Islamic expert dissects bin Laden burial

Islamic expert dissects bin Laden burial

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Osama bin Laden's burial at sea occurred off the deck of the USS Vinson, pictured. (Source: Navy.mil) Osama bin Laden's burial at sea occurred off the deck of the USS Vinson, pictured. (Source: Navy.mil)
Osama bin Laden was not armed at the time of his death, according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. (Source: CNN) Osama bin Laden was not armed at the time of his death, according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. (Source: CNN)

CHESTNUT HILL, MA (RNN) - News that 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was swiftly buried at sea and in "conformance with Islamic precepts and practices" left some scholars confused and many Americans skeptical.

"That made me curious, because there is no such tradition that requires a man who dies on land to be taken out and buried to the sea," Akbar Ahmed, chairman of Islamic Studies at American University, said to CNN.

Ahmed was reacting to the news first made public Monday by John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. Brennan's words also left those who wanted tangible proof of bin Laden's death skeptical.

Kathleen Bailey, associate director of the Islamic Studies and Societies Program at Boston College, confirmed the White House's statement that Muslim religious customs require a burial to occur within 24 hours. Bailey also said bin Laden's burial indicates that he was not a martyr, and it prevents his body from becoming a shrine to jihadists.

Additional details of bin Laden's burial were made public Tuesday in a White House press briefing. After the former al-Qaeda leader was killed, unarmed, in a 40-minute assault, his body was brought aboard the USS Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea for burial.

According to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who read from a narrative prepared by the Department of Defense, bin Laden's body was then washed.

"Washing is always important to Muslims, which is why washing takes place before each of the five daily prayers," Bailey said. "It symbolizes purity before God."

The bathing of the body is done with scented water and is usually performed an odd number of times, she said.

"The idea is that a Muslim should not be embalmed, or have anything artificial in his body when he sees God," she said.

Bin Laden's body was then wrapped in a white sheet, Carney said.

"The covering or shroud is usually white cotton cloth – five pieces of cloth – and is used for decency and modesty," Bailey said.

Interestingly, Bailey noted that Muslim martyrs are not buried this way. Bailey said martyrs are not washed, and they are buried in the clothes they were wearing at the time of their death.

"Their martyrdom makes them already clean," she said.

Carney said bin Laden's body was then place in a weighted bag. At that point, a military official read from prepared religious remarks, which were translated by a native speaker.

Bailey summarized the prayer likely read by the officials.

"The prayer is called Janazeh, and is similar to daily prayer, except without prostrations and bowing or ablutions," she said. "The burial prayers must be recited by a Muslim in Arabic. Clerics usually do it, but if one is not available, any Muslim can say them."

Carney, however, would not say if an imam or Muslim was present for the ceremony, saying only that the ceremony honored Islamic precepts and practices. Bailey said if the person reading prayers was a native Arabic speaker, he was almost certainly a Muslim.

" I think the US was prepared for this and probably had a Muslim cleric all set to go," she said.

Bailey said the Janazeh is mostly silent, and in most cases, women are not allowed to participate in a burial, an interesting fact, as a team of all-male Navy SEALs is reported to have handled the assault on bin Laden.

After the text was read, Carney said bin Laden's corpse was "placed on a prepared flat board, tipped up, and the deceased body eased into the sea."

Bailey said when a Muslim is buried in the ground, he must face Mecca, an impossibility if done at sea.

"If it's possible that a grave might be defiled, then I assume a Muslim would prefer burial at sea," she said.

In his news conference, Brennan said bin Laden's body was immediately removed from Pakistan and the logistics of finding a gravesite in another country proved impossible. Rumors indicated that the U.S. asked Saudi Arabia to take bin Laden's body, but the nation refused, causing the U.S. to run out of its short 24-hour window for burial, and making a burial at sea the only option.

"Going to another country, making those arrangements, requirements, would have exceeded that time period, in our view," he said. "And so, therefore, we thought that the best way to ensure that his body was given an appropriate Islamic burial was to take those actions that would allow us to do that burial at sea."

Brennan said the appropriate specialists and experts were consulted about the decision. However, Bailey is left to assume that burial at sea was always the plan.

" If he was buried in the ground it would quickly become a rallying point for jihadists and would have been a big mistake," she said. "I also assume that the order was to kill Osama bin Laden - not capture him - for the same reason."

Bailey's words confirm media reports of concerns in the Obama administration that if bin Laden were buried, his body could have become a shrine.

Bailey said that while the practice of shrines and grave worshipping are frowned upon by orthodox Muslims, many cases have presented themselves in history. Such practices are particularly prevalent in Central Asia and Afghanistan, where bin Laden once lived, she said.

"Oftentimes, stories of magical powers arise, and people go to the site for its healing powers," she said. "It becomes a gathering place."

By depositing bin Laden's body at sea, the U.S. government has made such an effort impossible. But bin Laden already had a mythical presence before his death, partly engendered by his eluding U.S. authorities for so long, Bailey said.

"He encouraged this king of thing, even comparing himself to Mohammed."

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