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. Rayorrm1234

    This pig should have been desicrated and degraded the worst posible way. Any other pig that would of come to pray at his tomb should also be hanged. We should of taken him alive and then tourtured him to near death, then revive him, wait til he recovers then tourture him to near death again and repeat this till he finally dies squeeling like a pig.

    May 3, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  2. marsmotel

    What do all you religous people think of the Navy Seal killing OBL. Did he or did he not break the 5th commandment?

    May 3, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • airwx

      I just read your post.. The 5th says not to shed innocent blood. The word actually does not equate to killing but is closer to murder, which is used in more modern translations.

      May 3, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • ScottK

      @airwx – "The 5th says not to shed innocent blood." Ah, and the book gets to determine who is innocent as well, so the 5th should read 'Thou shalt not murder anyone who lives like we do, but thou shalt murder the wicked with wanton abandon."

      May 3, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  3. Joe

    C'mon...you expect me to believe that they carried out a traditional Muslim burial? He got what Fat Clemenza got....a return ticket to the hereafter and a one way ticket to the abyss. To think that Osama sleeps with the fishes..he he

    May 3, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  4. j Ackon

    Bin Laden buried at sea. Body treated according to Islamic custom. Laden was not a Muslim but a Mass murderer of Muslims. True or false.

    May 3, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • .


      May 3, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  5. marsmotel

    We should kill all high ranking religious whackos. Wait...all religous people are whackos so that does not work.

    "I believe in the sun, at least I can see it everyday" George Carlin
    http://www.rense.com/general69/obj.htm – check the whole truth within Carlin

    May 3, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Lycidas

      Yeah, let's all go see what a well trained comedian had to say. *rolls eyes*

      May 3, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • marsmotel

      At least he has clever thoughts and does not hide behind false dieties! Really rolling my eyes!

      May 3, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • .

      "Yeah, let's all go see what a well trained comedian had to say. *rolls eyes*"

      Better use of time than going to Mosque, Church, Temple, Synagogue, Shrine, etc.

      May 3, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Lycidas

      @marsmotel- Of course you are wrong thinking anyone is hiding.

      May 3, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
    • AD

      ...But the sun sets. Surely, God never sets. No sleep nor slumber overtaketh him. He is the sublime, the ever present, the merciful. Salam (peace)

      May 4, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  6. Hatta

    I am a muslim and I understand why U.S need to kill OBL. As a muslim, there is not moderate or extreme islamic practice. Islam is islam. What OBL did for this years is wrong, jihad has many ways it's not always killing people. If you work so you could feed your family, send your kids to school so they get proper education, get a good job be a good people, that's also jihad.

    But to celebrate after you had killed him is also wrong, I understand you need him dead, but I don't understand you are actually celebrating when you have killed a human. Obama could have said he is sorry for the family, for OBL friends but we need to kill him. This is not a joyful moment, but it has to be done because he is a threat. But he said, JUSTICE HAS BEEN DONE.

    In my books, U.S are now in the same chapter with Al-Qaeda. You went to other country, killing their people and now celebrating in the street when you have killed their leader.

    May 3, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Wauconda, IL

      The people saying it is not right to celebrate the death of such a bad man, a man who gave orders to kill thousands of innocent Americans at work. At work where? In an office building. He did not give orders to kill thousands of military members in war but civilians who never met him or done anything to hurt him or his country. Celebrate his death, dang make is a freaking national holiday!

      May 3, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • BigDeer

      I am not a muslim and I am an american... I agree with you completely that celebrating his death is wrong. While exterminating him was something that needed to be done the celebration of human loss is disgusting. I am appalled with a lot of the conduct that I have seen. It makes me sad to see that a good portion of our Americans feel that rejoicing in bloody revenge is acceptable. How do you separate the terrorists from the terrorists when all are guilty and not without blood on our hands? And anybody who argues this point is guilty if they condone this behavior.

      May 3, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  7. JayKay

    They should bury him under the men's trough urinal in the Freedom Tower.

    May 3, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  8. amatullah


    What? That is NOT a Muslim belief. Trust me. I'm a believer and I'd know. And if God was standing on a mountain on Earth when he created the Earth then that implies the fact that the world was already created. Thats not logical. And in Islam God created the world in 6 days.

    May 3, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  9. Dulcimer

    "God is too big for just one religion!".

    – Michael Franti.

    May 3, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • .

      .... or too small for any.

      May 3, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
  10. John McNair

    Who cares how his dead body is buried. Why is there so much fuss? Is US worried how the Islamic world is going to perceive this? Feed it the dogs. No man with common sense- Moslem or otherwise will care even if his reamins were fed to a dog.

    May 3, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  11. hope120


    May 3, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Moody

      No, we show respect where respect may not be expected. We show Love when the answer to it may be hatred because that is what we are called to do in that Bible they are burning. It has nothing to do with being frightened of anyone and everything to do with keeping our faith and integrity.
      Matthew 5:44

      May 3, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Lycidas

      Should we repay evil for evil?

      May 3, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Moody

      Justice and revenge are two different matters.

      May 3, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • .

      Personally, I like to think that we aspire to a higher level of behavior.
      What purpose would be served in treating a corpse badly? Nothing, except to show that we are a nation that takes out it's crude feeling on the dead.

      May 3, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  12. helllboy

    sea burial....then submarine retrieval?

    May 3, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  13. Robert Ore

    “In this case, the United States maintains that it could not find a country willing to take bin Laden’s body”
    “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”

    I would have gladly accepted the body and provided for his burial. Charged $1000 per visit, and question every “extremist” that passed through the gates. The National “do not fly list” would get pretty short, pretty quick.

    May 3, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Lycidas

      I am certain some Hamas led groups would have taken it.

      May 3, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  14. Osama bin Laden


    May 3, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  15. Osama bin Laden

    @HevenSent ...... Durka Durka .....

    May 3, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  16. Robert Ore

    Muslim? According to our Muslim brothers here in the U.S., OBL and his ilk do not represent the Muslim faith..

    May 3, 2011 at 3:33 pm |

    what's that stuff called that is chopped up and stinky that goes in a buckett that calles the sharks thats what should have been done to him and then let the sharks feed on him

    May 3, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • ejwejw


      May 3, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Zodnick

      The term is 'chum' and I like the way you think. Toss in a pork chop for good measure and you've got the right rescipe for that basterd.

      May 3, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  18. Sam Smith

    Muslims make up crap that suits them depending on what their stance of the day is, when he was alive 1/2 these nuts were saying he doesn't represent islam, now he's dead and tossed into the sea, he is the poster boy for islam, if they wanted to give him an islamic funeral to their liking they should have caught him and killed him themselves, rather than sheltering and hiding him for a decade.

    May 3, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Lycidas

      I doubt that the roughly 1 billion muslims out there look at him as a "poster child" for the faith.

      May 3, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  19. Jason J

    @ Muneef, You're right my friend you're right indeed.

    May 3, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  20. Muneef

    God is the Judge above all the judges,only he God knows what are the intentions in the heart of man, only he God knows if all the crimes accused of were really by the late or by his followers....or were just used as sin carriers by the conspiracy players....! Only God knows but can bet they have a new hotter leader to take over from the late for new ventures, this time it might be some one for North,South,East Asia since MidEast and North Africa being under control ?!?

    May 3, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Reality


      Again, there never was and never will be any angels i.e. no Gabriel, no Islam and therefore no more koranic-driven acts of horror and terror (and Muneef no longer needs to bow to Mecca five times a day).

      May 3, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • I'm saved

      This is the word of the prophet. ALL HAIL THE GREAT PROPHET REALITY!

      May 3, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Ed


      I can't tell from your post to you think Bin Laden was a good man or an evil man. I know only good knows for sure but you have an opinon what is it?

      May 3, 2011 at 5:01 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.