Watery grave, murky law

Watery grave, murky law

After Osama bin Laden’s corpse was slipped into the North
Arabian Sea, the White House’s chief counterterrorism adviser declared that the
United States had buried him “in strict conformance with Islamic precepts and
practices.” According to a senior military official, the body was washed,
shrouded and dispatched with a funeral prayer.

Despite its best efforts, the U.S. government still has much to
learn about the intricacies of Muslim funerary law. Its strictures are more
nuanced, and perhaps also more flexible, than it imagined.

According to the Quran, the origins of burial stretch back to
the dawn of humanity. Cain, full of remorse after killing his brother, was
inspired by a ground-scratching raven to hide the naked corpse in the earth.
Islamic law insists on this ritual as the ideal one.

But medieval jurists did recognise that travellers and
merchants sometimes died at sea. Shafii, the founder of a Sunni school of law,
recommended that ships either keep the body on board until they could reach
land or sandwich it between two wooden slabs and tow it with a rope.

Other jurists prescribed different actions, depending on the
circumstances. If the ship was far from shore and the body began to decompose,
then it was permissible to deposit it in the sea, weighted with metal or stone
so that it would sink to the bottom. Jurists hoped that sailors, while lowering
the deceased, would turn his face toward Mecca. Releasing the corpse in a
floating coffin was also an option, if there was a good chance that it would
wash up on the shores of a Muslim country, where the body would receive last
rites on land.

In general, however, Shariah permits burial at sea only in
extraordinary circumstances. So some interpreters of Islamic law have rushed to
denounce what was done with bin Laden’s body. But the implication that bin
Laden deserved an ordinary Muslim burial doesn’t necessarily comply with that
law. Islamic jurists have always made important exceptions to burial rites,
depending on how the deceased lived and died.

Largely because of the exigencies of war, those who died on the
battlefield were traditionally not entitled to standard rites. In accordance
with Shariah, their corpses may be deposited in communal graves. There is no
need for prayers, or for washing or shrouding their bodies; immediately upon
death martyrs’ bodies are miraculously regenerated, and they receive silken
robes in paradise.

Medieval jurists also made exceptions for highway robbers,
violent rebels and unrepentant apostates, who were on occasion dismembered and
decapitated, their remains left on display. Shafii argued that just rulers
ought to treat the bodies of executed rebels respectfully and that they could
administer last rites. But many jurists disagreed, arguing that they were
undeserving of such honors.

These exceptions matter because bin Laden’s religious status is
a matter of contention among Muslims. 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 U.S. 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.

(Leor Halevi, an
associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University, is the author of
“Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society).”

© 2011 The New York Times

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