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. Larry

    I am not sure Jesus lived in reality. But he was a communist.

    May 11, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
  2. alsharmuta

    who cares how he was buried, if is for me, i just burned him alive, US was very decent and thrat him so well. They do not even touch their children, the future terrorist when my kids will be grown up, not even the sharmutas inside the house suffers, only the idiot that give her life for that criminal he did so much damage and muslims celebrates that, with him. they are all one, it is a lie that they are not together in this, even the ones in your territory. be like France and Germany says, if you want to be here in our home then you have to follow our rules if not then go to your place. It is time for the US to begin to close their doors, stop giving scholarships to those ungrateful people give it to your own people.

    May 11, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  3. mr

    All I can say from an australian point of veiw Is....... God bless America......... Bin Laden got he what he sowed An eye for an eye A tooth for a tooth .......Disposing his body in the ocean was the best thing that could have happened I just feel sorry for the little fishes

    May 11, 2011 at 9:30 pm |
  4. True Justice

    The real Terrorists are the perpetrators-none other than the American Government and The US Military. Why did the USA go into Iraq in the first and 2nd Gulf War? None other than oil and their own selfish interests! The US Military massacred over 1 million Iraqis and hundreds of thousands of Afghanis..all in the name of fighting Terror-my a@#!!....911 was a true tragedy that unfortunately gave the USA an excuse to flex their muscles in any part of the world and to get the green light to do whatever they deem necessary , especially in the Muslim World!!
    It is time that Muslims, Christians, and Jews learn to live with one another and respect the rights and freedoms of each other !! no exceptions...

    May 11, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  5. Jim

    Anyone who doesn't like him being buried at sea is welcome to swim out and bring him back up.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  6. asf

    -burying-bin-laden-at-sea-an-elegant-solution...where do you come up with these headlines?...if this the new american justice system??? how are we any better then bin laden? my 4 year old would react in the same manner ! no matter how horrible the crime you are put on trial! that is the justice system of the western world...since when do we legally permit killing people without trial???? even if they are obviously guilty, there is a process that must be followed or we are degrading or own system, our foundation! I hope we get another JFK in one day...Obama, sadly, is a muppet ...

    May 11, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
    • mr

      Bin Laden didnt derseve nothing but a bullet,,,,,,,,,,,,, Well done Obama........... About time this crazy killer is dead

      May 11, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  7. marco

    "Y'all gonna make me go all out, up in here, up in here.
    Y'all gonna me me act a fool up in here, up in here"

    "Daaaaaance the night away"

    "I wanna rock & roll alll night, and party ev-ery day!"

    Whatever your musical taste....Bin Laden's dead and it's time for a PARTY OF THE CENTURY!!!

    May 11, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  8. Kevin

    Well, ACCORDING TO SAINT SEAN HANNITY, "WE SPENT 45 MINUTES WASHING AND WRAPPING HIS BODY in WHITE LINEN" and on, and on.....trying to find "fault" in this operation.....I agree, this was an "elegant solution" to what would most certainly have been a sacrilege to the Muslim world...
    I'm GLAD our President has some "Professorial" sensibilities, and not the "Donald Trump" approach to handling things...But Oh Yeah, this was ALL George Bush's plan come to fruition....I forgot....OBAMA had nothing to do with it....Yeah..right..

    May 11, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  9. myoleman

    No need to exacerbate more violence and have more people killed. The President showed great wisdom in his actions.

    May 10, 2011 at 9:53 pm |
  10. Reporter8675309

    The President should have taken the body into military custody and placed it on ice until further notice. This was America's #1 enemy and that memorial looked as if a hero or high-ranking USA military leader was being laid to rest. I disagree with the President's decision about that matter but praise him for the "Go" on Operation Geronimo.

    Whatever the USA does is always criticized by those too weak or empowered to do what needs to be done themselves. We said we would get him and we got him. Islam would not have been disrespected by not laying Osama's body to rest because, from what moderate Muslims say, Bin Laden was disrespecting Islam for his radical views and interpretations of the Quran.

    The Americans didn't give Hitler a memorial service when we pulled his body from the bunker. . .and the Germans (nor the rest of the world) criticized it that lack of "respect" for his remains. . .

    May 10, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Yaya

      Of what memorial do you speak?? I didn't realize there was a televised showing of the 'memorial'. Please enlighten........

      May 11, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Sanjosemike

      Reporter, actually it was the Russians who "pulled Hitler out of his grave." It helps to know history before you actually quote an opinion on it. Nobody knows exactly what happened to Hitler's body, but Stalin ordered it exumed and burned and "whatever" several times. Americans had nothing to do with it.

      May 11, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  11. Linda

    I agree with the author, it was a brilliant way to handle the situation....
    Other than that, there's a joke going around about the new "special" at the bars and restaurants since most of the planet seems so happy to have him gone "2 shots and a splash of water"...

    May 10, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  12. DL

    I'm tired of being told we're not respecting Islam.
    And isn't calling another site "Mecca" sorta rude to Islam if you're going down that road?

    PS: 6 Military Arabic translators were fired for being Gay; once again religion doing a bang up job bringing peace to the world.

    Still happy Osama dead though.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  13. omegarising

    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.

    This is EXACTLY why we should have buried him in a marked grave. Wait until they all gather together and one small ICBM. BAM! Good riddance 😉

    May 10, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  14. Adelina

    Americans respect everyone and everything but Christian. No pagan will respect America because no one respects anyone who scorns their own parents or heritage. American ignorance on Christianity is the worst problem, but hedonists cannot have a clue on any religion anyway.

    May 10, 2011 at 6:01 am |
    • Sanjosemike

      Geez, Adelina, as usual your post makes no sense at all. Are you saying we are not "Christian" enough to suit you? Are you a final arbitor of the adequacy of our "Christianity?" Hmmm..who appointed you in that exalted position?

      What if there are some people who are NOT Christians? I realize that may shock you, but there are some Americans who are not. Try to get over it.

      May 11, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • Tired old aged middle class American


      May 18, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  15. Nate (Seattle, WA)

    Prothero also clearly does not understand a thing about Islam. Muslims do not get buried at sea. That just doesn't happen.

    May 10, 2011 at 1:04 am |
    • RDKirk

      If any Muslim nation had a blue-water navy, they'd have to start burials at sea. What alternately could have been done is that the body could have been burried in an unmarked grave in an undisclosed location...which is quite traditional (it's how King Faisal, for instance, was buried).

      May 10, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Sanjosemike

      OK, please supply us with your research and expertise on this subject. I admit that I am not an expert on Islamic burial theology, and wouldn't post that I am. Enlighten us...Oh great one!


      May 11, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  16. Jean

    There is no way this could have been handled that would have made anyone 100% happy. No matter how OBL body was taken care of someone would have had something to say about it. No matter how his body was handled the outcome is the same. He is DEAD!
    Thank you Seals!!!!!! THANK YOU!

    May 9, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
  17. Srosenzweig

    How do you know they respectfully treated the body according to Islamic rites? Were you there? Have you seen footage of this happening? Should we believe this story because the government says so? How do we even know he's been killed?

    May 9, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
    • Mike

      You are calling our Navy liars. Shame on you for being a typically unpatriotic right wing nut job.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:46 am |
    • T

      the rumor i'm starting is that they staged his death and he is now in a prison directly under ground zero being tortured for every life he has affected in this world. they have told him he is in hell and that instead of 72 virgins giving him every pleasure in heaven, 72 virginians are giving him every pain in hell. sounds plausible to me...

      May 10, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Kwabena

      You are correct, and that's the same thought I had. This article was written quite hastily. However, I do indeed OBL is dead. And also the U.S. is definitely NOT “religious literate." The author is clearly from another planet, and a better one I must add.

      May 11, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  18. Dr. Turi

    Indeed as incredible as it may "read" OBL death and sea "burial" was fully predicted dated / printed and published 01.01.10 in my book to the day!

    Dr. Turi

    May 9, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
    • Mike

      Anyone with a brain could have predicted that a sensible US President would have ordered this. I have heard many, many rational and intelligent people say this was the only solution. I don't think President Obama thought this up at the last second, I am am sure it was always part of his plan should such an opportunity arise.

      Had a Dick Cheney type been in power all sorts of serious damage could have been done in the name of the Old Testament that the right wing in the USA follow. There is an old saying about not pouring water on an oil fire. This is what we avoided with common sense.

      May 10, 2011 at 5:45 am |
    • What about

      It was a great way to dispose of OBL body and keep in line with Islam. @David... The old testament has nothing to do with how Cheney or his cronies would have dealt with this. The lack of morals and good common sense would!

      OBL's death, I am sure, has not only allowed westerners to rest but I am sure some that practice his proclaimed faith as well. Human beings are sometimes good and sometimes bad but not one group can claim to be better than the other. There have been some pretty bad people who proclaimed to be god loving and fearing.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • Sanjosemike

      Mike said: "Had a Dick Cheney type been in power all sorts of serious damage could have been done in the name of the Old Testament that the right wing in the USA follow."

      sanjosemike responds: Dick Cheney would not select me to defend him. As I see it, he is about the most hated person in America. That said, Cheney has not publicly taken a position on the burial of bin Laden, to my knowledge. We don't know if he agrees with the sea burial (following Islamic traditions) or not. Let's give him the benefit of a doubt on this, OK?

      May 11, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Chris

      Besides being off topic, it's kind of cheesy to use a discussion forum to promote yourself, don't you think?

      May 14, 2011 at 2:25 am |
  19. Fletch

    Proper water burial in a giant toilet bowl would have been more appropriate!

    May 9, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  20. Tired old aged middle class American

    I wonder if the Muslim terrorists stayed up all night on 9/10 asking themselves,"Yes, we can do this, but aren't the Americans going to be very upset because we didn't give our victims a proper burial? It might just inflame them."

    I wonder if it bothered the Muslim terrorists when they hung the bodies of the Americans on the bridge in Iraq?

    Did they ask themselves,"Hmmmm is this the way to treat a Christian's body? Maybe we shouldn't do this this way.We might inflame the Americans"

    They have no regard whatsoever for what happens to the bodies of Americans.

    Respecting Bin Ladin's body in any way is an insult to Americans, and especially so to all of the families who lost loved ones on 9/11, and our military heroes both alive and deceased.

    Should one of our SEALS been killed in the Bin Laden raid, and his fellow seals not been able to retrieve the body, how do you think the body would have been treated?

    You will notice that the people who made the decisions on the body were the ones that were sitting in cushy offices in Washington watching the big screens, and not the ones on the battlefield.

    It's time that a few decision makers in Washington found an ounce of courage somewhere and stopped cowtowing to terrorists out of a fear that they will inflame them.

    They're ALREADY inflamed.

    That's why they attacked America.

    Have we forgotten what our CHRISTIAN BIBLE says?

    "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."

    May 9, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • John Pedant

      "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."

      Not but what the wine-dark sea has room for the terroirists (should they wish to shun terra firma and "decidicate their own bodies to his cause").

      May 9, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • Dani

      You're right....the terrorists did not and probably will not respect the bodies of Americans....but that's the difference between US and TERRORISTS.

      We are NOT terrorists. They are. And I'm proud of the way our country handled this situation.

      May 9, 2011 at 11:25 pm |
    • CG

      To TIRED and OLD:

      I do not allow evil to dictate my actions against the evil ones.

      I do not wish to see the pictures nor need to celebrate in the streets dealth. And respecting another human life is not an insult to me _ An American.

      Do you base your treatment on how individuals act/hate. If so, you are no better than those individuals.

      Do you think beating on your chest makes you less of a coward??? No it doesn't. How can we speak of peace, democracy, and humanity when we are not able to rise above the hurt and do the same??

      I am a christian so please do not quote the Bible ignorantly.

      May 10, 2011 at 1:05 am |
    • Mike

      An' eye for an eye' is old testament as are the right wing of this country. I am an atheist but it never ceases to amaze me that the religious right in the USA claim to be Christians. Jesus was the most iconic liberal to have ever lived!

      May 10, 2011 at 5:41 am |
    • g

      "Eye for an eye" is from the old testement. Matthew 5:44 from the new testement states: But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;Romans 12:14:Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Jesus charged Christians with loving one another, not retribution.

      May 10, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Concerned Christian

      Mr Tired Old aged middle class American when people misinterpret religious text like you just did, we end up with extremist groups like Al Qaeda and religious strife. I agree with G and Mike above. Also if the US wants to fight the war on terror they should do so without provoking non-violent muslims.

      May 10, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • XboX00

      It never ceases to surprise me when someone ignorantly groups "violence" "hate" "women as second class citizens" to Islam.

      Perhaps if we made an effort to learn its tenets and teachings from factual sources rather than "Oriental Scholars" who're not even Muslim themselves, the world would become a better place.

      U.S. foreign policy is notorious for its bullying and supporting puppet regimes the world over – the kind we saw in Iraq (Saddam), Eqypt (Mubarak) etc. thus it's pretty laughable when those who are uneducated about such basic historical facts speak as though they are experts in the field.

      There are Islamic laws on warfare – to not harm women and children, to not destroy trees and plants, to not set on fire people's livelihoods. Sadly, none of these ethic codes were adhered to by us (aka the "Americans") – we just "bombed their @$$es" coz ignorant fools like you are aplenty.

      May 10, 2011 at 10:37 am |
    • Civilized

      The officials did the decent thing with OBL's body, which can only be expected from decent, civilized societies. If you expected or wanted his body to be treated how the terrorists treat US soldiers' bodies, you are no different than the terrorists. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." is exactly how they justify their killings. Go and spread your poison somewhere else. From where I stand, there is no difference between Muslim and Christian fanatics. You sound the same.

      May 10, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • @ Tired

      Christian interpretation of the Biblical passage has been heavily influenced by the quotation from the Old Testament of the Hebrews in Leviticus 19:18 in. In the expounding of the law (part of the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus of Nazareth urges his followers to turn the other cheek when confronted by violence:

      "You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5:38–39, NRSV)

      This saying of Jesus is frequently interpreted as criticism of the Old Testament teaching, and often taken as implying that "an eye for an eye" encourages excessive vengeance rather than an attempt to limit it. It was one of the points of 'fulfilment or destruction' of the Hebrew law which the Church father St. Augustine already discussed in his Contra Faustum, Book XIX

      We have a no win situation with the Islamic world: if we have diplomacy with them – we support a tyrant, if we don't have relations with them – we make their people suffer. Either way, we become a scapegoat for their problems.

      I agree with you. We should not be appologists when we are attacked. Evoking Muslim wrath isn't even a bargaining chip – because we are not afraid of a world wide Jihad. Their wrath is already evoked – but the Islamists know that all out war will only justify a battle they cannot win.

      After all, Mohammed refrained from battles that he could not win and made treaties with the Quraishi in Mecca. It was only after the Mu-hijra'oon (mispelled by Islamists muhajiroun) in Medina grew in numbers that he sought a subterfuge to break that treaty.

      We are Americans and we have always won our conflicts by determination and fair play. The writer is correct that we are better and far more civilized than the extremists in handling Osama's remains. We also fullfilled Osama's wishes of taking away a gravesite for people to visit... one of the things that Osama was opposed to in life.

      May 10, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • Felicitations

      A muslim should be buried in the earth with the head facing Mecca. Hard to do that when you're rolling around down in Davy Jones's locker!

      May 10, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
    • Vynn

      And if you had read that bible you might have noted that your Lord Jesus said, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Mt 5:38-39) The Christian thing to do is to do to others as you would have them do...not because they did it for you, but because it is the rught thing to do. Why oh why does this atheist have to teach a Christian about his own religion?

      May 11, 2011 at 12:20 am |
    • HistoryGeek

      If doesn't matter how they would have treated the body of one of our men.

      The way the body was handled and disposed of proves that we're better than anyone who would mutilate corpses. We took the high road and that's were I'd rather be.

      May 11, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Cdpf of Norfolk, VA

      I agree. "Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth." Loved that one line: Respecting Bin Ladin's body in any way is an insult to Americans, and especially so to all of the families who lost loved ones on 9/11, and our military heroes both alive and deceased. How about the airline industry? OBL crippled it and murder our people and airline employees on the planes too!

      May 11, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Sanjosemike

      Because I am an atheist I assume that some of you will disregard my comments, but I think it WAS appropriate to give bin Laden an Islamic burial. Unfortunately, there are millions of Muslims throughout the World. There is nothing we can do will change that. Deliberately disrespecting bin Laden in death would only have served to inflame their already out-of-control passions and theology. But doing this, Obama did his part to try to limit the attacks on Americans.

      Nobody disagrees with the evil that was bin Laden and everything he stood for. But I can see no reason why it makes any difference to "honor" a religion that is basically insane and means nothing in the scientific world. It costs nothing...and can still supply us with "unwritten" dividends in the minds of those crazies. I say we made the right decision. And besides, nobody can prove that we didn't...if we said we did. (Although I assume it was videographed).


      May 11, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Nacho1

      Prothero is an evil looking B......

      May 11, 2011 at 9:46 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.