Will Osama bin Laden get 72 Virgins? A talk with an Islam death expert

Osama bin Laden’s body was placed on a flat board and slid into the sea, was that the proper thing to do? Will he attain bliss on the seabed or rot in purgatory? And what of those 72 virgins promised to all martyrs, will bin Laden get them?

To find out, Digital Dying spoke with Leor Halevi, an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University whose 2007 book, “Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society” explores everything from funerary wailing and corpse washing to the torture of the spirit in the grave.

Bin Laden’s body was washed and covered in a white sheet, a prayer was said then the body was slid overboard, was this the right way to handle the corpse according to Islamic tradition?

One of the bizarre things about all this is bin Laden died in battle but—the burial at sea aside—he was apparently granted more or less the funeral ceremony that pertains to ordinary Muslims who experience death in ordinary circumstances. In Islamic law, the type of burial one gets depends on how one dies. The burial prescribed for those who died on the battlefield is not the same as the burial dictated for people who die ordinary deaths. The rituals are actually totally different. Someone who dies in battle does not have to be buried in a shroud, and no one has to say a prayer.

READ ABOUT CALIFORNIA’S BURIAL AT SEA BOOM

So did the US mess up, was their burial an insult?

I think it is clear the US did not try to humiliate him in burial. In fact, they have insisted that they did it properly, so even though maritime burial is very, very unusual, it’s obvious that no slight was intended. But that doesn’t mean that people might not take offense and view it as something not normally done for Muslims.

What’s actually happening to bin Laden’s spirit right now at the bottom of the sea?

For Muslims, his fate in the afterlife depends on what type of death they believe he died. The state of his body is irrelevant, theologically speaking, for those who believe he attained martyrdom. Martyrs are given new bodies in paradise the moment they die, and they enjoy a blessed existence. Muslims can gain the status of martyrdom not only through death on the battlefield, but also by dying in horrible ways: in childbirth, for instance, or due to a building collapsing on top of them. People who die in these ways also get new bodies in paradise. But the spirits of Muslims who die an ordinary death are more or less stuck with their bodies until the resurrection. And they can have a pretty miserable time in the grave. Just think of what happens to bodies in death, they decompose, bacteria get them. It’s not very nice. But if Muslims live a sinless life then the torture of the grave, as this punishment in the afterlife is known, does not really apply. Even if they died an ordinary death, their sojourn in this period between death and the resurrection is far more pleasant.

READ ABOUT HOW DIFFERENT RELIGIONS DEAL WITH DEATH

If martyrs get new bodies immediately upon death, then it seems it would not matter where you buried them?

That’s a good question, and it depends if you ask from an emotional, a political or a theological perspective. So, theologically speaking, it wouldn’t matter, but in other respects, I think it would.

Will bin Laden get the 72 virgins?

Someone who considers bin Laden a martyr might take that as a corollary. But Muslims who do not consider bin Laden a martyr would disagree. How bin Laden is ranked in the afterlife will depend, of course, mostly on politics and ideology. But the recent disclosure that he died without a weapon in hand will also play a factor in discussions about this issue.

What’s the history of burial at sea within Islam?

Burial at sea is connected to the sea voyages in the Middle Ages, and discussion in Islamic law goes back to the 8th century. There was a fairly robust commerce in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean in premodern times. Merchants traded silk, slaves, ceramics, gold, mostly luxury goods. In Baghdad, ships arrived from all parts of the world bringing coveted foreign wares. Voyages across the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean could take several weeks and even months. Sailors tried to hug the coast, but that was not always possible. They were sometimes out at sea for months. If someone died on board, keeping a corpse could become unbearable. Something had to be done. Do you try to hang on to the decomposing corpse? Do you dump it? Tow it? Store it in a compartment? These questions all came up. That’s why medieval jurists addressed the eventuality of burial at sea.

9 Responses to “Will Osama bin Laden get 72 Virgins? A talk with an Islam death expert”
  1. Donna Hoffman-Anspach says:

    J, very interesting. Considering his sins while in this life, our government treated his body and burial in a more than fair manner.

  2. JOYCE says:

    our government shouldnt had let him have a buriral ben laden had he should ben shot a long time AGO AND OUR AMERICANS SOLDIERS WOULD NOT HAVE BEN SENT HOME IN BODY BAGS THEY DIDNT DESERVE TO DIE BECAUSE OF HIM I KNOW HEY WHERE DOING THIERE JOB N THEY DID A HELL OF A JOB WHEN THEY GOT THATS SORRY UN HUMAN PERSON

  3. caseymari says:

    I don’t understand the argument. He killed a lot of people. HE WILL GO TO HELL. Thats it. No further discussion.

  4. jen says:

    he didnt care about the victims in 9 11 burning to death and dropping from hundreds of feet onto the concrete…so who gives a dam about his body…not me personally

  5. JANE says:

    DONNA,
    WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR BURIAL DOING BY THE PEOPLE WHO KILLED YOU WITHOUT ANY FAMILY, FRIEND OR ANYONE THERE WHO HAD ANYTHING IN COMMON WITH?

  6. Jeff N says:

    US played this card well. Respectful, but also strategic. A traditional grave burial could serve as a location for his followers to rally, build support, pay respects and perpetuate his influence. Burying the body at sea guarantees the denial of such a location.

  7. Henry says:

    Well, life is harsh to those who make it so. Osama killed by bullets & bombs so is his death.

  8. Bill says:

    He was first reportedly armed, but then Obama realized his wife and daughter had survived, they changed the story to “Osama tried to turn to reach something” then an earlier version that he tugged to avoid a bullet which seems rediculous. How did he manage to get a bullet right through the front if he had turned ?? More importantly why was he not caught “alive” to be tried ?? Has it something to do with FBI’s website which “does NOT” charge him over 9.11…

  9. David says:

    I’m not an Islam scholar but I’ve wondered about his fate in an Islamic afterlife, if there is one. One thing I’m certain of though, is that he should not have been taken alive. He would have been a lightning rod for terrorists around the world as the circus of a trial and execution played out. That’s the case with all terrorists. If you catch them, their compatriots will do whatever they think will compel their release.

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