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Opinion: Bin Laden's sea burial was 'sad miscalculation'

By Abdal Hakim Murad, Special to CNN
  • The burial at sea was a sad miscalculation, says Abdal Hakim Murad
  • Murad: Muslim leaders have found the procedure entirely unacceptable
  • Shaykh Ahmad al-Tayyib said the U.S. action was a violation of Islamic procedures
  • Osama bin Laden
  • Islam
  • Al Qaeda

Editor's note: Abdal Hakim Murad is a lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University, England. In 2010 he was voted Britain's most influential Muslim thinker by Jordan's Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center. His latest book, Bombing without Moonlight, is about the religious meaning of suicide bombing.

(CNN) -- Death, as Henry James put it, is "that distinguished thing." Whether we believe in immortality or think that consciousness dies with the body, we instinctively treat it with a mixture of nervousness and respect. We remember the deaths of Socrates, of Kennedy, of Gandhi, and of Hitler.

Unless suicidal, their deaths were not of their choosing; yet in a strange way they remain a living part of their legacy. Sometimes our final moments forever shape the way we are remembered.

The death and disposal of the Middle East's "Dark Lord," was always going to be an iconic moment. Its symbolism would provide a particular twist to the way he was remembered. Doubtless this was realized by President Obama's strategists. Yet there are good reasons, pragmatic as well as idealistic, to suggest that the final showdown with Osama bin Laden was dangerously mismanaged.

The burial at sea was a sad miscalculation. It is not clear where the Pentagon finds its information on Islamic rituals. It cannot ignore, however, the fact that Muslim leaders have found the procedure by which the cadaver was tipped into the sea, following an unspecified Muslim ceremony, entirely unacceptable.

The leading scholarly institution in the Muslim world is Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. And the Muslim world has heard, with disquiet, Al-Azhar's judgement on the "sea burial."

The burial at sea was a "violation of Islamic procedures"
--Shaykh Ahmad al-Tayyib

Although Bin Laden had routinely attacked Al-Azhar's scholars as apostates and collaborators with the Egyptian regime, and they had no time for his Wahhabi beliefs, the Azharites were unanimous. The head of Al-Azhar, Shaykh Ahmad al-Tayyib, proclaimed the American action to be a violation of Islamic procedures.

"This contradicts all humanitarian principles," he declared. "In Islamic law, it is forbidden to mistreat a human body, whatever its religion or sect may have been. To honor a body, one must bury it."

iReport: Opinions abound after bin Laden's death

The venerated former Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Nasr Farid Wasil, spoke even more forcibly. The procedures apparently followed by the Americans, including the shrouding of the body were, he said, incorrect and "illogical."

He was followed by Taha Abu Kuraysha, a leading expert in Islamic law, who said the American procedure amounted to a "mutilation" of a dead body, "entirely forbidden by Islam."

Bin Laden's watery funeral is looking, therefore, like a kind of macabre posthumous victory. By failing to dispose of the body in a way acceptable to Muslims, as defined by their leaders, America has helped to create a further legend about its contempt for Islam.

Moreover, it has shown that, 10 years after 9/11, it has still not managed to understand even the most basic of Muslim practices. The result is likely to be further mistrust, at a moment that should have been a turning point, and a closing of an ugly and bitter chapter.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Abdal Hakim Murad.

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