Muhammad's Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society

Publication Year



Leor Halevi, B.A. 1994

Winner of MESA’s 2007 Albert Hourani Award

Winner of the American Academy of Religion 2008 Award for Excellence in the category of Analytical-Descriptive studies

Winner of Phi Beta Kappa Society’s 2008 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award

In his probing study of the role of death rites in the making of Islamic society, Leor Halevi imaginatively plays prescriptive texts against material culture and advances new ways of interpreting highly contested sources. His original research reveals that religious scholars of the early Islamic period produced codes of funerary law not only to define the handling of a Muslim corpse but also to transform everyday urban practices. Relying on oral traditions, these scholars established new social patterns in the cities of Arabia, Mesopotamia, and the eastern Mediterranean. They distinguished Islamic rites from Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian rites and changed the way men and women interacted publicly and privately.

In each chapter Halevi explores a different layer of human interaction, following the movement of the corpse from the deathbed to the grave. In the process he analyzes the real and imaginary relationships between husbands and wives, prayer leaders and mourners, and even dreamers and the dead. He describes how Muslims wailed for the deceased, prepared corpses for burial, marched in funerary processions, and prayed for the dead, highlighting the specific economic and political factors involved in these rituals as well as key religious and sexual divisions.

Offering a unique perspective on the making of Islamic social and religious ideals during this early period, Halevi forges a fascinating link between the development of funerary rites and the efforts of an emerging religion to carve out its own, distinct identity. Muhammad's Grave is a groundbreaking history of the rise of Islam and the roots of contemporary Muslim attitudes toward the body and society.


List of Illustrations
Introduction. Funerary Traditions and the Making of Islamic Society
1. Tombstones: Markers of Social and Religious Change, 650–800
2. Washing the Corpse in Arabia and Mesopotamia
3. Shrouds: Worldly Possessions in an Economy of Salvation
4. Wailing for the Dead in the House of Islam
5. Urban Processions and Communal Prayers: Opportunities for Social, Economic, and Religious Distinction
6. The Politics of Burial and Tomb Construction
7. The Torture of Spirit and Corpse in the Grave
Epilogue. Death Rites and the Process of Islamic Socialization
List of Abbreviations


Muhammad's Grave will be warmly welcomed by scholars and students of premodern Islam, including specialists in both history and religion, and will attract the attention of European medievalists and anthropologists as well. The topic is important, the scholarship solid and original, and the presentation elegant and lucid. Everett K. Rowson, New York University

The most exhaustive study yet on matters relating to death in early Islam. Leor Halevi meticulously demonstrates how particular beliefs and practices evolved, what sorts of contestation took place in debating these matters, how these beliefs and practices varied from one Islamic city (or community of scholars) to another, what larger questions of identity and authority were at stake, and how to interpret the literary remains that describe the beliefs and practices in question. A major contribution to our understanding of early Islamic history, Islamic religious thought, and the formation of Islam during its first centuries. Muhammad Qasim Zaman, professor of Near Eastern studies and religion, Princeton University

Leor Halevi persuasively argues that the development of Islamic practices and beliefs relating to death, burial, and the fate of the body was a relatively extended process crucial to the eighth century. He considers a wide range of issues, including matters of sexual propriety and the restriction of the social space available to women, and the way in which a body of rituals served to create an Islamic identity. Gerald Hawting, professor of the history of the Near Middle East, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

"[A] signal contribution.... Exceptionally rich in its documentation and evidentiary record, highly imaginative, and creative in its use of oral traditions and legal rulings, Muhammad's Grave is a seminal work. Albert Hourani Book Award Committee

Innovative... A welcome addition to undergraduate and graduate curricula, and an important source book for scholars. Kathryn Kueny, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient

A welcome contribution... Muhammad's Grave does more than fill the gap. Ian Straughn, American Anthropologist

A truly impressive display of textual scholarship fused with historical anthropology and lit up by enthusiasm. Barnaby Rogerson, Times Literary Supplement

The definitive history of its subject before modern times. Speculum

Halevi's book is highly recommended. al-Qantara

A masterful, well-written work filled with original research. Middle East Quarterly

Will be highly valued by anyone who works on early Islam and the process through which a distinctively Islamic community came about. Martyn Smith, International Journal of Middle East Studies

A much-needed corrective to the abstract and textual nature of much of the debate over the nature of early Islam, plunging the reader into a thoroughly imagined and painstakingly documented material world.... Erudite and engaging. Marion Katz, Islamic Law and Society

An important contribution to our understanding of the crafting of social ritual in early Islamic society. Christine D. Baker, Journal of World History

A scholarly gem... a spectacular accomplishment. Khalid Yahya Blankinship, American Historical Review

All of this is exciting stuff for students of the early Muslim world, in part because Halevi has suggested and demonstrated several possible ways forward in a notoriously unyielding filed of inquiry. Thomas Sizgorich, Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Original and highly readable.... Halevi showcases what historians of Islam can accomplish. Review of Middle East Studies

Leor Halevi's Muhammad's Grave is a strikingly original work built on a foundation of meticulous and wide-ranging scholarship. Religion and the Arts

[O]riginal and highly readable study. MESA RoMES

Impressive erudition, which includes a thorough familiarity with scholarship on Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam. History Workshop Journal

Matchless imagination in relating the traditions and events of the past. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

Columbia University Press
New York
Cloth: 9780231137423; ebook: 9780231511933