Barack Obama and the U.S. government made it clear that Osama bin Laden was buried in strict accordance with Muslim law. But how accurate is this statement?
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Leor Halevi, author of Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society suggests that the United States in fact lacks “a deeper understanding of the history of Islam’s sacred law.”
In tracing the shifts in Islamic law regarding burial, Halevi reveals that in many cases the circumstances of death determines the most appropriate method of handling the dead. He argues that according to Islamic law burial at sea, the method used for bin Laden, is used only in extraordinary circumstances. This has led some interpreters of Islamic law to denounce the actions of the United States.
Another complicating factor is that decisions about burial rites is often influenced by how the deceased lived. Thus, the case of bin Laden is particularly challenging given that “Bin Laden’s religious status is a matter of contention.” Halevi continues:
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.