Sunday, July 1, 2012

Joss Stick, Funeral, Chinese Tradition

“Hold it and pray.” My father hand me over few joss sticks. “Now ask blessing from your grandfather that passed away.” There was a brown frame with a red paper written my grandfather chinese name. I could recognize that’s the representative of my grandfather’s title. I was holding joss stick and bow down few times, thinking of the entire request I asked in my heart.

“I want PS2, I want a brand new computer, I want a new Nintendo Gameboy …. !”
At the same time my father was muttering beside me, I may heard he was whispering something like please bless me will be raised up as a good son and getting smarter in studies. I was peeping him a while then continue request my gaming desire.

Why holding Joss Stick while pray?
Well…. Most of my chinese friends “Joss do it”, we don’t question much with this traditional ritual. Holding joss stick might be something ordinary that become our daily basis without awareness. Sometime it's sounds like a stupid question when we was being asked :"Why do you holding Joss Stick?" It makes me and my chinese friend feel awkward and answer :"Is that a question?" 

As time goes by, the rituals of holding joss stick is still wide spread at Chinese community, and I was questioned by my born muslim and reverted muslim friends about Joss Stick. I compiled their questions as below:

“Holding Joss Stick is just a Chinese tradition. Ustaz told me that tradition is not shirk, which mean I can hold joss stick and giving respect to my parent who passed away.”
“There are muslim who burns joss stick at China’s mosque, I can see it at internet.”
“I think holding joss stick is not wrong, everything is depends on your wills (Niat)… ”

Even my parent also question me the same doubt: “I just can’t imagine if one day we passed away, that you will not even holding joss stick and bless us.”
Therefore I would like share my thought and few paragraph article I found regarding Joss Stick. 

The Origin Of Joss Stick

According to, the meaning of Joss is :
(Non-Christian Religions / Other Non-Christian Religions) a Chinese deity worshipped in the form of an idol

However, in chinese word the Joss Stick is called as 烧香 (shao xiang), which mean “burning incense”. Personally I think the word of “Joss” is commonly mentioned by Christian in entitle the incense that used by religion followers.

At Malaysia, Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism is widely using Joss Stick in every religious event. According to the source I found, the origin of Joss Stick is earlier than I ever thought of.

The use of incense dates back to biblical times and may have originated in Egypt, where the gums and resins of aromatic trees were imported from the Arabian and Somali coasts to be used in religious ceremonies. It was also used by the Pharaohs, not only to counteract unpleasant odours, but also to drive away demons and gratify the presence of the gods, as they believed.

The Babylonians used incense while offering prayers to divining oracles. The Indus Civilization used incense burners. Evidence suggests oils were used mainly for their aroma. Incense spread from there to Greece and Rome. Brought to Japan in the 6th century by Chinese Buddhist monks, who used the mystical aromas in their purification rites, the delicate scents of Koh (high-quality Japanese incense) became a source of amusement and entertainment with nobles in the Imperial Court during the Heian Era 200 years later.

Religious use of incense has its origins in antiquity. The burned incense may be intended as a sacrificial offering to various deity or to serve as an aid in prayer.Use of incense in religion is prevalent in many cultures and may have their roots in the practical and aesthetic uses considering that many religions with not much else in common all use incense. One common motif is incense as a form of sacrificial offering to a deity, for example, Chinese jingxiang (敬香 "offer incense [to ancestors/gods]).

Incense has been employed in the worship of the vast majority of Christian groups since antiquity, particularly in the Eastern Christian churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and some Anglican and Lutheran Churches. The practice is probably rooted in the earlier traditions of Judaism in the time of the Second Temple. The smoke of burning incense is interpreted by the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Christian churches as a symbol of the prayer of the faithful rising to heaven. This symbolism is seen in Psalm 141 (140), verse 2: "Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight: the lifting up of my hands, as evening sacrifice." It is often used after the manner of a purification ritual. 

Source :

As these few of paragraph article mentioned, Chinese community not only offer incense/joss stick to idols, but also given to ancestors that passed away. Whenever attending funeral or visiting graves.

Attending Funeral and visiting graves, or NOT?

While I was discussed this issue with my friend Ah Hong AKA Mr. Red Hat, he tells me there are one book written about Chinese Traditions and Belief in Christianity view. I feel shocked and ask him what the relationship between Joss Stick and Christianity is? Then he tells me there are few pages content mentioned that Christian can’t hold Joss Stick, also not encouraged to attend Qing Ming event. (Visiting graves that held up annually)

As for Islam, there is no restriction in visiting graves. As it’s a remembrance for death and next life.

“I used to forbid you from visiting graves, but now you should visit them, for surely they are reminders of next life.”

(Narrated by Buraidah ibn al -Husai b and collected b y Muslim(Sahih Muslim, (English Trans.), vol. 2, pp. 463- 4 no. 2131), Abu Daawood Sunan Abu Dawud, (English Trans.) vol. 2, p. 919, (no.3229), an-Nasaa’ee. Ahmad and al -Bay haqee.)

Islam encouraged us to remember death, so we won’t be lost in our lust and desire that never last long. As for this concept which mean there are no restriction for muslim to visit grave. Sometime people might get misunderstood that once someone become muslim, then he/she will be giving no respect to the dead. Especially when the funeral is going on with rituals and religious event. Whenever there are funeral going on, actually there’s no problem in attending it and showing respect to the dead. As hadith mentioned below:

Narrated 'Abdur Rahman bin Abi Laila:

Sahl bin Hunaif and Qais bin Sad were sitting in the city of Al-Qadisiya. A funeral procession passed in front of them and they stood up. They were told that funeral procession was of one of the inhabitants of the land i.e. of a non-believer, under the protection of Muslims. They said, "A funeral procession passed in front of the Prophet and he stood up. When he was told that it was the coffin of a Jew, he said, "Is it not a living being (soul)?"

(Bukhari :: Book 2 :: Volume 23 :: Hadith 399)

Although the corpse passed by is Jew, Prophet Muhammad SAW also stood up and giving respect to the dead.

There are no compulsion in Islam

There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion.

(Al-Baqarah 2:256)
Most of the time people thinks that Islam is full of restrictions, so they trying to use this verse and ask muslim : Since Islam mentioned there are no compulsion in religion, then why there are so many restriction against muslim and lack of freedom? Isn't it a contradiction of what al-Quran stated itself?

When I am telling my friends that shouldn’t hold joss stick and bow down to the coffin, or piece of paper written the person’s name that passed away, they questioned me back : “This is just a chinese tradition, as long as my intention is giving respect to those who passed away, then why not?”

As a chinese who raised up in Buddhism family, for sure I know holding Joss Stick and bow down to anyone/anything is definitely not just about giving respect. It’s also a form of WORSHIP to Idolatry and ancestor. As a muslim who understand Tawheed and admitted the Oneness of Allah SWT, we must be knowing that worship upon any of His creations is clearly forbidden. It would lead us to the unforgiving sins that associate something with our Creator as partner. As the name itself explained, burning Joss Stick is a form of worship to ancestor or gods other than Allah SWT.

Although Muslims doing funeral prayers to those who passed away with emaan, there are few points that have emphasized the danger of shirk. As stated below:

As a means of setting up a barrier against grave worship, prayer was totally forbidden in graveyards regardless of the intention. Abu Sa‘eed al-Khudree reported from the Prophet(r) that he said: “ All the earth is a masjid (pl ace of worship) except graveyards and toilets.” Ibn ‘Umar also reported that the Prophet(r) said, “ Pray in your houses; do not make them graveyards.” Voluntary prayer is recommended in the home as an example for the family. If no prayer takes place there, it then resembles a graveyard in which no prayer is allowed.

Although praying to Allaah in a graveyard is not in itself shirk, the ignorant, under Satan’s influence, may assume that prayers in graveyards are to the dead and not for them. Consequently, this avenue to idolatry was decisively blocked On one occasions the second Caliph, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattaab, noticed another of the Prophet’s companions, Anas ibn Maalik, praying near a grave and called out to him, “The grave! The grave! ”

It should also be noted that in Islam the funeral service is not held in the graveyard, but in a prayer area set aside for large congregational prayers or in a masjid. Furthermore, because the body is placed at the front of the congregation, directly in front of the Ima am (prayer leader), the funeral pray er(Salaatul-Janaazah) does not have any bowing(Rukoo‘) or prostration (Sujood), so as not to give anyone the impression that the prayer is to the dead and not merely for the dead as the wordings of the prayer clearly indicate. 

(The Fundamentals Of Tawheed, Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips)

The key point is Muslim doesn’t pray to the dead, as there are no bowing or prostration to the dead. Every one of us are servants of Allah SWT, and it would be turn out become shirk if we pray to each other with or without intentions.

Hence I would like to emphasized that Joss Stick itself doesn’t contain anything wrong inside, but it would be turn out become shirk which is deny the Oneness of Allah SWT by holding Joss Stick and bow down to the dead. Although come with empty hands and bow down to the dead also claimed as committed Shirk.

In order to understand the meaning of “No compulsion in religion”, we must be read the complete verse of Surah Al-Baqarah 2:256, which is the message of Islam is clear and definite, the human precious mind and free will may clear out which path is guided by Allah SWT. Those who believe and following the guidance of Allah SWT, for sure they would accept the way of Islam without blind faith and traditional rituals.

There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing.

(Full Verse of Al-Baqarah, 2:256)

When The Wind Blows

While my parent feel disgraced that I won’t hold Joss Stick for any events, including funeral. It reminds me of a famous chinese proverb that written as above. It’s briefly means:

The tree would like to stay still, but the wind just don’t stop blowing.
While descendants would like to take good care of their parent, but they have been long gone

Appreciate our parent while they are still be with us, don’t ignore their feelings and love until one day we lost them forever. Chinese proverb have been putting a remembrance for us to remember that everyone have to face the separation by death, so we should be take enough time to spend with the one we love.

We should be putting more effort on treat our parent well, rather than following Chinese tradition that may commit shirk. Although they might be feel upset that Joss Stick tradition is discontinued, always remember that the actions and love towards parent is always stronger while they are still being with us.

When the wind blows

P.S. Specially thanks Mr. Red Hat/Ah Hong that provided me a lot informative article while drafting this tiny article. 


  1. Well written! There is nothing wrong with lighting up a joss stick as a sign of respect. It is culture, not religion. As long as your heart knows it, there is nothing wrong, and it is not against Islam teachings. Of course, let's limit it to some simple gesture, I think going the full ritual is a deviation (but that is my opinion).

    If more Chinese muslims respect the tradition, it would be easier to dakwah to Chinese. In fact, spread Islam by picking up the joss stick.

    1. While there is nothing wrong with joss sticks, but there is something with the way joss sticks are used.

      As implied in the word 'joss', joss means idols that Chinese people worship. (It would be better to mention 'incense sticks' for neutrality)

      As far as I have understand this matter personally, while putting incense sticks as sign of respect falls under cultural matter, these incense sticks are the SAME sticks used in worshiping idols.

      In fact, even Christians steer clear away from using joss sticks as this falls under worship. And all worship must be directed to One God alone (Yahweh/Allah) as commanded in Moses (peace be upon him)'s 10 Commandments given by God.

      Thus, for Muslims too, while we can relate similarities in religious teachings between Islam and other faith, Muslims cannot use the same ritual items used by non-Muslims. This would fall under copying non-Muslims' (religious) actions, and that is personally mentioned by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the Hadith.

      Emphasize need to be given on religious teachings, not on rituals.

      And Allah knows best; please correct me for any errors. Jazakumullah khairan

    2. > anon

      whilst it is not wrong to respect the dead, the act of doing so to be initiate 'dizahirkan'in form of action must be carefully observed.

      2. i might be repeating, but it is clearly stated in the above article and as we learn it that any form of associating or worshiping anything with/other then Allah is strictly prohibit. in fact it falls under the big sins that will never be forgiven.

      3. the chinese convention of offering joss sticks to the deceased is known for worshipping element as they ask for blessings, guidance, protection etc's to which is only in the domain of Allah swt not from creatures.

    3. Jazakallah Khyran for the replies from mae and Chong GX

  2. Assalamualaikum my dear brother in Islam. This is a very well-written piece. I agree with your analysis and dalil(support). Alhamdullillah, Allah has guide you to Islam and give you the gift of wisdom. Keep it up, we're here to support you, Insya Allah.

    I came across your group through my cousin's blog. I am a Malay, married to a revert (African-American) and have gone through "challenges" with his family. My mother-in-law dislike my hijab.

    Kak Ana

    1. Walaikumsalam Kak Ana.

      Alhamdulillah, all praises to Allah SWT who show me the path to Islam. The challenges for embracing Islam is there are a lot objections from family and community, especially when it's come to cultural that mixed with shirk.

      So I did this analysis for months of time, asking friends opinion, and at last I write this article in order to declare how Islam guides us in daily life.

      Syukur Alhamdulillah that you married with a revert, for sure you feel a lot of surprise with him. The best marriage is muslim who willing to married with reverts and gives them support. : )

  3. Dear Ikhwan,

    You are absolutely true. Couldn't agree more. We must treat our parents well while they are alive, rather than to compromise with the joss stick issue. At least we are allowed to give respect to them during funeral and we are allowed to visit their graves as a remembrance to death.

    1. Sis Ariza,

      Yup... People tend to think more about ritual than the happiness and joy in front of them. The respect and love we given to them, for sure is much more better than we do it after they have been gone.

  4. i like... well done encik iwan.... :) love u...

  5. Assalamualaikum, Bro Ikhwan.
    I admire your observations complete with research/analysis on the subject matters. For the longest time since I reverted, I faced discrimination from my family - why I wont eat the food they cook whenever there's a gathering (utensils had been used to cook non-halal food before that), why I don't send my children to Chinese school, etc etc. But cousins who are full vegetarians & those who send their children to Kebangsaan/International schools do not get asked these questions. But I would only smile, knowing my attempts to clarify will only worsen matters.
    My mother, a Buddhist passed away last June. When I received the news, I rushed home with my husband & 2 kids, not knowing how to handle this delicate situation as I am the only daughter & have no knowledge about arrangements for a Buddhist funeral. I arrived in time to bathe her body & dress her up before they placed her in the coffin. Thankfully, my uncle hired a professional undertaker. Throughout the 3 days, my children and I were silent observers to all the rituals that were going on. I reminded my children to hold their tongues, just observe & respect their traditions. I was determined to show my relatives that being a Muslim is going to prevent me from showing my respect for my mother. Even though we could not hold the joss sticks, I told my kids we could bow as a show of respect for their 'popo'. It was the same for my Christian cousins. My mother had requested to be cremated (in her own words "my daughter will not be able to come pray or burn joss sticks/hell money for me, so better to be cremated & scatter my ashes in the sea"). I guess that was the best arrangement she could think of, but I hope she knew I shall remember her in my heart always, even though I could not do all those things a Buddhist daughter could do. Alhamdulillah, we managed to 'participate' as observers by the sidelines and there were no dramas/accusations of me not being a filial daughter.

    1. Walaikumsalam sis Alia.

      My deepest condolence for knowing about that. It is a difficult test for everyone of us when the one we loved is gone. When my grand ma was passed away, I attended the funeral and I knew that it would be more difficult if it happen on my family members.

      The most challenging ever is when rituals mixed with our community, yet as muslim we must be taking care of our Emaan. I'm glad to know that you telling your kids respect the funeral, it would be very important for them to know the respect towards non muslim.

      May Allah SWT bless you and family.

  6. bismillah hir rahma nir rahim....

    For me a commentator...about joss stick(Heong,chap heong)...pai shen...(pray to God)...i know is a chinese culture buddhism...religion always get attached with chinese culture...u want to get A,I want a baby boy, i want a baby girl ...go see kuan yin...for example..but...the Cherisher and sustainer...Hallucination creator..named Allah...we can't see ...we can feel he's there....helping his creation..none of us realize who changing their fate,themselves or god helps...if the future happened in this good in luck....everyone go to the status of Kuanyin bow down(sujud) her....mean the statue is their God.....! so people create joss stick to respect the kuan yin mean God had help them what they want...if the kuan yinn ruin what they want...i think the statue will thrown into the somewhere..or chuck..somewhere as thrash..(sampah)....and joss stick still using in buddhism...religion still....because the respect to God and Good health and faith bringing to them..anyone seeing and praying to the God in Buddhist prayer house...

    For as this matter we talk about...with my point of view and my muslim i don't think is a problem to go your parents graveyard....putting a joss stick on his show respect to your doesn't really matter about...any..crashing both religion...islam/ long as...we respect each other...religion....

    i as a muslim i went to:-Church,buddhist house prayer,batu caves(hindu prayer temple...and i have been to punjabi temple for visit...just see their rituals and understand...the everything about religions...even i am joining church charity raising funds......
    we must know where we stand. :)

    1. does people their God a statue/creator heaven and earth?people non-muslim always think something...they then...such as..example she place a stone call Rose Quartz where she find lovely in the river hopefully..she will finds his prince charming to married her...when her dream come true...she will puts joss stick infront of the the rose lovely rose Quartz u made my dream come true She Said...when mean she respect the rose Quartz and u are my God....:) one thing..does a dead rock help her/god help her..u think answer.(same goes to this day temples worship statues.)

    2. Joss Stick itself doesn't mean anything, but it would be inappropriate if it's being served as if worshiping grave although without intention. Wallahualam.

  7. Opps, sorry, just realised there was a typo. it should read as "I was determined to show my relatives that being a Muslim is NOT going to prevent me from showing my respect for my mother"

  8. Very nice knowledge sharing here. this article n comments frm readers hv been an answer to my silent questions everytime i saw buddist burning joss stick most of the times.
    One more question is; i always saw fruits n kuey put together with the icon they're praying to. What is it actually for? When i was a kid, there is a nyonya from my neighbourhood who always gv me or other kids the fruits,usually is oranges. I dont think its a forbidden to eat the oranges since there is nothing physically done to the fruits is it?Pls clarify n thnks for answering.

    1. Those frutis and kuey are served to god/idol. Which common belief that god needs to sleep and eat.

      Fruit itself doesn't have any problem. So far I can't see any statement about forbid the fruits that being served or prayed, so I can't give any answer. However chicken that slaughtered other than Allah SWT name are forbidden to eat, so I guess perhaps food that served other gods is not so advisable.

  9. Hello, in my opinion veneration of deceased ancestors is not against islamic teaching as long as we dun consider the deceased as god. there are some benefits in doing this ritual, like giving inspiration or moral value to the childrens (kids or adult )to work hard n do righteousness as what the ancestors did achieved in the past. This also to reminds the history of the glory of family past (if ur family history past was good) from hardship to prosperity so that the heritage would not face extinction like dinasour! the chinese culture are valuable bcoz it strengthen the bond between family members n prevent lost contact between them. All Chinese people regardless of ur belief should embrace the valuable heritage from now to beyond and also do not forget our ancestors that lived b4 us, if we denied our recognition towards the ancestors, this can also means that we denied our present existence too! Without the ancestors, we are also not exist now. :)

  10. Incense sticks are known to be the number one choice of people when it comes to deep breathing and aromatherapy. Distinct scents can be accomplished with the aid of the incense sticks.


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