The flipside to the globalization that created and sustained al-Qaeda; where your body goes when no one wants it. Hence Osama’s last rites: He was washed and shrouded for a funeral, in accordance with Islamic custom, but then dropped into the sea, in a gesture at odds with Islamic custom only narrowly interpreted. It seems the decision was made not out of respect for bin Laden, but to show that the United States will not be forced into the dynamic al-Qaeda needs in order to survive: you are either Islamic (according to its definition) or an enemy of Islam.
Most Muslims would love to have this dynamic undermined. Too bad Osama got so much attention. In his words and actions, Osama bin Laden routinely upended Islam, claiming Islamic mandate for heinous crimes that no conscientious Muslim could consider consonant with the faith. But to understand how bin Laden violated Islam’s most fundamental values and ideals, it’s necessary to see Islam for what it is—a religion, whose primary focus are the relationships between God and creation.
Perhaps we can see this best in the contrast between al-Qaeda’s attitude toward death and the established Muslim perspective. Traditionally, last rites are a very big deal; the deceased Muslim is washed, and a prayer is held for her or him, in which there is no adhan (that melodious chant which is Hollywood shorthand for a place exotic or suspicious) because that adhan was given at birth, one of the first rituals of a Muslim’s life cycle. The body is placed in the ground on its side, the face towards Mecca. We are returned to the dirt we came from. Burials at sea rarely happen, usually only when the body could not be kept for any length of time without risk of disease. So why such a concern for the integrity of the physical body, and its return to the Earth?
There are two worlds in Islam: the material world, in which we live, and an unseen world (of God and Angels and the like) that we do not enter till we die. The body we inhabit is the vessel through which we accomplish good—or evil. At death, the soul exits the material world, but remains aware of it. A person can see his funeral, but cannot communicate with anyone in the material world any longer—that connection is broken. Thus cremation is usually forbidden, mutilation is abhorrent, and the display of the body is frowned upon because the soul inside that body is still alive and never dies. It must be allowed a gentle transition to the life to come.
If we understand this larger worldview, we can understand why al-Qaeda’s violence is so antithetical to Islam. To make one’s body a weapon, and with it to wreck the bodies of others, violates (among many other things) the materiality God has created us in—and mocks the sanctity of all life.
In fact, so sacred is creation that the world around us will testify for or against us. The Earth, like all God’s creation, is in harmony with the Divine, and detests those who transgress against creation. Had we sinned on some spot on the Earth, that very spot will in the life to come be given the power to speak by its Creator, and testify to our actions. In that sense, all of creation is a witness to us, and there is nowhere to go to escape God’s judgment.
Just as, in the end, no country on Earth wanted Osama bin Laden; in that there is cause for profound spiritual reflection. There is also, I hope, cause to end any confusion of what he and his followers did with what Muslims want and what Islam teaches. I pray we find in his anonymous burial, in the sea south of Pakistan, that at the end, none of the peoples he claimed to be fighting on behalf of wanted him; more than that, to the few grumbling voices out there, President Obama’s framing—and the decision to give bin Laden some of his last rites—tried to say that Islam is not the problem. Osama was.