The OBL Burial Issue

by Shannen W. Coffin

There is outrage in some corners of the Muslim world over the sea burial of bin Laden. According to a piece in the Daily Mail (which repeats criticisms found in other publications), “The head of Egypt’s prestigious seat of Sunni Muslim learning, al-Azhar, said the sea burial ‘contradicts all the religious values and human norms’.” 

It may be that these stories are searching for outraged Muslims, so perhaps they don’t represent mainstream sentiment. But the question that occurs to me is whether these outraged clerics are admitting that, in their view, Osama bin Laden represents Islam. Were OBL a self-described Catholic, the proper response to his death as an unrepentant terrorist would be to deny him the rite of Christian burial, and I suspect most Christian religions would reach the same result. That isn’t to say that you couldn’t find a priest who would bend the rules, but it shouldn’t be the proper approach.

I don’t purport to be a scholar of Islamic doctrine, but are there circumstances where a self-described Muslim should be denied a burial in accordance with Islam? And if that is the case, why should some Islamic scholars be upset that the military’s otherwise honorable burial of bin Laden didn’t comply in all aspects with Islamic law or tradition? If even the most evil and unrepentant Muslims should be shown an honorable Muslim burial, I suppose the criticisms might have some basis (although even there, I would suspect it is a matter of interpretation). 

The administration and the military made a rather large point of handling OBL’s body, to the extent possible, in accordance with Muslim law. This is understandable to the extent they sought to avoid provoking faithful Muslims. But my question is: Why should faithful Muslims be upset about how a mass murderer’s remains are disposed of? Is it disrespectful to Islam to afford a less-than-Islamic burial to a man that, according to President Obama, “distorts Islam?”

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