Last night, I was overcome with both a sense of relief and fear at the news of Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of a U.S. Navy SEAL team. This is something American’s over the last decade have been hoping and praying for, the day when we could rest at last upon the capture of our arch-enemy. But I have not found rest on this day, rather I have found a deep pit in my stomach, stemming from not only his death but his burial.
Islamic tradition can often be a difficult thing for a non-Muslim to grasp, which is largely the reason that I’ve spent so much of my time this last year focusing on it in my studies. It’s fascinating and difficult to study a culture rooted in such drastically different tradition than my own. In my search for answers regarding the very controversial burial at sea that bin Laden received, I contacted a revered professor at Arizona State University, Dr. Abdullahi Gallab, whom has extensive knowledge in Islamic law, history and tradition, and who graciously linked me to reliable sources.
Tradition in Islam is crucial to orthodoxy and orthopraxy, requiring at times a delicate negotiation of rituals and duties. Death is an event that is very meaningful in the life of a devout Muslim, ushering the believer into an afterlife with Allah and a judgement of the deeds done by the follower. The Quran tells of God’s creation of Adam from a lump of clay, filled with Divine light, or the spirit of God. All people are thought to be a body, or shell, of clay, represented by darkness, with a center of Divine spirit, or pure light. The space between body or shell, and spirit or light, is the soul — mixed darkness and light. The unique mixture of body and spirit in the soul is what differentiates individuals. At the time of death, the shell of clay is removed, exposing the soul to God (Chittick, 1992). As in other religions, death is not the final journey of a Muslim but rather the start of an entirely new life . After death, Islamic tradition requires the preparation of the body begin immediately. In pre-Islamic tradition the failure to bury a corpse would deprive the soul of eternal rest (Kassis, 1997).
When thinking of a burial at sea, one most often conjures of images of Vikings sending off their fallen soldiers into a the ocean on a fiery barge of wood. However, the Muslim tradition of burial at sea intimates a vastly different type of burial. Especially since in Islam, cremating a body is forbidden. Ebrahim Moosa, a Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University, has described the Islamic tradition in which burial at sea is prescribed. He indicates that burial at sea is permissible when a corpse threatens the health of other passengers and when a land burial is impossible. The body is to be wrapped in a shroud, placed in a casket, and sent off into the ocean with the hope that it would arrive on land allowing the residents to lay the body to rest. If the ship is too far from land, the casket is loaded down with weights to ensure it sinks to the ocean floor. In each of these cases, it is implied that the corpse died on a ship rather than on land, where there would be different burial requirements.
The U.S. Government has stated in various places that there were no countries willing to intern the body of bin Laden for reasons many of us can understand. Burying the body of one of the most hated men of my lifetime would certainly bring a large amount of criticism if people were to interpret that as a sympathetic gesture. Also, where ever he would be buried would certainly become a controversial site, drawing supporters to enshrine his grave and victims who may desecrate the grave out of grief and deep-set hatred. Let’s remember, Bin Laden not only murdered several thousand American’s but Muslim’s all over the Middle East. In fact, one article I cam across stated that he murdered 8x more Muslims than Americans, which would certainly create a level of hatred among the world-wide congregation of Muslims.
When we consider these facts, there are still questions remaining. The largest of which in my mind, is “will this effort to intern bin Laden in a respectful and traditional way be received with the respect in which it was intended?”. Obviously we also have to combat the sneaking suspicion that “if there aren’t any pictures, it didn’t happen”. But the reception of this action is the cause of my greatest concern. The radical Arab world (called in my line of study “Islamists”) often finds fault in everything America does, regardless of intent. My concern however, actually pertains to the reactions of the more moderate Muslim’s in the world who have been victims of Islamists, but who also have disagreed with the actions taken against the Muslim world on behalf of America. My hope is that they would recognize the American soldiers acted as respectfully as they could (burying the body before nightfall) when facing the challenge of no country wanting his body at all. Surely we could have done horrific things to bin Laden, things I’ve seen mentioned on Facebook/Twitter and heard from friends and family, things involving the desecration of the body. Did his burial follow Islamic tradition to the letter? No, but it seems great efforts were made to do so. Will we get credit for that? Only time will tell. I would hope that the sincerity of the gesture would sound loud and clear to the Muslim community in the United States, and the community world-wide. My Muslim brothers and sisters who practice their faith in love and peace are surely rejoicing with us this day, as a terrorist of many has been brought to justice. Sadly, the animosity toward the United States as a result of political frustration, post-colonialism, and economic disparity and inequity that encouraged the acts of men like bin Laden, are still alive and well in much of the Middle East.
For now, I lay in wait with bated breath, hoping for the best but sadly expecting the worst.
Rachel Page Gerrick