How Islamic was this burial?

Shortly after I wrote the previous post about the Obama administration’s desire to adhere to sharia when it comes to the handling of Osama bin Laden’s body, we learned that the burial at sea had already happened. And what that means is we’re getting some interesting stories about the role religion played in his burial.

The Washington Post informs:

The official said the body was buried “in accordance with Islamic tradition,” meaning within 24 hours of bin Laden’s death. No information was available as to whether Muslim prayers were recited or the body was ritually washed, as is usually required by Islamic law. In general, burial at sea means tipping the body overboard — wrapped, likely, in a shroud — after a brief service.

Of course, we know that Islamic tradition is concerned with more than just the time of burial. I’m rather impressed with this Associated Press report by Hamza Hendawi. While I was hearing reports that Muslim clerics in other countries were upset with this burial, I’m glad we got confirmation in an English-language story:

Muslim clerics said Monday that Osama bin Laden’s burial at sea was a violation of Islamic tradition that may further provoke militant calls for revenge attacks against American targets.

Although there appears to be some room for debate over the burial — as with many issues within the faith — a wide range of Islamic scholars interpreted it as a humiliating disregard for the standard Muslim practice of placing the body in a grave with the head pointed toward the holy city of Mecca.

Sea burials can be allowed, they said, but only in special cases where the death occurred aboard a ship.

I can’t imagine how difficult it is to survey Muslim opinion on a story such as this, but even just acknowledging that there is debate helps. The story gives the perspective of unnamed U.S. officials as to why they justified the sea burial. It includes some interesting discussion about the issues in play:

According to Islamic teachings, the highest honor to be bestowed on the dead is giving the deceased a swift burial, preferably before sunset. Those who die while traveling at sea can have their bodies committed to the bottom of the ocean if they are far off the coast, according to Islamic tradition.

“They can say they buried him at sea, but they cannot say they did it according to Islam,” Mohammed al-Qubaisi, Dubai’s grand mufti, said about bin Laden’s burial. “If the family does not want him, it’s really simple in Islam: You dig up a grave anywhere, even on a remote island, you say the prayers and that’s it.”

“Sea burials are permissible for Muslims in extraordinary circumstances,” he added. “This is not one of them.”

But Mohammed Qudah, a professor of Islamic law at the University of Jordan, said burying the Saudi-born bin Laden at sea was not forbidden if there was nobody to receive the body and provide a Muslim burial.

“The land and the sea belong to God, who is able to protect and raise the dead at the end of times for Judgment Day,” he said. “It’s neither true nor correct to claim that there was nobody in the Muslim world ready to receive Bin Laden’s body.”

This is all very helpful information. One thing I’m curious about is the line that “the highest honor” bestowed on the deceased is a swift burial. I’d like to learn more about Muslim teaching about whether this highest honor is merited by all deceased, literally including Osama bin Laden, or whether it’s reserved for those who are not mass murderers, for instance.

There is much to learn about Muslim burial practices and the U.S. treatment of same, but this is a good start, I think.

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  • Mike Hickerson

    Since this raid seems to have been planned meticulously, I assume the plans for handling the body were, as well. I wonder if any Muslim military chaplains or other personnel were involved in the preparations.

  • Mollie


    I wondered the same exact thing. I hope we get some reports about the role Muslim military chaplains played.

  • Imam Salim Chishti

    If the rules regarding treatment of the deceased were strictly followed then he should have been buried right there where he was killed. But there are countless cases these days of people who have moved to other countries who then want to be, or their families want them to be buried in their homeland. So practice, at the everyday level is more complicated than the system of rules. These rules are living today and have been adjusted in some ways at some times so suit the cirumstances.

    So, as far as burial at sea goes, there is ample evidence in Islamic tradition that it is allowed. Even if one considers this only allowable under “special circumstances” this would seem to me to fit in that category because they needed to bring his body back to the ship for a positive identification. Once aboard ship he was to be buried at sea. No positive identification would have been possible or acceptable to all parties if they had remained in Abbotabad. In my opinion, and I am sure I share this opinion with others, as long as the body was washed properly and janaza prayers were said and the body was shrouded, the burial follows Islamic tradition and is entirely legal.

    But what is interesting to me is that nothing has been said about how his son or the others were buried. Did they also recieve a burial at sea?

    Whether buried in land or sea, this is less important than the fact that now he has gone to his maker who is the ultimate judge, may Allah have mercy upon him. inna allahi wa inna allahi rajayun – from God we come and to God we return.

    Imam Salim Chishti

  • Mollie

    Imam Salim Chishti,

    Excellent point — why haven’t we heard about the bodies of the others killed?

  • CommonCents

    Salam alaikum, Muslim scholars response to this man’s burial should be the response of the Muslim scholars in India who refused to pray over the bodies of the Mumbai terrorists and their bodies decomposed in the disgraceful manner in which they lived. Bin Laden was buried at sea so his grave wouldnt become a rallying place for all the jihadis. So what. People on 9/11 were buried in pieces. I think that was nice in comparison. “May Allah have mercy on him” Really Imam Salim?

  • David Rupert

    “The highest honor is to be buried quickly.”

    Was that really our goal? Was to kill him, and then honor him?

  • Mary Ann

    Is it against Islamic law to photograph the deceased prior to starting the burial process? If not, where are the photos of Bin Laden? Where did the DNA testing take place? Was the body buried at sea within the 24 hour period or was the burial held up to verify DNA? Who supplied the DNA to match the body?

  • Imam Salim Chishti

    I certainly share the feelings that are expressed in the post by CommonCents. Muslims have performed heinious acts of murder and mayhem and have totally disregarded the laws and common decency that are supposed to govern our behavior as it applies to the treatment of the dead. This includes treatment of the bodies of non-Muslims as well, by the way, Muslims are forbidden to mutilate the corpse of any dead person be their friend of not. There is no excuse for this, as evil as a person may be, he or she is still a human being and after death will go back to the creator for judgement.

    Each sura (chapter) of the Qur’an except one begins with the statement that God is infinite mercy and unending compassion. If my heart is so full of hate that I cannot offer a prayer for even the smallest iota of that mercy and compassion to be bestowed upon one of God’s creations, then the evil that Bin Laden perpetrated on the world is not only in the body count of 9/11 and beyond but also in the hearts of men and women. Believe me when I say that hate in the heart is the more destructive condition.

    As much as I despised Bin Laden when he was living, I ask for mercy upon him because my heart loves God.

    Imam Salim Chishti

  • Mike Hickerson

    Mary Ann,
    Re: the DNA – Osama bin Laden comes from a very large, prominent family. Even if DNA from the man himself wasn’t available, there’s lots of familial DNA (including siblings and children) to compare it to.

  • Smoky Shepherd

    Normally DNA testing requires a reference body (either living or deceased) and is done by an independent testing lab. I wonder how independent a government forensic team can be given the circumstances.

    Why not preserve the body for week or two, in the United States if security warrants it, and then dispose at sea, preferably by spreading ashes. Honorable Islamic burials are reserved for honorable Islamic people.

    None of this makes sense. It could have been handled differently without causing concern for an iconic place of burial which would attract undesirables.

    A very convenient political burial!


  • Khadijah


    When i heard the news, I prayed that Allah forgive his sins, and to judge him for both the good and the bad of his life. Inshallah, we as Muslims will not be subjected to harassment and abuse for how he lived his life.

  • J. Lahondere

    I am curious to understand the role shrines may or may not play in Islam. I read that one of the reasons they wanted to avoid burying his body on land was to make it more difficult to set up a shrine at his final resting place. I’d like to learn more about how shrines fit in with the religion or if they are more of a secular tradition.

  • Smoky Shepherd


    Point is well taken.

    Only God can really judge.

    I still believe that if DNA is going to be used to determine the body’s identity, then the body should be preserved until testing is completed. And that political entities (US Government) should not be doing the testing.

    I am repeating your prayer right now.


  • Mollie

    Please keep comments focused on journalism.

  • Nelson Corn

    What does DNA have to do with journalism?

  • Paul

    “624. If it is feared that an enemy may dig up the grave and exhume the dead body and amputate its ears or nose or other limbs, it should be lowered into sea, if possible, as stated in the foregoing rule.”
    from seems to indicate that if the body might be mutilated that it is to be buried at sea. Is this incorrect? I’m kind of curious as an outside observer–no faith etc.

  • Nelson Corn

    Hey Smoky, let’s let Pakistan do the testing. Somebdy we can trust, right?

  • Smoky Shepherd


    I’d go along with that as long as other independent test labs also get a chance to particpate. I.e. the way they do it in the courts if there is a question.


  • Mollie


    This is not the place for a general discussion about OBL’s death. Keep your comments focused on journalism issues. If your comment is not focused on journalism issues, don’t post it.

  • Alison

    As a Catholic, I find it somewhat curious that Bin Laden died not only on the day JPII was beautified, but on also what is known as Divine Mercy Sunday which is a beautiful feast day that follows the Sunday after Easter, a day of prayer asking for mercy for all sinners. While we may not like it he is not outside the reach of this mercy, only God will judge. After all we are taught to pray for our enemies. It may not be our wish, but The Good Shepard wants all His sheep back.

  • Smoky Shepherd

    I owe the forum an apology. I noticed my plea for religious equality and good grace was deleted. So I began checking and found this policy:

    “1. Engage the contents of the post. This is a journalism weblog. Please strive to comment on journalism issues, not your opinions of the doctrinal or political beliefs of other people.”

    I am sorry I did not read your policy first. I also compliment this forum… first time I have ever known about it and I appreciate the resource it offers everyone. Great job!

    If this is again an inappropriate post, I just don’t know what to do to apologize. I am truly sorry and hope you appreciate I am so new here. If you delete this again, I will understand.


  • Mollie

    Journalism, folks. Keep comments focused on JOURNALISM. If you want to discuss the other issues — including general religious issues — discuss them elsewhere. Thanks!

  • Mollie

    I should also mention that we do offer a site where people can go discuss non-journalism related issues. It’s called the Coffee House (although non-coffee drinkers are welcome, too!).

  • Smoky Shepherd


    Isn’t DNA part of the topic? They just now spent a good portion of the White House press conference on it and how it affected the burial process.

    If not, please feel free to delete my comments. I found this web site via my search for how DNA testing and the burial at sea were connected.


  • Mollie

    And Smoky, I deleted that comment because it was made in response to all the other comments I deleted — figured it would be best to just clear the deck there.

  • Paul McCain

    All this Islamic “angst” over this point is doing nothing to bolster my confidence in the greater Islamic community’s willingness actually to speak out against maniacs like Bin Laden.

    First, Saudi Arabia was contacted to see if they would take the body. They would not.

    Second, burying the body of Bin Laden would simply produce a shrine that would only serve to foment more of the same behavior.

    Third, frankly, who cares how his body was disposed of? Do Muslim people actually believe Bin Laden was worthy of a “church funeral” as we Christians would call it? And if they do, that makes me wonder what it takes precisely for a person to do to become a persona non grata in this religion of “peace” as we are told?

  • Nelson Corn

    The most journalism that will come out of this is “Burn America”. Our “Mainstream” media seem to always find something the United Stets did wrong, no matter what. Damn if we do, damn if we don’t. Blame Uncle Sam, blame Bush, let’s all get together and either sue somebody or apologize to terrorists.

  • Martha

    Okay, everyone knows that the reason the body was disposed of by burial at sea was less to do with “Islamic belief mandates burial within twenty-four hours” snd more to do with what CommonCents has pointed out: not providing a grave that will become the focus of pilgrimage and a rallying-point for a martyr’s death.

    The equivalent, if you like, of the quicklime grave in prison burials.

    But the handling of the matter was clumsy; not alone does it seem to have provoked comment as being disrespectful and not in accordance with Islamic belief, it’s going to fuel conspiracy theory. How do we know that was his body and he was buried at sea, and is not being kept for autopsy or whatever? How do we know he’s really dead and not being held in secret for interrogation? And if the authorities do provide evidence (by way of photographs and film of the corpse), that’s going to stir up more trouble.

    Well, we’ll see.

  • Mollie

    I’m sorry, what am I missing here? What do these comments have to do with journalism?

    This is not a site for general discussion of what’s on your mind about Osama bin Laden’s death and burial. This is a site for discussion of how the media covers religious news.

    If your comment is not focused on how the media covers religious news, it should not be posted.

  • Duane

    Hope this is relevant to one of the questions you raised -

    Officials said that, in accordance with Muslim law, bin Laden’s burial at sea was conducted by a Muslim seaman, who recited the prayers and ensured that the body was washed and wrapped appropriately in cloth.

  • Steve in NYC

    Journalists could have found a convenient reference point in U.S. military guidelines for care of the dying and the deceased. I know that wallet-sized cards used to and perhaps still do exist for officers and NCOs giving very brief directions and texts of prayers for a dying or recently deceased soldier. Presumably guidelines exist for situations where we control the site of a recent battle and must do something about U.S. and enemy corpses of various faiths. Looking at such guidelines would not settle all questions by a long shot, but it would be an obvious place to start.

  • J. Lahondere

    The reason I posted a question regarding shrines in Islam is simply because I thought this would be a semi-important angle that journalists could make clear to the general public. Are Muslims a Shrine-building people? Was the fear of shrine-building a reasonable concern–enough to warrant a burial at sea? Shrines were mentioned in several pieces I read on Bin Laden’s death, and so I thought it would be okay to bring it up here. Anyway, sorry if this is straying off topic…

  • Al Javier

    J. Lahondere: It depends largely on the culture. Some Muslims say it’s OK, others say it isn’t.

  • Dusty Feathers

    “If your comment is not focused on how the media covers religious news, it should not be posted.”

    It’s very simple. In regards to islam, the “media” covers any “news” or “event” that “offends islam” 24/7 – until the “media” whips up a frenzy and people are killed. (i.e., Terry Jones’ koran burning). The “media” then blames the actions of the “racist islamophobes” for the frenzy instead of looking at their own culpability and at the reactions of the islamic world.

    The “media” never recognizes its own role in fueling the hatred; further, they act as though a murderous rampage is the reasonable reaction to these “offenses”. The “media” never looks on this type of reaction as a crime or even as something unexpected. In fact, I would postulate that the “media” actually wantsthis kind of reaction because it makes for sensational, attention-grabbing stories.

    As to the burial at sea, OBL’s body was not dragged through the streets, beaten, burned, and hung off a bridge. I’d say his remains were treated with more honor than they deserved.

  • piotr

    how was the DNA test done and in what time period?

  • Jerry

    Imam Salim Chishti, I assume you are a Sufi from The Chisti Tariqa based on your name and website link.

    The reason I mention this is that it helps put your comments about burial into the context of all the reports I’ve been reading about whether or not the burial was proper or not into a broader context of the background of who is making statements.

    I think it’s analogous to wanting to know Christian denomination and background for those that make statements about Christian theology. That kind of information helps at least non-Muslims read a news story about someone making a claim and understand that such claims can be and are disputed by others who have a strong background in Islamic jurisprudence.

  • Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Wouldn’t it be kind of refreshing if our “journlists” put some hard questions to Islamic clerics? Such as:

    Was Obama a Muslim, or not? Why, or why not? Why would he deserve any kind of religious cermony?

  • Smoky Shepherd


    Your post at 4:19pm is excellent, IMO.

    Those are exactly the questions I wish the journalism would focus on. I am very pleased at the accomplishment yesterday, but I was stunned when I first heard of the burial at sea. It was so out of context to my expectations. The reasons being given, such as not wanting to establish a burial place to be visited as a shrine only make superficial sense.

    When one reflects upon it one can easily consider holding the body for a week or so, allowing further and thorough examination, then disposing in such a way that the remains can no longer be visited.

    I realize there are religious implications. But why are most journalists accepting the superficial reasons rather than questioning them and looking for a greater effort in balancing religious requirements vs. scientific requirements?

    Yes, tis was all handled in a clumsy and may I add provocative way?


  • Stephen Schwartz


    As a journalist I consider mistaken or slipshod reporting on an issue like this to be important. Western reporters have dealt with the question of Bin Laden’s burial by asking Muslim scholars ill-informed questions.

    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.

    Stephen Suleyman Schwartz
    Executive Director
    Center for Islamic Pluralism

  • Carolyn

    Thank you for posting somewhat of the traditions when it comes to Muslim burials. I agree with some of the post that the press conveys Muslims (in fact most faiths) as whacked out extremists. I don’t know many Muslims, but I don’t think most Muslims back up BL either. I think he has a following like McVey or maybe Hitler. They exist, but the numbers are not strong.

    I am sure BL body was respected, but what would a Muslim do in cases where the person is deemed a criminal or in the midst of a Holy War as BL claimed it to be? To the US armed forces that he was a war criminal and they took responsibility for his death, his shell of a body and burial. Is it right to be angry with his ignorant capturerers/executors? Be angry when they tried to honor his beliefs?

  • Diane

    The minute I heard that the Marines had taken Osama’s body, I knew that they had opened a can of worms. Promptly disposing of it at sea was the best solution, I think. Islam does require swift burial, and failure to treat the enemy’s dead with respect is a violation of the rules of war. Publishing photos of the dead is also a violation. That aside, Obama had to walk a fine line between taking credit for this high-profile assassination and not offending the sensibilities of 1 billion plus Muslims in the world who are quick to suspect that the War on Terror is actually a War on Islam. I happen to know that whenever the IDF kills Palestinian terrorists, the bodies are always returned promptly to Palestinian authorities as a matter of policy. Needless to say, the terrorists don’t reciprocate, but that’s what makes them terrorists, and us the good guys. Incidentally, I’m sure the bodies of the other dead were left there at the compound. No danger that they will be venerated, nor was it imperative that their identity be verified by DNA testing.

    I do wonder how the DNA testing could have been completed so quickly. I’m guessing that they held on to some samples — hair, fingernails, perhaps, a tube of blood — to be able to repeat the test if necessary in controlled lab conditions.

    As for those who see in the burial at sea a possibility that bin Laden isn’t really dead, that’s nuts. If he turned up alive in some radio address or video, that would make Obama and the U.S. Armed Forces the laughingstock of the world. No way they would risk such humiliation!

  • M

    As always, our rubbish goes to the sea! I pity the poor fish. Why didn’t they just incinerate the piece of dirt. Surely a monster like him deserves no respect before or after death. And this proves another point, he was nothing more than a good muslim.

  • str

    Rev. Paul.

    “Wouldn’t it be kind of refreshing if our “journlists” put some hard questions to Islamic clerics?”


    But “Was Obama a Muslim, or not? Why, or why not?” is just a plain stupid question – everyone knows that he was a Muslim.

    “Why would he deserve any kind of religious cermony?”

    As opposed to what kind of burial – I supposed you mean that by “religious cer(e)mony” – everyone deserves a proper burial just by being human.

  • W.Sulik

    Mollie, I understand your desire to keep this focused on journalism, not on the details of the burial. Nevertheless, I think there is a lot of frustration with the journalism – the focus on the obsession with whether the U.S. military properly “honored” UBL. Frankly, a lot of people think this guy was worst than a dog’s vomit and are fed up with the deference being shown Islam, which appears to be hypocritical. As Blogger ‘DrewM’ at Ace of Spades wrote: “When I heard last night that the administration was going to ensure that bin Laden’s body would be treated in ‘accordance with Islamic traditions’, I was ok with that because I thought the Muslim practice for dealing with dead enemies was to drag them through the streets and burn the bodies.” This is what has been reported as standard treatment at the hands of Islamists. Why shouldn’t the U.S. follow suit – apparently this is standard practice for enemies. Why do journalists not see the contradictions?

  • C. Wingate

    Curiously, hidden inside of this is some of the “Obama is a Muslim” mess, for surely if he retained a Muslim upbringing, he would not have to ask a bunch of clerics what to do.

    But really it’s something of a no-win situation, and it’s going to be hard for a reporter to come up with a good answer for the propriety for this since, after all, like other Semitic religions, arguing about these points is part and parcel of what they do. One can always find someone, of some apparent credibility, to say that what they have done is wrong. It’s hard for the lay reader, lacking any basis for judging the relative weight of the various opinion-offerers, to assess the value of the judgements rendered.

  • sallyr

    I have to admit to getting a bit tired of the constant complaints of Muslim leaders about how we are provoking backlashes from terrorists. As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no way to avoid provoking these people other than by laying down and entirely surrendering to their majesties every whim.

    Osama’s body got a lot more dignified treatment than most of those killed on 9/11, whose bodies were completely pulverized. Their bodies were denied a decent burial, and their families were denied the small mercy of holding a normal funeral for their deceased loved ones.

    I think these muslim leaders who complained about this should be ashamed of themselves. But this is apparently not in their nature to have any kind of self-reflection or ability to be embarrassed by their complete self-absorption.

  • Paul McCain


    In my faith tradition, a person who is publically and notoriously and willfully engaged in a pattern of behavior that conflicts with our faith is not granted a religious burial.

    A “decent” burial does not mean a burial with religious ceremony, thereby giving public witness that that the person being buried was a member in good standing in the religion doing the ceremony, etc.

    Why would Bin Laden be grated a religious burial in the Muslim religion?

    I’d like to see a journalist post this question to an Islamic cleric.

  • Jettboy

    Have journalists done a story on what Americans think of how the body of Osama was treated? I know more than a few who were very angry that ANY consideration was given to religious rights of what they consider a murderer in the mold of Hitler. Doesn’t matter how much the MSM pretends that Islam is a religion of “peace” and tries to force that narrative. A large percentage of Americans think like W.Sulik, Dusty Feathers, and especially Paul McCain. My wife was in shock that any respect was given the madman. There is a story that the MSM could report and even get their Americans as bigots storyline covered. At least it would show American exist in the discussion.

  • str


    again: what is a “religious burial” – and did UBL get one? Being dumped into the sea doesn’t look like one but that is actually the question of this posting.

    Ah, the last century has generally seen a breaking down of distinctions – I could understand your question in times when suicides were not buried in consecrated ground – but not today.

    Re UBL: it all rather depends on what kind of Muslims one would ask. IMO, it was well-intenioned and proper that the US troops tried to give UBL’s corpse the respect they gave him – even considering he is a mass-murderer – though they probably blundered in the implementation. They solved created by their failure to do the right thing: apprehend the man and bring him to US territory to try him there.