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Buried at Sea: Details and Explanations

May 2, 2011

According to MSNBC:

CAIRO — Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was buried at sea from the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the north Arabian Sea after being washed according to Islamic custom during a religious funeral, a U.S. defense official said on Monday.

“Preparations for at-sea burial began at 1:10 a.m. EST and were completed at 2 a.m. EST,” the official said. “Traditional procedures for Islamic burial were followed.”

The official described the procedure to NBC News as follows:

•The deceased’s body was washed and then placed in a white sheet.
•The body was placed in a weighted bag.
•A military officer read prepared religious remarks which were translated into Arabic by a native speaker.
•After the words were complete, the body was placed on a prepared flat board, tipped up, whereupon the deceased’s body eased into the sea from the USS Vinson.
The rites sparked a debate about Islamic customs, with some Muslim clerics calling the procedure humiliating and others saying it was proper.

A U.S. official said that the burial decision was made after concluding that it would have been difficult to find a country willing to accept the remains. There also was speculation about worry that a grave site could have become a rallying point for militants.

President Barack Obama said the remains had been handled in accordance with Islamic custom, which requires speedy burial.

U.S. officials told NBC News that the Koran is not specific about burials, as long as the body of the diseased is cleansed quickly. There is no single authoritative Islamic text on burial, they said.

The standard Muslim practice is placing the body in a grave with the head pointed toward the holy city of Mecca, some clerics said. Sea burials can be allowed, they said, but only in special cases where the death occurred aboard a ship.

“The Americans want to humiliate Muslims through this burial, and I don’t think this is in the interest of the U.S. administration,” said Omar Bakri Mohammed, a radical cleric in Lebanon.

He called the burial a “strategic mistake” that was bound to stoke rage.

Khalid Latif, executive director and chaplain for the Islamic Center at New York University (NYU), disagreed.

“I think the White House showed an immense amount of wisdom in the manner they decided to bury him,” Latif told

Latif, also a New York Police Department chaplain, said that under Islamic law it would be important to weigh the impact that bin Laden’s burial anywhere on land would have on most people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

“Given the fact that this person was one of the most hated individuals who ever lived, we have to be mindful of what his burial means to people on the whole of the earth,” he said. “I wouldn’t want my brother, my father, my loved one to be buried anywhere near him.”

“My bigger concern is not the treatment of his body … my bigger concern here is what impact (the burial) has on people as a whole.”

Latif said he hoped bin Laden’s death would mean the end to a painful chapter for Muslim and non-Muslim relations.

“Muslims really hated this man,” he said. “He has caused so many problems for Muslims in general.”

‘Land and sea belong to God’
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.”

Clerics in Iraq — where an offshoot of al-Qaida is blamed for the death of thousands of people since 2003 — also criticized the U.S. action. One said it only benefited fish.

“If a man dies on a ship that is a long distance from land, then the dead man should be buried at the sea,” said Shiite cleric Ibrahim al-Jabari. “But if he dies on land, then he should be buried in the ground, not to be thrown into the sea. Otherwise, this would be only inviting fish to a banquet.”

The Islamic tradition of a quick burial was the subject of intense debate in Iraq in 2003 when U.S. forces embalmed the bodies of Saddam Hussein’s two sons after they were killed in a firefight. Their bodies were later shown to media.

“What was done by the Americans is forbidden by Islam and might provoke some Muslims,” said another Islamic scholar from Iraq, Abdul-Sattar al-Janabi, who preaches at Baghdad’s famous Abu Hanifa mosque. “It is not acceptable and it is almost a crime to throw the body of a Muslim man into the sea. The body of bin Laden should have been handed over to his family to look for a country or land to bury him.”

Prominent Egyptian Islamic analyst and lawyer Montasser el-Zayat said bin Laden’s sea burial was designed to prevent his grave from becoming a shrine. But an option was an unmarked grave.

“They don’t want to see him become a symbol, but he is already a symbol in people’s hearts.”

NBC News,’s Brinley Bruton and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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