Leor Halevi: Excommunicating Dead Terrorists

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Leor Halevi, professor of history at Vanderbilt University and winner of the 2008 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award for his book,"Muhammad's Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society."]

Recently the Muslim Council of India sent an important message to the world's Muslims. It asked one of the country's largest Muslim graveyards, Marine Lines Bada Qabrastan, where unclaimed bodies are often interred, to deny burial rites to the nine men who died after terrorizing Mumbai. Refusal to bury the terrorists in a Muslim cemetery signifies not just that terrorist attacks are un-Islamic, a contention often heard, but that their perpetrators become, by carrying these acts, non-Muslim."They cannot be Muslims or followers of Islam," declared Muslim Council president Ibrahim Tai,"so they cannot have a final resting place anywhere on sacred Mother India."

The question then arises, what should India do with the dead bodies?

Options range from repatriating the terrorists to Pakistan, where apparently they were trained, to dumping the corpses at sea, naked, and far from India's shores. The Muslim Council has said it does not care what happens to them, as long as they are disposed of outside of India.

Ordinarily, Muslims hasten to bury the dead as soon as possible after the moment of death. But in this case the bodies of the nine terrorists will remain in a Mumbai morgue until the government can reach a decision on what to do, and that may take some time. (Mateen Hafeez, the reporter who broke the story for the"Times of India," wrote to me that several weeks could easily pass before the Mumbai police takes action, in consultation with the Ministries of External and Home Affairs. Legal hurdles may well emerge, if relatives claim the bodies or if religious organizations contest the deceased men's right to cremation or burial.) Meanwhile Indians are engaged in a riveting debate on whether to treat the corpses with dignity--or not. It is, in fact, very important to think this matter through.

A failure to handle the bodies properly might exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan, and lead to Muslim-Hindu acrimony. Yet the government cannot just leave the dead for eternity in the Sir J.J. Hospital mortuary. It must act soon and decisively, so as not to squander a precious opportunity to make a powerful symbolic statement against terrorism.

Shipping the bodies to Pakistan may seem like a good idea, a way to say to that country,"Here, deal with your terrorists." But Pakistan might well grant the terrorists a Muslim burial, Indians would become furious, and foreign relations between the countries would further deteriorate.

Another option for the Muslim Council to entertain is a symbolic inversion of Islamic death rituals. Normally, Muslims who die an ordinary death are wrapped in shrouds, which envelop the entire body; they are deposited in the grave on their right side and facing Mecca, the direction of Muslim prayers; and ideally a community of forty or more Muslims gathers to intercede with God on their behalf. Martyrs undergo different treatment. According to the Shari'a they should be buried in the battlefield in whatever clothes they were wearing at the time of death, with dirt, bloodstains, and all. They need no funerary prayer to enjoy the afterlife. Martyrdom alone guarantees their salvation. Terrorists would rejoice at the prospect of burial outside of a Muslim cemetery, in their old clothes, without a prayer, for such a fashion of corpse disposal actually resembles what Islamic law prescribes for martyrs.

Why not bury the dead only in yellow underwear, leaving the body shamefully exposed? In the grave, the corpse can be contorted and made to face away from Mecca, because that posture is considered a sign of eternal damnation, a sign that the dead will be tortured in the grave and perhaps refused entry into Paradise. Forty or more Muslims would then gather at the graveside, not to intercede on behalf of the terrorists, but against them. According to an authoritative Islamic tradition, Muslims act as"God's witnesses on earth." When they choose to disparage, rather than to pray, for wicked persons, Hell-Fire will be their certain destination.

But there exist risks in carrying out a cathartic fantasy that would strike everyone as bizarre, merciless and inhumane.

Cremating the dead and scattering the ashes in international waters, as Israel did after executing Adolf Eichmann in 1962, is the best option. Because Islamic law opposes cremation for Muslims, who believe in the physical resurrection of the body, incineration alone would signify a non-Muslim way of disposing of the dead. The ritual would have special significance for India's Muslims, who know that the country's Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists favor this form of corpse disposal. Depositing the ashes at sea would prevent the establishment of a memorial for the deceased, and it would convey the view that terrorism is an international problem.

There is a potential obstacle, however. The Shari'a recommends burial in the earth for unclaimed bodies, of Muslims and others. Consequently, individual Muslims have already begun warning, and circulating petitions, against incineration. Yet the Shari'a allows non-Muslims to carry out their own death rites, in accordance with their own religious laws. If Indian Muslims can agree, then, that the terrorists died as non-Muslims and that burning their bodies is the optimal solution, they simply need to urge the government to dispatch the corpses to the crematorium after ruling on their lack of religion.

Cremation would neither shame the bodies of dead terrorists, nor haunt the minds of would-be terrorists, as powerfully as would a symbolic inversion of standard Muslim rites. But it would convey an effective, reasonable and humanistic message to the world: that a Muslim who commits terrorism dies excommunicated, as an infidel.

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