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. Lil Johnny

    I dunno why you guys have having a "internet war" on a news site. Just be a little mature and read the dang article.

    May 3, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  2. iLamerica

    DONT THROW OSAMA's BODY IN THE OCEAN WE MUST BURN HIM TILL THERES NOTHING BUT ASHES then we throw the ashes in the ocean sounds better 🙂

    May 3, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • oceamerica

      I hope his corpse will not terrorize the fishes.

      May 5, 2011 at 6:47 am |
  3. Miguel

    I had heard some muslim clerics were upset about how bin laden was not buried facing toward Mecca etc....
    Good, this is a clear message that this slime bag does not deserve the respect of a decent burial after what he has done.

    I do not care one bit if they are upset, if they want him back, let them search for him.

    May 3, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  4. huey

    as far as we know, they "supposably" dumped his body. pleaaaaaaaaaaase someone tell me he's gonna end up stuffed n mounted in Bush's living room XD

    May 3, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Dorothy

      You need to go see a therapist, you're very sick.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Noelwood

      Obama got him. Obama gets to keep him.

      May 3, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
  5. riley

    gota go to next class


    May 3, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • viley

      hof it wold bi spielleng class. Goud louck tu yu. I hof yu culd fenish yor pre-skol.

      May 5, 2011 at 6:41 am |
  6. riley


    May 3, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  7. riley

    im siting in class

    May 3, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  8. cowboy

    right now im floating in indian ocean

    May 3, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Melissa

      I bet you haven't a clue where the Indian Ocean is.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  9. riley


    May 3, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  10. cowboy

    Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden

    May 3, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • YeahRight

      @cowboy it's stupidity like yours that gives Americans a bad name around the world.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  11. riley

    im from texas how bout yall

    May 3, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  12. mari


    May 3, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  13. riley

    whats ur real name cowboy and beth

    May 3, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Melissa

      Their names are DUMB AND DUMBER.

      May 3, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • cowboy

      takecare riley i miss u

      May 3, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  14. Don

    Here's a thought; how many people will now use "They'll just turn it into a shrine for Osama in place of a burial site" as a reason against building that proposed Islamic Center near New York's World Trade Center?

    May 3, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  15. riley


    May 3, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  16. cowboy

    its me

    May 3, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  17. beth

    they should have let the hogs feed on him
    get some use from his rotting corpse

    May 3, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  18. riley

    who dat

    May 3, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  19. cowboy

    eeeeeehaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa now who next? gaddafi or assad

    May 3, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  20. riley

    so true brother

    May 3, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • pockets

      "So let it be written; so let it be done."

      May 3, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
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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.