Question: It is a common religious practice among the Muslims of our society to arrange a collective recitation of the Quran for the benefit of a recently departed soul. Is it proper to do so?
Answer: Any religious practice which has no real basis in the Quran and Sunnah of the Prophet, may Allah be pleased with him, is a bid`at ie a religious innovation which is a highly condemned transgression in Islam. The Prophet of Allah declared unequivocally:
"The most detestable of practices [in religion] are those innovated in it, and each innovation is a deviation [from the right path]." (Muslim, Kitaab-ul-Jum`a)
The authentic sources of the Sunnah suggest no indication of the existence of any practice of recitation of the Quran to benefit the deceased during the days of the Prophet (sws), neither by an individual nor by a group of people collectively. Imam Shaf`i had, therefore, rightly pointed out:
"Had there been any virtue in practising it [recitation for the departed], they [the companions of the Prophet] would certainly have taken lead in adopting it." (Ibni Katheer, Surah Najm)
Recitation of the Quran to benefit the dead is, therefore, unquestionably a bid`at. The Quran, moreover, clearly states that in the life to come each soul would be rewarded or punished for its very own deeds:
"Man shall receive only that for which he strove." (53:39)
It is therefore, difficult to imagine how the benefit of recitation of the Quran by someone living can be transferred to the account of someone dead? The very idea that the living can influence the record of performance of the dead seems alien to the spirit of Islam. The Quran urges its believers to reform their conduct before it is too late ie before the inevitable moment of death arrives. The concept of transfer of credit of virtues, on the contrary, suggests that it is never too late: Even though you'd be dead, your record would be open for improvement. Anybody who holds this belief would, therefore, have hardly any urgency to reform before death, for death, after all, is not going to be, in his opinion, the end of the world for his deeds.
There is a tradition of the Prophet, may Allah be pleased with him, which says:
"When a person dies, his record is sealed except [for the credit he continues to receive] from three areas: philanthropic acts which continue to benefit others after his death, scholarly works which continue to enlighten others, and the prayers of pious children for the deceased." (Daarmi)
All the three possibilities of the post-death benefit mentioned in the tradition are in fact extensions of the deceased person's very own acts. Philanthropic acts, of course, are initiated by the individual himself in his life time. Same is the case with the light of knowledge that continues to serve others. Prayers of the pious children too owe their origin to the expired individual's own efforts in bringing them up to the standards of piety.
There is, therefore, no room for a credit accruing to an individual's account of deeds because of an act not attributable to his own efforts. Transfer of credit of virtuous acts to the account of the dead, we may conclude, is an idea not consistent with Islamic teachings.