Osama bin Laden and Islamic burial

Picture of the destroyed shrine of Rahman Baba in PakistanOsama bin Laden did not deserve an Islamic burial | Stephen Suleyman Schwartz | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

Stephen Schwartz wrote this article for Comment is Free (run by the Guardian) on the subject of the “burial” given to Osama bin Laden’s body after his killing last week; it was reported that it was thrown into the sea after some kind of burial ritual was performed. It has been widely commented that burial at sea is not appropriate for a Muslim (presumably this only applies to one who has died on land, as it is not very healthy or practical for ships to be transporting dead bodies for long voyages, and certainly wasn’t before very recently and in hot climates). Schwartz claims that bin Laden was not entitled to an Islamic burial because his beliefs put him outside Islam.

Schwartz is right that the argument that his grave would have become a shrine is mistaken, as Muslims of his stripe are opposed to shrines and are more likely to destroy them than build them. Indeed, there have been a number of incidents in Pakistan where the local “Taliban” — vigilantes or militants of an extreme Deobandi or “salafi” tendency — have destroyed shrines of popular Sufi shaikhs. However, he then says he believes Bin Laden had apostasised from Islam:

I believe Bin Laden had apostasised from Islam by his denial of the sinful nature of terrorism. He planned and took responsibility for atrocious acts, which were those of an enemy of Islam, by the tongue, the pen, money, and the sword. These deeds were public and he boasted of them. Rejecting the judgment of the sin of killing innocent people is a repudiation of Islam.

Schwartz also suggests that “journalists should ask moderate Muslim scholars whether they consider Bin Laden to have died in a state of Islamic belief”, which raises the question of whom he considers to be moderate. Certainly, the mainstream of Islamic scholarship has always shied away from pronouncing people to be unbelievers unless they deny something necessarily known of Islam or show obvious contempt for the religion. For example, it is necessarily known (this is generally defined as “even a nine-year-old madrassah student would know that”) that drinking alcohol for its own sake is forbidden, but some scholars allow its use for such purposes as clearing one’s throat if it is the only thing to hand; they do not, though, allow it for alleviating extreme thirst, as it is a diuretic. However, if someone erred on the wrong side here, without saying that drinking alcohol in general was allowed, they would not be regarded as a disbeliever.

It is also necessarily known that killing is impermissible other than in self-defence, or in war, or in punishing a crime, or certain other limited circumstances. Deliberately killing innocent people, even in war, is forbidden as well, but the Kharijites of old made numerous excuses for killing those they regarded as enemies simply because of sometimes very minor disagreements that were not over matters of doctrine. The only Kharijites that were declared not to be Muslims, however, was one group that regarded Sura Yusuf, a chapter in the Qur’an, not to be part of the Qur’an. As this passage was universally regarded as being part of the Qur’an, they were excluded from being Muslims. Terrorists justify their actions by making excuses for why certain people are not “innocent” (such as that they pay taxes to the enemy state, voted for its leaders or are in their army, even if not on active service — a common justification for terrorist acts in Israel) which are rejected by many or all scholars, but without declaring them to be out of the fold of Islam because they do not make the killing of innocents in general lawful.

The upshot is that we do not pronounce takfeer, that is, that someone is not Muslim, unless they declare themselves not to be Muslims, or show obvious contempt for the religion (such as by desecrating a copy of the Qur’an) or adopt a belief which is against a well-known unanimous consensus. This means that, as in most religions, the majority of criminals are entitled to a proper burial in Islam (although it is not always up to to the local imam or the whole community) as long as they did not regard the crimes they committed as being in line with Islam. Schwartz does not list any “moderate scholar” who has actually declared Osama bin Laden and other members of al-Qa’ida to be outside of Islam; the majority, I believe, regard him as being a criminal who justifies his acts with spurious arguments, much as was the case with the Kharijites of old, but still a Muslim. This, of course, means that Muslims should know that they do not have to be loyal to anyone who purports to act in the name of Islam or in defence of Islam, and that we may still condemn a person’s or group’s actions and disassociate from them even if we cannot say they are outside Islam altogether.

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