An Unclean Murder

Muslims are, as a general rule, clean people. The rituals of wudu and ghusl see to that.

Ablution is a common element amongst Semitic religions. Judaism has mikveh, and Christianity has baptism. In Islam it serves as a method of purification before daily prayers, after menstruation, sexual intercourse, and before burial. One ablution, wudu, is for the thousand daily things that impurify us. This is undertaken before daily prayers and requires only a partial ablution. The specific process, requirements, and impurifying acts that require wudu to cleanse varies from sect to sect and school to school, but they all share a desire to purify oneself before making salat, the five daily prayers required by the Quran.

Ghusl, though. Ghusl finds its Quranic basis in the surah al-Nisa, of which a translation reads:

O ye who believe! Draw not near unto prayer when ye are drunken, till ye know that which ye utter, nor when ye are polluted, save when journeying upon the road, till ye have bathed. And if ye be ill, or on a journey, or one of you cometh from the closet, or ye have touched women, and ye find not water, then go to high clean soil and rub your faces and your hands (therewith). Lo! Allah is Benign, Forgiving.

Ghusl is a full body ablution. Again, the specifics vary from sect to sect and school to school, but the unifying principle is centered around purifying oneself to be open to Allah and to know what you are praying. Unclean water cannot be used, and the whole body has to be cleaned. Ghusl is undertaken after sex, after menstruation, after touching a dead body, and before one is buried.

That one last cleansing was something that was robbed from Stephon Clark.

On the night of March 18, two police officers poured 20 rounds of gunfire into Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old father in Sacramento, CA. After leaving him dying on the ground, just feet away from his grandmother’s home, the police department’s propaganda machine began its work. At first, Sacramento police claimed, after being tipped off about a man breaking into vehicles, that Clark had been found with a “toolbar”. The purpose of this lie was to excuse a murder that officers had committed. Worse, most of the shots that landed struck Clark in the back.

During a news conference at City Hall, Clark’s grandmother Sequita Thompson openly wept. “Why didn’t you shoot him in the arm? Shoot him in the legs? Send in dogs? Send in a Taser? Why, why, why?” Whether you believe in a soul or not, Thompson’s pleadings burn you in places that run deep. The news conference for Stephon Clark bring back the memory of the press conference held for 37-year-old Alton Sterling, killed by Baton Rouge police in 2016. As Sterling’s wife Quinyetta McMillon recalls the devastation his murder wrought, their son covers his face in an attempt to muffle his cries. Within seconds he had broken down and was being held in a relative’s arms. The two officers who brutally killed Alton Sterling will not face prosecution, according to Louisiana attorney general Jeff Landry. This ceaseless threat—this violent menace of policing which touches the lives of every Black community across the country—is the stuff of nightmares.

In the case of Stephon Clark, his executioners did more than rob him of life, and his family of his presence. They ripped away even the intimacy of burial. According to Imam Omar Suleiman, Stephon Clark’s body was so incredibly ravaged by the police officers’ gunshots his family and community could not undertake ghusl on his body. After Clark was murdered, his girlfriend Salena Manni began sharing images and videos of their family. In one photograph shared on Twitter he is beaming with his children sitting on his and his girlfriends’ laps, and his children have big, broad smiles across their faces. Accompanying this photo is commentary from Manni, expressing her love for Clark, and promising that she will take care of their boys. “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un,” she quotes from the Quran, which translates into English: “We belong to God, and to Him we shall return.”

According to an independent autopsy conducted by Dr. Bennet Omalu (best known for taking on the NFL over concussions and until recently the chief medical examiner of nearby San Joaquin county), the officers who murdered Stephon Clark shot him 8 times. 7 of those bullets struck him from behind. “During the entire interaction he had his back to the police officers,” Dr. Omalu told the press. The autopsy diagram of Clark’s injuries paint a horrific picture, and allow us to understand well why ghusl mayyit was not possible.

Clark’s brother Stevante, who defiantly shouted Stephon’s name while interrupting a city council meeting in an act of resistance and love, was denied the ability to wash him in preparation for burial. While Islam acknowledges the existence of a hereafter—that this world is fleeting—ghusl, like all other funeral rites, is a part of the mourning process and allows the family to say goodbye. The killing of Stephon Clark not only took away his worldly presence, but the officers who targeted him that night committed a second and final theft from his kin and community.

There aren’t strong enough words to describe the devastation caused by Clark’s murder, or the harm done by the slayings done by police before Clark’s across this country. How many have fallen at the hands of the police after pleading for their lives—their hands raised in the air, their backs turned away, their fingers clutching nothing—and whose bodies are desecrated with bullet holes? How many more will be forced into white shrouds by police officers who are confident that the system will protect them, as it always has?

It wasn’t just that the sidr and camphor water used for ghusl mayyit that were taken from his funeral, but the solace that such rituals provide to those left behind by Clark’s death. Stephon Clark was a Muslim, but he was also a Black man in America, and for police forces across the country that’s reason enough to perpetuate this violence again and again and again and again. We cannot allow them to forget his name, or the names of any other victims. We may very well belong to God and will return to Him at the end of our days, but until there is no life left in us we must serve as protectors of one another.

Allah being merciful, the Quran provides a substitute ritual of tayammum, or dry ablution. This is used usually when there isn’t enough water for ghusl or wudu. In this case, tayammum had to be used on Stephon Clark because there wasn’t enough humanity in the Sacramento Police.