Leor Halevi: Watery Grave, Murky Law (Re: bin Laden)

Roundup: Historians' Take

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.”

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 United States 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 Koran, 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 recognize that travelers 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.

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