Canada

Between faith and fear: Imams call for suspension of Islamic burial rituals during pandemic

As Muslims in Canada begin to bury their dead from COVID-19, they find themselves isolated, often grieving alone and learning that many of the rituals associated with religious burials have been suspended in some provinces.

Muslims struggle to comply with COVID-19 regulations as number of victims increases

Funeral workers and members of the Muslim community in Grinon, Spain, bury a member of the Islamic community who died of COVID-19 on April 8, 2020. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

Imams, religious scholars and Muslim medical professionals in Canada are divided over whether to suspend the funerary rituals for a Muslim who has died from COVID-19.

Under normal circumstances, a deceased Muslim is to be washed, shrouded and a communal prayer performed before a body is interred in a grave in the shortest possible time after death. Muslims are also forbidden to cremate or embalm their deceased.

But what happens when a Muslim dies from an infectious disease such as COVID-19? Across Canada, approaches to burying victims of the pandemic vary.

In Ontario, because of provincial regulations, the Canadian Council of Imams (CCI) has recommended that the ritual washing and shrouding of the deceased be suspended.

As for the communal prayer upon the deceased, the council says the Islamic requirements are fulfilled if just a few people perform it on behalf of the wider community.

"That's devastating news for grieving families who aren't allowed to participate in the Islamic rituals of burying their loved ones and who must mourn privately due to social distancing rules," said Zahir Bacchus, a council board member.

Salwa Kadri, Alberta's first and only licensed Muslim funeral director, demonstrates the process of shrouding. (Ariel Fournier/CBC)

In northern Alberta, however, the Islamic Funeral Society has modified some of the rituals for COVID-19 victims, while maintaining obligatory ones such as washing and shrouding the deceased.

On the morning of March 29, Salwa Kadri's team at the Al-Rashid Mosque in Edmonton was informed by the medical examiner's office that it was about to receive a confirmed COVID-19 death for burial.

"It was our first case and to be honest, we panicked at first, but quickly pulled ourselves together," said Kadri, director of the Islamic Funeral Society at Al-Rashid Mosque.

Kadri, believed to be the only Muslim licensed funeral director in Canada, has supervised hundreds of burials in Edmonton over the last 12 years.

And the morgue at Al-Rashid Mosque has the rare distinction of being licensed by the province of Alberta. By contrast, most Muslim morgues are housed in mosques and function with municipal permits.

'To serve others'

In order to maintain the Islamic rituals and prevent the spread of a disease, Kadri and her team consulted Muslim scholars and medical experts.

For the family of Abubakar Notiar, Edmonton's first Muslim COVID-19 victim, the opportunity to have a ritual burial made saying goodbye much easier.

WATCH | A son describes the final farewell for his father after he died of COVID-19

Man says Al-Rashid Mosque treated his father who died from COVID-19 like he was a president 2:28

"He used to tell us he became a doctor because we're in this world to serve others," said his son, Reza Notiar.

Abubakar Notiar, who was 81, was a doctor in Kenya for more than 50 years before he immigrated to Canada in 2015 to live with his son.

Reza Notiar described his father as his hero and "a kind and gentle soul."

'Otherwise healthy'

"He treated tens of thousands of people for free and helped save thousands of lives of the most vulnerable people in Africa," said Notiar.

He said the family is still stunned at the tragic death of his father.

"Dad, nor anyone in the family for that matter, had travelled anywhere and although he was diabetic and suffered from hypertension, he was otherwise healthy."

On March 23, after his father fell down at home a few times, Notiar called 911.

I am the eldest son and in our culture it is my duty to bury my dad.- Reza Notiar

An ambulance took him to the University of Alberta Hospital where he was admitted. A few days later, Notiar was notified that his father had tested positive for COVID-19.

A few days after that, he died.

Still under quarantine and at home, the news of his death left Notiar worried about who would bury his father.

"I am the eldest son and in our culture it is my duty to bury my dad," said a tearful Notiar, an optometrist.

Suspend fear, not faith

After Notiar's death, the medical examiner's office got in touch with Kadri to arrange to pick up the body.

"I got on the phone with my team and we reviewed our protocols and our training for such cases and the initial state of panic gave way to confidence," said Kadri. "There is no medical reason to suspend our faith tradition out of fear of this virus."

A licensed carrier transported Notiar's body to Al-Rashid's morgue, where it arrived in two sanitized body bags, in accordance with provincial regulations, she said.

Dr. Abubakar Notiar, left, stands with his wife, Amber, centre front, and the family of son Reza Notiar, centre back. (Submitted by Notiar family)

The morgue was sanitized and three volunteers donned personal protective equipment (PPE) in preparation.

Kadri's staff doubled up on caps, gloves, foot coverings, coveralls and masks, first an N95 and then a surgical mask over it.

Simple pieces of white cloth are used in Islamic ritual for shrouding a body before burial. (Submitted by Al-Rashid Mosque)

Members of her team removed Notiar's body from the bags, gave him a light wash and shrouded him with white cloth, according to Islamic custom, before placing him back into the body bags.

"All PPEs were disposed of and the morgue was once again sanitized," said Kadri.

Because the mosque is closed as a result of provincial restrictions, Notiar's body was transported by the same licensed carrier to the cemetery where the final prayer — janazah — was performed in the parking lot with seven family members and close friends spread apart in compliance with social distancing rules.

In the typical funeral prayer — janazah — at the Al-Rashid Mosque in Edmonton, worshippers face the direction of Mecca in Saudi Arabia while standing in straight lines behind the body of the deceased. (Submitted by Al-Rashid Mosque)

"It was emotionally difficult not being able to be present for this moment," said Reza Notiar.

Notiar's closest family members were under quarantine after he tested positive for COVID-19. The most they could do was watch the funeral virtually at home thanks to a family friend who streamed it live.

"For the final stage of the burial, two members of our staff donned hazmat suits, removed the body from the bags and lowered it into the grave without a casket," said Kadri.

To avoid the possibility of contamination, the bags were left in the grave before it was covered with earth, according to the Islamic tradition.

'Difficult and surreal'

But what if Notiar had died in the Greater Toronto Area? Would he have received a similar burial?

It seems unlikely.

"It was difficult and surreal to bury a Muslim who died from COVID-19," said Shaykh Alaa Elsayed, imam at ISNA Canada's mosque in Mississauga.

On April 5, Elsayed was notified his mosque had a "presumptive" COVID-19 death.

Normally, he would lend a hand to ISNA's bereavement team to wash and shroud the deceased at its morgue in preparation for burial.

Shaykh Alaa Elsayed is an imam at ISNA Canada mosque in Mississauga. (ISNA Canada)

But the Bereavement Authority of Ontario stipulates that only licensed funeral services can handle COVID-19 victims, essentially eliminating imams from the process.

Elsayed said he went directly to the cemetery and waited in his vehicle for the body to be buried before leading a small group of staff members from ISNA Canada for the communal prayer. 

"The family was appreciative that we were there for them at their time of grief even though some of the important rites associated with burying a Muslim had to be suspended out of necessity," said Elsayed.

"It is more important that we do the right thing and not become obsessed over doing things right."

Provincial regulations vary

All faith communities in Ontario are required to follow guidelines set down by the Bereavement Authority of Ontario when it comes to burying someone who has died from the coronavirus. 

According to the authority, faith communities have the option of embalming, cremating or hydrolyzing someone who died from the virus provided they safeguard themselves by wearing the right personal protective equipment.

For Muslims across Canada, it has been challenging to comply with a myriad of provincial guidelines when burying COVID-19 victims.

"The rules of burying a COVID-19 victim keep changing day by day," said Chihab Kaab, chair of the board of directors at ISNA.

In March, the Bereavement Authority of Ontario urged the Muslim community to only use licensed professionals to transport and prepare deceased COVID-19 victims for burial.

Dr. Ikramuddin Syed has prepared kits with personal protective equipment to give to imams in the GTA to provide them with some degree of protection whenever it might be required. (Submitted by Dr. Ikramuddin Syed)

The BAO's memo said that allowing untrained volunteers to prepare the deceased for burial was risky and that "even if trained, there is a shortage and unavailability of proper personal protective equipment."

Kaab said ISNA Canada Mosque and some other Muslim organizations in the GTA are having discussions with the BAO to allow imams a greater degree of participation in burying Muslims who die from COVID-19.

Ikramuddin Syed, a family physician who advises GTA imams, is trying to help by making personal protective equipment available to GTA imams and mosques.

So far, Syed has prepared and distributed 55 PPE kits. He has also been receiving calls from imams in Niagara and Waterloo asking for them.

Kaab said that ISNA's bereavement team is now equipped with the PPE that the BAO recommends and is being trained by Muslim medical professionals.

'Eternally grateful'

In Edmonton, Reza Notiar is satisfied with the burial his father was given and hopes others in a similar circumstance receive the same.

Al-Rashid in Edmonton is regarded as Canada's first mosque. (Submitted by Al-Rashid Mosque)

"I am eternally grateful to Salwa Kadri and her team at Al-Rashid Mosque for stepping up and giving my father a dignified Islamic burial," Notiar said.

"I am confident that my dad would have been happy with the burial he received."

About the Author

Nazim Baksh

CBC investigative producer

Nazim Baksh is a producer with The Fifth Estate. He has won numerous awards over the years for his work on The National, The Fifth Estate and the CBC's documentary unit among more. Since 9/11, he has worked extensively on issues of national security and violent religious extremism.

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