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.)