Dr. Andrew Bostom

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Ecumenical Editing of the Navy’s Muslim Sea Burial Prayer Service

May 12th, 2011 · No Comments · Essays

Osama Bin Laden’s putative sea burial ceremony aboard the USS Carl Vinson was performed “in strict conformance with Islamic precepts and practices” according to repeated assertions by chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan. Indeed, there is more than ample reason to believe that the Navy Military Funerals protocol was followed—a logical inference, which at any rate should be confirmed or denied by release of the reported video footage of Bin Laden’s ceremonial burial. As Anneke Green of the Washington Times noted,

According to the Pentagon, “prepared religious remarks” were read at bin Laden’s funeral, but when asked whether his burial was performed according to Navy Military Funeral protocol, they had “no additional operational details or comments to make.”  Mr. Brennan, however, in his Monday briefing on the bin Laden operation, reassured reporters that, “Burial at sea takes place on a regular basis. The U.S. military has the ability to ensure that that burial is done in a manner that is, again, consistent with Islamic law, as well as consistent with what the requirements are for a burial at sea.  And so that burial was done appropriately.”

Navy Military Funerals eligibility criteria are described in Section II, At Sea Disposition, Art. 2-1:

The regulations for the disposition of remains and inurned cremated remains (cremains) from a naval vessel, or inurned remains from a naval aircraft are set forth by the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. The following persons are eligible for at sea disposition:

1. Members of the uniformed services.
2. Retired members of the uniformed services.
3. Former members of the uniformed services honorably discharged.
4. U.S. Civilian Marine Personnel of the Military Sealift Command.
5. Dependents of members and dependents of former members of the uniformed services.
6. Other U.S. citizens who are determined eligible by notable service or outstanding contributions to the United States.

If this protocol was applied to Bin Laden’s sea burial, it amounts to an egregious violation of both the letter and spirit of the Navy’s appropriate eligibility criteria for this commemorative national honor.

But there remains another troubling aspect of this protocol even when conducted for an appropriate Muslim decedent meeting the Navy’s eligibility criteria. Navy Military Funerals Appendix E (pp. 34-35), “Appendix E Service for the  Committal of a  Person of the Muslim Faith,” instructs that the five ceremonial acts enumerated below, be performed.

1. During the Committal service, if for a person of the Islamic faith, the commanding officer or such person appointed by the commanding officer shall ensure that the service is set up as follows:

–It is not recommended to use a casket unless there is a need for it. The body must have been washed and wrapped as required for the bodies of Muslims.

–Plan the setting so that those who have gathered to pray will be facing toward Mecca, with the appointed leader in front facing them.

–Place the body (or bodies) in between the congregation and the appointed leader in such a way that the body is parallel to the congregation and so that, from the point of view of the congregation, the body’s head is to the right.

–The appointed leader should face the congregation and stand by the middle of the body if the deceased is a man and by the shoulder if the deceased is a woman.

–If there is more than one body, then they should be put one in front of the other, those of the men nearest to the appointed leader, and those of the women furthest away.

 

2. If Muslims are present, permit them to come forward and perform the formal funeral prayer (Allahu Akbar) while others stand and pray silently.

 

3. Al-Fatihah [Sura or Chapter 1 of the Koran, consisting of 7 verses, Yusuf Ali translation]

In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.[verse 1] Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds; [verse 2] Most Gracious, Most Merciful;[verse 3] Master of the Day of Judgment. [verse 4] Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.[verse 5] Show us the straight way,[verse 6] the way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose portion is not wrath, and who go not astray.[verse 7]

 

4. Supplication of Funeral Prayer

O Allah, forgive our people who are still alive and who have passed away, forgive those who are present here and those who are absent, forgive our young and our elderly, forgive our males and females. O Allah, the one whom you wish to keep alive from among us make him alive according to Islam, and anyone whom you wish to die from among us, let him die in belief and faith. O Allah, do not deprive us from his reward and do not put us in hardship or any type of trial after his death.

O Allah, forgive him, have mercy on him, pardon him, grant him security, provide him a nice place and spacious lodgings, wash him (off from his sins) with water, snow and ice, purify him from his sins as a white garment is cleansed from dirt, replace his present abode with a better one, replace his present family with a better one, replace his present partner with a better one, make him enter paradise and save him from the trials of grave and the punishment of hell.

O Allah, you are its Lord, you have created it, and you have guided it towards Islam, and you have taken out his soul and you know best about its secret and open deeds. We have come as intercessors, so forgive him.

O Allah, grant us good in this life and good in the life to come, and save us from the torment of hell.

 

5. Supplication at the Committal site:

(Lower the body into the water at this time, in such a way that the face is toward Ka’aba (in Saudi Arabia).)

O Allah this is your servant who is now your guest, and you are the best of hosts. Forgive him and expand his entrance.

The procedures, inclusive of the final supplication prayers, are compassionate and respectful—as they must be. And the first 6 verses of the “Fatiha” prayer (in step 3), the Koran’s opening sura (or chapter), are likewise appropriate for this solemn commemorative service. However, the seventh and final verse of the Fatiha must be omitted from the Naval protocol because it is antithetical to core American values of religious tolerance and mutual respect among our great nation’s citizens.

An authoritative modern Koranic translation by Drs. Muhammad al-Hilali and Muhammad Khan (p.12) of the Fatiha’s concluding 7th verse includes parenthetical references to the Jews (after the word “anger,” or in the Yusuf Ali translation used by the Navy, “wrath”), and the Christians (after the word “astray’):

“The Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).”

The Hilali-Khan translation of Koran 1:7 provides s a detailed justification of its references to the Jews as those who have engendered Allah’s anger, and the Christians as the ones who have gone astray. As I will demonstrate, the specific references to Jews and Christians in the Hilali-Khan translation of the Fatiha’s final verse comports both with the canonical hadith interpretation of these verses, and classical and modern Koranic commentary (“tafir”) interpretations by the leading luminaries of this discipline in Islam—a consensus of thought stretching literally from the 7th, through the late 20th century. Moreover, I will further show that leading contemporary, mainstream scholars of Islam—both non-Muslim and Muslim linguistic and textual analysts—presently share this understanding of how Koran 1:7 is to be interpreted, with the authoritative Muslim commentators.

For over thirteen centuries, through our contemporary era, the consistent, collective understanding of Koran 1:7—the Fatiha’s last verse—is that Jews and Christians are being insulted, even cursed (especially in the case of the Jews), eternally, for their “spiritually aberrant” ways. Accordingly, utterance of this verse must be expunged from the Navy Military Funerals sea burial ceremony, and all comparable funeral ceremonies conducted within the US military.

Authoritative Muslim Commentators on Koran 1:7, Seventh Through Late Twentieth Centuries

Professor Andrew Rippin, an esteemed contemporary Koranic studies scholar, translated two of the earliest commentaries on Koran 1:7, by Ibn Abbas (d. 687), and Muqatil ibn Sulayman (d. 767).  Both commentators of course assert that Islam represents “the straight path” in Koran 1:6. Ibn Abbas continues, referring to Koran 1:7,

“Not those against whom You have sent your wrath”: other than the religion of the Jews against whom You have been wrathful and have abandoned…”Nor those who are astray”: nor the religion of the Christians, who err away from Islam.

Muqatil ibn Sulayman states,

“Not those against whom You have sent Your wrath” : that is, a religion other than the Jewish one, against which God was wrathful. Monkeys and pigs were made of them. [Note: this is a reference to Koran 5:60; see later commentaries, below] “Nor those who are astray” God is saying: “And not the religion of the polytheists,” that is, the Christians.

Al-Tabari (838-923) was an historian, theologian and jurisconsult. He also authored an early, monumental commentary on the Koran. To establish that those who have incurred Allah’s wrath, are those mentioned in the (Antisemitic) Koranic verse 5:60, Tabari cites Traditions (i.e., hadith) which name the Jews as those with whom God is angry. Tabari repeats this reasoning to prove that the people mentioned in Koran 5:77 are those described as astray in Koran 1:7—he cites Traditions which name the Christians as those astray. Al-Qurtubi’s (d. 1273) great classical commentary “The Legal Rulings of the Koran,” reiterates Tabari’s view, which simultaneously re-affirms the basis for the Hilali-Khan translation of Koran 1:7,  stating plainly,

…[T]hose with anger on them are the Jews and the misguided are the Christians. That was explained by the Prophet, my Allah bless him and grant him peace, in the hadith of Adi ibn Hatim and the story of how he became a Muslims transmitted by Abu Dawud and at-Timirdhi in his Collection [of hadith]. The explanation is also attested to by the Almighty [i.e., elsewhere in the Koran] who says about the Jews, ‘They brought down anger from Allah upon themselves’ ([Koran] 2:61, 3:112) and He [Allah] says, ‘Allah is angry with them’ (48:6) He says about the Christians that they, ‘were misguided previously and have misguided many others, and are far from the right way.’ (5:77)

Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) was one of the best-known historians and traditionalists of Syria during the reign of the Bahri Mamluks, compiling an important history of Islam, as well as a Koranic commentary which foreshadows in its style, the commentary of Al-Suyuti (i.e., Tafsir al-Jalalyan).  Ibn Kathir’s commentary, once again references Koranic verses 5:60 and 5:77,  and the same hadith invoking ibn Hatim, explaining the meaning of verse 1:7, as follows:

 

These two paths are the paths of the Christians and Jews, a fact that the believer should beware of so that he avoids them. … the Jews abandoned practicing the religion, while the Christians lost the true knowledge. This is why ‘anger’ descended upon the Jews, while being described as ‘led astray’ is more appropriate of the Christians. … We should also mention that both the Christians and the Jews have earned the anger and are led astray, but the anger is one of the attributes more particular of the Jews. Allah said about the Jews, ‘Those (Jews) who incurred the curse of Allah and His wrath’ (Sura 5:60). The attribute that the Christians deserve most is that of being led astray, just as Allah said about them, ‘Who went astray before and who misled many, and strayed (themselves) from the right path’ (Sura 5:77).

Ibn Kathir further cites a hadith in which Muhammad clarified the meaning of this sura:

Imam Ahmad recorded that ‘Adi bin Hatim said, … he [Muhammad] said: ‘Those who have earned the anger are the Jews and those who are led astray are the Christians.’

The verse from Sura 5 which Ibn Kathir refers to concerning Jews is:

Shall I tell you of a recompense with Allah, worse than that? Whomsoever Allah has cursed, and with whom He is wroth, and made some of them apes and swine, and worshippers of idols – they are worse situated, and have gone further astray from the right way. (Sura 5:60)

And the verse concerning Christians:

People of the Book, go not beyond the bounds in your religion, other than the truth, and follow not the caprices of a people who went astray before, and led astray many, and now again have gone astray from the right way. (Sura 5:77)

Al-Suyuti (1445-1505) was born in Cairo, where his father taught Shaf’i law and acted as a substitute kadi. He is recognized as the most prolific author in the realm of Islamic literature. A brilliant multidisciplinary scholar, Al-Suyuti was a learned jurist, historian, and biographer. Among his many scholarly contributions are about twenty works of Koranic studies, including seminal Koranic commentaries (Tafsir). Tafsir al-Jalalayn, meaning “The Commentary of the Two Jalals,” is named after its two authors, Al-Suyuti, and his mentor Jalalu’d-Din al-Mahalli (1389-1459), who wrote the initial half of this classic work. Al-Suyuti completed Tafsir al-Jalalayn following al-Mahalli’s death. These apt comments heralded the appearance of a 1378 pp. English translation of Tafsir al-Jalalayn in 2008 by an accomplished contemporary Arabic to English translator:

The publication of this book is a landmark in the history of Islamic literature in English. With this work, for the first time, a complete translation of one of the great classical commentaries on the Holy Qur’an becomes available to English-speaking readers. For half a millennium Tafsir al-Jalalayn has been considered the essential first step in the study of the meanings of the Qur’an by teachers and students throughout the Islamic world Although it is among the shortest and simplest .of the ‘complete commentaries, it is at the same time both wide-ranging and profound. This translation gives non-Arabic speakers access to one of the seminal works of classical tafsir literature. It is hoped that it will prove a valuable aid to the correct understanding of the Qur’anic Revelation throughout the English-speaking world.

 

Aisha Abdurrahman at Tarjumana Bewley is one today’s most prolific translators of classical Arabic work into English. Aisha Bewley not only understands Arabic but she is also aware of the basic meanings and nature of teachings and history of Islam. Her knowledge is born of experience and direct transmission, not merely academic theory and learning by rote. For more than twenty-five years she has been concerned with making the contents of many classical works in Arabic more Accessible to English-speaking readers for the first time…

As Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains, Muslims are told in Koran 1:6, the verse preceding Koran 1:7,

“Guide us on the straight path” means, direct us to it.

The commentary continues,

It is followed by its appositive [in verse 7], “…the Path of those You have blessed,” with guidance, “not of those with anger on them,” who are the Jews, “nor of the misguided,”who are the Christians. The grammatical structure here shows that those who are guided are not the Jews or the Christians. Allah Almighty knows best what is correct, and to Him is the return and the homecoming. May Allah bless our Master Muhammad and His family and Companions and grant them abundant peace always and forever. Allah is enough for us and the best Protector. There is no strength nor power except by Allah, the High, the Immense.

Lastly, Ma’ariful Qur’an, a definitive modern Koranic commentary, was written by Maulana Mufti Muhammad Shafi (1898-1976), former Grand Mufti of (pre-Partition) India, and founder of Darul Ulum Karachi. Maulana Mufti Muhammad Shafi taught for twenty-seven years until 1943. During this period, approximately thirty thousand students from all over the world experienced his discourses. He also served as the Grand Mufti of India prior to the Partition of India. After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, Mufti Muhammad Shafi moved to Karachi, where he established Darul Ulum Karachi in 1950. After only a few months, it had more than two thousand students. He also wrote over  three hundred books. In addition to his literary works, Mufti Muhammad Shafi   broadcasted tafsir of the Koran on Radio Pakistan for a number of years. This modern Koranic exegesis comports with the classical commentaries on verse 1:7, highlighting the Koran’s strident Antisemitism, and accompanying Christianophobia:

 

Those who have incurred Allah’s wrath are the people, who in spite of being quite familiar with the commandments of Allah willfully go against them out of a calculated perversity or in the service of their desires, or, in other words, who are deficient in obeying divine injunctions. This, for example, was the general condition of the Jews who were ready to sacrifice their religion for the sake of a petty worldly gain, and used to insult and sometimes even to kill their prophets.

 

As for (those who go astray), they are the people who, out of ignorance or lack of thought, go beyond the limits appointed by Allah, and indulge in excess and exaggeration in religious matters. This, for example, has generally been the error of the Christians who exceededthe limits in their reverence for a prophet and turned him into a god. On the one hand, there is the rebelliousness of the Jews who not only refused to listen to the prophets of Allah but went on to kill them; on the other hand, there is the excessive zeal of the Christians who deified a prophet.

Contemporary, Mainstream Scholars of Islam—Both Non-Muslim and Muslim Linguistic and Textual Analysts—On Koran 1:7

Professor of Oriental Languages Bernard Carra de Vaux’s (d. 1953) official entry on the “Fatiha” in the venerated E.J. Brill’s First Encyclopedia of Islam, 1913-1936 (republished 1987, vol. 3 p. 85), states simply,

The words almaghdoobi AAalayhim “those against whom God is enraged,” and alddalleena, “those who err,” in verse 7 of the fatiha, are said to refer respectively to the Jews and Christians

Finally, “The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia” is a modern authoritative compendium of analyses written by 43 Muslim and non-Muslim mainstream academic experts, edited by Oliver Leaman, and published by Routledge, New York, 2006. These extracts from p. 614 serve as an irrefragable “final summary verdict”—consistent will all the previous evidence assembled—on how Muslims and non-Muslims alike are to understand Koran 1:7, the Fatiha’s last verse:

…[T]he phrase in the daily prescribed prayers” Guide us to the straight path, to the path of those you have blessed, not of those who incurred [Your] wrath, nor of the misguided (al-Fatiha, 1:5-7.)…mention two groups of people but do not say who they are. The Prophet [Muhammad] interpreted those who incurred God’s wrath as the Jews and the misguided as the Christians.

 

The Jews, we are told [i.e., in both the Koran, and hadith] killed many of their prophets, and through their character and materialistic tendencies have contributed much to moral corruption, social upheaval and sedition in the world…[T]hey were readily misled and incurred both God’s wrath and ignominy.

 

As for the Christians…over time they succumbed to the influence of those who had already deviated from the chosen path. By the time Christianity came to be accepted as the official religion of the Roman Empire, many Christians had long gone astray and had been deprived of their original scripture…

 

By interpreting the phrase “not of those who incurred [Your] wrath, nor of the misguided” the Prophet identified them and clarified in what way and by what beliefs and deeds a man incurs God’s wrath. This is a warning for the Muslims not to follow in the footsteps of the Jews and Christians.


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