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. Mark from Middle River

    The basic focus of my tons of words response was to ask Andrew what will he do when ridicule fails. Maybe in Thomas Jefferson's day it was possible but the country is pretty evenly divided on most issues so the weapon of ridicule has no real power. Each camp has its chorus of supporters so once you begin to make fun of a single person, in an debate, as a joke all she or he has to do is return to their camp and their views are re-affirmed.

    May 18, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  2. Mark from Middle River

    Wow, I have edited and edited my original post and if you go back about eight or ten threads you will see where I had began to post line by line to find the words that set off the "awaiting moderation", So, better to start off again from scratch.

    May 18, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  3. theMiddleMan67

    Religion is a weapon that has been used as a PR campaign by man throughout history. I state this about ALL religion. Over the course of known history, religious figures, religious writings, and religion in general have been used to sway simple people to wage war on one another. Religion is a creation of MAN, not one of a deity.

    If someone today, in the year 2011, came out of nowhere and said, "Take these writings and heed them, they are the word of God!" How do you think that would be received? I am thinking it would be taken like a National Enquirer headline...as a joke, or hoax, or the words of someone mentally and/or emotionally unstable. Yet, here we are...with all we know about FACT that has proven religious writings to be incorrect, and still, so many take the writings verbatim and as irrefutable fact. Insanity. Where has God gone? Why has he never met with, or talked to anyone for thousands of years? Here is a theory...

    People that "spoke to God" were more than likely schizophrenic with delusions and hallucinations. The miraculous events captured as facts in religious writings were not miracles, but embellished stories of the truth to make the author sound more interesting. Then, the men and women that were smart enough, and diabolical enough to realize the power that these "words" carried...used them to bend other people to their will, even when it made no sense...even when following the will of the people "spreading the word" seemed to be harmful to others and themselves.

    Don't get me wrong, I have my own ideas about what, if anything, is out there for us humans when life ends...but it's not anything that was written in any of the books that so many blindly follow. I think religion, like anything else, requires moderation during consumption. The core values, i.e., be truthful, altruistic, faithful, gentle, etc., are all good values and those values are what we should "selectively" take away from religion. All of the "fact" that was supposedly accurately captured, and then interpreted by countless leaders over history...we should leave that to be discarded along with other fantasies, like the Earth is flat, or stars are pinholes in the fabric of the sky. Religion is no more factual than the mythology the Greeks and Romans created to control their civilizations.

    May 18, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  4. InYourFace

    PROTHERO: Bin Laden didn't even deserve a burial . . .

    May 18, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
  5. Joel Johnston

    I only wish they had buried him at Guantanimo, so that there was an adequate place for this followers to go visit him. Surrounded by IAD's.

    May 18, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  6. Summer819

    No matter what "we" do or say to show any type of respect is falling on deaf ears. Even if our government followed Islam burial preferences to the T, they would find something we did wrong. I'm all for respecting another's culture/religion, but not so much when that someone has taken thousands (or is it millions by now?) of innocent lives to prove a point. Not saying an eye for an eye is good in this case or any, but had they killed someone prominent in our country, that body would likely be spat on and burned or left for animals to feast on. They would not show any respect. The fact that we showed respect for Islam should prove something to the world, but sadly the terrorists who are hell bent on revenge won't care one bit.

    May 18, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • megafairandsquare4

      Well said Summer819 !!!!Brilliant

      May 18, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
    • matt

      As a long time republican, I think they did it right. The executive branch of our Government is charged with maintaining our National Interests. Sometimes that means going to war. Sometimes that means signing treaties. Sometimes that might even mean sending our boys in to kill a figurehead terrorist in the name of justice.

      We may be hated by others regardless of our actions, but if we do what we take what we believe to be the morally right path, we can respect ourselves.

      I say again to all involved, from the President for making the call, the Seals executing, and the Staff researching a respectful burial process, Thank you and well done.

      May 19, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  7. uhm

    Euhm, not to be smart ass..

    But the writer is totally wrong by saying "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."

    Islamic rules dictate that people are not allowed to worship any one else except for Allah (swt).
    We don't even visit the grave of prophet Muhammed!
    So why would muslims, especially the fundamentalist, visit a grave and/or worship someone and condemn their self to hell?
    If the U.S. government had showed real interest and spent time to learn the Islamic customs and overall religion, they would have known that.
    But i don't think they are dumb, might act like idiots, but U.S. Gov. isnt dumb.
    That's why i don't buy the whole assassination story they fed us..
    There are too many unanswered questions.

    May 18, 2011 at 6:18 am |
  8. pjoe

    It's also a good environment gesture. He is going to be fish poo ... kind of fitting. Sorry, how insensitive of me.

    May 18, 2011 at 12:08 am |
  9. JWH

    Our ignorance of the murderous Islam? You fool.
    We do not have to understand a false religion.

    May 17, 2011 at 10:12 pm |
  10. Crocker

    The burial at sea WAS a brilliant move. I don't know if I buy into the idea that we did it to honor his religion. I think it was done to remove any chance of his resting place becoming a shrine or rallying point. All they have now is lots of open sea – somewhere deep.

    May 17, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
  11. zachmarsh

    Personally, I think they should have taken the pictures and tissue samples and just said "throw him overboard". Maybe even say a Christian prayer as a slap in the face, dress him in black instead of white, and clean his body by letting everyone on the ship spit on him, one at a time. Bin Laden didn't follow Islamic teachings in life and doesn't deserve respect in death. But now he's fish food, so it doesn't really matter anymore. Good.

    May 17, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • America

      "throw him overboard"? more likea few of them probably kicked him overboard!

      May 18, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  12. THOR


    May 17, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • Larry

      Take some asthprin.

      May 17, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • Crocker

      Howdy Thor. Got a last name?

      May 17, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  13. Him

    Obama administration failed in religious literacy but they succeeded in tracking down Bin Ladin. Stephen Prothero seems to be very sympathetic toward Bin Ladin and his burial due to his Islamic faith, but why so harsh with Franklin Graham? As a supposed religious scholar and commentator I would seriously separate your political stance and your religious opinions.

    May 17, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Larry

      Read the article again. The Obama administration didn't fail. It was a great idea to bury him at sea for all the reasons cited.

      May 17, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  14. Muneef

    Turkey's foreign minister talks about  how the region has rediscovered its sense of possessing a common destiny.  http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/03/20113131351569612.html

    May 17, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  15. davegeorgia

    prothero is a bo cheerleader, no need to hide the political inclinations when it comes to religion, right? perhaps you can enlighten us about the false islam religion, invented by a false prophet muhammed, that wrote a false koran book, and that worshipped a false allah moon god? all of that religion invented to promote abuse, explosive personalities, intolerance, oppression, and terror.....

    May 17, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  16. Humanist American

    @sanjosemike I am well aware of what a humanist is. I believe you are confusing a humanist with an atheist. I believe in letting others believe how they want to believe. This is what a humanist believes. The religious believe they will be judged by their god. I will entertain that notion when I speak to them about their religion. I am not ignorant like you. Please do not call yourself a humanist if you cannot let others believe how they wish to believe.

    May 16, 2011 at 5:11 pm |

    We need to educate ourselves regarding the Islamic political-religious system. Masters and doctorate level information can be found on the following website: http://www.thereligionofpeace.com

    Let's hope our education on the subject will improve and expand.

    May 16, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Muneef

      EK Kadiddlehopper...

      Guess who made Islam the way it is today?

      Islam as a Religion has been forced now to pay for what American politicians had sown into earth. The genuine peaceful muslims have been polluted by those created and many innocents are being harvested among those created ones ...!!!  
      Old Investment was scapegoated for the sake of the new investment that is being created to replace it....!!!

      Listen & Watch this;
      "Lets be careful with what we sow because we will harvest".(US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton).


      May 16, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • Muneef


      May 16, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  18. Teena

    Burial at sea was a tactical masterstrock showing incredible respect for someone who showed no respect for HIS fellow man! A very Chrisitian thing to do.
    Kudos President Obama and those on his staff who made this decision.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  19. BlackDynamiteNYC

    Something tells me the prayers and washing were foregone, and his ASHES were buried at sea.

    May 16, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  20. Xiao Feng.

    Blah blah bin laden this bin laden that...First Bush new everything about bin laden and protected him coz he was a family friend...you Americans will never see or hear about the DNA report of osama bin laden's..........the BOOGIE MAN is in safe havens in TEXAS enjoying chilli and ribs.

    May 16, 2011 at 3:40 am |
    • MOWMOW


      May 17, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Howie

      But just what evidence is there to show that any kind of MUSLIM service – no matter where held – was actually performed, let alone for one Osama bin Laden?

      May 17, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Larry

      Good lord, man. You can't possibly believe that. You are just parroting some nonsense you read on the internet. Time to grow up.

      May 17, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
    • Nacho1

      Mr Prothero has a very evil looking glare about him...........................he looks like the anti-Christ with that grin of his................he may have studied religion but he looks as though he has none and it just gave him something to disprove..............his look is very uncomfortable to me.

      May 18, 2011 at 3:52 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.