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. jim

    "Americans went into a country whose language they did not speak and whose culture they did not understand." Yes,and clearly Muslim terrorist did not understand our cultural resolve to defend ourselves.

    May 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  2. St. Peter the Dick

    The real last words of Jesus

    Proverbs 66:6 – Then Jesus said... "waitest a moment, thine hands are still painfully bound with nails, and my body is cruelly wracked and broken, and I thirst for a drop of water.... holy crap... thine now believes a huge mistake has been begotten! Someone get me down!!!"

    May 15, 2011 at 8:06 am |
  3. Larry

    I can't believe this guy is serious. Elegant? Bin Laden is a criminal who plans attacks to kill innocent people and gets others to do it. That's it. Since this particular administration, more so than the last, has made a point of differentiating between good muslims and bad muslims and stating that Biln laden and his followers are not good muslims, why should he get the good muslim send off now that he's dead? I thought he was a bad muslim and an extremist? If we had killed Hitler would we have worried how he was treated once killed? This is ridiculous. He was a failure as a human being and got what he deserved. Don't waste time worrying about how he was buried or if it inflames people. They get inflamed over practically anything.

    May 14, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  4. Raakin

    I am a muslim and I do not know where it states that the body of the dead needs to buried within in a specific period. This is an Arab tradition that some how weaved it's way into Islam.
    Islam is a faith not a culture.

    May 14, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  5. Joshua

    This man did not deserve a religious burial. He did not give the people in the twin towers a burial. He didnt care if islam was in the twin towers, he killed EVERYONE in there. If it was wrong to kill him is a opinion of law, but to make an arguement that we should have gave him a proper burial to his religion is retarded, he was a murderer, when he cut heads off do you think he thought, maybe their religion is against this? People, get real.

    May 14, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  6. AtheistDude

    Religion is for people without any brain activity

    May 14, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • concerned reader

      people who read religious texts in a literal frame of mind terrify me, does the word parable mean anything to these nut jobs?

      May 14, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  7. concerned reader

    some of you people need to wake up and smell the flowers; this is real life not a robert ludlum novel

    May 14, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  8. Abdullah

    "Muslims will of course disagree about whether a sea burial was proper in this case."
    I assure you, we Muslims don't care about what happened to him after he died. We hope hes burning in hell for all the innocents he's killed and for unjustly using our religion to achieve his own sick, sadistic goals. Nowhere in Islam is the murder of innocent civilians justified!

    May 14, 2011 at 7:00 am |
  9. dirtyhairy

    "And if they desecrated the body in any way, there would be hell to pay
    You fool. Thats is exactly what they did.

    "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."

    -Of course they'll disagree moron. To take a dead body on land and bury it at sea is especially insulting and desecration in muslims eye. Its only acceptable if the person WAS KILLED AT SEA idiot.Yet you attempt to justify it saying it was a preference
    You have truly demonstrated your RELIGIOUS ILLITERACY.

    May 13, 2011 at 7:30 pm |
  10. Todd West

    Actually, as long as any religion does not go against the laws of the US, then it is fine. More than one g-type have said to me "god and religion is alright, but it is not above the law." Respecting a religious tradition? ha, sure, if it serves a purpose in the "game" or at the very least causes no discord or concerns with law enforcement. As far as the government at the top is concerned, they are your God, you will and must obey, and they don't believe any of your "gods" are gonna threaten their power, though they probably will not say that to your face. So in a way they play with you. Wake up.

    May 13, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  11. laila

    burial in the Arabian Sea? lol any educated person would believe that this is merely a movie to see how Gullible people are and sadly many are too tuned in to the news (Indoctrination) come to many things seeing is believing. talking about images/video of his body would cause an uproar in muslim world? as if claiming to kill him alone does not. HA! lies! lies! lies! either he died not long ago and the gov found out then concocted this political movie... lol i would not be surprised if bin laden comes out with a video if he is alive might be any given day. seeing is believing!

    May 13, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  12. James

    Regardless of your opinions of Obama, he is our only president to have spent considerable amounts of time in Muslim nations growing up. Both in Indonesia and Pakistan. It is not surprising he and his administration has a shrewder understanding of Islam, though he would never admit it.

    May 13, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • Todd West

      Your government will respect religion as long as it causes them no concern, and/or they can use it in their favor. This is a proven fact. Say your religion is a type of nature religion and all plants are respected and allowed; sorry, regardless of what your religion says you're NOT going to have any plants that are "illegal" (and I don't mean "pot" for all you knotheads, though it can fit nicely in here), and if you do, forget about respect of your religion, you will GO DOWN, because you are a criminal and breaking the law. Try it, you'll be laughed at in court. The law is your God, prove otherwise.

      May 13, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  13. Johnny

    killing is an industry in america and is always elegant at the end wether it's the hanging of sadam, the killing of his sons, the
    assassination of osama or the droping of bombs on iraki and afghani civilians. we are not better than our ennemies but we are slightly more elegant than them....droping him in the ocean is actually adding some mystic to the monster...it will join a thousand of virigin mermaids..who knows???

    May 12, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
  14. Bob

    And then we went to Iraq and murdered 260,000 children and a total of nearly 1,000,000 civilians...who is the boogie man now....911 was an inside job and Bin Laden never admitted to the crime..Ever! In fact Bin laden was never put on the FBI most wanted because they never had any proof that he was responsible....Know your facts folks and the truth will put you behinde bars.....facts have become subversive...2 + 2 = 5....we are down the rabbit hole....

    May 12, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • WorshipTheCreatorNotTheCreations

      I agree with you. Americans generally are good hearted people and promoters of goodness....but there are a few very powerful and dirty fish in this pond just like any other country. If you look at the history and past events such as Gul of Tonken, USS liberty incident, Mossadaq from Iran incident, Kennedy, 7/7 bombing in london 9/11..... all of these have something in common and that is the military term called 'Operation False Flag'. some of these are even declassified on cia.gov. The agenda of the elite is there and these politicians are just actors to make you believe in something when infact it is very different from reality. They are sooo good at making something appear to be abvious and the magnitude of the event plays a key role where american public will think 'there is no way we can be that evil' . There are the strategies of the CIA and the elites. PAKISTAN seems to be the next target. God help us all.

      May 12, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • OneTrueThing

      Bin Laden did admit to 911, there is video of him discussing it, and how it was more 'successful' than he anticipated. Look it up dingbat. And I want to see your birth certificate with your classification of 'moron'.

      May 12, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • Glenda

      Bob, yes he was on wanted list. I saw it. There are 9 other terrorist on there., maybe 10 if one replaced Bin Laden

      May 17, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  15. Rev. D.

    I believe Prof. Stephen Prothero is right in saying, "by giving him (Osama Bin Laden) a proper Islamic burial, they showed respect for Islam", and not necessarily to the world's most wanted terrorist. Living in a society that shuns "Islam" even as a religion, it's difficult for most of the US citizenry to be fair-minded.
    I applaud the statement by Prof. Prothero whom I respect very much for his scholarship; he knows what he is talking about. Thank you, Steve.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Catherine

      Rev D. – , "by giving him (Osama Bin Laden) a proper Islamic burial, they showed respect for Islam",. Living in a society that shuns "Islam" even as a religion, it's difficult for most of the US citizenry to be fair-minded”

      "I was ordered to fight the people until they say ‘there is no god but Allah, and his prophet is Muhammad'." Muhammad 632, Osama bin Laden said this in 2001.

      HE WAS A VERY DEVOUT Muslim and followed what Mohammad wrote in the Quran. All Muslims who calls themselves good Muslims follow these teachings. Please do not say it is a misinterpretation. Kill means kill in any language. To lie means to tell lies. Below are quotes with references from the Quran. You will see Osama just repeating Quranic verses.

      "Mohammed is God's apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another" Quran 48:29

      Muslim (1:33) – the Messenger of Allah said: I have been commanded to fight against people till they testify that there is no god but Allah, that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah

      Bukhari (8:387) – Allah's Apostle said, "I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah

      Quran (2:191-193) – "And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, and fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah."

      This is Islam. This is what the Quran teaches and preaches. How can anyone with a brain or an ounce of intelligence respect a cult that calls for lying, murdering, beheading, chopping off limbs, raping, terrorizing and forced subjugation of other human beings. The word terrorize is mentioned hunderds of times in the quran.

      It is time Americans look at this cult for what it really is. How much clearer has one to be?

      There is no such thing as moderate and extreme Islam. THIS IS ISLAM.

      Do the moderate Muslims protest the murders committed in the name of Islam here and abroad? Where are these moderate Muslims?

      So let’s not fool ourselves and others with our ignorant niceness, misguided political correctness, and false sophistry.

      Today the root of all bloodshed and war in the world is ISLAM. It has been so from its very inception some 1400 odd years ago. JUST LOOK AT THE NEWS ON CNN.... OR GO TO http://WWW.THERELIGIONOFPEACE.COM for daily stats of murder around the world.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  16. Drake

    How many people would contend that a murderer of thousands of innocent people was actually a Christian and deserving of a Christian burial? You contend that Usama was a Muslim. That makes me question the entire religion of Islam. I think that to give him a proper Muslim burial says that his mentality toward the people of this world was typical of and acceptable to Islam. Was he a good Muslim? I would like to hear some Muslims speak out against the scriptural basis of his faith. I would like to hear Muslims denounce him as a follower of Muhammad entirely.

    May 12, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  17. dan

    People like you scare me

    May 12, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  18. tommyjoe

    How can you believe that they actually did all of this? The government is lying to us all.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:46 am |
    • James

      Hit other option would have been to post on a news forum that the government is lying to all of us. Do we really need to read this board to know the government lies? Let's stick with the facts. Opinions without facts are just so much hot air.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • francois

      scared litle man, you are sad. so much paranoia relax and enjoy life . the governement is watching... bhoo..

      May 12, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  19. Brad Whitcomb

    Of course, Hitler would have received a decent burial. Yeah, right. Bin Ladin and his kind are no different and deserve no special treatment, religious or otherwise. Bin Ladin should held up, mocked, and desecrated at every opportunity. Say and eye for an eye makes everyone blind? How about destroy all your enemies until everyone fears to be your enemy.

    May 12, 2011 at 12:51 am |
    • James

      Moronic opinions like this lead to more deaths of innocents. Just plain throughtless and stupid. It's people like this, the little picture people, whic hold back the human race. Sadly, they're everywhere, as evidenced by these forums. I agree with the author; the best choice was made. It wasn't perfect, but perfect is rarely an option even in everyday situations. Good work, Obama.

      May 12, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • nordicmetalhead

      ..because we hold with high regard the celebrants at Mussolini's execution, right? Remember that in history?

      May 12, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Todd West

      tell 'em Brad

      May 13, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  20. Larry

    There is nothing in the Bible that says we cannot celebrate a victory in war. And Stevie, we are at war. And the death of Osama Bin Laden was a huge victory.

    May 11, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
    • Johnny

      you obviously believe in the torah or the old testament...but the jesus i know in the new testament does not believe in your

      May 12, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Davis

      Proverbs 24:17-18 "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them."

      Ezekiel 33:11 "Say to them, 'As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?"

      Ezekiel 18:32 "For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD.

      Romans 3:23 "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." – You and I deserve to die for our sins no more than Bin Laden did. In the eyes of God we are all sinners. There is no difference.

      May 12, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • James

      "Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" The Book of Matthew, chapter 26, verses 52-54

      Don't play this game, one can find a passage in religious text to condone or condemn nearly anything.

      May 13, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Anna

      Johnny, you obviously believe in your own version of Jesus. In Matthew Christ said "I come not to do away with the law but to fulfill it." Jesus Himself was Jewish.

      May 13, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • Daniel

      Matthew 21:17, "And he left them and went out of the city, into Bethany, and he lodged there."

      May 15, 2011 at 2:09 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.