Shortly after Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. special operation forces, his body was buried at sea. The justification for this was given by John O. Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser. In an official statement, Brennan said, “The disposal of – the burial of Bin Laden’s remains was done in strict conformance with Islamic precepts and practices… it was prepared in accordance with the Islamic requirements.”
It has been reported that the decision to bury Bin Laden at sea if he was killed was made prior to his elimination. Brennan indicated that the administration consulted with Islamic experts over the decision before proceeding. “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,” said Brennan.
A senior defense official explained saying, “The justification for burial at sea is when there is no land alternative. And as – according to Islamic teachings and practice, deceased must be buried with proper procedures within 24 hours. And that was the basis for that decision… There was no available alternative in terms of a country that was willing to accept the body, and we took pains to ensure that we were compliant with Muslim tradition and law and sought to dispose of the body, using the appropriate procedures and rituals, within 24 hours.”
According to Islamic tradition, a body must be buried in a timely fashion, washed, shrouded in white cloth and a ritual prayer must be performed. After these rites are fulfilled, the body is buried in the ground.
There are circumstances in which a body may be laid to rest at sea. These include cases when a person passes on a vessel at sea and decaying is feared before arriving at land, and if it is feared that an enemy may dig up the body after it has been buried and its religious rites performed.
Internationally, religious figures have disagreed about the Islamic validity of the United States’ decision to bury Bin Laden at sea.
According to an al-Azhar statement by Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb he “condemns the reports, if true, of the throwing of the body of Osama bin Laden into the sea.” The action “contradicts all the religious values and human norms.”
It appears that there were misunderstandings about how Bin Laden’s body was handled, with early reports claiming that his body was dropped into the sea from the deck of an aircraft carrier after troops killed him in Pakistan. In the most recent reports, it has been learned that the religious rites for Bin Laden’s body were conducted aboard the deck of the USS Carl Vinson in the Arabian Sea.
The burial started at 1:10am and ended at 2:10 a.m. ET, according to a senior Defense official. He reported that, “the body was washed and placed in a white sheet. A military official read prepared remarks, which were then translated into Arabic by a native speaker. The body of Osama bin Laden was placed on a flat board, which was then tipped up, and allowed to slide into the sea.”
In the unlikely event that a country would accept the body of Bin Laden, the fear exists that the site would turn into a shrine for extremists. More importantly, it would not be in the political interest of a state to accept the body of Bin Laden, especially a Muslim country, as the state risks being considered a sympathizer to Bin Laden’s perverted views.
Akbar Ahmed, Chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University, said, “Shrines are very powerful… shrines of controversial figures in Muslim history become centers to attract the angry, the disenchanted. The shrine bestows powers of religious charisma. If they allowed Osama bin Laden to be buried in Pakistan, his followers would show up, plant flowers, and women will say the shrine has healing powers, especially among the uneducated. His myth would continue to grow.” This pattern is seen with shrines throughout the world. Because the adherents to Bin Laden’s ideology tend to reject shrines, one could make the case that there is not a great possibility for a shrine to form. However, a burial at sea is considered to be not only tactical, but appropriate as well in order to avoid the possibility of a shrine that would attract sympathizers entirely and would also protect any land from taking the blame of “accepting” Bin Laden’s body.
Islamic law takes into account extraordinary circumstances and it is arguable that the burial of Osama bin Laden falls into this category. The burial in question is of Al-Qaeda’s leader, a man who has distorted Islam’s image around the world, gaining thousands of followers in the process. Given this weighted situation, charged reactions to the method of burial could be expected. It is only wise to have chosen a burial method that would work to counter any negative backlash.
Whether the body of Bin Laden was buried in accordance with Islamic law or not remains open to debate, as scholars interpret the circumstance of Bin Laden’s death differently. Some have argued that his family should have been given the body – others believe that the way it was handled was the most sensible decision. Two important principles in Islamic law include doing the greater good and preventing harm to others. By preventing an Osama bin Laden memorial that stokes emotions and attempting to minimize backlash, it seems that burial at sea may have accomplished just that.