How Islamic was this burial?

Shortly after I wrote the previous post about the Obama administration's desire to adhere to sharia when it comes to the handling of Osama bin Laden's body, we learned that the burial at sea had already happened. And what that means is we're getting some interesting stories about the role religion played in his burial. The Washington Post informs:

The official said the body was buried "in accordance with Islamic tradition," meaning within 24 hours of bin Laden's death. No information was available as to whether Muslim prayers were recited or the body was ritually washed, as is usually required by Islamic law. In general, burial at sea means tipping the body overboard -- wrapped, likely, in a shroud -- after a brief service.

Of course, we know that Islamic tradition is concerned with more than just the time of burial. I'm rather impressed with this Associated Press report by Hamza Hendawi. While I was hearing reports that Muslim clerics in other countries were upset with this burial, I'm glad we got confirmation in an English-language story:

Muslim clerics said Monday that Osama bin Laden's burial at sea was a violation of Islamic tradition that may further provoke militant calls for revenge attacks against American targets.

Although there appears to be some room for debate over the burial -- as with many issues within the faith -- a wide range of Islamic scholars interpreted it as a humiliating disregard for the standard Muslim practice of placing the body in a grave with the head pointed toward the holy city of Mecca.

Sea burials can be allowed, they said, but only in special cases where the death occurred aboard a ship.

I can't imagine how difficult it is to survey Muslim opinion on a story such as this, but even just acknowledging that there is debate helps. The story gives the perspective of unnamed U.S. officials as to why they justified the sea burial. It includes some interesting discussion about the issues in play:

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."

This is all very helpful information. One thing I'm curious about is the line that "the highest honor" bestowed on the deceased is a swift burial. I'd like to learn more about Muslim teaching about whether this highest honor is merited by all deceased, literally including Osama bin Laden, or whether it's reserved for those who are not mass murderers, for instance.

There is much to learn about Muslim burial practices and the U.S. treatment of same, but this is a good start, I think.

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