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. Reality

    Hopefully, his koran was "deep-sixed" with him. Actually, all korans should be thrown into the sea along with the bible and the book of Mormon.

    May 3, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Cute. Toss the Bible in, Reality, We'll just get another one besides I heard 'The Origin of Species" was lined up to go first! Let me know when you start. in fact, it could end up an Olympic event! We could call "Darwin went a swimmin" Sound good?

      May 3, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Maybe


      The relevant facts and ideas from "On the Origin of Species" have been extracted and studied, and some of those have been found to be useful. Nobody hangs on or worships the words of that book.

      May 3, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      The relevant facts and ideas from "On the Origin of Species" have been extracted and studied, and some of those have been found to be useful. Nobody hangs on or worships the words of that book.
      Nobody said anything about worshipping that book. What does that have to do with tossing it as Reality wants to toss the Bible?

      May 3, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  2. riley


    May 3, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  3. MichaelOne

    This needs to be restated:


    A burial at sea, with whatever Islamic tradidions they followed was too good for that demon. They should have wrappped him in pig hide and dumped him in the Freshkills landfill where the wreckage of the WTC was taken.

    May 3, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Bubba

      They should have sliced him thin and dipped him in wasabi before wrapping him in kelp, laid him on a bed of rice, and THEN fed him to the sharks.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • mike

      It only deserves to be restated as an example of a bad idea. I repeat: WE ARE THE GOOD GUYS. It is a fundamental aspect of what defines us and our true allies. The moral high ground is important.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  4. Mike Taylor

    Bryan, not afraid of Pakistans Nuclear weapons. I dont think we should nuke any country though without definite knowledge that we cannot do anything else. It is a serious thing. That would be the fastest way to get the entire world to hate us.

    May 3, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Bubba

      Right, drop a bomb on a bunch of women and children to pay them back for killing a bunch of women and children. War is a tool of diplomacy.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  5. Jeff

    They should have brought his dead - back to the states and buried it in a cell at Leavenworth. If anyone wanted to visit they could see him as the criminal he was.

    May 3, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  6. A concerned American

    Who cares what was done with the body. Its over. Now we must focus on Pakistan.. They can't be trusted. They best just bow down because America will turn that country into a hellish lava pit with the detonation of Nuclear weapons... Pakistan is a disgrace because they will stab you in the back.

    May 3, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Bryan

      How totally ignorant of you.
      You know Pakistan has nuclear weapons right?

      You want to nuke another nuclear country? I take it you never lived through or learned about the Cold War and MAD.

      You yourself claim Pakistan cant be trusted, so what happens after we nuke them? They give a device to a terrorist organisation and the next thing you know, boom there does Denver, NYC ect ect.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  7. Barry from Wisconsin


    May 3, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  8. Ron

    Personally, I think they should have buried bin Laden in the Marianas Trench. That way NO ONE would ever be able to claim the body. Let the Seas wash away his existence.

    May 3, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • mike

      He was buried in a weighted bag. It's going to sit on the bottom of a vast sea, and the odds of it EVER being found by human eyes are astronomically slim to the point of absurdity. In other words, you pretty much have your wish.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  9. Joily

    A question 2 Americans: Do u know what is success?
    By killing UBL, u think u're sucful (in taking revenge). But ignorantly u're e 'losers', bec d main ppose of taking revenge is have peace of mind. Do u have it now? Cowards!

    May 3, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • Mike Taylor

      I always have peace of mind.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Well, at least we aren't sucful, whatever that means. How tragic it would be to be sucfl. Did the mental homes let everyone out for the day?

      May 3, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • MichaelOne

      What was cowardly about this action?

      May 3, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • mike

      Cowardly is sending suicide bombers to murder thousands civilians on one's behalf, dragging an entire religion into the mud in doing so, then holing up in a ritzy suburb living the high life, appearing only on internet videos, and then using a woman as a human shield when attacked. THAT'S cowardly.

      The elimination of such a piece of human garbage isn't cowardly. It's blind and fair justice.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  10. ntuj

    Celebrating the dead of this man makes all of you as fanatics as the insurgents.

    Now will the US leave the Middle East? Not... How do Americans feel if the Russians have a military base in the US?

    May 3, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Bubba

      When we all start yelling "Death to Pakistan" and shooting in the air you can worry. Until then, stfu please.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • mike

      Celebrating the death of a mass murderer is NOT the same as celebrating the deaths of thousands of innocent people. If you cannot comprehend this, you lack fundamental reasoning skills.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  11. sam1

    Couple of questions......name of the Sea? Why no where sea name is mentioned. From Islamabad Sea (if at all Arabian Sea) is really far. Secondly sea / ocean tendency is never keep dead bodies inside.....so eventually his body will come to the shore one day and this can be probably Mumbai......So chances of terrorism attach in Mumbai once again!!!

    May 3, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Bubba

      He washed up on my beach yesterday so I peed on him and shoved him back in the water. He was dead all right.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • mike

      His body was in a weighted bag specifically designed to sink. It's not gonna wash up anywhere anytime soon. Nobody's gonna find it, ever. It takes decades to find entire SHIPS lost at sea. Forget finding one body.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  12. Gumby

    A burial at sea, with whatever Islamic tradidions they followed was too good for that demon. They should have wrappped him in pig hide and dumped him in the Freshkills landfill where the wreckage of the WTC was taken.

    May 3, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Bible Clown

      Once he's dead, we can show our humanity. HE was the monster, not us. Keep that in mind.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Bubba

      They should have wrapped him in bacon, dipped him in a light, flaky tempura batter, fried him for 17 minutes, and THEN fed him to the sharks.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  13. Babak from LA

    What ever ...... Are we done now? May we please get our troops out of that part of the world and concentrate on rebuilding of America?

    May 3, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  14. D-Vid-Edit

    What I wanna know is who had the ungodly task of having to wash Osama's body. Think they just hosed him off?

    May 3, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Ed

      probably made soem medic do it

      May 3, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • Mike

      They all lined up and peed on him.

      May 3, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • Bubba

      They made the janitor spray him with 409.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  15. Tonlok

    I would think all the backround of this story is just a loop-hole to allow them to dispose of OBL's body at sea. They didn't want a place or shrine to global terrorism, so they decided this. All the reasoning behind it is just to save face and try to make it seem like it was done according to Islamic standards.

    May 3, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  16. phoenix

    this all could have been worked out in the board room years ago with interpetators. keep your eye on christ, the american heathen are into violence and death.

    May 3, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  17. BG

    " 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..."

    Finders Keepers.

    OBL's death is only a peripheral issue... the larger story is how he stayed 'hidden' in Pakistan. We need to stop playing footsie with Pakistan and set some ground rules, lest we declare their country an outright terrorist state and sanctuary. American flags are burning across Pakistan with chants in the street of "Death to America." Now, -that's- not very nice.


    Yep, them be Predators alrighty. Are we Invading your country? No, we're just policing it because you choose not to...

    May 3, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Mir

      haha , you're too funny. at least give a valid source !

      May 3, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • BG

      @ Mir

      Plenty of sources. Regional, national, international, wire services, blogs, editorials et.al.

      May 3, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • BF

      The American people needed to see the body and have more graphic proof of death. All too mysterious for me.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • Lanjha

      @Mir – What makes u think thats an invalid source.

      May 3, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
  18. A barber

    In other news, the color blue is blue because it is not brown. We know he is not a martyr, why would the military bury him as one?

    May 3, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • sbp

      What, you didn't get it? Yes, we know he was not a martyr, but someone bothered to understand the cultural differences in burial rites so that we wouldn't inadvertently treat him as one. The knee jerk reaction would be "eff him, let's not clean him up just dump him as he is." And this would have played right into the radical Muslim's hands. Good job in doing something counter-intuitive.

      May 3, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  19. blahblah


    May 3, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • deter

      whats so funny?

      May 3, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • riley

      i think it is cruel that they dumoed bin laden off in the sea

      May 3, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  20. Leta

    Please stop showing us pictues of Bin Laden alive. We cannot really feel he's gone as long as we see his evil face live on TV. Show us pictures of him wrapped in the shroud. Not necessarily the gruesome ones of him shot in the head.

    May 3, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • A barber

      Who is we, please speak for yourself. Apparently, despite all the pictures of Hitler alive around, people feel that he is pretty dead.

      May 3, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • BG

      " Not necessarily the gruesome ones of him shot in the head."

      You can bet that some wayward specialist took a quick pic; it'll end up on some /b/ chan where no one will believe it anyway...

      "Aww, it's gotta be shopped..."

      May 3, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • pointless1

      @A barber... Hitler was just killed a couple days ago now wasn't he?

      May 3, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
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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.