Say: Have ye thought: If (all) your water were to disappear
into the earth, who then could bring you gushing water?
—The Noble Quran: Surah Al-Mulk (The Sovereignty) 67:30
I will treasure bathing my son. Placing him in his tub. Little hands tapping the water. A plump, tiny pilgrim enjoying the sensation of warm water on his skin. Happiness is his first toothless smile as I wash his cradle cap off his soft scalp and work my way down to his little feet, toes curling around my pinky finger. Something special about a child’s laughter can cleanse your soul and scatter a smile in your sad heart. I bathed him in infancy until he was about six or seven years old when he didn’t want to think of me bathing him naked. The idea made his body rustle with something he didn’t want or wasn’t ready to feel.
Then there was bathing Noor. But first the rain. The downpour cantillates like voices. I remember the pilgrims performing Tawaf, circumambulating round the Ka’Bah. Never ceasing, the rain, the Quran. A rumbling noise. The gurney coming down the hall from the Masjid. Two orderlies enter the washing room. Set on the counter within reach: gloves, aprons, Rosemary water, incense, body wash, lotus leaves, musk, shampoo, comb, and a hairbrush.
Fatimah, Samah, Samiyah, and Miriam, arrive from the back entrance. “As Salaamu Alaikum,” they whisper in unison.“Wa Alaikum Salaam.” We put on non-slip shoe covers. Miriam comes to me and whispers, “Umm Jolie, can you help me with my apron?” Our children go to the same school and are best buddies. I am closer to her than I am with the others, but I see them often enough in the community to call them my sisters. While I tie Miriam’s apron with a secure snug around her waist, a loose strand of her hair is sticking out of her khimar. I tuck her hair back in. Samah was Noor’s childhood friend. They did everything together; sleepovers, movies, henna parties…when Noor was a little girl, she asked me over again to tie her favorite pink ribbon on her abaya because it kept coming loose from running and jumping rope with Samah during our Eid al-Fitr celebration. Noor gave the ribbon to Samah. Tears rain down my face.
Samah faces Noor’s head; Fatimah and Samiyah stand on the right of her; Miriam and I on the left, as we prepare to lift Noor. “Bismilaah (In the Name of Allah),” the first and final act of kindness towards our beloved. An opportunity to heal the living. I unzip the black bag and remove it from her body. Noor is laid on the white marble slab. There is a freedom in not having to look at my own body often. Noor is experiencing this freedom right now. It is very un-self-conscious. Although Noor’s private areas are covered, her body has plenty of space and beautiful geography to it. Noor is gone. Her language is cursive and silent. It is not easy to speak of death as its own kind of civilization. There is no textbook for this wilt. We observe her soft folds and make our du’aas for her. I can’t speak for the others, but the room is radiant.
Noor in Arabic means light. She hardly complained about anything or anyone. She wanted a child so much to nurse and bathe. Her soft brown eyes are open, staring at me, not staring at me, staring past me. She is not here. She is somewhere else. Samiyah closes her eyes. Samah holds Noor’s head while Miriam and I lift her side facing left. The smell of her blood overpowers us. There’s a small amount of blood coming out of her ears. Her nose. Her mouth—mouth that I hope uttered her last words of the Shahadah, the declaration of faith.
Fatimah and Samiyah cut off her clothing. They rinse the blood off her body as I hold a long white towel that will be used to cover Noor’s private area. Gentleness is key. Fatimah, Samiyah, and Miriam slightly raise her body so I can lightly press her stomach. This is the harshest part of the experience. Noor has been rinsed off again and is laid back down so wudu’ can be performed on her the same way it is used for prayer. A friend of ours, Aisha, walks in after preparing the shroud. She looks down at her daughter. I stand next to her. We hold hands for several measures.
“Mommy’s, here,” Aisha whispers. She gasps and almost collapses to the floor until I catch her. The oldest woman in the room, Aisha stayed with me for two weeks after my son was born. Abdur-Rahmaan is now 18. I look down at Noor—past Noor. Past the room. To somewhere else—Study. Study her face. Read her body. Take note of her smell. Take her story home with you. Ghusl—the washing—is storytelling. Every story has a sort of amount of time that we must share with our beloved. Death is such a performer in that her body has picked up all the intricacies of its rhythm. She looks supernatural, the kinescopes in my mind in just the way it distorts her image. And without warning…
I gasp when I see Noor’s right hand. Her index finger points upward. I ask Miriam if she notice but she doesn’t say anything. Everyone is calm. I now understand why the room is radiant. Aisha holds Noor’s right hand, hand that used to tap her mother’s left breast while being nursed; the hand that was held when learning how to walk, to point at the Arabic alphabets in the Quran, to applying red henna for her wedding day— just only several months ago. But she didn’t pay enough attention to notice Noor’s index finger until she removes her wedding ring from her finger and hands it to me. Here she could contain herself no longer and went on between gasps of laughter and tears. And everyone in the room knew what this meant. This is evidence that Noor uttered the Shahadah before she died. It is an extraordinary thing to witness. Aisha tries to pry open her daughter’s hand, but it wouldn’t budge— “Leave her hand the way it is. This is a blessing,” Samah whispers.
It’s time for the Ghusl. Aisha begins to wash Noor’s hand. From there, she moves on to washing her hair with her favorite fragrance, Egyptian musk, and lotus leaves where she soon finds a couple of mushed flower petals entangled in her long and thick, dark brown mane.
“Noor was never good at washing her own hair—she’d call all the time to ask me to come over and wash her hair while she bathed. I couldn’t stand it,” Aisha contests.
“How in the world did I miss this?” We don’t speak. Aisha puts the petals in the trash and washes her hands. Noor’s hair was a vision on her wedding day, laced with little white flowers and baby’s breath. I helped Aisha with decorating Noor’s khimar. It was adorned with pink lace and pearls.
Her right side is washed. Then her left side. Noor is washed in a similar fashion a second and third time, each time I press down Noor’s stomach. When something exits from her, the area is washed. Aisha blocks her openings with cotton, but it doesn’t stay. She reaches for some pure clay that is not mixed with dirt to support the cotton.
Nine washes later, wudu’ is performed once more. We dry her body with a cloth. Aisha places musk on the hidden places of Noor’s body—under her knees and her armpits, where there is excessive sweat and smell. She moves on to the places of prostration—Noor’s forehead, nose, palms, and feet. This is to honor the places of prostration and the great status they hold. Her feet are beautiful and small, decorated with black henna on the soles and toes. Noor’s body is perfumed, as well as her shroud with the smoke of scented incense. Her hair is brushed then put into three braids and hangs behind her. It is time for the shrouding. It should be white and not stained. Aisha places the shroud on the gurney. Noor is laid on the shroud. She is to be shrouded in five sheets, in layers, with the khimar, waist sheet, and two wrappers. Miriam helps me cover her body with a waist sheet. Then the sheet is wrapped around her body, and a long shirt is placed over her head and the surrounding area, and then she is wrapped in two sheets.
We remove our shoe covers and aprons and put them in the trash bin. Fatimah swept and washed the floor; Samah and Miriam emptied all the trash. I spray the disinfectant haphazardly on the table, countertops, and cabinets, squinting as some of the droplets find my face. I fold the cloth into my favorite sturdy square, and wipe everything down. After washing our hands, we embrace. Aisha heads back to the Masjid with the rest of her family. Her footsteps retreating down the hall are slow and hesitant until they made no more sounds. Samah watches her walking away and pushed the button by the door. Fatimah opens the back door. Except for me the rest of them run outside to the nearest gazebo. They sit in silence.
It’s been a few months since Noor’s passing. Miriam summons me back to the Masjid for another Ghusl. She doesn’t share any other details. Being asked to care of our dead is a tremendous honor and blessing. It is important to inform close people around—those who can help and offer a warm shoulder; taking the body to a place where one may need to give the Ghusl and wrap in a shroud: arrange all the necessary supplies for the Ghusl; send a person to the graveyard so the grave(s) may be dug; ask the Masjid’s Imam nearby for the Salat al-Janazah prayer timings, etc. More importantly, the relatives of the deceased must hasten in paying back any debts from whatever wealth the deceased has left behind. Of course, for a child, this is not required.
Males should take the responsibility of washing males, and females should wash females. The only exception to this rule is in the case of husband and wife, or small children. We were not prepared to wash a family of three; a mother, father, and their eight-month-old baby boy, whom all perished from smoke inhalation when their apartment complex was set on fire. I, Miriam, Fatimah, Aisha, and two female family members of the deceased set everything up within our reach—once again extend greetings for each other. We didn’t know who they were but that was irrelevant. When you touch a body that has turned cold, it makes you realize the worth of a soul. The vessel that holds it turns into a reminder of death as I arrange a table to lay the body of the baby with my own hands and do wudu’ to give the deceased a bath.
None of us spoke. We remove the bags from their bodies. They lay before us. There is a looseness when you think about your early life. You’d get excited about a sudden discovery of self, your powers, your abilities, and what you can do with them. This is a necessary mistake. A person assumes the future is a logical progression of their present, until they are dead. There are no clothes to cut off. Aisha and one of family members prepare the shrouds. More family members arrive from the back entrance. Miriam, Fatimah, and the others apply slight pressure to the mother’s stomach to expel any impurities, but there wasn’t any because she had a catheter removed before her arrival. While they wash the mother, I wash the baby to save time. His mother is just a couple of feet away me. When I apply slight pressure on the baby’s stomach, I was hoping for a burst of laughter from him to cry out. He lays there as if he just went to sleep—the only thing that brings me comfort. He is not my son, but I love him. All I can think of is my son, who is now a young man. Ya Allah, I have a chance to bathe this baby the same I have done for my son—washing his hair; washing his private parts; washing the parts of his body that are washed in wudu’, pouring water on the right side of his body and then the left—three, five, or seven times—first with lotus leaves and the final washing with perfumed musk—dry his body; comb his hair to get him ready for the shrouding. Nothing reminds you of the next life more than this step.
We are not extravagant in shrouding the dead. The sheets should be ordinary cloth, and the number of sheets should not exceed five. It is recommended that the shroud is perfumed with incense, except in the case of a person who died in a state of Ihram. How to wrap a body is the most confusing part. The baby is shrouded in one sheet and up to three sheets. Aisha is well in tune with the shrouding. My brain is not present. I feel that my limbs are doing what they are supposed to do at this given moment. My mind is somewhere else—away from this dunya.
We all make our du’aas for the deceased, then clean and sanitize everything. Fatimah pushes the button by the door. Miriam opens the back door for some fresh air. It’s raining again. Flood waters pour in, a thought that the world might change once or not. I stand at the entrance in silence, the thrum on the rusted awnings ending all days. A storm is expected. Already the smell of rain mouses its way inside. The sky is now splayed by the effulgent beam. I grab my purse and clutch it close to me, so it won’t get wet. I pull a small, kidney shaped seed from my purse that I found a few days ago when I went out for my afternoon walk. I look at it long and hard. Looking past the seed, the purse disintegrates in my arm, and most of the contents from my purse fall to the drenched ground. I try to stuff everything back, but there’s a hole at a certain angle inside the purse. The past is never as far behind as we think—it scuffles soft and heavy, and no blanket we pull over our faces will smother it. Like how our every choice assumes our presence in the future. I kneel to dig the dirt and place the seed in the earth. This is the only thing that is familiar to me. Not joyless. But not joyous. This is what I must look forward to. I pray for more water and warm seeds. Light and soft winds. A breeze to course on my face. And a moist and spacious, dark soil.
Du’a means to summon or call out. It is an invocation, which is an act of supplication. All Muslims regard this as a profound act of worship.
Dunya refers to the temporal worldly life.
Eid al-Fitr is the festival of breaking fast after observing the Islamic calendar month of Ramadan
Ghusl entails washing the entire body and is required in specified cases for both the living and the dead.
Ihram is a state of consecration in which certain worldly activities are prohibited. The male pilgrims are adorned in simple unhemmed two white sheets that are universal in appearance with an objection to avoid attracting attention. If he dies in this state, he is to be buried only wearing the sheets.
Khimar is a head covering or veil worn in public by Muslim women.
Salat al-Janazah is an Islamic funeral prayer that is performed in congregation to seek pardon for all the deceased Muslims.
Wudu’ is a ritual ablution of purification and performed using water or sand (tayammum) when water is unavailable.
When Ilari isn’t writing poetry or short stories, she recites Ayahs (verses) from the Quran; travels with her family; plays hide-and-go-seek, blows bubbles, and chases fireflies with her three year-old grandson. A two-time Best of the Net nominee, her Greatest Hits appear or forthcoming in Door is A Jar, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Indianapolis Review, Loch Raven Review, Paterson Literary Review, and others.