A Day in the Life of an Imam
By Lori Hawkins
This is a story of a Muslim community in Brooklyn that was ensuring the Muslim funeral rites were performed – washing, shrouding, prayer and burial during the Coronavirus Pandemic.
During the height of the pandemic, Imam Ahmed Ali worked tirelessly burying the dead. It started with a call from a father, begging someone to help wash his son’s body, “because nobody was washing bodies.” Ali replied, “ok, I will do it, don’t worry.” Ali arrived, “the father came, he helped, he was crying. It was very emotional.” The next call was from the funeral home, two miles away. An eighteen-year-old boy with his mom and his two young sisters were inside the funeral home, pleading for help to wash their father. This moment was when Ali began to work every day, all day, doing what he felt he had to do.
Ali’s job wasn’t just the ghusl (washing) and draping the kafan (shrouding) of the body, it was also transporting the bodies to the cemetery.
Once at the cemetery, Ali was performing the janazah prayer by reciting:
“O God, forgive our living and our dead, those who are present among us and those who are absent, our young and our old, our males and our females. O God, whoever You keep alive, keep him alive in Islam, and whoever You cause to die, cause him to die with faith. O God, do not deprive us of the reward and do not cause us to go astray after this. O God, forgive him and have mercy on him, keep him safe and sound and forgive him, honor his rest and ease his entrance; wash him with water and snow and hail, and cleanse him of sin as a white garment is cleansed of dirt. O God, give him a home better than his home and a family better than his family. O God, admit him to Paradise and protect him from the torment of the grave and the torment of Hell-fire; make his grave spacious and fill it with light.”
He buried over a hundred people during the first few weeks of April. At times he had to jump into the grave to finish digging it. Imam Ali said his worst day was when he had eight bodies to bury. After burying four people, the rain started, we were carrying a body. I had to get inside the grave to fix the casket. I wasn’t wearing shoes. I was wet and cold. It was a long, long tiring day.”
Ali says “as a believer, we should not have a fear of death, because death is a reality. That’s what I believe, and that’s why I’m out there.” Ali explains “Almighty god is merciful, and almighty god has prepared a paradise for us, which is a better place than this world.” It’s all about belief, and as a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, we all believe the same. It’s all about how strongly we believe in almighty god.”
“A lot of people prayed for me,” and he said, “for the first time, I felt the power of prayer.”
The number of coronavirus deaths passed one million worldwide. Imam Ahmed Ali is currently setting up a Masjid. While the infection rate remains low, there is an indication that it is slowly rising in New York City. If there is another outbreak, I know Ali will jump back into the call of duty, just as he did in April.
Lori Hawkins is an award-winning photographer based in New York City, where she is photographing the Covid-19 pandemic. She has covered refugee issues, health crises, and natural disasters.
Photo Essay edited by Alejandra Martínez Moreno