The dilemma of what to do with Osama bin Laden’s body appears to have been quickly resolved if reports that he has been buried at sea prove correct.
Burying him on land could have led to his grave becoming a centre of contention as well as raising questions about where he should be buried.
“Finding a country willing to accept the remains of the world’s most wanted terrorist would have been difficult,” a US official said, adding: “So the US decided to bury him at sea.”
Fears about Bin Laden’s burial place turning into a shrine for Islamists were probably unfounded, since the Wahhabi/Salafi tradition rejects such things. Even Saudi kings are buried in unmarked graves.
Senior US officials initially told news agencies that his body would be disposed of in accordance with Islamic tradition, which involves ritual washing, shrouding and burial within 24 hours.
Although the swift burial complies with Islamic custom and should therefore avoid causing any offence in Muslim countries, the apparent haste could lead to claims that the person killed was not really Bin Laden – though the US authorities have taken DNA samples and appear to have no doubts.
The 24-hour rule has not always been applied by the US in the past. For example, the bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein – sons of the Iraqi dictator – were held for 11 days before being released for burial.
Burial at sea is rare in Islam, though several Muslim websites say it is permitted in certain circumstances.
One is on a long voyage where the body may decay before the ship reaches land. The other is if there is a risk of enemies digging up a land grave and exhuming or mutilating the body – a rule that could plausibly be applied in Bin Laden’s case.
For sea burial, according to alislam.org, the body should be lowered into the water “in a vessel of clay or with a weight tied to its feet”. The website adds: “As far as possible it should not be lowered at a point where it is eaten up immediately by the sea predators.”