Should we destroy the graves of pious Muslims?

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Violent extremists have begun a campaign of destruction against traditional grave sites in the lands of the Muslims, using explosives and other heavy weaponry to demolish structures that have been built over these grave sites. They claim to be implementing pure “monotheism” and refer to some prophetic traditions and statements to justify their actions. However, that is only part of the story as the reality is more complicated than they imagine. Their destructive actions are actually very harmful to Islam and the peace of the Muslim community.

The truth is that the matter of buildings structures over grave sites is a difference of scholarly interpretation and each school of thought has their evidences in the prophetic traditions. It is not permissible for lawless vigilantes to desecrate graveyards in this heinous manner and impose their personal views by force upon those who peacefully disagree.

To begin, Islam teaches us to be cautious of acts of worship near graveyards, tombs, and mausoleums. This is because idol worship originated in the exaggeration and exaltation of righteous people at their grave sites.

Jundub reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said five days before he passed away:

وَإِنَّ مَنْ كَانَ قَبْلَكُمْ كَانُوا يَتَّخِذُونَ قُبُورَ أَنْبِيَائِهِمْ وَصَالِحِيهِمْ مَسَاجِدَ أَلَا فَلَا تَتَّخِذُوا الْقُبُورَ مَسَاجِدَ إِنِّي أَنْهَاكُمْ عَنْ ذَلِكَ

Verily, those before you turned the graves of their prophets and righteous men into places of worship, so do not take graves as places of worship. I forbid you from doing so.

Source: Sahih Muslim 532, Grade: Sahih

Abu Sa’eed Al-Khudri reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

الْأَرْضُ كُلُّهَا مَسْجِدٌ إِلَّا الْمَقْبَرَةَ وَالْحَمَّامَ

The entire earth has been made a place of prayer except for the graveyards and the latrine.

Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 317, Grade: Sahih

For this reason, the companions were careful not to allow Muslims to extravagantly decorate their grave sites or exhibit extreme displays of grief.

Abu Burdah reported: Abu Musa Al-Ashari enjoined upon us at the time of his death, saying:

إِذَا انْطَلَقْتُمْ بِجِنَازَتِي فَأَسْرِعُوا الْمَشْيَ وَلَا يَتَّبِعُنِي مُجَمَّرٌ وَلَا تَجْعَلُوا فِي لَحْدِي شَيْئًا يَحُولُ بَيْنِي وَبَيْنَ التُّرَابِ وَلَا تَجْعَلُوا عَلَى قَبْرِي بِنَاءً وَأُشْهِدُكُمْ أَنَّنِي بَرِيءٌ مِنْ كُلِّ حَالِقَةٍ أَوْ سَالِقَةٍ أَوْ خَارِقَةٍ

You should hasten with my funeral procession and do not follow me in suspense. Do not put it my grave anything that will come between me and the dust, and do not build anything over my grave. Bear witness that I am free of those women who shave their heads, tear their clothes, and strike their faces.

They said, “Have you heard something about this?” Abu Musa said:

نَعَمْ مِنْ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ

Yes, from the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him.

Source: Musnad Ahmad 19053, Grade: Sahih

The Prophet generally prohibited the Muslims from building or plastering over grave sites in an excessive way.

Jabir reported:

نَهَى رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَنْ يُجَصَّصَ الْقَبْرُ وَأَنْ يُقْعَدَ عَلَيْهِ وَأَنْ يُبْنَى عَلَيْهِ

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, prohibited plastering the graves, sitting upon them, and building structures over them.

Source: Sahih Muslim 970, Grade: Sahih

Most of the scholars interpreted this to mean that the act of building over graves is disapproved (makruh), which in Islamic law means it is not sinful but it is recommended to avoid it.

An-Nawawi comments on this tradition, saying:

وَفِي هَذَا الْحَدِيثِ كَرَاهَةُ تَجْصِيصِ الْقَبْرِ وَالْبِنَاءِ عَلَيْهِ وَتَحْرِيمُ الْقُعُودُ هَذَا مَذْهَبُ الشَّافِعِيِّ وَجُمْهُورِ الْعُلَمَاءِ … قَالَ أَصْحَابُنَا تَجْصِيصُ الْقَبْرِ مَكْرُوهٌ وَالْقُعُودُ عَلَيْهِ حَرَامٌ

In this tradition is the disapproval of plastering graves and building over them, and the prohibition of sitting upon them. This is the way of Ash-Shafi’ee and the majority of the scholars… Our scholars said that it is disapproved to plaster over them and forbidden to sit upon them.

Source: Sharḥ Ṣaḥīh Muslim 970

Ibn Muflih writes:

وَيُكْرَهُ الْبِنَاءُ عَلَيْهِ وأَطْلَقَهُ أَحْمَدُ وَالْأَصْحَابُ لَاصَقَهُ أَوْ لَا

It is disapproved to build over graves as mentioned by Ahmad and the scholars, whether it is nearby or not.

Source: Kitāb al-Furūʻ 2/272

According to most scholars, the way of the Prophet is to mark the graves modestly with a gravestone or another kind of marking, and they disagreed about the details of this.

An-Nawawi writes:

أَنَّ السُّنَّةَ أَنَّ الْقَبْرَ لَا يُرْفَعُ عَلَى الْأَرْضِ رَفْعًا كَثِيرًاوَلَا يُسَنَّمُ بَلْ يُرْفَعُ نَحْوَ شِبْرٍ وَيُسَطَّحُ وَهَذَا مَذْهَبُ الشَّافِعِيِّ وَمَنْ وَافَقَهُ وَنَقَلَ الْقَاضِي عِيَاضٌ عَنْ أَكْثَرِ الْعُلَمَاءِ أَنَّ الْأَفْضَلَ عِنْدَهُمْ تَسْنِيمُهَا وَهُوَ مَذْهَبُ مَالِكٍ

The prophetic tradition regarding graves is not to raise them very high above the earth, nor to round them. Rather, they should be raised the length of a handspan and leveled. This is the way of Ash-Shafi’ee and those who agreed with him. Al-Qadi Iyad relates that most of the scholars preferred to round them, and this is the way of Malik.

Source: Sharḥ Ṣaḥīh Muslim 968

Since building over graves is considered by most scholars to be disapproved and not forbidden, it necessarily follows that there is absolutely no justification for using violence to enforce the minority juristic opinion that such buildings are completely unlawful. Even if all of the scholars said it was unlawful, violence cannot be justified on such grounds alone.

At this point, the extremists will likely cite what they consider to be their strongest text-proof to justify the explosive demolition of traditional Muslim grave sites. Upon further examination, we will see that the tradition does not support their deeds:

Abul Hayyaj reported: Ali ibn Abi Talib, may Allah be pleased with him, said to him:

أَلَا أَبْعَثُكَ عَلَى مَا بَعَثَنِي عَلَيْهِ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ أَنْ لَا تَدَعَ تِمْثَالًا إِلَّا طَمَسْتَهُ وَلَا قَبْرًا مُشْرِفًا إِلَّا سَوَّيْتَهُ

Shall I not send you on a mission as the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, sent me? Do not leave an image without effacing it and do not leave an elevated grave without leveling it.

Source: Sahih Muslim 969, Grade: Sahih

First, it should be understood that this command was given at a time when the Arabs were willingly abandoning their idolatrous heritage. The old polytheistic practices of worshiping images at extravagantly decorated grave sites no longer had popular support.

Ibn Al-Jawzi comments on this tradition, saying:

وهذا محمول على ما كانوا يفعلونه من تعلية القبور بالبناء الحسن العالي

This tradition is interpreted to mean what the Arabs used to do when exalting graves with beautiful structures and tall buildings.

Source: Sharḥ Abī Dāwūd lil-‘Aynī 6/175

Second, the command was given to Ali ibn Abi Talib, one of the Prophet’s closest companions, and then to his deputy. It was not given to Muslims in general or to vigilante groups. The decision of removing the structure from a grave site belongs to the lawful Muslim authorities and the owners of the structure, not anyone else.

Furthermore, the traditional practice of building a dome or small structure over a grave to mark it has some basis in the prophetic tradition and, unlike the idolaters, does not involve the worship of the people in the grave. The scholars would cite variations of the following tradition as evidence:

Anas ibn Malik reported:

أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم أَعْلَمَ قَبْرَ عُثْمَانَ بْنِ مَظْعُونٍ بِصَخْرَةٍ

The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, marked the grave of Uthman ibn Math’un with a stone.

Source: Sunan Ibn Majah 1561, Grade: Hasan

Ibn Hajar comments on this tradition, saying:

فَذَكَرَهُ وَفِيهِ جَوَازُ تَعْلِيَةِ الْقَبْرِ وَرَفْعِهِ عَنْ وَجْهِ الْأَرْضِ

Al-Bukhari mentioned this tradition elsewhere and in it is evidence for permission to elevate graves and raise them over the level of the earth.

Source: Fatḥ al-Bārī 1360

A group of scholars used this tradition and other evidence to determine, in their view, that building a modest structure over a grave site is permissible.

Ibn Abideen writes:

وَقِيلَ لَا يُكْرَهُ الْبِنَاءُ إذَا كَانَ الْمَيِّتُ مِنْ الْمَشَايِخِ وَالْعُلَمَاءِ وَالسَّادَاتِ

It is said that it is not disapproved to build over the graves if the deceased are great elders, scholars, and honorable people.

Source: Radd al-Muḥtār ʻalā al-Durr al-Mukhtār 2/237

Many of these tombs that have been demolished resided unmolested in the centers of Islamic learning for hundreds of years. Are we supposed to believe that only now a small group of Muslims has realized such practices are idolatry?

Rather, the basic principle in Islamic law is to tolerate differences on matters such as these in which pious and erudite scholars hold different opinions.

As-Suyuti writes:

الْقَاعِدَةُ (في الفقه) لَا يُنْكَرُ الْمُخْتَلَفُ فِيهِ وَإِنَّمَا يُنْكَرُ الْمُجْمَعُ عَلَيْهِ

A principle of Islamic jurisprudence states that there is no condemnation of others in matters of scholarly disagreement. Rather, there is only condemnation in matters upon which all the scholars have agreed.

Source: Al-Ashbāh wal-Naẓāʼir 2/35

And Ibn Taymiyyah writes:

مَسَائِلُ الِاجْتِهَادِ مَنْ عَمِلَ فِيهَا بِقَوْلِ بَعْضِ الْعُلَمَاءِ لَمْ يُنْكَرْ عَلَيْهِ وَلَمْ يُهْجَرْ وَمَنْ عَمِلَ بِأَحَدِ الْقَوْلَيْنِ لَمْ يُنْكَرْ عَلَيْهِ

Whoever acts according to the opinions of scholars in matters of juristic discretion should not be condemned or boycotted. Whoever acts according to one of two different opinions should not be condemned for it.

Source: Majmūʻ al-Fatāwá 20/207

If a Muslim cannot be condemned for following an opposing juristic opinion, then how much greater is the sin of violence against him?

Finally, they should be reminded that disrespecting and desecrating the dead and their grave sites is a major sin in Islam. If a grave is to be restructured or removed, the bodies have to be exhumed with the utmost care and respect and reburied in the proper manner. Even sitting upon the grave in a disrespectful way has serious consequences in the Hereafter.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

لَأَنْ يَجْلِسَ أَحَدُكُمْ عَلَى جَمْرَةٍ فَتُحْرِقَ ثِيَابَهُ فَتَخْلُصَ إِلَى جِلْدِهِ خَيْرٌ لَهُ مِنْ أَنْ يَجْلِسَ عَلَى قَبْرٍ

For one of you to sit upon a hot coal and burn himself and his clothes would be better than sitting upon a grave.

Source: Sahih Muslim 971, Grade: Sahih

The companions considered that someone who violates the sanctity of a Muslim’s remains has acted in a repulsive manner just as if they had harmed them while they were alive.

Malik reported: Aisha the wife of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, would say:

كَسْرُ عَظْمِ الْمُسْلِمِ مَيْتًا كَكَسْرِهِ وَهُوَ حَيٌّ

Breaking the bones of a dead Muslim is like breaking them when he is alive.

Source: Muwatta 557, Grade: Sahih

If breaking the bones of a dead Muslim is a major sin, then how much worse is it to blow them up?

In sum, Islam teaches us to be cautious of extravagance and exaggeration at grave sites. We are prohibited from taking a grave site as a place of worship and prayer. At the same time, the scholars disagreed over the extent to which it is permissible to build structures on the grave sites. Being a difference of scholarly opinion, the Muslims are obliged to be tolerant and respectful with those who follow an opposing view. The decision to remove the structure over a grave site belongs to the lawful Muslim authorities and the owners of the site, not anyone else.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.