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. is3997

    Religion is a waste of time, He is dead already. Would they rather had him stuffed and put in the Rotunda. That shows true insensitivity and humor all at once .... a Bush /Cheney suggestion.

    May 9, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  2. h

    This is ridiculous, you talk about having religious literacy in your article, but if you were aware of the theology of AQ and their counterparts, going to shrines of the dead is strictly prohibited. In fact, the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed shrines that were above the ground over burial sites. This is because they were completely against grave worship, as well as idol worship (ITS THE FUNDAMENTAL TENET OF ISLAM: THE ONENESS OF GOD) Therefore you applaud religious literacy when you have NONE. The fact is, no 'radical Muslim' would visit or commemorate a shrine in such a way.

    May 9, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  3. To the pigs

    We should have smeared his coffin with pigfat.

    Or, buried him in a well-known place and had a sniper waiting for anyone showing up.

    May 8, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
    • DeathVader

      To the pigs
      Freaking awesome. Just like that. Love it.
      I'll bring my M40A1 to the burial site!

      May 9, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • Sam S

      YES!! The Golden rule of communication says to communicate the way YOU like to communicate. The better way is communicate in THEIR language. Feeding him to the pigs would be a way that all Muslims would understand. Hey if you don't want to go to Islamic hell by way of a Pig don't mess with us.

      May 12, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • Catherine

      Best comment ever.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
    • Javi


      May 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  4. Brandy

    Why is there so much censorship in the death of bin Laden for fear of offending anyone. This should not offend Muslims. Why should any respect be used in regards to this horrible excuse for a human being. I wonder why we have to use so much restraint in our language with the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither war has been against Muslims or the Muslim religion. It's been against Muslim extremism. Muslim should not be offended by us going after Muslim extremist unless they favored Muslim extremism.

    May 8, 2011 at 4:35 am |
    • Muneef


      Might be the fears of becoming a normal practice reaching whom ever saying a word....since a became some how to look like the Dubai killing of Hamas guy by Israel....

      May 8, 2011 at 8:37 am |
    • Anglican

      Brandy. Is always best to stay on higher ground.

      May 8, 2011 at 8:42 am |
    • Muneef


      Does that mean by the higher grounds is to live by higher morals and ethics or you meant it the opposite way that is "to Live and Not let Live". ?

      May 8, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  5. Muneef

    Capital Punishment:
    When is it Justified?
    [5:33] The just retribution for those who fight GOD and His messenger, and commit horrendous crimes, is to be killed, or crucified, or to have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or to be banished from the land. This is to humiliate them in this life, then they suffer a far worse retribution in the Hereafter.

    Actually that what they did they killed him as having committed horrendous crimes and banished him dead rather than alive from land into to the deeps of the Arabian Sea.
    So actually as seems there were two sentences applied on him rather than one?...one alive and one as dead...!

    May 7, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  6. James

    What is this propper burrial stuff! The helo should have headed straight to the sea and about 10,000 feet up, toss the body out for shark bait!!

    May 7, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • Muneef

      The proper burial for a martyr in compact is to bury him with out wash with his blood and the garments he was dressed with into grave before the elapse of the 24 hours from time of death.

      May 7, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
    • Reality


      The Seals should have kept him alive and then "deep-sixed" him at 10,000 ft to add to his his hell as he plunged to his demise as shark bait.

      May 8, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • Muneef


      From two posts above you can tell who has been honest with you respecting your inelegance, and that which has not been honest and disrespectful to your intelligence...

      May 8, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  7. qmcs

    Religion and population are the greatest threats to humanity. The hunger for more land, more money, more water, more power over your neighbors via religion will most certainly kill us all one day. Economies can not sustain their populations. Poverty grows, and that grows ignorance and fear where religion flourishes. Over population causes pollution, starvation, war, etc. We need to thin the herd and abolish religion. bin Laden is a good example of religion driving war and recruiting from the poor and ignorant.

    May 6, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • D

      oh, so your solution is to kill the unborn. perhaps, old people can sustain the economy. there would be no future generations to come.

      May 9, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  8. Sameer

    Hello every1,
    I request all to stop playing the blame-games. Plz show some respect to each other bcuz we are all humans & Humanity should be our primary religion. Islam, on the other hand, teaches many valuable teachings to mankind & if any person does not abide by God's law then that particular person is at fault not the religion. Ex: It would not be appropriate if we malign Christianity bcuz Hitler was a Christian but he massacred 6 millions Jews (This is worst in the history of mankind). Similarly, my non-muslim friends should also understand that its not appropriate to blame the religion of Islam if there is a lunatic who says he is a Muslim but does not follow the teachings honestly. If Almighty God wants, He can submerge all of us in this very land, He can order a greater Tsunami & wipe us all out but but He will never do that. Reason: Almighty is All Loving, Most Merciful & Oft Forgiving. This is the greatest quality that has been commanded by Almighty God to develop within us. We have to respect others even if we differ, we have to have a big heart to forgive the sinners. Then only we can be united as MANKIND...Ameen 🙂

    May 6, 2011 at 1:48 am |
  9. American Citizen

    bin Laden deserved no religious respect whatsoever. He deserved only disrespect.
    Islam also deserves no respect whatsoever. It, along with all other religions, deserve death.
    To those who are insulted by what I've said, You have NO right! Your beliefs are nothing but unworthy fantasies.

    May 6, 2011 at 1:13 am |
    • David

      Agreed, but sadly stupid people will always believe and do stupid things.

      May 9, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • D

      I'd rather believe in something than believe in nothing. It's dead end!!

      May 9, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  10. jedi

    speaking of iconoclasm, don't forget the Mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Great sphinx of Giza and in 2001 the Buddha of Bamyan- and how many Buddhist instigate riot and violence in the name of Buddhism in 2001 when the statue was demolished by the Taliban regime at that time. When Pastor Terry Jones burn the Quran these looneytoon(afghan Muslims) initiate attack on UN an NATO troops.

    May 6, 2011 at 12:14 am |
  11. jedi

    Yeah the US and the free world respect these people (like we should gave them proper burial) and when these people attack non-muslim or took over, what did they do to respect the other faith. Take example of Gaza: when these so-called Palestinian took over they burn down synagogue and is alright for them to demolish a Hindu temple in Malaysia while these looneys(Muslim) initiate riot when the Babri mosque was demolish in India in dec 1992. I know Christian also practice iconoclasm before Muslims but Right-wing Muslims/Islamist are the real global problem today.

    May 6, 2011 at 12:07 am |
  12. Darth Okier Lexor

    Darth Okier Lexor
    Al Qaeda must be destroyed....whatever it takes we must destroy this organization for the sake of humanity...if it means finding their top operatives and killing them in cold blood then so be it...we shall show them that america is as ruthless as they are. we should unite to remove this poison from earth....not just america but every nati0on should..osama got what he deserved two bullets...not silver ones..lol

    May 5, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
  13. Darth Okier Lexor

    Al Qaeda must be destroyed....whatever it takes we must destroy this organization for the sake of humanity...if it means finding their top operatives and killing them in cold blood then so be it...we shall show them that america is as ruthless as they are. we should unite to remove this poison from earth....not just america but every nati0on should..osama got what he deserved two bullets...not silver ones..lol

    May 5, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
  14. T-party

    I am agnostic towards all religions but I am informed. 1st time ever I heard that the proper burial for a muslim is @ sea. I guess Sadam his sons, the 100k plus Iraqis,Kuwaitis,Afgans and all the muslims we have killed in battle were buried @ sea.

    May 5, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • Darth Okier Lexor

      they f@@@ck with us that is what happens bro

      May 5, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  15. Rogue

    It's like having a Ph.D. in Dick and Jane books.
    Mr. Prothero, your position is a false one as a professor. You teach nonsense and lies, dogma and schizoid thinking, and call it education.
    I'm already well educated in discerning the difference between fantasy and reality, and I didn't need to take any classes to do so.
    While humoring delusional people might require some study of their particular delusions, it hardly qualifies as literacy in my book.

    May 5, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
    • Q

      With respect, I think one can distinguish between understanding and advocacy. A PhD studying mechanisms underlying the various manifestations of cancer isn't necessarily a "cancer supporter". To understand the central tenets of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc, etc, doesn't require one believe these tenets as "true". I agree it's all mythology, but still, we need professors versed in mythology who can communicate the culturally-relevant contexts within which these mythologies were born, have adapted/evolved and are sustained.

      May 5, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • Artist


      ......I agree it's all mythology, but still, we need professors versed in mythology who can communicate the culturally-relevant contexts within which these mythologies were born, have adapted/evolved and are sustained.
      So translation, we need some people who are able to speak to the delusional "natives". lol

      May 5, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • Rogue

      @Q – So you're saying we need people versed in nonsense who can communicate the cultural idiosyncrasies of that nonsense? Great. Have fun with that.

      May 5, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
    • Q

      @Artist and Rogue – In a word, yes. Again, there is a distinction between understanding a particular brand of mythology and embracing/endorsing it. And as Prothero points out, there are practical applications as well, e.g. the Sunni-Shia divide that eluded our elected and appointed officials when "reconstruction" plans were developed for Iraq. As for "having fun with that", well, it is fun to point out specific scriptural contradictions or to reference the antecedent mythologies from which more current and popular mythologies are drawn. Hitchens is terribly effective not because he's simply dismissed religion but because he's studied it.

      May 5, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
  16. Melo

    I think the only the Survivors and familys members of those kill and the first responders, Should be able to view the photos of Bin Laden....No one else ....that may give the some closure

    May 5, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  17. OneWhoKnows

    If we lack the conviction to to kill Osama Bin Laden in any way we see fit, then this country is lost. The man was a monster who killed over 3000 people. I don't care how he died, or if we treated his body with respect. Did victim after victim having his head sawed off on YouTube have their bodies treated with respect. In a war of ideas, strength is what leads to respect. In the case of America, despite our ability to kill with precision, I see fear and a lack of conviction that only emboldens our enemies to attack..

    May 5, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  18. Dyslexic Atheist

    @Stephen Prothero
    Don't be deceived, Mr. Prothero, by this a-tt-empted pol-it-ical white-wash of this "funeral". The level of ignorance concerning religious topics in your country is a-stounding. As others on the CNN blogs have pointed out, this ignorance is well d-o-c-u-mented in the many polls done by the Pew Research Center, on their web sites, as well as others. This ignorance extends to many other fields as well. I just read a study that showed 70-80% of Europeans think the Theory of Evolution is more correct than any of it's alternatives, while 30% of Americans think that. It must be VERY depressing to be an educator in a culture that is that ignorant.

    May 5, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • DL

      One of our smarter Americans once said: "There are lies, damn lies, and statistics." Mark Twain. Don't pretend to know us from a POLL, unless you enjoy looking like a fool.

      May 10, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  19. Rex Applegate

    Why does Prothero have a job with CNN? This is yet another shallow bit of non-thinking. If he had a clue, he would know:

    There was no chance bin Laden would be taken prisoner – a trial only gives him a years-long platform to the world to preach his gibberish.

    The stories of bin Laden being unarmed when he died are to let potential followers know that he did not achieve the highest level of Islamic heaven. The stories of a female human shield are to humiliate his legacy as well.

    They dumped him in the ocean so that there would be no place to be worshipped as his shrine. The Allies did the same with Nazi leaders after the war. They did NOT do it out of religious sensitivity – that is only something they came up with to sound good.

    Stephen Prothero has a very poor BS detector. Garbage in, garbage out.

    May 5, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • reality is in order

      Give me a break. The man was a mass murderer. He should have been put on a hook and fed to the fish.

      May 5, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • Rex Applegate

      You must have mant to respond to another post, because that made no sense whatsoever.

      May 5, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  20. Abdur Tawfeeq

    I Would Like To Say Osama Bin Mohammed Bin Awad Bin Laden Had A Wrongful Buried And Was Not Permissionable In The Islamic Faith. His Body Was Suppose To Be Wash By A Muslim Men And Wrap With A 3 Shrouds Not A Sheet! Then A Muslim Men ,Imam ,Shiek,Amair,Or a Muslim Leader Or knowledgeable Muslim Had To Preform And Lead The Janzah Prayer
    Osama Bint Laden Was Suppose To Be Buried In The Ground Not The Ocean It Is "Only"Premissioable To Buried The Body In The Ground If He Pass Away In The Ocean Then In The Muslim Faith You Have To Be Buried 24-72 Hours Of The Death Why Was It So A Rush To Dump Him In The Sea? Then Us America People Are On Tv Dancing And Drinking And Partying Over His Death But We Should Show Some Respect For His Kids Who Did Not follow In His Footsteps ! Then The Rumor About Osama Going To Hell Thats Only Up To God

    May 5, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • if its right for you to do its right for us to do

      your suggestion that we should show respect for his kids would hold mor clout if the people living in islamic nations had showed us respect when he attack us 10 years ago. I recall people in islamic nations all over the world dancing in the street, burning our flag, saying God is great,saying death to America. So you have no right to complain that we danced and cheered at the death of someone who atttacked us, when so many of you danced and cheered at the deaths of our innocent women and children in those towers. In short you danced first now its our turn at least we actually picked a villians death to dance for.

      May 5, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Humanist American

      Abdur Tawfeeq
      You are right, it was hurried. Were the right individuals involved in the burial I do not know, was the a shroud used and not a sheet I do not know. Hopefully these reports are ignorance of the media. I have to give a huge amount of credit to the US government though to going to the extent it did go. It is more than it may ahve done in the past. It is wrong for any person to celebrate the death of any human, regardless of the evils any person commits. So many college students celebrated the death of Osama Bin Mohammed Bin Awad Bin Laden without even really knowing who he was. The only thing they know is that he hated America. They did not understand that he was doing what he thought was right. He thought he was protecting Islam from Western influences. I in no way agreed with his decision or his philosophy. That does not make me his judge on his judgement day. His after life destination is to be decided only by his God.

      May 5, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • motown32

      He deserves NO respect whatsoever. He should have been fed to the dogs, but even they would be disgusted.

      May 5, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • I see your point

      I completely agree that only God knows our fate in the afterlife, who knows the secrets of our hearts.

      I believe that respect for a faithful Islamic burial was intended. It is unfortunate for a Muslim to die with no Imam for prayers, nor for all of the other proper treatment. Unfortunately, our American military SEALS team is so highly secretive, they could not invite cameras, an outside Imam, etc. That is what I think limited the proper treatment.

      Others have written plenty about why "at sea" instead of "on land". We are trying to navigate towards peace for as many people as possible, even if one body is not resting in the Earth.

      May 5, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • Darth Okier Lexor

      dude if it was a christian man that was buried by an islamic man....you would not be mad right now..at least our government showed him enough respect not to burn his body to ashes just like he burned thousands on 9 eleven...leave religion aside and try to respect the fact that we at least do that much for people....but this terrorist would go as far as cutting our heads off for what..for allah..no not for allah but for their own stupid ideology.....allah is God and we are all one in God!

      May 5, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • Darth Okier Lexor

      Darth Okier Lexor
      Al Qaeda must be destroyed....whatever it takes we must destroy this organization for the sake of humanity...if it means finding their top operatives and killing them in cold blood then so be it...we shall show them that america is as ruthless as they are. we should unite to remove this poison from earth....not just america but every nati0on should..osama got what he deserved two bullets...not silver ones..lolhhhh well looks like bin killed is really in hell

      May 5, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
    • jsaiditfirst

      My question is this: if he died at sea, perhaps in a ship incident in which the vessel sank with all hands and no bodies were ever recovered, what then, would be the state of his soul?

      The Heberw scriptures refer to She'ohl' as the common grave of man. The Greek scriptures uses Hai'des, Hell and Ge'en-na as a reference to that same place. I think its unimportant how, or where we perish, and, for that matter what we're "covered-in" because history has shown that the body decays away to nothing along with the clothes (if any) that we're wearing. And wouldn't it be a lack of true faith on our part to believe that the "Almighty" needs to have our bodies literally clothed in order that he can attend to us?

      The bible makes reference to every form of death that can occur, even for those dead at sea it says:
      "As for those dead in the sea, the bible clearly makes reference to them :And the sea gave up those dead in it, and death and Ha′des gave up those dead in them, and they were judged individually according to their deeds".

      Men, women, children, animals, we all go to the same place
      "For as respects whoever is joined to all the living there exists confidence, because a live dog is better off than a dead lion. 5 For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten"--(Eccl 9:4,5)

      The good man Job even asked to be hidden in "Hell" (tucked safely away from his misery and tormentors)-(Job 14:15) So, if Hell, Haides, Sheohl or Genna were these terrible places of immense eternal torture, then why would the man have asked to be hidden away there until Gods appointed time?

      With respects to his burial at sea, no one could be so foolish as to think that it was done as an act of respect to the man. He's guilty, based upon an accusation by the world in general of having committed atrocities against mankind, and as such was subject to the penalties that such a crime warrents. The matter of Osama Bin Laden is in Gods hands now.

      May 7, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • David

      Oh, I guess you forgot he was a mass murdering maniac that killed about 3,000 U.S. citizens. I hope they didnt give him a proper burial, I hope they fed him to the sharks out at sea. Your respect for a mass murderer is like respecting Hitler for killing jewish people in the holocaust. Your sick.

      May 9, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Commander554

      Alright, they didn't respect his religion right. But they tried! Not to mention he didn't really deserve an honorary burial.

      May 9, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • Neil

      he's in hell where he belongs, so it doesn't matter how he was buried.

      May 9, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Sanjosemike

      Humanist American said: " That does not make me his judge on his judgement day. His after life destination is to be decided only by his God."

      sanjosemike responds: As far as I know, most Humanists do not believe in god. So I'm a bit confused about why you call yourself a "humanist." Maybe you prefer being a Christian. I think that's fine. (Not that you should care what I think).

      But please don't call yourself a humanist. You confuse us simple mortals.

      May 11, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • Sanjosemike

      Abdur Tawfeeq said this: "We Should Show Some Respect For His Kids Who Did Not follow In His Footsteps !"

      sanjosemike responds: That's the first time I ever heard a Muslim with a logical comment. My congratulations.

      May 11, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • pjoe

      Ahhh well. Whatever. On to more important things ... popcorn!

      May 18, 2011 at 12:10 am |
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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.