Following the decision of the US authorities to consign the corpse of Osama bin Laden to the waters of the Arabian Gulf, some folk with a conspiratorial cast of mind have questioned the disposition of the body, asking if some kind of “cover-up” was intended. I consider such ruminations trivial. More interesting questions emerge from reports that the sea burial was accompanied by standard Islamic funeral rites: washing of the body, wrapping it in a shroud, and “prepared religious remarks which were translated into Arabic by a native speaker”.
The widely cited rationales for this disposition of the body have been that Saudi Arabia, and presumably the Bin Laden family, refused to receive the body, and that sea burial would avoid a grave on land becoming a “shrine” for “pilgrimages” by his radical admirers.
Explanations involving “shrines” and “pilgrimages” reflect ignorance of Bin Laden’s ideology. He was a fanatical Saudi Wahhabi. Wahhabis do not erect, pray in, or visit shrines. Indeed, they destroy them and kill people who visit them. They also use a hate term, “qabbouri“, to describe those who offer devotions at shrines. They forbid prayer facing the tomb of the prophet Muhammad in Medina. Prayer at shrines is associated with Sufi Muslims, both Shia and Sunni, not with Wahhabi radicals.
There may have been other alternatives to sea burial, including interment in an unmarked grave, the location of which would be kept secret.
But, more important than the question of a shrine to the terrorist, journalists should ask moderate Muslim scholars whether they consider Bin Laden to have died in a state of Islamic belief.
I believe Bin Laden had apostasised from Islam by his denial of the sinful nature of terrorism. He planned and took responsibility for atrocious acts, which were those of an enemy of Islam, by the tongue, the pen, money, and the sword. These deeds were public and he boasted of them. Rejecting the judgment of the sin of killing innocent people is a repudiation of Islam.
I do not believe there was any requirement for the US authorities to wash Bin Laden’s body, cover it with a shroud, say Islamic prayers over it, or bury it within the normal prescribed period, which, except in unusual circumstances, is 24 hours from death.
Rather than asking if Bin Laden received a correct or proper Islamic burial, journalists should ask if he merited any Islamic burial observance. That the US forces washed the body and allowed a short recitation in Arabic, presumably “Al-Fatiha“, the opening chapter of Qur’an, indicates that they believed he died as a Muslim.
In the name of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism, I issued a statement on 1 May stating: “Bin Laden did not die a martyr of Islam … he was an apostate from Muslim belief in his defence of violence against civilians and other innocents.”
I do not believe recitations from the Qur’an or other Islamic memorials are appropriate for this homicidal extremist. On the Last Day, in which I and all Muslims believe, Bin Laden will face the judgment of Allah almighty for his numerous transgressions, denial of their sinful nature, and seduction of Muslims into commission of reprehensible brutalities. But this does not entitle him to a Muslim burial. Everyone must face the judgment of Allah, Muslim or non-Muslim alike.
His admirers, and non-Muslims, may consider him a Muslim worthy of an Islamic burial. Moderate Muslims should consider him an apostate and criminal deserving of no such honour.
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, executive director of the Centre for Islamic pluralism, an international network of moderate Muslim scholars, clerics, Sufi shaykhs, intellectuals, and journalists, with active groups and correspondents in more than 20, mainly Muslim-majority countries.