Background on Islamic laws on burial at sea from Leor Halevi, an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University, ran in the New York Times today. Halevi is the author of Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society.
Here’s what he had to say on the religion’s rituals in the Week in Review section:
AFTER Osama bin Laden’s corpse was slipped into the North Arabian Sea, the White House’s chief counterterrorism adviser declared that the United States had buried him “in strict conformance with Islamic precepts and practices.” According to a senior military official, the body was washed, shrouded and dispatched with a funeral prayer.
Despite its best efforts, the United States government still has much to learn about the intricacies of Muslim funerary law. Its strictures are more nuanced, and perhaps also more flexible, than it imagined.
According to the Koran, the origins of burial stretch back to the dawn of humanity. Cain, full of remorse after killing his brother, was inspired by a ground-scratching raven to hide the naked corpse in the earth. Islamic law insists on this ritual as the ideal one.
But medieval jurists did recognize that travelers and merchants sometimes died at sea. Shafii, the founder of a Sunni school of law, recommended that ships either keep the body on board until they could reach land or sandwich it between two wooden slabs and tow it with a rope.
Other jurists prescribed different actions, depending on the circumstances. If the ship was far from shore and the body began to decompose, then it was permissible to deposit it in the sea, weighted with metal or stone so that it would sink to the bottom. Jurists hoped that sailors, while lowering the deceased, would turn his face toward Mecca. Releasing the corpse in a floating coffin was also an option, if there was a good chance that it would wash up on the shores of a Muslim country, where the body would receive last rites on land.
In general, however, Shariah permits burial at sea only in extraordinary circumstances. So some interpreters of Islamic law have rushed to denounce what was done with Bin Laden’s body. But the implication that Bin Laden deserved an ordinary Muslim burial doesn’t necessarily comply with that law. Islamic jurists have always made important exceptions to burial rites, depending on how the deceased lived and died.
Largely because of the exigencies of war, those who died on the battlefield were traditionally not entitled to standard rites. In accordance with Shariah, their corpses may be deposited in communal graves. There is no need for prayers, or for washing or shrouding their bodies; immediately upon death martyrs’ bodies are miraculously regenerated, and they receive silken robes in paradise.
Medieval jurists also made exceptions for highway robbers, violent rebels and unrepentant apostates, who were on occasion dismembered and decapitated, their remains left on display. Shafii argued that just rulers ought to treat the bodies of executed rebels respectfully and that they could administer last rites. But many jurists disagreed, arguing that they were undeserving of such honors.
These exceptions matter because Bin Laden’s religious status is a matter of contention among Muslims. On one end of the spectrum are Muslims who consider him an outsider to Islam: if not quite an apostate, a terrorist whose right to an official Muslim prayer is debatable at best. (In 2005 the Islamic Commission of Spain essentially excommunicated Bin Laden, arguing that he should not be treated as a Muslim.) They must find it as perplexing as I do that the United States government granted the man it identified not as a Muslim, but as a “mass murderer of Muslims,” the dubious honor of a quasi-Islamic funeral.
On the other end are Muslims who believe that Bin Laden is now enjoying the blessings of martyrdom. From a theological perspective, it matters little to them how Americans on the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson disposed of the corpse.
Which is all to say that Bin Laden’s burial was doctrinally irrelevant to some Muslims, and confusing to others. Most of the rest feel uneasy. Perhaps the United States could not have avoided that. But a deeper understanding of the history of Islam’s sacred law could have prevented us from seeming so at sea.