The Reason behind Osama bin Laden’s Burial at the Sea


In May 2011, Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind 9/11, was killed by American soldiers at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Bin Laden grew up under the influence of the radical pan-Islamist scholar Abdullah Azzam, and was the founder of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, which perpetrated countless acts of violence in the name of religion. After the tragedy of 9/11, the U.S. government carried out a diligent search for bin Laden, but he evaded capture for nearly ten years.

In 2010, his compound was located, and a few months later, the Navy SEALs carried out a successful counterterrorism mission that ended with bin Laden's death.

Bin Laden’s Death

After the Al-Qaeda leader was killed, his body was evacuated via helicopter, and taken to Afghanistan for official DNA identification. From there, it was flown to the USS Carl Vinson, an American aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean.

The procedure of his burial has been kept highly secretive, first clarified in 2012 through emails released by the US Defense Department. His body was washed according to Islamic belief, placed in a white sheet and then inside a weighted bag.

A military officer read out some religious statements, which were translated into Arabic by a native speaker. Finally, the body was placed on a flat board that tipped up, from where it slid into the sea.

Islamic Burial Customs

Bin Laden's funeral generally conformed to Islamic burial rites, with the ritual ablution and reading of religious remarks. His body was also buried within 24 hours, in accordance with Islamic tradition.

However, a major point of contention with Muslims is that his burial was at sea. According to the religion, sea burials are only appropriate in case someone dies at sea, or if the deceased had no one available to receive the body. Mohammed Qudah, a professor of Islamic law at the University of Jordan, says “It's neither true nor correct to claim that there was nobody in the Muslim world ready to receive Bin Laden's body.”

There is general agreement amongst Muslim scholars that sea burials are only allowed in exceptional circumstances, and bin Laden's death did not meet this requirement.

Practical Considerations

A major reason the U.S. government decided to bury bin Laden at sea was because they did not want his grave to become a shrine, an important symbol where his followers could rally in the future. In addition, officials also claimed that the decision was motivated by the fact that an unnamed country had declined to accept his body – most likely Saudi Arabia.

For experts, the Arab country's decision is not too surprising. One scholar claims that the specific strain of Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia, called Wahhabism, opposes the creation of shrines. Additionally, bin Laden was a harsh critic of Saudi Arabia during his life. Pakistan wasn't an option for his burial either, because shrines are extremely powerful symbols there.

Therefore, practical circumstances forced the U.S. government to bury bin Laden at sea, although they generally followed Islamic traditions during the burial process.

Ensuing controversy

Bin Laden's death has generated sufficient conspiracy theories about whether he actually died. What mainly fuels these theories is the fact that the U.S. government declined releasing photos of the dead body. Then-President Barack Obama said, “It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence.”

However, DNA and facial recognition evidence proves the man who was killed at Abbottabad was, in fact, Osama bin Laden.

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