May 5th, 2011
10:29 AM ET

My Take: Sea burial shows U.S. religious literacy

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

A few years ago, I wrote a book decrying religious illiteracy in the U.S. population and in the U.S. government. Since that time, I have tried to demonstrate the huge cost of our ignorance of Islam in Iraq, Afghanistan and the wider Muslim world.

So it is only fair to acknowledge when U.S. officials demonstrate real religious literacy, as they have done with the death and burial of Osama bin Laden.

Over the last generation, American diplomatic and military actions overseas have been hurt by a woefully shallow understanding of Islam. Whether you were for or against U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, you had to admit that in each case Americans went into a country whose language they did not speak and whose culture they did not understand.

Our lack of understanding of Islam’s Sunni-Shia split, for example, cost us dearly in both wars.

As I watched the story of bin Laden’s death unfold Sunday night, I was preoccupied with the question, “What are they going to do with the body?”

If they buried it in a marked grave, that grave would almost certainly become a pilgrimage destination for Islamic extremists worldwide — a Mecca to Islamist martyrdom. If they buried it in an unmarked grave, dozens of such sites would likely turn up, each claiming to house the sacred relics of the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. And if they desecrated the body in any way, there would be hell to pay not only among bin Laden’s supporters, but also in the wider Muslim world.

Prothero: Burying bin Laden at sea an elegant solution

I was hoping against hope that people in the Obama administration had been considering these implications. And apparently they were.

At some point between the moment this special operation was planned and the moment it was completed, U.S. officials went to the trouble to learn that when a Muslim dies, the body is washed, wrapped in a white cloth and buried. They also learned that prayers are said over the body before it is laid to rest.

U.S. officials then put this education into action in a manner that was both in keeping with Islamic customs and in U.S. national interests.

Everything they did underscored a point former President Bush and President Obama have made repeatedly: that the United States is at war not with Islam but with terrorism.

By giving bin Laden’s body a burial in the Arabian Sea, they prevented his followers from turning any specific site into a sacred place where they could visit his body and dedicate their own bodies to his cause. But by giving him a proper Islamic burial, they showed respect for Islam.

Muslims will of course disagree about whether a sea burial was proper in this case. From an Islamic perspective, land burial is clearly preferable, but burial at sea is allowed in exceptional cases. The only question here is whether this was sufficiently exceptional.

What is not up for debate, however, is the fact that in this case the Obama administration and the U.S. military demonstrated real religious literacy.  They should be commended for that, as well as for tracking down Osama bin Laden.

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

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Death • Islam • Islamic law • United States

soundoff (282 Responses)
  1. Just.Me

    It's a question for me as to whether the body they buried at sea was actually Bin Laden. But I'm glad in a way with Bin Laden gone and the 9/11 issue is finally closed for many of the grieving families.

    August 17, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  2. blahblah

    Stephen Prothero, you don't understand anything about Islam. It's clearly forbidden in Islam to visit graves to pray to them or dedicate our bodies to them. Prophet Mohammed(pbuh) in Medina ,who is the greatest person in Islam, we don't visit his grave. Instead if we pass in front of his grave we just say"Peace be upon you" and "God bless you". The only people who visit graves are Suffis or Shi'ites and Osama Bin Laden is Sunni. Please don't twist the truth.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  3. scott

    General MacArthur before WWII convicted 10 terrorist to hanging in the Philippians. During the hanging they threw pig blood on them so that they would not go to paradise. There was not a single terrorist attack for 50 years in the Philippians. Sometimes America does not need to play nice and politically correct.

    July 11, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • sabri

      so americans with guns on philippine land and it's the philippinos who are the terrorists.amazing logic

      July 25, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  4. BillnTed

    Love the moronic, limited comments made by limited people.

    He was a mass-murderer yes. He deserved confinement or death apparently he was given a choice and chose the latter.

    As far as I'm concerned the man's debt was settled, he is straight with the house and for that he was given a proper burial in accordance with the burial customs of his religion.

    Desecrating his body lowers us to the standards of the terrorist being decried in this forum. If you honestly feel that way, you're no better than the terrorist who desecrate the dead.

    June 29, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  5. Wooow.

    9/11 is a big mystery, it's just easy to point fingers. This death was bogus too.

    June 10, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  6. Iqbal khan



    June 4, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
    • BillnTed

      You cannot be serious? What is wrong with you??!!?

      June 29, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  7. James Black


    June 2, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  8. Felix1877

    To fight against terrorism led us to commit a family massacre in front of their children and drag their dead bodies again in front of their children, in their family home and famous celebrations over it in the States too. This reminds me of archeological findings about Neanderthals who had funeral ceremonies, burying their dead with flowers and that they took care of injured individuals between 60 and 80,000 years ago.

    May 28, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • DMcK

      How about – it reminds you of how muslims danced in the streets as 3000 died in twin towers?

      May 28, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Felix1877

      Am I a persona non grata anymore, dear CNN? Why my postings doesn't appear?

      May 31, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  9. Ayman Fadel

    This burial did not represent "US religious literacy." It was a statement that the United States doesn't trust Pakistan to dispose of a corpse, and the governments of Pakistan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia don't have enough internal support to make decisions in anything, including disposal of a corpse.


    May 28, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • Moe H'ommed

      Exactly why are you weighing in on the burial of a mass murderer?

      May 28, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  10. Mace

    O come on silly...if we really wanted to show our religious literacy, we should have put his butt on trial and exposed his deviant Islamic ideologies and the violence, death and tribulations his nonsense has caused the world. Then, we should have allowed the Muslims to kill him the same way we did Saddam Hussein. There would have been a long line of Orthodox (Sunni) and Shia Muslims willing to weild the axe so to speak.

    May 27, 2011 at 11:29 pm |
    • DMcK

      TOO many kidnappings & bomb threats would have happened in order to demand Osama set free. Couldn't take him as a captive. And the fish were hungry.

      May 28, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • tom

      fellow sypathers , one minit please . Any one who given birth in this world is eligible for 6 feet land . Any one who denied that right is a DEVIL . BINLADEN WAS A DEVIL SO HE DENIED HIS BIRTH RIGHT . Look through your faith ,all this cruvelty around the world are based on your faith . WHEN JESUS FOUND A DEVIL POSSED MAN . WhAT THE DEVIL DID? JUMPED TO THE SEA AND DIED . So any faith, do not have kindness to the CREATION , DO NOT HAVE A RIGHT IN THIS WORLD > > THIS IS WHAT ALL TERRORIST SHOULD BE GIVEN . A INTERNATIONAL PUNISHEMENT AWARDED BY UN CHARTER .

      May 29, 2011 at 3:37 am |
  11. Dr. M. M. Abdullah

    As a first time reader, I was extremely impressed with your article. I concur wholeheartedly that the key to dealing effectively with people of different cultures is to arm yourself with an understanding of that culture and take the culture and people into consideration when making decisions.

    May 27, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  12. jim

    Could he swim?

    May 27, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  13. Doug DeLong

    Well, if were only true I would agree with the author but unfortunately it is not. Obama and Bush kept the long dead BinLaden as Madelyn Albright described in a 2004 interview "on ice" waiting for just the right moment to boost political ratings. Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2002. The entire nearly decade long hunt for him has been a total farce, a falsehood. His death photo? A poorly photoshopped attempt to continue to lie to Americans. After having worked for, donated to and voting for Obama in 2008 I now totally am ashamed that I voted for him. It is interesting that the BinLaden "big kill' happened the Sunday after the alternative media began really pointing out that Obama's birth certificate was a fraud. Seems like the White House needs to really hire some better Photoshop people.

    May 26, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  14. Dave

    Well, it looks like this joker professor of religion does not know what he was talking about when he wrote this piece as the Muslims decry burial at see except when one dies on the sea and it is impractical to get the body to land within 24 hours.
    I know it has been said before but everything I ever needed to know about Islam and Muslims, I learned on 9/11. 'Nuf said!

    May 24, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • Micah

      Everything I needed to know about Christians and Christianity I learned from the Bosnian genocide. Everything I needed to know about Hindus and Hinduism I learned on December 6, 1992.

      Dave, what an arrogant and idiotic statement.

      May 28, 2011 at 4:15 am |
    • Debunking the REAL Myths

      Then in the same logic:
      All I have learned that i need to know about atheist I have learned on these boards.

      May 29, 2011 at 3:50 am |
  15. ohcarolina

    I think Obama did a great job and it was handled with class from start to finish. I don't think Bush could have done the job.
    I couldn't be more proud with our president and our special forces.
    Carry on with your conspiracy theory's and mis-quoting the bible folks.

    May 24, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
    • Dave

      Well, it looks like this joker professor of religion does not know what he was talking about when he wrote this piece as the Muslims decry burial at see except when one dies on the sea and it is impractical to get the body to land within 24 hours.
      I know it has been said before but everything I ever needed to know about Islam and Muslims, I learned on 9/11. 'Nuf said!

      May 24, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
  16. Robert E, Maples, Roswell, NM

    Wrong: what is not up for debate is – Is God one – or will he and the lesser man-made gods negociate at some round table discussion. Jehovah does not share is creativity, his power, his Son, or His Holy Spirit. Indeed, God is ONE because God is – period. Any other god, including Allah, Muhammad, Buddha, Baal, or whoever, is no more God than the pencil I hold in my hand. "One Lord, one faith, one God and Father of all." I'm curious as to why we never bothered to give Hitler, Tojo, or Muselini a proper burial in order to appease their gods. Too bad they were never introduced to Jesus.

    May 24, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • veggiedude

      The abrahamic faiths have the same one god. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all related to each other. BTW, the Buddha is not a god – get educated.

      May 26, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Wingrider

      Then if God is one, He created all of us, we are all children of this one Father. He is perfect, so loves us all perfectly and equally, no matter what we call him. Be it Allah, Jehovah, or Jesus, doesn't really matter. My biological father answers to many names, Dad, Pop, Father, or anything else. Why does God need to love one religion better thatn the rest?

      May 27, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • scott

      God of Christianity sent Jesus to make way for you to go to heaven.
      Allah says do the 5 pillars of faith and you may make it into paradise.
      Totally different gods

      July 11, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  17. Remy

    Am I the only one that is absolutely dumfounded as to why they supposedly buried this guy at sea less than 10 hours after alledgedly killing him. We have been looking for him for 10 years and it has cost us hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of soldiers!! What was the rush to get rid of his body?!! Then you don't show the photos? Come on something stinks big time.
    Not one news channel questioned any of these insane actions and excuses. What happened to being the eyes and ears of the people. The media covered this up by not asking any hard questions, the just went with the official story, none of which makes any sense. Where is Osama Bin Laden? He damned sure is not buried at sea!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    May 24, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Richard Conn Henry

      I think Islam requires burial within 24 hours. Am I wrong?

      May 24, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • jumpbigr

      Remy I totally agree with you. What was such the HUGE rush in burying him, let alone washing his terrorist, killing, stinking a-s and then wrapping him in a white sheet or white muslin hahaha no pun intended and then what did they do? Did they slide him into the sea or did 1 soldier take his head and the other take his feet and heeved hoed him off the ship. Gotta love this world. ALso if your curious about something you should google REX84 that will open your eyes

      May 24, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Vesstair

      I think I can answer that.

      "Because even though it would be fun to be able to p!$$ on his grave, doing it any other way would have caused people to die... including our soldiers. Do you want more soldiers to die?"

      May 24, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Bill

      By giving him eternal rest in the Arabian sea showed consideration for Islam, if we were against the religion of Islam we would have done to him what the Islamic extreamists have done to our service members, strip them nude and drag them through the streets and then hang their bodies in public for passers by to throw stones and garbage at. But I can only hope that someone took the time to place a nice peice of salt pork in his mouth before they sang anchors aweigh.

      May 24, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  18. Dave

    Wouldn't it have been better to bury him at a grave site? Then we could rig it with IED's that go off when his misguided followers gather around it?
    Just an idea....I know it's too late now.

    May 24, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • jumpbigr

      I commend you Dave for your honesty and fantastic idea

      May 24, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  19. Nick

    This is the type of Al-CIA-duhh propaganda the Council on Foreign Relations tries to pass off as news. I keep reading that Osama really died ten years ago of Marfan Syndrome, but it's not that important. 9/11 was a False Flag that couldn't have been carried out without the cooperation of several intelligence organizations.

    May 24, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • JohnQuest

      It all seems pretty odd to me too. None of this makes any sense.

      May 24, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • VA

      Poor Nick, you are either trying to be a funny guy (sorry it's not working) or you are genuinely detached from reality.

      May 24, 2011 at 2:06 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.