• Parsa S. Sajid

Burning Incense, Sprinkling Rosewater: Scent in Muslim Funeral Practices of Bengal


Rolling lamp/ Incense burner, India (c.1850), V & A Museum

Abstract:


What eases a soul’s journey upon its separation from the body in Islamic cosmology? From the moment three handfuls of soil are sprinkled into the underground chamber,

the easing of a soul’s journey partly falls on those who are left, establishing a metaphysical commune between the living and the dead. It’s also a reminder that you are not alone, contra that maxim ‘you’re born alone, and you die alone.’ Much like other Islamic rituals, sameness and difference guide Muslim funeral practices. In Bengal, accretion of time, alchemy of pre-Islamic traditions and Sunni Hanafi interpretations produced a cultural vernacular of mourning and tribute. Underpinning this is “the idea of death as gradual” giving rise to a set of “above ground” practices and “community activity of the barzakh period in Islamic thought, the interregnum between an individual’s death and their physical resurrection on the day of the judgement” (1). Among them is a milad or prayer service, Qul Khani, three days from the day of passing to gather in prayer. Modest, spare, with color palettes of white and pastels, the spiritual-social setting of Qul Khanis have an unmistakable understated decorum garnished with sensory staples of incense and rosewater. This particular ritual of burning incense and sprinkling rosewater is a hybrid form of multiple traditions – Vaishnavi, Mughal, Persian, Ottoman – informing Islamic funeral practices in Bengal. These references can map a scent landscape for creating a kind of soul-connection and the essay will draw from them as well as oral traditions and personal scent memory of the ritual and conclude with reflections on recent oppositions to Qul Khani rituals (2).


 

Footnotes


1. Yarrington, Matt D. 2010. “Lived Islam in Bangladesh: Contemporary religious discourse between Ahl-i-Hadith, ‘Hanafis’ and authoritative texts, with special reference to al-barzakh.” PhD diss. University of Edinburgh.


2. Opposition to Qul Khani rituals are from more hardline theologians and from those who prefer more ‘modern’ memorial services, ironically, they are either un-Islamic or too Islamic.





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