Yesterday we discussed the media coverage of Osama bin Laden’s “Muslim burial.” At first the media ran with the story that he’d been buried at sea according to Muslim law and also to avoid the grave becoming a shrine. Then some reporters noted that some Muslim clerics disagreed that the burial had been done according to Islamic practice.
In a comment to that post, journalist Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, who is Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, writes that there are some media missteps here:
The most striking journalistic error has been the presumption, perhaps enabled by government officials ignorant of the matter, that the grave of Bin Laden would become a shrine. Bin Laden was a fanatical Wahhabi and 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 pray at shrines. Prayer at shrines is associated with Sufi Muslims, both Shia and Sunni, not with Wahhabi radicals.
It is quite correct to state that he could have been buried in an unmarked grave. Sea burial is permissible when Muslims have died at sea.
The real question journalists should ask Muslim scholars is whether they consider Bin Laden to have died in a state of Islamic belief.
We believe Bin Laden had apostasized from Islam by his denial of the sinful nature of terrorism. He committed these acts, which were those of an enemy of Islam, by the tongue, the pen, money, and the sword. Rejecting the judgment of the sin of killing innocent people is a repudiation of Islam.
It appears to us in the Center for Islamic Pluralism that there was no requirement of the U.S. authorities to wash Bin Laden’s body, cover it with a shroud, or say Islamic prayers over it.
Therefore, journalists, rather than asking if Bin Laden received a correct or proper Islamic burial, should have asked if he merited an Islamic burial. That the U.S. granted even the washing of the body and possible recitation of a short burial statement, presumably “Al-Fatiha,” the opening chapter of Qur’an, indicates that they believed he died as a Muslim.
As to asking for the mercy of Allah subhanawata’la on him, it seems to me more appropriate simply to affirm that Allah swt will judge him for his deeds and his intentions.
Such mistakes in Western journalism are very common. During the controversy over the Danish Muhammad cartoons Western media perpetuated the mistaken belief that depiction of Muhammad and other human beings is uniformly prohibited in Islam. But none of the radical agitators in the cartoon affair referred to such a ban, because there is no consensus on it. The issue was that of the cartoons’ content, not their mere existence.
I did note the inconsistency of media coverage quoting officials calling Osama bin Laden un-Islamic but then writing stories about the Islamic quality of his burial. The contradiction could at least be noted and Schwartz notes how the confusion causes problems.
We do continue to see stories about the Islamic burial rite. Here’s a Reuters story about the preparations and debate. It’s actually pretty good.
However, I also want to highlight the top of this New York Times report. It has some problems, particularly after noting Schwartz’s criticism:
White House officials decided before Monday’s firefight in northern Pakistan that if American troops killed Osama bin Laden, they would bury him at sea in order to prevent his grave from becoming a shrine for his followers, a White House official said Monday. They planned to include all rites associated with Muslim burials, the official added.
American officials stressed Monday that the sea burial followed Islamic custom. “The disposal of — the burial of Bin Laden’s remains was done in strict conformance with Islamic precepts and practices,” said John O. Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, who added that the administration had consulted with Islamic experts.
“It was prepared in accordance with the Islamic requirements,” he said. “We early on made provisions for that type of burial, and we wanted to make sure that it was going to be done, again, in strict conformance. So it was taken care of in the appropriate way.”
But some Islamic scholars and clerics were divided Monday over whether the sea burial was appropriate or an insult to Muslims. Several said Bin Laden should have been buried on land in a simple grave. The sea burial, off an American aircraft carrier in the North Arabian Sea, added an ambiguous coda to a life that had been clouded in secrecy over the past decade.
Note the ignorance of the shrine issue and the acceptance of the presupposition that Osama deserved a Muslim burial.
Interesting. Just interesting.