I found this a very thorough, informative and academic discussion on an issue which sadly attracts a lot of controversy. The summary is that the majority of scholars are in agreement for it, notably Imam Ahmed b. Hanbal, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim, Imam Ibn Ibn Qudamah Al-Maqdisi amongst others. However, there have been some who disagreed with the practice of reading Quran specifically so difference of opinon exists. However, no one disagrees upon the validity of making dua for the deceased.
And Allah knows best
By Shaykh Abu Aaliyah
Question: Is it permitted to donate the reward of one’s recitation of the Qur’an to a deceased person, and will they benefit by such recitation? Or is this an innovation (bid‘ah) that opposes orthodox Islam, as claimed by certain people?
Answer: Unfortunately, this issue has become a cause of great controversy and fiery disputes between Muslims in recent times. It has now become commonplace to find Muslims boycotting other Muslims over the issue, showing hostility towards them, or to even consider them to be deviants because of it! Yet such intolerance and bigotry is uncalled for by Islam and is unwarranted by the shari‘ah.
A dispassionate look at the issue reveals that classical jurists differed on the question of whether the rewards of one’s Quranic recitation can be “donated” or “gifted” to the deceased or not (known as isal al-thawab or ihda al-thawab). One group of scholars contends that it can be donated and that the deceased do benefit by it; the other says it cannot.
The majority of jurists stipulate that such a donation does reach the deceased and that they do indeed benefit from it. Typifying the majority view, Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi stated in his highly acclaimed al-Mughni: ‘Any act of worship a person does, gifting the reward of it to a deceased Muslim, the deceased will benefit from it; God willing. Now, as for supplication, seeking forgiveness and giving charity [for others], or those acts that can be fulfilled on someone else’s behalf, I know of no difference concerning their permissibility.’1
He then cites a few authentic hadiths which categorically establish that certain acts of worship the living do, can reach the deceased and benefit them. These acts are:
- Supplicating (du‘a) and seeking forgiveness (istighfar): For the Qur’an tells the living believers to pray for their deceased brethren; as in the verse: And those who come after them pray: ‘Our Lord! Forgive us and our brethren who came before us in faith.’ [59:10]
- Charity (sadaqah): The lady ‘A’ishah relates that S‘ad b. ‘Ubadah said: O Messenger of God! My mother died unexpectedly without leaving a will. If I was to give charity on her behalf, will she reap the rewards? He replied: ‘Yes!’ [Bukhari, no.1388; Muslim, no.1004]
- Pilgrimage (hajj): The Prophet, peace be upon him, was asked: My mother vowed to undertake pilgrimage, but she passed away before having the chance to do so. Shall I not perform pilgrimage on her behalf? He responded: ‘Yes. If she had a debt, wouldn’t it have to be settled?’ Yes, the man replied. The Prophet said: ‘The debt owed to God is more deserving of being settled.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6699]
- Fasting (siyam): The Prophet, peace be upon him, stated: ‘Whoever dies and a fast is due upon him, a reliable family member of his must make it up in his stead.’ [Muslim, no.1147]
- Freeing Slaves (‘itq): ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Amr once asked the Prophet, peace be upon him, if his deceased father would benefit from the freeing of slaves on his behalf. This was the reply: ‘Had your father been a Muslim and you emancipated slaves on his behalf, gave some charity on his behalf, or performed pilgrimage on his behalf, it would have reached him.’ [Abu Dawud, no.2883]
Whilst it is true that a few jurists, like Imam al-Shafi‘i, limited the deceased benefiting from the acts of the living to those which have been specifically mentioned in the proof-texts, the majority did not. We are given a window into the majority’s legal or fiqh reasoning in what follows:
After citing the aforementioned hadiths, Ibn Qudamah wrote: ‘In these sound hadiths is a proof that the deceased benefits by any act of worship. Now as fasting, pilgrimage and supplicating are also bodily acts of worship, and God has allowed their benefits to reach the deceased, then such is the case with every other act of worship.’2
It is precisely on this premise – that if the proof-texts allow certain acts to be donated, what is there to prevent other acts also being donated? – that Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal said: ‘Any good deed, like charity, prayer, or other than that reaches the deceased; as per the reports about it.’3
Ibn al-Qayyim is even more forthcoming. He first notes: ‘They disagree about bodily acts of worship like fasting, prayer, reciting Qur’an and remembrance of God (dhikr). Imam Ahmad and the majority of the early scholars (salaf) held the opinion that their benefits reach the deceased. This was the stance of some of Abu Hanifah’s colleagues too … The well-known opinion of al-Shafi‘i and Malik is that they do not.’4
Further on in the argument, he insists: ‘Hence by what textual stipulation, analogy or principle from the shari‘ah principles does one [set of actions] reach the deceased, but not the other? These stipulations demonstrate that the reward for a deed reaches the deceased, if the doer intended it. This is pure and sound analogy. The reward of an act is the right of its doer. Now if the doer wishes to gift the reward to his brother Muslim, why would he be prevented from it; in the same way that it is not forbidden to gift his wealth to another person, nor to pay-off that person’s debt after his death.’5
Indeed, why else would Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz say: ‘Ahl al-Sunnah are agreed that the deceased benefit from the deeds of the living in two ways. Firstly, they benefit from those acts they were the cause of during their lifetime. Secondly, from the du‘a of other Muslims, their seeking forgiveness for them, as well as their charity and pilgrimage … There is a disagreement about bodily acts of worship such as fasting, prayer, reciting Qur’an and dhikr. The view of Abu Hanifah, Ahmad, and the majority of the salaf is that the reward of these acts reach the deceased.’6
Some Objections Addressed: Let us begin to lower the curtain on the subject by briefly tackling some common objections to the practice of isal al-thawab:
 One objection concerns the following verse: And that man shall have nothing except what he strives for, [53:39] and the hadith: ‘When a person dies, his actions come to an end except in three situations: recurring charity; knowledge which people continue to benefit from after him; and a pious offspring who prays for him.’ [Muslim, no.1631] The objectors insist that these texts prove nothing can benefit a person after he passes away except whatever good he did whilst alive.
The scholarly majority reply by pointing out: (i) There are, as has been shown, certain actions done by the living about which there is a juristic consensus (ijma’) that they do benefit the deceased: i.e. supplication, charity, fasting or pilgrimage. (ii) That reading the Qur’an so as to donate its reward has nothing to do with the acts of the deceased: which are now at an end. Rather, it is a gift from the living to the dead.7
 Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz addresses another objection: ‘Now if it is said: “The Prophet, peace be upon him, directed us to fasting, pilgrimage and charity, but not reading the Qur’an.” The reply is: that the Prophet, peace be upon him, didn’t initiate such practices except as a response to peoples’ questions. So on one occasion he was asked about making pilgrimage for the deceased, so he permitted it. On another occasion, he was asked about fasting, so he allowed that too. But he never ruled out other practices for them beside these.’8
 The third objection seems to be extremely flimsy, an almost desperate ditch to save the day. It states that if the living can gift the deceased good deeds, then they should be able to pass-off their bad deeds onto them too. And since that is absurd, then so is the notion of the living reciting the Qur’an and gifting it to the deceased. The response to this is fairly simple to see, which is that if gifting the rewards of one’s Qur’an reading is absurd, then one must hold the same about gifting the rewards of one’s prayer, charity or pilgrimage. But this would place one in clear opposition to the authentic hadiths on the subject!
To conclude: Far from being an un-Islamic practice, reciting the Qur’an and donating the reward of it to the deceased is not only valid, it is the view taken by the majority of jurists. It is the view of the Hanafi and Hanbali schools from the start, and became the relied-upon view in the Maliki and Shafi‘i schools some centuries later. Although not mentioned by other jurists and verificationists, Ibn Qudamah actually goes so far as to say that there is a consensus on the point: ‘There is [now] a consensus of the Muslims [about it]. For in every time and place they agreed upon reciting the Qur’an and gifting its reward to their deceased, without any objection.’9
Imam al-Nawawi had this to say: ‘The scholars differed about whether the rewards of the Qur’an reach [the deceased]. The well-known view of al-Shafi‘i and a group is that it does not. Whereas the view of Ahmad b. Hanbal and another group of scholars, and a group of Shafi‘i scholars is that it does. The preferred opinion is for the reciter to say, after he completes his recitation: “O God, donate the reward of this recitation to such-and-such (allahumma awsil thawaba ma qara’tuhu ila fulan)”.’10
The erroneous idea that the practice of reciting the Qur’an and donating the rewards to deceased Muslims is some kind of deviation from Islamic orthodoxy may now be seen for what it truly is: ignorance, an inversion of the truth, and an attempt by some to ride roughshod over normative Sunni Islam. And God knows best.
1. Ibn Qudamah, al-Mughni (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 2007), 3:519.
2. ibid., 3:521.
3. Cited in al-Buhuti, Sharh Muntaha al-Iradat (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2000), 2:165.
4. Ibn al-Qayyim, Kitab al-Ruh (Cairo: Mu’assasah al-Mukhtar, 2006), 170.
5. ibid., 176-7.
6. Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1999), 2:683.
7. Consult: Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah, 2:688-89.
8. ibid., 2:692.
9. Al-Mughni, 3:522.
10. Al-Adhkar (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 283.