Awwab Saad Hayat, Al Hakam
Wording of the verse
The Holy Quran’s chapter al-Infitar, which consists of 20 verses, was revealed during the Meccan period of Islam. In its fifth verse, Allah the All-Knowing announces news about the end times and states:
وَاِذَا الۡقُبُوۡرُ بُعۡثِرَت
“And when the graves are laid open.” (Surah al-Infitar, Ch.82: V.5)
With regards to the word بعثر, used in the above verse, it is stated in the Dictionary of the Holy Quran:
“[aor. يُبَعْثِر inf. noun بَعْثَرَة]:
“(1) He took a thing out; (2) He laid it open or exposed it; (3) He raised what was in a thing and caused it to come forth; (4) He examined; (5) He searched; (6) He searched or dispersed a thing and turned it over.
“وَاِذَا الۡقُبُوۡرُ بُعۡثِرَت: And when the graves are laid open (82:5). بُعۡثِرَ مَا فِي الۡقُبُوۡرِ: When those in the graves are raised (100:10).” (Malik Ghulam Farid MA, Dictionary of the Holy Quran, pp. 77)
Five Volume Commentary
Interpreting the verse to mean the revival of the spiritually dead or the extraction of mineral wealth, the Five Volume Commentary states:
“These verses (2-5) may refer to the great spiritual revolution brought about by the Holy Prophetsa. In this case, […] ‘the laying open of the graves’ would mean that through the teachings of Islam, the spiritually dead people would receive a new life and, as it were, come out of their graves. Or the verse may mean that the earth would throw out its treasures of mineral wealth.” (Five Volume Commentary, Surah al-Infitar, Ch. 82: V. 5)
Interpreting the verse to mean the exhumation of dead bodies and excavation of long-buried cities etc., the Five Volume Commentary states:
“The verse may signify that in the Latter Days, graves will be laid open, as has been done in the case of the tombs of the ancient kings of Egypt; or it may mean that towns and monuments submerged and long forgotten would be dug out.” (Ibid.)
Commentary by Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra
Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra has also presented the following interpretation of the verse:
“[Exhumation] is a phenomenon that we observe to be prevalent among Christians today. In the past, cemeteries were highly respected, and historical records show that when a cemetery was discovered during city expansion, people would change the direction of the expansion to preserve the cemetery’s sanctity. However, in this nation, there is no respect for cemeteries. During the construction of Delhi, hundreds of cemeteries were destroyed without any regard for their significance. When we read old history, we are surprised by how much the dead were respected by [our human ancestors]. If a cemetery was found during city expansion, people would change the direction of expansion to preserve it. However, nowadays, when a cemetery is discovered during a city’s construction, it is boldly uprooted, and a building is erected in its place, with no consideration for its significance. Hence, this [verse] suggests that cemeteries will be destroyed due to overpopulation.
“The phrase ‘بعثرة قبور’ also refers to the opening of old tombs, as seen in Egypt, where mummified bodies are excavated. The dictionary defines it as ‘استخرجه فَكَشَمَه واثار ما فيه,’ which means to remove the soil from the grave, expose it, and spread the contents.
“Christians also dig up graves, and mummies are sent to museums in France, England, America, and Russia. They divide the bodies among themselves as if they were property, stripping the corpses bare and displaying them in different museums. When Muslims are in power, it is their duty to bury the dead in graves, rather than exhuming and humiliating them. They should also bury the body of the Pharaoh of Egypt and inscribe a plaque over his grave.
“Moreover, since the word ‘قبر’ can also refer to buried things in general, [the verse] could mean that old cities, libraries, and buildings will be excavated in this era. Therefore, old burials, buildings, and cemeteries will be discovered.” (Tafsir-e-Kabir, Vol. 8, pp. 252-253)
History of exhumation
Through the study of the pages of the Old Testament, we learn about the transfer of the remains of the dead from one country to another, such as when Prophet Josephas transferred his father’s body from Egypt to the land of Canaan several months after his demise, with the King’s permission. (Genesis 50) Additionally, when Prophet Josephas himself was nearing his demise, the Bible records:
“And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence. So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” (Genesis 50:25-26)
In the Victorian era, European nobles purchased mummies or other artefacts from Egyptian tombs (pyramids) and displayed them in their homes as a symbol of their wealth and grandeur. (Collin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice, London, 1991, Thames & Hudson Ltd, p. 22)
Recent examples of exhumation
In recent times, exhumation practices have been conducted for various reasons, including forensic investigation, historical research, and religious or cultural traditions. Forensic exhumations are often performed to gather evidence in criminal investigations, such as murder cases, where the body of the victim may provide crucial clues to help solve the crime. Historical exhumations, on the other hand, are carried out to uncover and learn more about the lives and deaths of historical figures, such as kings, queens, and other notable individuals. Exhumations are also conducted for religious or cultural reasons, such as the reburial of remains according to specific customs or beliefs.
As we reflect on the Quranic verse under discussion, the following cases of various kinds of exhumation can provide valuable insights and much to ponder over:
Historical: Nicholas II of Russia and his family
The Romanov family, including Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children, were brutally executed in the basement of the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg on 17 July 1918.
After the execution of the Romanovs, the Bolshevik guards dumped the bodies into an abandoned mineshaft. Two days later, the leader of the guards returned with kerosene and sulfuric acid, poured acid on the remains of two of the tsar’s children, Alexei and Maria, burned them, and buried the remnants nearby. The rest of the bodies were burned, placed into a grave, and had sulfuric acid poured onto them.
The burial site of the Romanovs was unknown until 1979, when it was discovered. The remains were reburied the following year but were exhumed by the post-Soviet government in 1991. After extensive debate, the Kremlin successfully reburied five of the seven sets of remains in 1998, only to have them temporarily exhumed in 2015 for further investigation.
The remains of Maria and Alexei were missing. The final two remains were unearthed in 2007, leading to further debate with the Russian Orthodox Church, as a result of which the reburial of the last two Romanovs, whose remains are being held in Russian state vaults, is yet to take place. (Cora Burridge, The Romanov Remains: Reburial and Controversy, 2020, University of Amsterdam, pp. 3-6)
Political: Francisco Franco
In October 2019, the remains of Francisco Franco, the former Spanish dictator, were exhumed from a grand mausoleum and reburied in a more usual kind of grave near Madrid. The long-awaited relocation fulfilled a key pledge of the socialist government, which stated that Spain should not continue to glorify a fascist who ruled the country for nearly four decades. (www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-50164806)
Forensic: Yasser Arafat
The remains of Yasser Arafat, the former President of the State of Palestine, were to be exhumed by a team of international forensic experts in 2012 to investigate the cause of his death. The move divided opinion among Palestinians and the international community, with some believing that the investigation was necessary to uncover the truth about Arafat’s death, while others saw it as a violation of his memory and legacy. Despite the controversy, the investigation proceeded, but the results were inconclusive, leaving unanswered questions about his death. A reburial ceremony with full military honours had been planned, but this was ultimately not deemed necessary as the body was not removed from the grave during the collection of the samples. (www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20501945)
Exhumation due to construction work
Modern construction works may involve excavation and the disturbance of the ground, which could require exhumation in sites previously used for burials. Examples of such projects include the construction of new buildings, roads, railways, and other infrastructure. Several high-profile cases have made headlines worldwide in recent years, including the discovery of the remains of King Richard III in Leicester, England, in 2012. His skeleton was found buried beneath a car park during construction work. (www.kriii.com/about-the-centre/an-incredible-discovery/)
The Catacombs of Paris are a renowned underground network of tunnels, chambers, and passageways that serve as a burial site for millions of human remains.
The history of the Catacombs dates back to the first century AD, when the first open-pit quarries were established to extract building materials. In the fourteenth century, underground quarries were created, which led to the development of an extensive network of tunnels and passages beneath the city of Paris. In 1774, a severe collapse of Rue Denfert-Rochereau resulted in the swallowing up of 300 metres of the city’s infrastructure. This event prompted King Louis XVI to sign a decree prohibiting material extraction from beneath public roads. In April 1777, the Department of General Quarry Inspection was established to protect Parisian quarries.
Around that time, Paris also faced the issue of overcrowded cemeteries. To address the issue, the Parisian authorities repurposed the Tombe-Issoire quarries into a large underground ossuary. Hence, between 1787 and 1814, millions of human remains were moved from parochial cemeteries to the Catacombs. The ossuary was opened to the public in 1809 and became a popular tourist attraction. Decorative displays with bones, such as arches and pillars, were created between 1810 and 1814, resulting in the striking underground monument that is open to visitors to Paris today. (www.catacombes.paris.fr/en/history)
Interpreting the Holy Quran
Exhumation is only one aspect of the interpretation of this verse (82:5), examples of which the world has seen throughout history and which we continue to observe today. However, it is important to remember that the teachings of the Holy Quran are so profound that even if all the oceans were ink and all the trees in the world were pens, they could not fully convey its meanings.
In this modern era, the Ahmadiyya interpretation of the Holy Quran provides the most comprehensive and accurate solutions to the issues that we face. Thus, in this era, it is essential to interpret the Holy Quran in light of the writings of the most ardent devotee of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa, that is, the Promised Messiahas and the Khalifa of the time.