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. Ben

    He is no martyr. He is crab food

    May 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  2. Muneef

    Interesting site although not related to the blog subject but could be a source of informations related to the Holy Quran....

    May 4, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  3. Muneef

    An Arabian Proverb states that "The worst of all disasters is the One that makes laugh...admit many might have laughed out first out of disbelieve that such kids  is said to have pulled such unbelievable act to such A Country with such tight Security ...then again have laughed in disbelieve of what might happen as a reaction for that pulled act which serves no Arabian nor a Muslim country but rather it served those who want certain accounts or references to burn down or to shake the trade for certain immediate gains or for gains that might result out of the reaction that will follow...

    To find out the truth you have to find out who had benefited from those attacks against the twin towers....?! It would never be by any ordinary men but it would rather be by those on the tiptop of (Finance&Power) to pull such act either towards making immediate financial or political gains or for hiding their crimes by making another crime....       

    The biggest proof to that was killing him with any chance of court hearing to his words of defense or finding him guilty of all charges they made us hear over the years...so they chance to close the chapter....

    [40:44] "Some day you will remember what I am telling you now. I leave the judgment of this matter to GOD; GOD is the Seer of all the people."

    May 4, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  4. Tural

    wow... quite a lot of ignorance. from both sides...
    my fellow Muslims. please keep in mind that whenever you're expressing your PERSONAL rage and trying to pass it on as yous professional Islamic interpretation, you're making everybody else hate us... as i read above, some people actually think that our religion is based on hatred. please take responsibility in your contribution to this thought, as you will have to answer for it in judgment day.
    speak facts and the words of the book, not what you wish it meant. just repeating what you've "heard" is enough to make a liar out of you.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:11 am |
    • AD

      Tural, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon you and the members of your household. Salam

      May 4, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
  5. Tural

    better research some more... martyrs go directly to paradise? i don't think so.

    May 4, 2011 at 5:59 am |
  6. mai mai biri

    if they dont follow the rules of burial it will cause turmoil on muslims, creating even more hatred, dont just say something about burning because its forbidden for us, even the most dangerous living has his own proper burial, now because of this is just like telling no show no respect to other religion, why did your bible thought you that or it wasn,t mention in it, why you really thinks this do you think you are the only people in this world

    May 4, 2011 at 12:20 am |
  7. Madinah

    Finger puppet, the soul belongs to Allah that is the truth and you can't add nothing to that.

    May 3, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
    • Reality


      Eliminating the pox that is Islam in less than 25 words:

      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.

      May 3, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
    • Dave Hethermann

      25 words? I can name that tune in 3 words:

      Religion is bullsh!t

      May 4, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Reality


      That also covers the situation.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • AD

      Reality/Dave...Salam (peace). No one can change your belief except Allah. On the day of resurrection, we will all know the truth. We will know if there are indeed Angels and paradise....and if Islam was from Allah (God). Unfortunately, the hell fire awaits those who do not worship Allah and do good on earth on the day of resurrection except they have a change of heart and repent before their death. Research, read, study, find knowledge and most of all pray to God that created us all for guidance. if it is HIS wish, HE will guide you to the right path. There is no need for hate or inciting words. I wish you peace (Salam)

      May 4, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  8. Madinah

    Finger puppet the reason their was no "panic" room is because none of this is true. All of this is a bunch of "lies" why haven't they shown a picture of Osama's body? because this is not true. This is a cover "up" nothing else. They are fooling them selves.

    May 3, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  9. NJjim

    Bin Laden get a much better burial than all the suicide martyrs he sent to their deaths.

    The Madinahs of the world will hate us no matter what we do. Their true religion is hatred and ignorance. There is a video of bin Laden talking about the planning for the 9/11 attack and they still deny his involvement.

    May 3, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • Madinah

      The United States they are the terrorist no-one ever come here to harm the people, they created this lie to attack the muslims. The United States goes all over the world attacking the muslim countries. Whatever you do will come back to you, (wrong or right), do whatever you want but you will not get away with it. Simple as that.

      May 3, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • AD

      Madinah, you can choose to ignore or educate when people generalise and call muslims terrorists. put yourself in the shoes of non-muslims, you will probably say the same if you were not muslim. reality is we have had people orchestrate violence in the name of islam. this has created hatred all over the world. so we have to live with this hate....but we can choose to show people the true essence of islam by preaching peace in the face of adversity and persecution....remember the Holy Prophet of islam did not go to war against the idolators of quraysh until after 13 years of persecution. he emigrated to medinah and continued to preach a message of peace and believe in one God only until Allah commanded him to raise an army and fight the idolators of quraysh until persecution was no more in the land. Salam (peace) to all

      May 4, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  10. Madinah

    Finger puppet the burden of proof lies with you. Seems to me you should be the one to prove Osama bin Laden had anything to do with 9/11. How was he responsible for hijacking not one – but four-airplanes in the United States, that's impossible. When you tell one – lie you are going to tell another and keep telling lies untill you reach your end completely. You will then pay the price. You are the dumb, Idiot and you are a sucker to believe everthing you are told like your mind is simple.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Finger Puppet

      Sorry, I don't talk to idiots. I will point out one thing. The burden of proof is NOT what you were talking about. You said he was with Allah. THAT is what I asked you to prove. Since you have offered none, as I stated above, you obviously can"t. You either can't read, or can't follow a two sentence thought. As for the rest of the nonsense in your post, it is beneath contempt, and I won't waste my time even thinking about it. (BTW, there are plenty of confessions of your friends which more than prove what others have said about him.). I don't really care about it, one way or another. He's dead and gone forever.

      May 3, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
    • AD

      Madinah...i am a muslim. There is no need insulting other people for whatever reason. We all need to get along irrespective of religion. There is so much hatred in the world right now and we need to change this.

      Bin Laden was a terrorist. Muslims are not terrorist whether the people of the book believe it or not. Truth is people like Obama have done more harm to Islam than any other living being with their methods and ideology. Many people will not become muslims today because of people like Bin Laden unfortunately. It is wrong to argue that Bin Laden did not mastermind 9/11. He never denied it and clearly all evidence points at his doorstep. Muslims also died during 9/11 and even if muslims were not part of the dead, the Quran says killing a person unjustly is like killing the whole of mankind and the hell fire is a sure bet for such an individual. People who kill other people via suicide bombing are going to hell as Islam teaches us because you cant kill yourself other any condition. Bin laden promoted and funded such acts. He was Shaitan on earth and without any doubt whatsover will be in the hell fire on the day of resurrection.

      For the rest of us muslims, lets teach those of us who have gone astray and invite them back to Islam....and lets by our practices invite the people of the book into the world of Islam because that is the only guarantee of paradise...as we worship only one God (Allah)...the God of Abraham (ASW), the God of Noah (ASW), the God of Jacob (ASW), the God of Joseph (ASW), the God of Moses (ASW), the God of Jesus (ASW) and the God of Mohammed (SAW). Peace to you all....Asalam Alaikum

      May 4, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • AD

      sorry an error on my post....i meant people like Osama......not Obama. pls accept my apologies. I have no hatred against Obama. he is a good man. Osama Bin Laden has done more harm to Islam than any other living being.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
    • MADinah

      @AD..yes perhaps, muslims are not terrorists, but Bin Laden and Madinah are.

      May 5, 2011 at 7:13 am |
  11. Madinah

    whatudeserve you are one of the biggest devil on this earth and you don't even know yourself. You are nothing but a piece of Hell.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
  12. DoubleWW

    Does it freakin' MATTER? The creep is dead, deceased, finito, gone up the spout, extremely RIP! He's shark bait! If there were such a thing as a resurrection, he'd have to collect his bits off the sea bottom with tweezers and a sponge before he could appear for judgment!

    May 3, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
  13. Hasko van Dalen

    Who made the biggest mistake of the century to burry Osama at sea? Now all conspirancy theories will go on for years.

    May 3, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  14. DoubleWW

    OBL did his best to create a hell on earth. If I were a religious man, I would hope he found one in the hereafter.

    May 3, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • sailormom

      i'm sure Satin waited for him with open arms.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  15. André

    So terrorists' bodies are treated by the US in a way so as to ensure they reach Heaven according to their beliefs. Not much of a deterrent for other extremists is it?

    May 3, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • airwx

      We have buried our enemy's fighters with dignity since the Revolution. Why change now?

      May 3, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • Dave Hethermann

      Not totally true, airwx. In World War II, the usual practice was to bulldoze Ja panese casualties into hastily dug mass graves, with no services whatsoever. The same happened at the end of the first Gulf War with the Republican Guards, and on many other occasions. Really, the only time our enemies got dignified burials was in there were enemy prisoners to do the burials.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  16. tsotsoo

    He should rot in HELL for all i care, did he ever give others a chance? Some bodies of his atrocities were never found or identified for loved ones to say their goodbyes. He should have been fed to PIGS

    May 3, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • Roo

      That wouldn't have been fair to the pigs.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:21 am |
  17. Humhum Hayaha

    Explanations aside, it's evident a close group around Obama decided the fate of his body. I don't think it was the smartest decision dumping his body at sea, it'll just make Muslims hate the US all the more. They should have handed over his body to the Saudis and let them decide what to do with it; the excuse that Saudi wanted nothing to do with him is contrary to what they've been saying all along, that he's a criminal and should be brought to justice, dead or alive. Part of that justice involves dealing with a body. Jesus' body was never recovered and look how many followers he has – not that Osama can be compared to Jesus.

    May 3, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Madinah

      Humhum Hayaha they did not kill Jesus (Isa) and he was not crucified either, Allah lifted him up to live with the angels.

      May 3, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
  18. name

    anyone like tacobell, i sure do

    May 3, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  19. name

    your all right

    May 3, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  20. Andrew

    He should have been dumped down the nearest pit toilet where appropriate judgement could be passed on him.

    May 3, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
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