Osama bin Laden’s body was placed on a flat board and slid into the sea, was that the proper thing to do? Will he attain bliss on the seabed or rot in purgatory? And what of those 72 virgins promised to all martyrs, will bin Laden get them?
To find out, Digital Dying spoke with Leor Halevi, an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University whose 2007 book, “Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society” explores everything from funerary wailing and corpse washing to the torture of the spirit in the grave.
Bin Laden’s body was washed and covered in a white sheet, a prayer was said then the body was slid overboard, was this the right way to handle the corpse according to Islamic tradition?
One of the bizarre things about all this is bin Laden died in battle but—the burial at sea aside—he was apparently granted more or less the funeral ceremony that pertains to ordinary Muslims who experience death in ordinary circumstances. In Islamic law, the type of burial one gets depends on how one dies. The burial prescribed for those who died on the battlefield is not the same as the burial dictated for people who die ordinary deaths. The rituals are actually totally different. Someone who dies in battle does not have to be buried in a shroud, and no one has to say a prayer.
So did the US mess up, was their burial an insult?
I think it is clear the US did not try to humiliate him in burial. In fact, they have insisted that they did it properly, so even though maritime burial is very, very unusual, it’s obvious that no slight was intended. But that doesn’t mean that people might not take offense and view it as something not normally done for Muslims.
What’s actually happening to bin Laden’s spirit right now at the bottom of the sea?
For Muslims, his fate in the afterlife depends on what type of death they believe he died. The state of his body is irrelevant, theologically speaking, for those who believe he attained martyrdom. Martyrs are given new bodies in paradise the moment they die, and they enjoy a blessed existence. Muslims can gain the status of martyrdom not only through death on the battlefield, but also by dying in horrible ways: in childbirth, for instance, or due to a building collapsing on top of them. People who die in these ways also get new bodies in paradise. But the spirits of Muslims who die an ordinary death are more or less stuck with their bodies until the resurrection. And they can have a pretty miserable time in the grave. Just think of what happens to bodies in death, they decompose, bacteria get them. It’s not very nice. But if Muslims live a sinless life then the torture of the grave, as this punishment in the afterlife is known, does not really apply. Even if they died an ordinary death, their sojourn in this period between death and the resurrection is far more pleasant.
If martyrs get new bodies immediately upon death, then it seems it would not matter where you buried them?
That’s a good question, and it depends if you ask from an emotional, a political or a theological perspective. So, theologically speaking, it wouldn’t matter, but in other respects, I think it would.
Will bin Laden get the 72 virgins?
Someone who considers bin Laden a martyr might take that as a corollary. But Muslims who do not consider bin Laden a martyr would disagree. How bin Laden is ranked in the afterlife will depend, of course, mostly on politics and ideology. But the recent disclosure that he died without a weapon in hand will also play a factor in discussions about this issue.
What’s the history of burial at sea within Islam?
Burial at sea is connected to the sea voyages in the Middle Ages, and discussion in Islamic law goes back to the 8th century. There was a fairly robust commerce in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean in premodern times. Merchants traded silk, slaves, ceramics, gold, mostly luxury goods. In Baghdad, ships arrived from all parts of the world bringing coveted foreign wares. Voyages across the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean could take several weeks and even months. Sailors tried to hug the coast, but that was not always possible. They were sometimes out at sea for months. If someone died on board, keeping a corpse could become unbearable. Something had to be done. Do you try to hang on to the decomposing corpse? Do you dump it? Tow it? Store it in a compartment? These questions all came up. That’s why medieval jurists addressed the eventuality of burial at sea.