult of the
opposite sex. The ritual washing of the deceased is according to Islamic law is
generally understood to proceed as follows. First, any impurities should be
removed from the corpse. It is recommended to perform the wudu, consisting of
washing the hands and arms up the elbows, feet, face, neck, and ears, and rinsing the nose and mouth with water, before performing the ghusl, the full washing of the body. The entire body must be washed an odd number of times, three
or, if necessary, five or seven (Dessing, 2001, pp. 145-147). The water for ablution might be mixed with perfume, herbs, rose water, lotus, or camphor. After
the final washing, the body is dried and cotton plugs are placed in the body
openings (Bot, 1998, p. 136). Next is the shrouding of the body in simple white
cloth—three for a man, five for a woman—that symbolizes the equality of all
before God (Shadid & van Koningsveld, 2008, pp. 167-168). All is to be done
with great care, as it is widely believed the deceased is still sentient at this time
(Jonker, 1997, p. 53; Smith & Haddad, 2002, p. 37). The ritual washing enables
the deceased to meet God in a state of purity. That is why, in most cases, Islamic law treats the ritual purification of the deceased and shrouding as a part of the
chapter on prayer (salat) as it clearly bears comparison with the washing that is
performed in preparation for the daily salat. The fiqh—Islamic jurisprudence
based on the sharia—often describes in great detail who should do the washing
and how to proceed, with small alterations in the ritual where different schools
of law are concerned.
In the Dutch context the ritual is in most cases performed at a funeral
parlour, in the hospital, or on the premises of a mosque. The washing is supposed to be performed by Islamic family members but more experienced volunteers from a local mosque are often involved. The ritual cleansing and shrouding of the dead is one of the collective duties (fard kifaya) of the Muslim community. The available literature on the subject is often oriented toward the structure of the ritual with detailed descriptions of what to do. There is a strong focus
on the physical aspects while the matter of spiritual meaning of the rite for the
deceased, the bereaved, and others involved is hardly raised. The next vignettes
show that the bereaved find (ritual) ways to say their last goodbyes. A Somali
family (Habo, personal interview, December 6, 2010) adds to the formal cleansing ritual so all, regardless of gender, age, and knowledge, are able to say their
last goodbyes.
The young widow tells her husband unexpectedly died earlier this year. It was
a big shock for her and their two boys and girls. It was the first time they lost
someone so close to them. A general Dutch funeral insurance took care of all
the financial and practical arrangement but the family had to take care of the
Islamic rituals. Relatives and friends gathered at the funeral parlor to pay their
last respects. The children and the widow said their last goodbyes by pouring
water over the sheet that covered the body. They each poured three small
bowls of water, starting at his head moving to his feet. Then they moved the
sheet from his face and the children kissed him for the last time. “After this
the imam from a local Moroccan mosque came with two men to perform the
proper washing and shrouding while we waited outside” the widow stated. After that they took him in the casket to the Mosque for the final prayers. In the
afternoon he was buried at the Islamic cemetery, where only the men and the
boys participated.
Fatima (personal interview, December 17, 2010) explains how the intimacy of
the ritual washing of a deceased baby brought comfort to the grieving mother
and aunt.
“I am afraid of death, that is why I find it difficult to participate in the final
cleansing of the deceased” a Moroccan woman explains. But just minutes later she tells she did participate in the ritual when her one year old nephew died.
She considers the washing of a dead baby as something else, something that
did not scare her at all as “he was like a sleeping little angel.” She passionately states that Islam views little children to be pure and sure of an afterlife in
Paradise and therefore the ritual cleansing of a child not as a necessity. “But,”
she concluded, “for us it was a beautiful and comforting thing to do.”
These stories give some insight how the actual praxis takes shape.
Common praxis: a variety of Muslims, a variety of contexts
In performing the ritual order, a dynamic and diverse practice unfolds that is
shaped by the different ethnic, social, cultural, and religious backgrounds of
Muslims that call Venlo their home. Rituals are on the move and the transfer
and transformation, invention, and re-invention of rituals takes shape in relation
to new social, economic, and religious contexts (Brosius & Hüsken, 2010).
The highest percentage (73%) of Muslims in the Netherlands, are living
in strongly urbanized areas. For the most part, they live in cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Den Haag en Utrecht. In these cities, even smaller Muslim
communities find a way to organize themselves. In more rural areas, a variety of
Muslims depend on each other and they partake in the performance of religious
rites. There are also variations that can be contributed to a variety of Islamic denominations, schools of law, and branches represented in the Netherlands: Sunnites, Shiites, Sufis, Alevites, and Ahmadiyya among others. Many small
groups have their own organizational structure but some facilities (like a
mosque, skilled washers, and cemetery) have to be shared with other groups. In
case of the ritual purification of a deceased, the washers might belong to a different denomination or culture, which could lead to conflict. Such conflicts can
be understood as “diagnostic events” (Venbrux, 1995, p. 15). With these events
surfaces what is of the utmost significance for the people involved but under
other circumstances remains unsaid. They lead us to what Muslims from various backgrounds consider to be their most important practices and beliefs. This
raises the question: how far the prescribed rules of the ritual purification can be
bended and who or what is the determinant factor for this?
In the Dutch context the rituals of various Islamic migrant groups are
being reshaped, finds Nathal Dessing (2001, p. 141) in her comprehensive study
of lifecycle rituals among Muslims in the Netherlands. She sees an increasing
professionalization and institutionalization of Islamic death rituals and because
of this an increasing uniformity. This will particularly be the case for Muslims
with a Turkish and Moroccan background as they are the most numerous and
well-established communities. They are very well organized and run their own
mosque-associations. But what about smaller Muslim communities that practice
their own particular traditions?
There is a strict and clear ritual order laid down in Islamic law. It provides instructions for how to proceed the purification of the deceased. These
rules are also used to instruct volunteers at the local mosque or through internet
based courses (IBW, n.d.; Islamway, n.d.). As all imams are able to perform the
ritual cleansing of the deceased, there is often a need to instruct women in the
ritual because the male imam is not allowed to wash a woman’s corpse. At one
of the Turkish mosques, for decades it was the same two women that were
called to perform the ritual. With the aging of the women, a need grows to educate new ritual specialists. Now every year a course is organized to instruct five
young women in performing the ritual.
Although in these courses a quite strict ritual order is laid down, there appears to be certain flexibility. Probably because of the private character of the
ritual, especially compared to the more public funeral rites. The washing is performed in a closed area and often only attended by close family and friends. The
participation of, for instance, non-Muslims, women, and children is easier to incorporate as the next example shows.
When studying Arabic at University, Dutch student Rianne lived for some
time in Damascus. Here she meets the Syrian man that would later become
her husband. Back in the Netherlands they have their first child, a baby-girl
that sadly dies shortly after birth. The husband finds comfort in a strict implementation of Islamic rules. But because he finds himself in a predominantly non-Muslim context, he is constantly on the phone with his relatives in Syria to ask for their guidance. Rianne converted to Islam before her
marriage and lives her daily life quite strictly according to what you could call
an Islamic routine. With the loss of the baby she feels a strong need to include
her non-Muslim parents in the final goodbye of their grandchild. An experienced washer from a local Moroccan mosque suggests to include her parents
in the ritual purification, for an intimate last farewell. The washer takes the
lead and guides Rianne and her parents through the ritual. The next-day funeral is a much more public event dominated by men and not very open to
women or non-Muslims. (Rianne, personal interview, July 2010)
The closed area of a funeral parlour, more than the same space at a mosque, also
makes it possible to perform divergent (personal or cultural) rites.
Conclusions: explorations for professionals
People from different backgrounds bring their rituals to new contexts where
they are adapted to new circumstances. Even when Muslims claim a clear ritual
order that is applicable under almost all circumstances, the ritual practice shows
to be far more diverse and flexible. Where the transfer of rituals is concerned
we have to be aware of the context the ritual was taken from as well as the new
context where the ritual takes shape again. There is not such a thing as a single
Muslim community. Small communities like, for example, the Somalis, and
larger groups like Moroccans and Turks in Venlo share the same faith but the
differences are also quite obvious. They have different countries of origin and
have their own Islamic traditions; the communities differ in size, in demographic composition, migration motives, and level of integration in Dutch society—
even within the same community. Social aspects influence the religious dimension in general and death rituals in particular.
Transformations take place in changing contexts and are influenced by
secularization. All these elements are of influence on the construction, performance, and perception of Islamic rituals in the Netherlands. It is important to
gain an improved understanding of the actual practice and not just to cling to
orthodox and uniform rules and regulations that are so often presented. Also,
take into account the consequences of a small town context for very small Islamic communities as the transfer of rituals and knowledge in dealing with bereavement is affected by migration and has often more rigorous consequences in
a small town context. The examples provide insights in this diversity and with
this a more apt perception of Muslim communities. It is very helpful to map the
diverse Muslim communities and their social circumstances in your area and
don’t let well-established majorities narrow your view. It can help professionals
to improve their involvement with Muslim patients. By being available as more
broadly-oriented partners, spiritual caregivers, and other professionals in hospitals can more often fulfil a mediating or facilitating role in support of their Muslim patients where needed. Exercising restraint might be appropriate where
Muslims “that do everything themselves” are concerned but for others it would
prove very helpful when their needs are more actively explored.
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Jarenlang bezocht ik een moslim vrouwengroep in Venlo.1 Elke maand kwamen
we bijeen om de koran te bestuderen en te praten over het leven en wat ons
bezig hield. We kwamen samen in een woonkamer voor een aangename avond
vol geanimeerde discussies en leuk gezelschap. Het was in veel opzichten een
kleurrijk gezelschap: vrouwen van verschillende leeftijden, sommigen behoudend gekleed terwijl anderen de laatste mode volgden, hoofddoeken in verschillende kleuren en stijlen terwijl anderen geen hoofddoek droegen. Verschillende
persoonlijkheden en verschillende achtergronden: Nederlandse bekeerlingen en
anderen met wortels in onder andere Turkije, Marokko, Egypte, Somalië en
Suriname. Allemaal zijn ze moslim; dit gegeven bracht hen hier samen maar
gaandeweg leerden ze ook over de onderlinge verschillen. Zoals die keer dat er
een gast was uitgenodigd om te spreken over haar vrijwilligerswerk als lijkwasser. Zij deelde haar ervaringen met ons wat leidde tot een levendige discussie
over het vaak moeilijk bespreekbare onderwerp ‘dood’. De vrouwen ontdekten
kleine verschillen in de manier waarop zij en hun gemeenschappen omgaan met
de dood, wat leidde tot een gesprek over ‘echte islam’, de ‘correcte’ rituele uitvoering en de betekenis die aan de verschillende elementen moest worden toegekend. Deze huiskamer bijeenkomsten lieten in het klein zien dat er zowel
eenheid als verbondenheid is in islam, maar ze illustreren ook de verschillen in
interpretatie en de manier waarop islam wordt geleefd. Het maakte voor de
deelneemsters ook duidelijk dat zij niet vanzelfsprekend kunnen terugvallen op
een heldere en eenduidige traditie. Dat was een eyeopener. Hoe kunnen moslims in Venlo – deze specifieke klein stedelijke omgeving met een zeer diverse
moslimgemeenschap - hun riten rond de dood praktiseren?
De gemeente Venlo bestaat uit de stad Venlo (38.811 inwoners) en de dorpen Blerick
(27.589), Tegelen (19.328), Belfeld (5.477), Arcen (2.490), Velden (5.127) en Lomm
(1.018) en is gelegen in zuidoost Nederland, direct aan de Duitse grens.
Dood in een migratiecontext is in vele opzichten een uitdaging. Omdat mensen
in de huidige context nog maar zelden heel direct met de dood geconfronteerd
worden – generaties wonen niet langer onder één dak en steeds meer mensen
overlijden in het ziekenhuis - zien we ook dat moslims in Venlo niet erg bekend
zijn met de situatie. En ook al zien we dat nabestaanden zich er veelal van
bewust zijn dat zij een rol te vervullen hebben in rituelen rond de dood van een
dierbare, ontberen zij echter kennis en ervaring. Dit maakt mensen onzeker en
draagt bij aan een diepgewortelde angst voor ritueel falen.
Van alle gebeurtenissen in de levenscyclus, lijken gebeurtenissen rond
de dood de meeste impact te genereren en de bijbehorende rituelen worden dan
ook als heel belangrijk gezien (van Gennep, 1961, p. 146). De dood is een confrontatie en soms zelfs een traumatische ervaring waar de nabestaanden op moeten reageren; wat zij doen middels een uitvoerig ritueel repertoire. Rituelen rond
de dood hebben ook een onthullend effect (Metcalf & Huntington, 1991, p. 25):
ze geven niet alleen vorm aan (religieuze) beliefs en waarden, maar bieden ook
een mogelijkheid om betekenis te construeren en gemeenschap, ritueel en mythes te creëren (Garces Foley, 2006, p.ix).
In de meeste gevallen kunnen moslims in het kleine Venlo hun rituele
leven vorm geven binnen hun eigen, soms heel kleine, (etnische) gemeenschap.
Maar in het geval van rituelen rond de dood kan de betrokkenheid van de bredere moslimgemeenschap noodzakelijk zijn om te kunnen komen tot een ‘correcte’ uitvoering van de riten voor hun dierbare overledene. Het zijn ook de momenten dat de diversiteit binnen de moslimgemeenschap heel duidelijk wordt.
In Nederland wonen naar schatting van het CBS (2011) zo’n 950.000
moslims, die zich in ruwweg vier fasen in Nederland hebben gevestigd (Koningsveld & Shadid 2008, 22-23). Aanvankelijk zijn het kleine groepen moslims uit Indonesië en Suriname die naar Nederland komen in het kader van de
dekolonisatie. Het aantal moslims groeit sterk met de komst van arbeidsmigranten uit voornamelijk Turkije en Marokko vanaf de jaren 1960. Vanaf 1974 worden nauwelijks nog arbeidsvergunningen afgegeven en zijn het voornamelijk de
vrouwen en kinderen van deze arbeidsmigranten die zich in Nederland vestigen.
Tot op heden vormen zij en hun nazaten de grootste groep. Later, met name in
de jaren negentig, zijn het moslims uit landen als voormalig Joegoslavië, Irak,
Iran, Afghanistan en Somalië die onder druk van politieke omstandigheden hun
toevlucht tot Nederland zoeken. Met de komst van de grotere groepen Turkse en
Marokkaanse moslims in Venlo, ontwikkelde zich ook een islamitische infrastructuur die vandaag de dag bestaat uit 5 moskeeën, cultureel-religieuze
verenigingen en sinds 1995 is een deel van de algemene begraafplaats gereserveerd voor islamitische graven.
Naast nieuwkomers is er ook sprake van een tweede en derde generatie
moslims, geboren en getogen in Nederland, die volop deel uitmaken van de samenleving. Er worden huwelijken gesloten die islamitische en niet-islamitische
partners en families met elkaar verbinden. Tevens is er een kleine groep autochtone bekeerlingen. In onderzoeken lijkt de diversiteit van de Nederlandse moslimgemeenschap(pen), met zowel religieuze als sociale dimensies, verhult te
worden door een nogal eenzijdige aandacht voor de getalsmatig grootste groepen. De islambeleving van diverse moslims in Nederland wordt onder andere
bepaald door tradities in de herkomstlanden maar zijn ook door migratie beïnvloed. De omstandigheden (sociaal, religieus, economisch en politiek) in Nederland zijn ook van invloed. Wat betekent het concreet voor de manier waarop rituelen worden uitgevoerd en beleefd?
Dit is een studie naar veranderende rituelen rond de dood zoals die door diverse
moslims – van uiteenlopende achtergronden- uitgevoerd worden en zoals we die
aantreffen in de specifieke migratie context van Venlo. Centraal staat de rite van
de lijkwassing en het wikkelen van de overledene in de lijkwade zoals gepraktiseerd in Nederland. Het is een belangrijk ritueel in het geheel van islamitische
dodenriten omdat ongeacht waar (in Nederland of land van herkomst) de overledene wordt begraven, deze rite in Nederland plaatsheeft. Door middel van intensief veldwerk in Venlo, bestaande uit diepte-interviews, gesprekken en (participerende) observaties, wordt de rituele praxis rond de dood en zijn context
uitgewerkt. Een raamwerk voor observaties, interpretaties en analyses van deze
praxis wordt gevormd door drie theoretische concepten: rituele praxis, rituele
context, rituele content.
Rituele praxis
Het definiëren van ritueel is moeilijk en misschien zelfs onmogelijk, maar het is
bovenal niet zinvol daar definities vaak te breed of juist te beperkt zijn. Het is
daarom zinvoller rituelen te bespreken in termen van genre en elementen. Dodenriten behoren tot een specifiek genre dat gewoonlijk wordt aangeduid als
rites de passage – riten die veranderingen, verschuivingen en overgangen in de
menselijke levenscyclus markeren (van Gennep, 1960). Dergelijke riten volgen
een vast patroon. De eerste fase bevat riten van separatie, die de scheiding van
een bepaalde status markeren en wordt gevolgd door een fase van transitie – de
liminele fase waarin men de vorige status achter zich heeft gelaten maar nog
niet is overgegaan naar de nieuwe status. Het geheel wordt afgesloten met de
fase van re-integratie, waarin riten een terugkeer – in een nieuwe status – naar
de wereld bewerkstelligen. Maar met het labelen van doden riten als rite de passage zijn we er nog niet.
Hoewel riten vaak worden gezien als statische, zich herhalende en formalistische handelingen, mogen we het dynamische karakter van ritueel ook
niet over het hoofd zien. Ook al gaat het hier om dodenriten die vrij gedetailleerd worden voorgeschreven door een geïnstitutionaliseerde, traditionele religie als de islam. Er is geen rituele of religieuze benadering van de dood mogelijk zonder de context, waardoor rituele actoren geen andere keuze hebben dan
te improviseren. De praxis van formele islamitische dodenriten gaat altijd
gepaard met sociale gebruiken en persoonlijke input die context gebonden is.
En contexten veranderen, riten verhuizen van de ene context naar de andere en
dienen te worden ‘vertaald’ om aan de eisen van die nieuwe context tegemoet te
komen – rituele verandering is onvermijdelijk. Rituelen worden opnieuw uitgevonden en worden opnieuw overdacht – het is hun enige kans op overleving. Zo
is er een dynamisch ritueel repertoire beschikbaar voor Moslims in Venlo
waarmee zij de dood tegemoet kunnen treden.
Rituele context: migratie
Migratie is een belangrijke contextbepalende factor in ons onderzoek naar rituelen rond de dood van moslims in Nederland. Het overgrote deel van deze moslims heeft een migratieachtergrond. En ook wanneer men niet in strikte zin een
migrant is, wordt het rituele handelen in veel opzichten door migratie bepaald.
Migratie verwijst weliswaar in de eerste plaats naar de fysieke verhuizing van
het ene land naar het andere, maar gaat vooral ook om de uitwerking en gevolgen ervan. Het zijn niet enkel mensen die verhuizen; ook hun culturele en religieuze gebruiken en sociale netwerken gaan mee en moeten opnieuw vorm krijgen. Wij beschouwen diaspora dan ook vooral als een sociaal fenomeen, een
soort bewustzijn en een modus voor culturele reproductie (Vertovec, 2008). Het
is in dit licht dat mensen hun rituele repertoire rond de dood herzien, opnieuw
overdenken en vormgeven – aangepast aan de ‘nieuwe’ context. Waarbij
‘nieuw’ niet zozeer verwijst naar ‘recent’ maar een andere, veranderde context.
Moslims in Venlo zijn afkomstig uit verschillende landen en culturen,
zijn op verschillende momenten en onder verschillende omstandigheden naar
Nederland gekomen en hun migratie ervaringen kunnen enorm verschillen. Wat
zij echter gemeen hebben is dat zij veelal uit een context afkomstig zijn met een
sterke moslim meerderheid en nu in Venlo leven in een minderheidspositie. Een
positie die het moslim-zijn minder vanzelfsprekend maakt. Het is ook een context waarin moslims veelal voor het eerst worden geconfronteerd met een diverse praxis binnen hun eigen religie. Door te spreken over ‘de moslim gemeenschap’ – als een homogeen geheel - verliest men de diversiteit uit het oog.
Het mag duidelijk zijn dat riten gevormd worden door de sociale context, maar tegelijkertijd vormen riten ook de sociale realiteit. Ritueel kan ook
een bron voor verandering zijn, het biedt ruimte voor nieuwe ideeën en praktijken die worden geïnitieerd door zowel individuele als sociale creativiteit.
Ritual content: meaning
Om de rituele content – de betekenis die het heeft en wil overbrengen - te kunnen onderzoeken moeten we riten niet los zien van de context waarin ze worden
gepraktiseerd. Om inzicht te krijgen in de rituele betekenis van islamitische
rituelen rond de dood in een migratiecontext sluiten we aan bij het concept van
‘geleefde religie’ (Hall, 1997; McGuire, 2008; Orsi, 2003). Net als ritueel is ook
religie een complexe term die verwijst naar verschillende concepten en gebruiken. In het geval van islam verwijst het naar een geheel van ideeën en geloofsvoorstellingen waarmee moslims zich, in mindere of meerdere mate, verbinden.
Het biedt ook een kader waarin we geleefde ervaringen en dagelijkse gebruiken
kunnen plaatsen en interpreteren. Daarom is het van groot belang niet enkel te
bestuderen wat door islamitische autoriteiten wordt voorgeschreven, maar ook
de werkelijke praxis rond sterven en dood onder de loep te nemen. Het is belangrijk onderscheid te maken tussen islam en moslims (Campo, 2006, 149153). Zo zien we dat in islamitische bronnen rituelen rond de dood veelal eenduidig en met duidelijke richtlijnen worden gepresenteerd. Interessant is dat de
toepassing van dergelijke richtlijnen per definitie leidt tot een zeer diverse praktijk. En het is deze dynamiek tussen islam en moslims, tussen voorschrift en
praktijk, die dit onderzoek interessant maar ook complex maakt. Wij onderzoeken in de eerste plaats de praktijken, ervaringen en uitdrukkingen van gewone moslims in het dagelijkse leven. Zo verwerven we inzicht in de islam zoals
die door moslims in een specifieke context wordt geleefd en beleefd.
Deze studie wil antwoord geven op de volgende centrale onderzoeksvraag zoals
geformuleerd in het eerste hoofdstuk:
Welke rituele repertoires zien we opkomen bij moslims in de kleinstedelijke
context van Venlo, wanneer zij geconfronteerd worden met de dood, en hoe
krijgen deze repertoires vorm?
Repertoire verwijst hier naar de rituele middelen die moslims voor handen hebben in de confrontatie met de dood. Wij onderscheiden de volgende repertoires:
rituele elementen, rituele rollen, rituele geloofsvoorstellingen (beliefs), en rituele narratieven. Deze rituele repertoires worden elk uitgewerkt in een eigen
hoofdstuk aan de hand van de hierboven beschreven theoretische sleutelconcepten: rituele praxis, rituele context en rituele content. Deze concepten en de manier waarop ze onderling verbonden zijn bepalen de dimensies die vormgeven
aan de praktijk van dodenriten zoals ze door moslims in Venlo worden geleefd.
In de hoofdstukken worden antwoorden geformuleerd op de volgende subvragen:
Welke rituele elementen zijn van belang voor hedendaagse moslims in het ritualiseren van de dood?
Welke rollen kunnen we onderscheiden in de praktijk van de rituele lijkwassing?
Welke rituele geloofsvoorstellingen zijn verbonden met riten rond de dood?
Wat is de rol van narratieven in het proces van rituele betekenisverlening rond
de dood?
Het tweede hoofdstuk richt zich op de rituele elementen die de bouwstenen
vormen van de rituele dodenwassing en draait om de vraag:
welke rituele elementen zijn van belang voor hedendaagse moslims in het ritualiseren van de dood?
Aan de hand van tien rituele elementen kunnen we de wassing van de doden in
kaart brengen. Behalve inzoomen op de afzonderlijke elementen kunnen we ook
hun onderlinge verbondenheid bestuderen waardoor een uitgelezen beeld ontstaat van de werkelijke praxis. De basis handelingen van de verschillende lijkwassingen lopen over het algemeen niet heel veel uiteen. Er zijn verschillen die
samenhangen met wie er op welk moment kan participeren. We zien de opkomst van toegevoegde handelingen, die niet zijn voorgeschreven maar die tegemoet komen aan de behoeften van de nabestaanden in deze specifieke context. Wat betreft de betrokken actoren zien we een zeer centrale rol weggelegd
voor de overledene, de riten zijn sterk gericht op zijn of haar welzijn. We zien
in de nieuwe context rollen ontstaan die het welzijn van de overledene moeten
waarborgen. Daar nabestaanden zelden in staat zijn de riten zelf uit te voeren en
men niet terug kan vallen op een vanzelfsprekende moslimgemeenschap is de
inzet van rituele experts onmisbaar geworden voor een goed verloop. Koran en
hadith worden door de respondenten algemeen genoemd als bronnen voor rituelen rond de dood, terwijl juist de fiqh literatuur (islamitische jurisprudentie) de
meest werkbare richtlijnen bevat. Maar de fiqh is door haar taal(gebruik) vaak
moeilijk toegankelijk voor leken. Hierdoor krijgen de lokale imams (verbonden
aan een van de moskeeën in Venlo) een belangrijke rol en vormen zij een primaire bron. Informatie over de riten kan ook worden verkregen in cursussen en
informatiebijeenkomsten en onder jongeren is het internet een populaire bron.
In lokale narratieven worden al deze bronnen gebundeld genoemde bronnen en
worden een belangrijke informatiestroom in de Venlose context. Waar het gaat
om houdingen, geloofsvoorstellingen en emoties zien we dat moslims zich veelal
zeer bewust zijn van de dood, het leven na de dood en van de islamitische eschatologie. Het principe van fard kifaya (collectieve plicht om in dit geval bij te
dragen aan het gepast verzorgen van een overleden moslim) versterkt het idee
van een gezamenlijke moslimgemeenschap die echter niet altijd beschikbaar is.
Dit maakt de rituele praxis minder vanzelfsprekend en maakt mensen onzeker.
De wassing van een overledene kan volgens de regelgeving in elke afgeschermde ruimte plaats hebben. Waar de overledene uiteindelijk wordt begraven, in
Nederland of het land van herkomst, is ook van invloed op de wassing en hoe
deze wordt ervaren. Bij begrafenis in het land van herkomst zien we dat het ritueel wordt opgesplitst – het raakt gefragmenteerd - tussen verschillende plaatsen waarbij steeds andere mensen zijn betrokken. De nabestaanden voelen veelal een tijdsdruk om de overledene zo snel mogelijk te begraven, iets wat niet altijd eenvoudig te regelen is. Met name repatriatie van het lichaam staat een snelle ter aarde bestelling in de weg. De objecten die nodig zijn voor de wassing, de
basisuitrusting, zijn algemeen voorhanden en zijn voornamelijk praktisch van
aard: handschoenen, zeep, handdoeken, witte katoen voor de lijkwade. Nabestaanden doen soms erg veel moeite om aanvullende materialen – veelal uit de
context van herkomst - zoals wierook, speciale toevoegingen aan het water
(bladeren, geurstoffen), en specifieke lijkwades te krijgen. De primaire rituele
taal is het Arabisch, een taal die vele moslims echter niet of slechts beperkt
machtig zijn. Dat en de onbekendheid met de gepaste teksten maakt dat mensen
twijfelen over hun participatie aan de rituele wassing van de overledene. Het
Nederlands wordt steeds vaker gebruikt als taal van instructie – buiten de rituele
performance. Waar het gaat om zintuigelijke waarnemingen wordt vaak verwezen
naar geur; zoals de zo gevreesde geur van de dood die bedwongen wordt door
het branden van wierook of het toevoegen van rozenwater of andere parfums
aan het waswater. Commentaar en kritiek worden aangewakkerd door het besef
van diversiteit onder moslims maar ook door hun migratie naar een nieuwe context. Concluderend kunnen we zien dat moslims, in hun omgang met de dood,
kunnen putten uit een omvangrijk (voorgeschreven) islamitisch repertoire.
Tegelijkertijd zien we een transformatie van dit repertoire omdat zij herzien en
opnieuw uitgevonden moet worden om te passen in de nieuwe context. Dit aanpassen gaat gepaard met een duidelijke selectie waarbij bepaalde elementen
belangrijker geacht worden dan anderen. In de Venlose context zien we dat
moslims in Venlo allereerst de geleefde religie als uitgangspunt nemen; het is
de dagelijkse praxis in al zijn variaties en aanpassingen die eenvoudigweg als
de gangbare praxis wordt gezien. Merkwaardig genoeg gaat dit samen met een
levendig debat over het ‘correcte rituele handelen’ en ‘echte islam’.
In het derde hoofdstuk staan de rituele rollen centraal zoals die door overledene,
nabestaanden, rituele experts en gemeenschappen in Venlo worden vervuld:
welke rollen kunnen we onderscheiden in de praktijk van de rituele lijkwassing?
Islamitische bronnen zien de belangrijkste rituele rollen weggelegd voor de
overledene en zijn of haar directe nabestaanden. In Venlo wordt de meest actieve rol, die van de lijkwasser, over het algemeen uitgevoerd door een ritueel
expert. Dit is een opkomende rol die slecht door een select groepje mensen
wordt vervuld. Familieleden nemen zelden de leiding in de wassing; zij assisteren of zijn als toeschouwers aanwezig. We zien hier wederom een verschil tussen voorschrift en de gangbare praxis: waar de bronnen aangeven dat directe
familieleden de aangewezen wassers zijn, zien we dit in de migratiecontext
nauwelijks gebeuren. Hiervoor zijn verschillende oorzaken aan te wijzen waarvan er een aantal te wijten aan de migratie context of hierdoor op zijn minst
worden versterkt. Zo zijn er in een aantal gevallen geen directe familieleden
voor handen; ze leven elders en zijn niet in staat (tijdig) hun rol in de lijkwassing op zich te nemen. In het geval van gemengde huwelijken of bekering tot de
islam is (een deel van) de familie niet-moslim en daarmee ongeschikt om de
wassing te doen aangezien moslim zijn een eerste voorwaarde is. Maar de meeste nabestaanden zien zichzelf niet als geschikt om aan de wassing deel te
nemen. De lijkwassing is een zeer fysieke rite, waarbij men de overledene veelvuldig aanraakt, iets wat voor veel nabestaanden moeilijk of angstaanjagend is.
Het adequaat en respectvol uitvoeren van de rite vraagt ook bepaalde kennis en
praktische vaardigheden die maar weinigen beheersen. Dit alles leidt tot een
diepgewortelde angst ritueel te falen.
In Venlo worden overladen mannen meestal gewassen door een imam van een
van de Marokkaanse of Turkse moskeeën. Deze imams voeren de riten uit als
onderdeel van hun professionele taken en zij worden daarin bijgestaan door
vrijwilligers. Wanneer het gaat om een overleden vrouw (die gewassen dient te
worden door een vrouw) is het gecompliceerder, aangezien er geen voor de
hand liggende vrouwelijke professionals zijn. De vrouwen die op dit moment
betrokken zijn bij de lijkwassingen in Venlo hebben geen formele status of training. Zij zijn vaak toevallig of uit noodzaak (een tekort aan mensen) bij de wassing betrokken geraakt. Ook al zijn ze niet formeel bij een moskee betrokken, ze
kunnen veelal wel via deze organisatie gecontacteerd worden. Hoe deze rituele
experts hun eigen rol zien en de manier waarop ze uitvoering geven aan die rol,
wordt voornamelijk bepaald door hun eigen motivatie en de autoriteit die anderen hen toekennen. Recentelijk hebben enkele moskee organisaties het plan opgevat vrouwen op te gaan leiden tot rituele lijkwassers om zo meer vrouwen beschikbaar te hebben voor de taak. En hoewel nogal wat (voornamelijk jonge)
vrouwen hebben aangegeven geïnteresseerd te zijn in de cursus, is het nog niet
tot een opleiding gekomen.
De kleinere (niet-Turkse/Marokkaanse) moslim gemeenschappen zijn in
dit opzicht nauwelijks georganiseerd. Daar mensen in deze gemeenschappen relatief jong zijn, is men vaak niet bezig met de dood en reageert men pas op het
moment dat er zich iets voordoet – iets wat vaak leidt tot stressvolle en moeilijke situaties. Met de veranderende rollen, veranderen ook de relaties van de betrokkenen ten opzichte van elkaar. Zo is het gangbaar dan een overledene door
een ‘vreemde’ wordt gewassen en de nabestaanden geen rol meer vervullen in
de rituele wassing.
Zowel de ritueel experts als de nabestaanden moeten zo hun relatie met
de overledene (opnieuw) vormgeven. Nabestaanden moeten bijvoorbeeld een
ander moment of een andere vorm van afscheid kiezen. Specifiek voor vrouwen
en kinderen is de beslotten setting van de dodenwassing veelal het laatste moment waarop ze persoonlijk afscheid kunnen nemen van hun dierbare. Door het
openbare karakter van de begrafenis (met bijbehorende sociale controle) worden
veelal strikte genderregels gehanteerd en zijn zij enkel toegankelijk voor mannen.
Het vierde hoofdstuk richt zich op de rituele geloofsvoorstelling en hoe deze
vorm krijgen in de ‘geleefde eschatologie’. We antwoorden op de vraag:
welke rituele geloofsvoorstellingen zijn verbonden met rituelen rond de dood?
Om te bepalen welke geloofsvoorstellingen verbonden zijn met rituelen rond de
dood is het nodig ons te verdiepen de islamitische eschatologische mythe. Deze
meta-narratief heeft zich gedurende eeuwen ontwikkeld tot een fijnmazig en coherent geheel dat alle aspecten van bestemming van de mens na zijn dood bestrijkt en is sterk verankerd in (primaire) islamitische bronnen. Het gaat niet om
passieve ideeën die enkel in de hoofden van mensen leven maar een mythe heeft
ook een organiserend en ordenend karakter dat ten grondslag ligt aan het geheel
van rituelen rond de dood. Het zijn concrete riten die deze orde tastbaar maken.
In de geleefde eschatologie zien we de verbinding tussen deze geloofsvoorstellingen en de concrete dodenriten die vorm krijgen in de interactie tussen de
overledenen en nabestaanden.
We gebruiken de structuur van de rite de passage als kapstok. De fase
voor de begrafenis zien we dat met de dood het persoonlijke, actieve en fysieke
leven tot een einde komt; en daarmee de mogelijkheid om credits voor het hiernamaals op te bouwen. Het lichaam is in deze fase nog wel beschikbaar. De focus is zeer sterk op de overledene gericht, die op dit moment bijzonder kwetsbaar is. De nabestaanden dienen hun dierbare te beschermen door middel van
riten. Het is aan hen (en aan de moslim gemeenschap) deze fase voor de overledene tot een veilig einde te brengen. De begrafenis markeert de overgang naar
de volgende fase, bij het graf. De rituelen richten zich aanvankelijk sterk op het
lichaam van de overledene omdat dit voor het laatst zichtbaar is. Eenmaal begraven bevindt de overledene zich in barzakh (de periode tussen iemands dood
en zijn wederopstanding op de Dag des Oordeels) en moet hij zich alleen zien te
redden bij de eerste beoordelingen in het graf. Waar primaire islamitische bronnen nauwelijks informatie geven over de periode tussen de persoonlijke dood en
de wederopstanding wordt de leegte gevuld met populaire voorstellingen. Geleefde eschatologie krijgt met name vorm in deze fase. Er is ruimte voor meer
persoonlijke geloofsvoorstellingen over het leven na de dood en betekenissen
kunnen worden aangepast aan de context, wat resulteert in meer persoonlijke
rituele handelingen die meer persoonlijke betekenissen overbrengen. We zien
een sterk geloof dat de overledene vanuit zijn graf beschikbaar blijft voor rituele
handelingen. Aanvullende ritualiseringen (rond rouw en grafbezoek) krijgen
vorm naast de formele riten. Zo zien we dat de tamelijk statische eschatologische mythe wordt aangepast, met name door een selectief gebruik ervan. De
mythe raakt gefragmenteerd en wordt aangevuld met populaire narratieven die
aan de behoeften van moslims in een specifieke context tegemoet komen. Zo
zien we verhalen ontstaan over waarom het beter is voor de zielenrust van de
overledene om in het land van herkomst begraven te worden (en niet in Venlo)
maar worden tegelijkertijd de verschrikkingen die de overledene moet doorstaan
door de repatriatie –de reis in het ijskoude laadruim van een vliegtuig- achterwege gelaten.
Het vijfde hoofdstuk gaat specifiek in op de populaire narratieven en zoekt antwoord op de vraag: wat is de rol van narratieven in het proces van betekenisverlening rond de dood?
Waar de meta- narratief veelal generiek en statisch is, zijn populaire narratieven
duidelijk meer context gebonden en vloeibaar. Deze aanvullende verhalen – die
gedeeld worden in de sociale omgang en middels verschillende media – hebben
veelal betrekking op actuele en urgente onderwerpen waar mensen tegenaan lopen in een bepaalde context. Sterven in een ‘vreemde’ context werpt prangende
vragen op en stelt hen voor praktische uitdagingen. Het is ook een confrontatie
met de Nederlandse maatschappij en de manier waarop grote groepen daarin
met de dood omgaan. Narratieven tonen en vormen de perspectieven van moslims op deze zaken. Het zijn daarmee zeer sociale en bijzonder interactieve narratieven die een sleutel zijn tot de ervaringen van mensen en voorzien in een
collectieve perceptie van hoe dingen (zouden moeten) werken. Deze narratieven
weven een web van betekenissen waarin dodenriten worden ingebed.
De verhalen bezitten tevens de unieke gave het verleden en het heden
met elkaar te verbinden. Herinneringen aan de oorspronkelijke context en aan
de lokale praxis rond de dood worden opgehaald en herzien, riten rond de dood
worden opnieuw overdacht en opnieuw uitgevonden om ze passend te maken
voor de nieuwe context. Op deze manier definiëren de narratieven zowel de
huidige context alsook de oorspronkelijke context, en tussen deze twee voorstellingen krijgen ideeën en houdingen ten opzichte van dodenriten vorm. Beide
contexten worden vaak als tegenstellingen neergezet: een prachtige en ideale
context van herkomst tegenover een problematische huidige context. Het is in
dit spanningsveld dat moslims op zoek gaan naar richtsnoeren voor de praxis
van hun dodenriten. Narratieven kunnen worden gezien als belangrijke aanjagers omdat in de verhalen rituelen rond de dood worden overdacht en opnieuw
worden uitgevonden. Ze worden gezien als belangrijke bronnen van kennis en
informatie door en voor moslims. Ook al is die informatie niet altijd feitelijk en
bijna altijd gekleurd. De verhalen reflecteren daarmee wel de diversiteit van de
moslim gemeenschappen. De diversiteit in narratieven en counter-narratieven is
van invloed op de rituele praxis. We zien dat met name publieke riten – veel-
vuldig onderwerp van narratieven - zoals de begrafenis een meer uniform karakter krijgen (ook onder druk van die narratieven). Meer private riten, zoals de
rituele lijkwassing en grafbezoek, worden steeds meer een toevluchtsoord voor
rituele creativiteit.
Ten slotte vat het zesde hoofdstuk nogmaals samen hoe de rituele repertoires
(elementen, rollen, geloofsvoorstellingen en narratieven) opkomen en zich ontwikkelen in de kleinstedelijke omgeving van Venlo. Ze zijn het resultaat van
een levendig, gelaagd onderhandelingsproces waarin riten en ritualiserende
handelingen een wisselwerking aangaan met de rituele actoren en de (veranderende) contexten. Het bestuderen van de rituele wassing en het wikkelen in
lijkwades van de doden geeft inzichten in de dynamiek en creativiteit van ritueel. Een dynamiek die vaak over het hoofd wordt gezien, zeker in een geïnstitutionaliseerde religie als de islam.
Claudia Venhorst (1972) was born in Tegelen, the Netherlands. After her final
exams she studied African Studies at Leiden University for three years. In the
years that followed she mainly lived and worked in Senegal (West Africa) as
the owner of a local tour operator that organized study tours and educational
trips for a diversity of groups. Life in Senegal very much aroused her interest in
Islam and lived religion. After her return from Africa it was this interest that
made her decide to go back to university to study Religious Studies at the Radboud University Nijmegen (2003). Initially as a part-time student in addition to
her work as an event-coordinator at the marketing communication’s department
of Océ Technologies. In 2008 she received her Master’s degree in Religious
studies (cum laude), followed by a second Master in ‘Religion and Culture’
(cum laude) in 2009. During her studies she developed a passion for research
that took shape in studies on ritual, Islam and migration. For the past five years,
to make study and research possible, she worked as an independent trainer and
consultant in the field of diversity and communication.