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Osama Bin Laden's Death——and the Islamic Way of Burial

Lee Smith

Tariq Ramadan is the latest in a long chorus to criticize the Obama administration for killing Osama bin Laden. The organization that his grandfather Hassan al-Banna started, the Muslim Brotherhood, along with its Palestinian branch Hamas, mourned the death of the holy warrior, while more moderate voices, like the Sheikh of Al Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb, simply complained that his death rites were inappropriate. Ramadan seems to align himself with the latter. “It’s very strange,” Ramadan told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “that we drop his body in the sea, against all the Islamic rituals, and we are told the Islamic rituals and principles are respected.”

As it happens, the White House has more justice on its side here than Ramadan or Al Azhar, Egypt’s famous seat of Sunni religious authority. The key judgment here seems to come from Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855), the conservative Baghdad-based scholar who gave his name to one of the four major schools of Sunni jurisprudence, and who devoted attention to Islamic maritime law with the rise of the Muslim navy. It is true that Islam was born in the desert of the Arabian peninsula, but it wasn’t long before the Arab conquerors swept through the rest of what would become the Arabic-speaking Middle East, including those parts of it that were once administered by the Byzantines. Greek ports and ships were part of the prize, and so Byzantine maritime law became one of the sources for Muslim maritime law. Ahmad ibn Hanbal judged that burial at sea was permissible—if the decedent had died at sea and it was difficult to bury them on an island, or if it was impossible to reach land in a day or two. The problem for the White House of course is that Bin Laden didn’t die at sea; the other side of the problem is that no one else wanted the body.

Of course, the White House also feared that bin Laden’s grave might become something of a shrine. This reasonable concern suggests that the administration’s signaling is at odds with its beliefs. That it to say, if the Obama White House, like the Bush White House before it, believes that bin Laden’s message of violence had no purchase with the vast majority of Muslims, then what are they afraid of?

Presumably the administration anticipated some of the criticism that would come its way from both sides of the world, including its own. On one hand, there are the Muslim activists and ideologues who have one problem or another with the death of bin Laden. And then there all those Americans who are wondering why such unusual care was lavished on the corpse of an enemy responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans.

As it turns out, the White House probably need not have bothered with the washing, the white sheet and the prayers, spoken, according to White House spokesman Jay Carney, in English and then Arabic. The Muslims who didn’t like bin Laden probably couldn’t care less how his body was disposed of. This would include the families of his Muslim victims and perhaps up to 300 million Shia who recognized that, along with Americans and Jews, al Qaeda had it out for them, too.

Among the Muslims who admired bin Laden, like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, many probably believe that by being killed in his war against the infidel colonial aggressor, i.e., the United States, he died a martyr’s death. If that is the case that Bin Laden died a martyr, then there is no need to question his proper Islamic burial. According to Ahmed al-Rahim, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Virginia, “martyrs, as a general rule, don’t need to be ritually washed and prayed over, they can even be buried in their bloody clothes.”

Al-Rahim cites two often quoted Koranic passages addressing the station of the “martyr”:

“And say not of those slain in God’s way, ‘They are dead’; rather they are living, but you are not aware.” (A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, Oxford, 2008; 2:154.)

“Count not those who were slain in God’s way as dead, but rather living with their Lord, by Him provided, rejoicing in the bounty that God has given them, and joyful in those who remain behind and have not joined them, because no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow, joyful in blessing and bounty from God, and that God leaves not to waste the wage of the believers.” (Arberry, The Koran; 3:169-71.)
“The interpretation of these two passages,” says al-Rahim, “is that God brings ‘martyrs’ directly to heaven. For everyone else there’s purgatory first, which is the reason for the ritual washing and the prayers.”

It’s that great middle ground, or between those Muslims that think the holy warrior is a martyr and those who could care less about the fate of bin Laden, that seems to pose a problem for the White House. This is the space the Sorbonne-educated Sheikh of Al Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb shares with Tariq Ramadan. They’re both looking for room to criticize the Americans obliquely in order to win points with their constituency without supporting bin Laden outright and therefore damaging their credentials as moderates. Where Tayeb couches his critique in standard Middle East rhetoric—“the killing of Bin Laden will create thousands of Bin Ladens,” a conceit once employed by his former boss Hosni Mubarak—Ramadan uses the language of Western law and due process. “If it was possible to arrest him and to bring him to justice, this is what we would have liked,” said Ramadan.

Ramadan plays his hand perfectly. He’s not a supporter of bin Laden—even as he has made it clear he does favor resistance, especially against Israel—but this is an opportunity that he can’t let pass. This is how he reminds his interlocutors in the West that he is the man they need to speak to. He’s not a sell-out, like some of the Muslims who have achieved prominence in the West for their criticism of Islam and Middle Eastern political cultures. He’s the real thing, with his ear to the ground and therefore capable of listening to and speaking with all those thousands of nascent bin Ladens who, says the Sheikh of Al Azhar, the killing of bin Laden will now give rise to.

The question is, who are all those people that are likely to be “radicalized” in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death and his controversial burial? Maybe Tayeb and Ramadan and other Muslim spokesmen are misrepresenting reality and, aside from the known extremists, they are the only ones talking about the death of bin Laden in order to boost their own popularity. What’s worrying is that the Obama administration seems to believe they are telling the truth, that there are plenty of Muslims likely to take up arms against the United States, again, if they’re given the opening. Otherwise, or if there weren’t so many potential bin Ladens in the making, bin Laden wouldn’t have gotten his special send-off.

If American policymakers imagined that bin Laden was a decisive wedge issue among the Muslim masses, his death shows that this was far from true. Even now, some Muslims see an advantage in playing both sides, not really with bin Laden, but certainly not against him either. The fact is that at least two presidential administrations and several U.S. Congresses have acknowledged that the United States is at war with an organization whose grand strategy is to kill Americans—and of those already killed, none of their funeral rites were of much concern to the Sheikh of Al Azhar or the grandson of Hassan al-Banna. To fret over bin Laden’s end, to lament the killing of an American enemy, identifies you as something other than a friend of the United States. George W. Bush was ridiculed for his lack of nuance, but ten years after 9/11, there are many Americans who still want to know: Are you with us, or against us?

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