A number of people sent me queries concerning the correct opinion on praying salat al-janazah in absentia (on a person who is not present). The question was obviously relevant since people all over the world prayed salat al-janazah for Shaykh ibn Baz rahimahullah.
Before I briefly answer the question, I would like to mention the fact that this occurrence (that so many millions of people prayed over Shaykh ibn Baz) is in and of itself an indication inshallah of the status and sincerity of the Shaykh. As some of the salaf said, "The criterion between the person of sunnah and the person of bid'ah is the janazah"; meaning that Allah azawajal blesses the scholar of the sunnah to have many people pray for his forgiveness. The janazah of Imam Ahmad was attended by more than a hundred thousand people, according to some reports, and for that time and age that is an astounding figure.
In the janazah prayer of Shaykh ibn Baz, it was estimated that over a million people were present in the Haram, and over fifty-thousand accompanied the bier to the grave. Also, all over the Kingdom, by royal decree, every single masjid prayed the salat on the shaykh after salat al-jumu'ah. I attended the prayer in the Prophet's masjid, where Shaykh al-Qasimi (the grandson of the one who compiled Majmu' al-Fatawa) gave a short but eloquent khutbah, in which he praised knowledge, and the people of knowledge, and mentioned Shaykh ibn Baz, and his qualities, and the loss that this was to the 'ummah. People were openly crying ...
One point that the Shaykh did mention, however, and I felt that this was a very important point, is that people should not despair, for there will always be good in the 'ummah as long as there are scholars and students of knowledge. He also emphasized the fact that the death of Shaykh ibn Baz should cause all of us to ponder over the status of knowledge in our lives, and how important it is that all of us - each and every one of us - must do his best to try to fill the large vacuum that is left.
The point that I was trying to make was that I believe this is the first time in history where so many people have prayed over a single person - literally millions and millions of people worldwide. This not to mention the fact that people of all statuses, kings (King Fahd and the royal princes all came to Makkah to pray), dignitaries of all nationalities, scholars (Shaykh Uthaymin, Shaykh Subayil, ... even Qardawi came to Makkah) and average people, the vast majority of whom had not even met the shaykh ... yet their hearts will filled with love for him, and great sadness at his death ...
This is something that can only come through the blessings of Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala, no amount of publicity, or writing, or speeches, or fatawa, can make a person achieve such a status. The only way this comes about (and this was something that Shaykh al-Qasimi mentioned) is when a person sticks to the sunnah, and increases his sincerity to Allah, and makes his da'wah, to Allah, for Allah, and by the commandments of Allah. Then, and only then, will his da'wah be blessed, and the people will accept him, and love him ...
Verily, the death of Shaykh ibn Baz is something that causes the hearts to melt, and the eyes to cry, and the souls to despair ... but to Allah we belong, and to Him we will return. We pray that Allah blesses us with more scholars, and helps us all to increase in knowledge. Amin.
Concerning the fiqhi question that was posed, briefly, there are two opinions on the issue. Before mentioning them, it is relevant to mention that the only occurrence in the sunnah of salat al-janazah in absentia is when the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam prayed for Najashi, the ruler of Abyssinia, the same day that he died. This incident is reported in Bukhari and Muslim.
The first opinion is the Hanafi and Maliki opinion, and is that it is not permissible to pray over a person who is not present.
Ibn Abidin states in his famous Hashyiyah (v. 3, p. 99), "And of the conditions of the janazah salat ... is that the body be placed in front of the Imam ... so it is not permissible upon one who is absent (ghay'ib). As for the Prophet's prayer upon Najashi, then it is interpreted that ... this was a specialty only allowed for him (khususiyyah) ... another proof for this is that many of the Companions died during his lifetime, but it is not reported that he prayed for any of them."
Al-Khalili says in his Matn (v. 3, p. 71 of al-Mawahib al-Jalil), "And it is not permissible to pray for ... one who is absent (gha'ib)."
The second opinion is the Dhahiri, Hanbali and the Shafi'i opinion. They hold that it is allowed to pray over a person in absentia, and claim that the prayer of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam over Najashi was not a speciality only for him.
Imam an-Nawawi states in his Rawdat at-Talibin (v. 2, p. 130), "And it is permissible to perform the salat in absentia."
Ibn Hazm states in his al-Muhallah (v. 5, p. 138), "And a dead Muslim is prayed over even in absentia."
The Hanbali madhhab, however, adds a condition. Ibn Qudamah says in his Mughni (v. 4. p. 446), "And it is permissible to pray the salat in absentia ... up to one month of the person's death."
The reason for this difference of opinion is whether the prayer of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam over Najashi was something that was special for him or not? Those that claim that it was, say that Allah caused the earth to 'swallow up', and so the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam could see Najashi in front of him. However, this is not authentically narrated in any hadith, so it cannot be accepted. Also, as it is well known in the science of 'usul ul-fiqh, to claim that something is special for the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam requires evidence and clear proof, and in this case there is none.
So between these two opinions, the stronger one without any doubt is the second one, i.e., that it is allowed to pray the janazah prayer in absentia.
However, the scholars who allowed this type of prayer themselves differed over the conditions concerning when this was allowed. There are three opinions that I have come across (if anyone comes across any more, please forward them to me).
The majority of them, and this is what the Hanbali and Shafi'i madhahib are upon, is that there is no condition whatsoever. So, even if a person has been prayed over, it is still allowed to pray for him in another country. This is also the opinion of ash-Shawkani (Nayl al-Awtar, v. 4, p. 63).
Some scholars, amongst them Shaykh ibn Baz himself, and the opinion of the Hay'at Kibar al-Ulama of the Kingdom, stated that this was to be done only when the person that died was of a high status, and had aided Islam, such as a just king, or a scholar (see Fatawa al-Lajnah ad-Da'imah, v. 8, p. 418, Fatwa # 5394).
Shaykh Uthaymin says of this opinion, "This is a middle opinion (between the two extreme opinions) which many modern and past scholars have chosen." [Sharh al-Mumti, v. 5, p. 438]
The last opinion is that of Shaykh ul-Islam ibn Taymiyyah and others, who stated that this was only to be done when a person died without having a janazah performed on him. So, for example, when a person dies in a non-Muslim country, and there are no Muslims to pray for him, then in this case the salat should be performed for him.
Now, the reason for the difference of opinion concerning these conditions is: What was the reason ('illah) due to which the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam prayed for Najashi?
- Was it to show that it was permissible (which is what the first group says), and thus allowed for everyone?
- Was it due to the fact that Najashi was an important person (the second group)?
- Or, was it due to the fact that he was the only Muslim in the country, and none of the people prayed for him (the third group)?
In my humble opinion, the first opinion is the weakest. This is because it is well-known that many of the Companions died outside of Madinah during the lifetime of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam, but he did not pray for any of them (to be more accurate, there are no authentic reports that he prayed for other Companions. There are some weak reports that he prayed for some Companions that died outside of Madinah, cf. Nayl al-Awtar, v. 3, p. 62). Had it been something encouraged, the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam would not have left it for no reason, especially since he was so eager to pray for his Companions. He said concerning the old, black woman that used to clean the masjid and whom the Companions buried at night without telling him, "Why did you not inform me? For verily my salat upon them is a mercy ... " and he went to her grave and prayed over her. So, this shows that he would not have left the janazah prayer upon such Companions for no reason.
Therefore, it seems as if one of the last two opinions is the correct one. Both of these opinions have very good reasons ('illah) for them.
It can be said that the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam prayed for Najashi because of his status, and to show that a person who has helped Islam (since Najashi sheltered the Muslims who emigrated to his country) should be given the honour of having janazah performed on him in absentia.
It can also be stated that since Najashi was the only Muslim, and no one prayed for him, the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam prayed for him.
In my humble opinion, between these two opinions it cannot be stated with one-hundred percent certainty which of the two is correct. This is because it is a matter of 'ijtihad what the exact reason behind the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam praying janazah over Najashi was. Also, Ibn Qudamah brings a very good point. He states (al-Mughni, v. 3, p. 336), " ... they (the 'other side') state that since no-one prayed over Najashi (this was why the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam prayed over him) ... but this is very improbable, for Najashi was the King of the Abyssinians, and he accepted Islam and openly proclaimed it, so it seems very improbable that no-one would have followed him (in accepting Islam), and (therefore) not pray over him."
In other words, what is the evidence that no one prayed over Najashi? There are no reports to the contrary (i.e., that no one prayed over him). Also, as Ibn Qudamah points out, it does seem unrealistic that Najashi, who was so loved by his people, and who openly accepted Islam and helped the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam, would not have succeeded in converting some of his people, and thus there would have been some Muslims to pray over him. So, based on these facts, perhaps the second opinion (that it should be prayed over a person of status) is more realistic.
On the other hand, it could be argued that no mention is made of these Abyssinian converts (if they ever existed), and also there are no reports in the books of Islamic history concerning these people, and what happened to them or their progeny. Therefore, if no mention is made of them, then there is no evidence to suggest that they exist, and anyone who claims that they did must bring forth his proof! So, in light of this reason, the third opinion (that it should only be prayed over a person for whom janazah has not been prayed) seems to be more realistic!
So, which of the two opinions is correct? Like I stated earlier, it really seems difficult to defend one over the other. (Therefore, I would advise the brothers, even if they follow another opinion, not to cause a fitnah when some people do pray salat al-janazah over a famous person, as long as that person was one who helped Islam).
However, perhaps the second opinion has some slight weight over the third one (please note the emphasis!).
On what basis, though? Well, both sides put forth a statement that they use to justify their opinion.
The second group (those that say the 'person of status' condition) states: Najashi was a just Muslim ruler, who aided and helped the Muslims, and therefore the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam prayed for him.
The third group states: Najashi was the only Muslim in his country, and was not prayed over.
Now, it could be stated: The statement of the second group is an indisputable fact. All the books of history mention this. The statement of the third group, however, is not fact, and is based on circumstantial evidence. Nowhere does it state that no one accepted Islam, or that Najashi was not prayed over. These are only presumptions. and no evidence can be brought forth to support it.
Therefore, since the second group is basing their opinion on an indisputable fact, whereas the third one is basing it on disputable opinion, perhaps the second group has some slight advantage in the opinion that they hold, and therefore it is allowed, even encouraged, to pray over someone who helped and aided Islam, whether the body is in front of the group, or in absentia.
And Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala knows best.