Q. When a Muslim dies, it is customary to bathe the dead body prior to burial. What is the reason for this? Is there anything in the Qur'an on this matter, or is it a custom from the Prophetic tradition?
A. We must remember that Islamic practice is based on certain presuppositions: namely that the religion had already been put into place by the earlier prophets, and the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w) simply came to bring it to completion and seal the revelation. As such, the law of the Jews and Christians is not absolutely abrogated by the Qur'an as many assume, but in fact, continued in certain cases.
Another presupposition is that the people's collective sense of value and morality are often the criteria of good judgment, and so the Qur'an says: "Order to that which is known - w'amur bil 'urf." The jurists have rephrased this in the fiqh maxim: "Al adat muhakkamah," which may be loosely translated as: "Custom is legally binding." In all of the known pre-Islamic religious practices that I am aware of for the Arabian-Mediterranean region, the body of the dead was honored. Social as well as religious considerations may have been the reason. The stench, etc. needed to be done away with, hence the use of incense and perfumes.
On a religious plane, one may very well conclude that if death is the prelude to meeting the Creator, and in this life a person, when he/she comes the closest to doing that -- in the prayer -- must do a purification ritual, then in death, this would also seem proper. We cannot always determine the propriety of a practice based on provenance in the Qur'an; but must have a knowledge of the laws current at the Prophet's time. One may even argue by implication that the Qur'an exhorts us to this practice of bathing the dead, for when Allah tells us to honor our parents, etc. and that we are one brotherhood, it implies such in life or death.
Logical assessments of what constitute respect would all rule in favor of taking care of the dead in a manner that makes society send them to their final resting place with a good memory, that is, with no bad smell, and so on. You also used the term "Prophetic tradition" as opposed to "hadith." This is a rather technical distinction, with the practice preceding the science of hadith, and according to the Qur'an itself: "Indeed in the Messenger is a good example," then such practice is to be followed. This is different to the hadith, which in addition to trying to relate tradition in oral terms, also contains many tenets of belief, etc., which have no provenance in the Qur'an, and have been proven time and again to be false.
In conclusion then, the bathing of the dead is a tradition which has been agreed upon by the earliest practice of the Muslims, and remains a "fard kifayyah" of the community.
Posted November 17, 1998