There is a valid difference of opinion amongst the scholars of Ahl al-Sunnah regarding the issue of the dead being able to hear the living and to what extent. However, both camps agree that praying to the living, the dead or Prophets, martyrs, etc. is strictly forbidden and the mother of all shirk (polytheism).
The first group argues that the following verses prove that the dead cannot hear us:
إِنَّكَ لَا تُسْمِعُ الْمَوْتٰى وَلَا تُسْمِعُ الصُّمَّ الدُّعَآءَ إِذَا وَلَّوْا مُدْبِرِينَ
Indeed, you will not make the dead hear, nor will you make the deaf hear the call when they have turned their backs retreating. [Qur’an, 27:80]
وَمَا يَسْتَوِى الْأَحْيَآءُ وَلَا الْأَمْوٰتُ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُسْمِعُ مَن يَشَآءُ ۖ وَمَآ أَنتَ بِمُسْمِعٍ مَّن فِى الْقُبُورِ
And not equal are the living and the dead. Indeed, Allah causes to hear whom He wills, but you cannot make hear those in the graves. [Qur’an, 35:22]
As such all the instances mentioned in the ahadith (that are misused by the Qubooris) where the dead can hear are exceptions to this general case. Ahadith such as:
- The hadith about the aftermath of the battle of Badr where the slain pagans were addressed by the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him (Bukhari).
- The hadith about the footsteps of the relatives and those who took part in the burial of the dead can be heard by the dead when they (Bukhari and Muslim).
The Mother of the Believers ‘Aishah (may Allah be pleased with her) and a number of other Sahabah and Salaf were of this view. From the contemporary scholars, one can cite Shaykh al-Albani and many others.
The second group argues that the aforementioned verses actually do not prove that the dead can not hear us, but rather they show that the kuffar cannot benefit from the message of Islam just as the dead cannot. The kuffar are spiritually dead and the dwellers of the grave are literally dead i.e. the verse is not to be understood literally.
To this group, all the instances mentioned in the ahadith remain upon their general meaning (major Salafi scholars like the late Imam Shanqiti held this view). This group believes that the dead people hear everything. But some of them believe that they only hear generally what the living person says and they might not hear all the time. They might hear in a given situation and not hear in other situations. So even to this group, the extent of the hearing is unknown (as it is a matter of the unseen), however, their position is that the dead can generally hear, which is contrary to group one who hold the view that the dead cannot generally hear.
Of course, just like group one, they do not equate the hearing of the dead (next to their grave) with the permissibility of beseeching the dead for our worldly needs as done by the Qubooris (the grave/saint worshippers).
Many of the Salaf (including the Sahabah) and the khalaf held the view that the dead can generally hear. Ibn Taymiyyah (may Allah have mercy upon him) when asked whether the dead person hears his visitor, replied: “Yes, generally.”
One of the proofs of Ibn Taymiyyah is the following hadith:
وما من رجُلٍ يمرُّ بقبرِ الرَّجلِ كانَ يعرفُهُ في الدُّنيا فيسلِّمُ عليْهِ إلَّا ردَّ اللَّهُ عليْهِ روحَهُ حتَّى يردَّ عليْهِ السَّلامَ
رواه ابن عبد البر في “الاستذكار” (1/185)
“Abu Huraira narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “None of you passes by the grave of a fellow believer that he knew in this life and sends salutations to him except that the deceased recognizes him and responds to his salutation.” [al-Istidhkar 1/185 by Ibn ‘Abdil-Barr]
Amongst those who declared it as sahih is ibn Taymiyyah, Shawkani, al-‘Ayni (in his ‘Umdat al-Qari), al-Qurtubi (the hadith commentator on Sahih Muslim, not the mufassir: in his al-Mufham) and ‘Abdulhaqq al-Ishbily. Some scholars weakened it (like Shaykh al-Albani).
After having understood the two opinions, let’s go back to group one (who believe the dead cannot hear except in very specific instances):
This group argues by saying that they agree that one interpretation of the verses about the dead in the graves not being able to hear can refer to them being spiritually dead, yet the point remains that Allah compared them to those who are in the grave. The question is why?
When the Qur’an says that there are those that cannot see (the message of Islam) and calls them blind, this is of course referring to one who is spiritually blind. But would it make sense for the Qur’an to call that person blind if a blind person can see? No of course not.
Now in Surah 35:22, we see that the Qur’an is referring to those who cannot spiritually “hear” and compares them to those who are in the grave. The question is: Would it make sense for the Qur’an to compare them to those in the grave if the people in the grave can hear? Of course not. The reason why the Qur’an refers to them as those in the gave is because people in the grave cannot hear (except in specific cases proven in the text of the Qur’an and Sunnah). This is a general principle.
That is why Imam Qurtubi stated:
أَيْ كَمَا لَا تُسْمِع مَنْ مَاتَ , كَذَلِكَ لَا تُسْمِع مَنْ مَاتَ قَلْبه
“Just as you cannot make those who died listen, you also cannot make those who are spiritually dead listen as well.”
What is absolutely clear is that du’a is an act of worship, in fact, it is the essence of worship. Therefore, when visiting the dead (even the Prophets and martyrs are dead in our realm, hence why they are buried), we pray for the deceased, not to them. This is the difference between Islam and paganism and this is why the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) taught us to pray for the deceased and send peace and blessings upon him (which is different from beseeching the saints for help like in the Catholic church). This is why we send salutations to the dwellers of graves whenever we visit them. We greet them according to the Sunnah:
Sulaymaan ibn Buraydah narrated from his father that he said: “The Prophet used to teach them when they went out to the graveyard. One of them would say: As-Salaamu ‘alaykum ahlad-diyaar minal-mu’mineena wal-muslimeena, wa inna inshaa’ Allahu la laahiqoon, as’alul-laaha lana wa lakumul-‘aafiyyah (Peace be upon you, O inhabitants of the abodes, believers and Muslims, and we will join you soon if Allah wills. We ask Allah for well-being for us and for you).” [Muslim]
‘Aa’ishah asked: “What should I say, O Messenger of Allah?” He said: ‘Say” Peace be upon the inhabitants of this place among the believers and Muslims. May Allah have mercy upon those who have gone on ahead of us and those who will come later on, and we will join you, if Allah wills”’ [Muslim]
One group of scholars believe that the dwellers of the grave cannot hear except in very specific instances. The apparent meaning of some verses is what they cite as proof and ahadith mentioning the dead being able to hear are exceptions to the rule. This is a valid and strong position.
The second group believes in the generality of the ahadith that mention that the dead can hear. To this group, the dead can possibly hear everything (next to their grave). It is a matter of the unseen, so they can’t pinpoint it, however, they disagree with the interpretation of the verses by the first group and state that the default is that the dead can hear.
In either case and as mentioned before, none of the two groups endorse the mother of all shirk (polytheism) that is دعاء لغير الله (du’a to other than Allah) where one invokes/beseeches/implores the dead/Prophets/martyrs/saints/Ahlul-Bayt for help and fulfillment of one’s needs next to their graves (let alone from afar), even if they can hear everything we say next to their graves.
The two opinions have no ramifications in a Muslim’s life. They are to some extent based on semantic differences. The Muslim invokes Allah directly and alone by sending salutations to the dwellers of the graves. The Muslim prays to Allah alone and asks Him to forgive the dwellers of the graves from amongst his beloved relative and the Muslims in general. The Muslim does not converse and hold chit-chats with the deceased/saints/martyrs and beseeches and implores them and asks them to fulfill his worldly needs. No Muslim does that except a mentally disturbed one, an ignoramus, or a Mushrik.
And Ibn Abi al’-Izz writes:
وَالدُّعَاءُ مِنْ أَفْضَلِ الْعِبَادَاتِ وَالْعِبَادَاتُ مَبْنَاهَا عَلَى السُّنَّةِ وَالِاتِّبَاعِ لَا عَلَى الْهَوَى وَالِابْتِدَاعِ
Supplication is the greatest act of worship, and acts of worship must be based upon conformity to the Sunnah, not upon whims and innovations.
Source: Sharḥ al-‘Aqīdah al-Ṭaḥāwịyah 1/297
Supplication is the most basic and primal of all acts of worship and supplicating to others in a way only Allah deserves is an act of idolatry and unbelief. Doing so sets up intermediaries or rivals to the worship of Allah, whereas the fundamental belief in Islam is that every believer has a direct connection to his or her Creator through prayer.
In fact, idolatry was introduced to humankind when people started to glorify their ancestors, build statues of them, worship at their graves, and ascribe divine qualities to them.
Al-Nu’man ibn Bashir reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
الدُّعَاءُ هُوَ الْعِبَادَةُ
Supplication is the essence of worship.
Then, the Prophet (ṣ) recited the verse:
وَقَالَ رَبُّكُمْ ادْعُونِي أَسْتَجِبْ لَكُمْ إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يَسْتَكْبِرُونَ عَنْ عِبَادَتِي سَيَدْخُلُونَ جَهَنَّمَ دَاخِرِينَ
Your Lord says: Call upon Me and I will answer you. Verily, those who disdain My worship will enter Hell in humiliation. (40:60)
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 3247, Grade: Sahih
In another narration, the Prophet said:
إِنَّهُ لا يُسْتَغَاثُ بِى إِنَّما يُسْتَغَاثُ بالله
My aid is not to be sought. Verily, one only seeks the aid of Allah.
Source: Majma’ al-Zawāʼid 10/126
Ibn Abbas reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
إِذَا سَأَلْتَ فَاسْأَلْ اللَّهَ وَإِذَا اسْتَعَنْتَ فَاسْتَعِنْ بِاللَّهِ
If you ask, ask from Allah. If you seek help, seek help from Allah.
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2516, Grade: Sahih