May 3rd, 2011
11:54 AM ET

My Take: Sea burial says bin Laden not a martyr

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Shortly after we learned of the death of Osama bin Laden, U.S. officials said his body would be treated in accordance with Islamic traditions. What those officials did not say is that there are two Islamic burial traditions: one for ordinary Muslims and another for martyrs.

For ordinary Muslims, the body is washed and then wrapped in a plain white shroud for burial. For martyrs, however, the body is not washed and it is buried in the clothes the martyr was wearing when he died. This is because a martyr’s blood is a badge of honor — proof positive that he died in service of Islam.

This matters because according to Islamic teaching, once ordinary people are buried they must wait for the resurrection at the end of time before they can be judged worthy of Paradise or deserving of hellfire. Martyrs, by contrast, go directly to Paradise.

In his speech to the nation, President Obama said bin Laden was "not a Muslim leader” but a “mass murderer of Muslims.” In other words, he did not die a martyr. Bin Laden’s sea burial communicated this same message.

According to U.S. officials, his body was washed and placed in a white sheet before being put in a weighted bag. A military officer read some religious remarks, which were translated into Arabic, before his body was released into the sea.

Burial on land is the Islamic custom, and cremation is forbidden for Muslims. But sea burial is allowed in extraordinary circumstances - for example, when a pilgrim on the Hajj to Mecca dies on board a ship at sea.

In this case, the United States maintains that it could not find a country willing to take bin Laden’s body inside the narrow time frame dictated by Islamic custom — Muslims are typically buried quickly, ideally before the next morning — so they buried him at sea.

Administration clarifies bin Laden sea burial

Another reason for the sea burial was to avoid the spectacle of a shrine to global terrorism.

The only thing more hazardous to U.S. national security interests than a living bin Laden would have been a dead bin Laden, enshrined at some newly sacred space as a martyr to Islamic extremism. Such a site would have drawn pilgrims from across the Muslim world and become a place far more powerful than bin Laden’s hideaway in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Traditional funerary prayers ask God for forgiveness and mercy for the deceased.  Whether U.S. military officers did that on behalf of bin Laden before easing his body into the sea is not yet known.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Death • Islam • Islamic law • Islamic law • Muslim • Opinion • Osama bin Laden • Sacred Spaces • Sharia

soundoff (174 Responses)
  1. Jason

    If he wasn't a "Muslim leader", then why follow Muslim law.

    May 11, 2011 at 11:03 pm |
  2. J Rodriguez

    At least O.B.L. received a burial; which is more than I can say about the thousands he denied one of, having there bodies destroyed beyond recognition. O.B.L. had no consideration for innocent people on his terror spree yet we take care in trying to reduce collateral damage when we fight his forces; we take their lives into consideration.

    May 5, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
  3. Abdur Tawfeeq

    I Would Like To Say Osama Bin Mohammed Bin Awad Bin Laden Had A Wrongful Buried And Was Not Permissionable In The Islamic Faith. His Body Was Suppose To Be Wash By A Muslim Men And Wrap With A 3 Shrouds Not A Sheet! Then A Muslim Men ,Imam ,Shiek,Amair,Or a Muslim Leader Or knowledgeable Muslim Had To Preform And Lead The Janzah Prayer
    Osama Bint Laden Was Suppose To Be Buried In The Ground Not The Ocean It Is "Only"Premissioable To Buried The Body In The Ground If He Pass Away In The Ocean Then In The Muslim Faith You Have To Be Buried 24-72 Hours Of The Death Why Was It So A Rush To Dump Him In The Sea? Then Us America People Are On Tv Dancing And Drinking And Partying Over His Death But We Should Show Some Respect For His Kids Who Did Not follow In His Footsteps ! Then The Rumor About Osama Going To Hell Thats Only Up To God.

    May 5, 2011 at 10:15 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.