Though there appears to be some room for debate over the burial, a range of Islamic scholars interpreted it as a humiliating disregard for the standard Muslim practice of placing the body in a grave with the head pointed toward the holy city of Mecca.
Sea burials can be allowed, they said, but only in special cases where the death occurred aboard a ship. “The Americans want to humiliate Muslims through this burial, and I don’t think this is in the interest of the US administration,” said Omar Bakri Mohammed, a radical cleric in Lebanon.
A US official said the burial decision was made after concluding it would have been difficult to find a country willing to accept the body.
There also was speculation that a grave site could have become a rallying point for militants.
President Barack Obama said the remains had been handled in accordance with Islamic custom, which requires speedy burial. But the Lebanese cleric Mohammed called it a “strategic mistake” that was bound to stoke rage.
In Washington, CIA director Leon Panetta warned that “terrorists almost certainly will attempt to avenge” the killing of the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks. “Bin Laden is dead,” Panetta wrote in a memo to CIA staff. “Al-Qaida is not.”
According to Islamic teachings, the highest honour to be bestowed on the dead is giving the deceased a swift burial.
“They can say they buried him at sea, but they cannot say they did it according to Islam,” Mohammed al-Qubaisi, Dubai’s grand mufti, said about bin Laden’s burial.
“If the family does not want him, it’s really simple in Islam: You dig up a grave anywhere, even on a remote island, you say the prayers and that’s it.”
“Sea burials are permissible for Muslims in extraordinary circumstances,” he added. “This is not one of them.”
But Mohammed Qudah, a professor of Islamic law at the University of Jordan, said burying the Saudi- born bin Laden at sea was not forbidden if there was nobody to receive the body and provide a Muslim burial.
“The land and the sea belong to god, who is able to protect and raise the dead at the end of times for judgment day,” he said.
“It’s neither true nor correct to claim that there was nobody in the Muslim world ready to receive Bin Laden’s body.”
Clerics in Iraq — where an offshoot of al-Qaida is blamed for the death of thousands of people since 2003 — also criticised the US action. One said it only benefited fish.
“If a man dies on a ship that is a long distance from land, then the dead man should be buried at the sea,” said Shi’ite cleric Ibrahim al-Jabari. “But if he dies on land, then he should be buried in the ground, not to be thrown into the sea. Otherwise, this would be only inviting fish to a banquet.”