Bin Laden's theology a radical break with traditional Islam
May 4th, 2011
03:00 AM ET

Bin Laden's theology a radical break with traditional Islam

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

(CNN) - Osama bin Laden wore the mantle of a religious leader. He looked the part and talked a good game, but his theology was a radical departure from traditional orthodox Islam.

The pitch to join al Qaeda did not start with an invitation to put on a suicide vest but, like other religious splinter groups and cults, took advantage of disenfranchisement and poverty.

Bin Laden had no official religious training but developed his own theology of Islam.

"We don't know that (bin Laden) was ever exposed to orthodox Islamic teachings," said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of religion and Islamic studies at Duke University.

The writing of ideologues in the Muslim Brotherhood influenced bin Laden heavily, Moosa said.

"He takes scriptural imperatives at their face value and believes this is the only instruction and command God has given him - unmediated by history, unmediated by understanding, unmediated by human experience. Now that's a difference between Muslim orthodoxy and what I would call uber- or hyperscripturalists," Moosa said.

The vast majority of Islamic scholars and imams say the teaching of the Prophet Mohammed happened in historical context that needs to be understood when reading and interpreting the Quran.

"If the likes of bin Laden, if they had spent one day or maybe one month possibly, in a madrassa (Muslim religious school) and understood how the canonical tradition is interpreted, they would not go onto this kind of destructive path they go on," Moosa said.

In the entire leadership structure of al Qaeda, "no one has had any sort of formal religious training from any seminary," said Aftab Malik, a global expert on Muslim affairs at the United Nations Alliance of Civilization. He is researching a Ph.D. on al Qaeda.

"What you had was an engineer and a doctor leading a global jihad against the whole world," Malik said. "That would never happen in normative Islam. It's just such an aberration."

John Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, said bin Laden "appropriates Islam ... to legitimate and mobilize people."

"If you look at bin Laden's early statements and arguments, his interview with Peter Bergen on CNN ... lots of people would see it as something that would go down very well not just with many Muslims but among many analysts when he talks about longstanding political grievances," Esposito said.

"What bin Laden ends up doing is saying anyone who disagrees with him, any Muslim, is in fact an apostate," he said. That includes Muslims who would not join his fight, he said. "It's a distortion of the traditional teaching, and it just extends the parameters and the consequences in order to legitimate how when you're fighting on the ground you're fighting against your own people."

Malik said, "The key issue is of apostasy," referring to when a person leaves a faith. "One of the things Osama bin Laden deviates from is calling those people who do not implement Sharia, or God's law, on the planet as apostates. If they did not implement Sharia, they deserved death. This is a major departure from normative Islam."

"The second major deviation is the targeting of noncombatants. Even when you read in the Quran there are injunctions for fighting. But before and after the injunctions for fighting are calls for restraint. 'Do not attack monks, do not attack women, do not attack children.' And these are numerated heavily in the Hadith, which are uncontested," Malik said, referring to the sayings of the prophet and his close companions.

"What bin Laden has done is ignored those injunctions," he said. "The reason he has ignored them, in Osama bin Laden's theology it's basically a theology of anarchy.

"Once you let the genie out of the bottle you can't put it back in, and that's the big difference between al Qaeda theology and normative Islam. Normative Islam has heavy constraints - very, very heavy."

Bin Laden's theology is waning greatly in influence, Esposito said, in part because of the rise of the Arab Spring, the revolts of people on the street across the Middle East that have overthrown regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.

"(Al Qaeda's) whole notion was to develop a mass movement," Esposito said. "Well, they never did."

Flashback: Read CNN's Chief International Correspondent Nic Robertson's report on a Libyan group that denounced bin Laden ideology

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- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: 9/11 • Egypt • Islam • Islamic law • Leaders • Middle East • Osama bin Laden • Quran • Sharia • Terrorism • Violence

soundoff (671 Responses)
  1. josh

    he needed to die

    May 5, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  2. NamCbtVet

    OBL was about as close to "traditional orthodox Islam" as the Wesboro Baptists are to being Christian.

    May 5, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  3. gabby haney

    this osama bin laden guy really is mean and i am glad that he is dead that is what he deserved because he bombed the compound bad

    May 5, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  4. Reality

    Bin Laden followed the dictates of the koran. His execution for crimes against humanity has not changed the koran. Until this book of terror is modernized or deleted all together, no male Muslim can be trusted.

    May 5, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Xdoc

      Let's burn the bible while we're at it, don't forget the torah.

      May 5, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
  5. PD Engineer

    A christian, a muslim, and an atheist are walking down the street. All of a sudden God appears before them. He turns to the christian and askes: "What do you wish for more than anything?" The christian responds: "Please take my people to heaven so that we can be close to you for eternity." God nods and *poof* the man is gone. God turns to the muslim and askes "What do you wish for more than anything?" The muslim responds: "Please take my people to heaven so that we can be close to you for eternity." God nods and *poof* the man is gone. God turns to the atheist and askes "What do you wish for more than anything?" The atheist pauses for a long time, pondering his wish. He then turns to God and responds: "How about a coke?" God then askes: "Really? Anything and you want to drink a Coke?" The atheist responds: "Well, the Coke is actually for you, because you have given me everything that I could ever want."

    May 5, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  6. Daniar

    As my understanding the issue of Bin laden is not religious matter but it is political problem . If u look at the starting point of Bin laden movement , He was working with CIA , Saudi Arabia gov. and so on . Therefore He passed through different complicated political events . That is why anything has relation to him very complicated. For instance, Bin laden was living without any guard in compound, inside of the city. we through the body in sea and so on , it does not make sense . For me what is going on is just a movie. Please men ! do not play in our mind . If you want to out from Afghanistan and go to Egypt , you can do it without looking a reason . The game is over . Al-Qaeda is founded by American gov and Saudi monarchy . In stead of this fake game, let us try to solve the factors of terrorism. Because terrorism is not such kind of problem, it is the result of political , economical and social factors . Peace for all creations

    May 5, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  7. Reality

    Point proved: No one is safe in Pakistan ... not even "Osama Bin Laden" ... Everyone is safe in India ... Even Ajmal Kasab !!!!

    May 5, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  8. Jacob

    Yes, the Lennon-McCarney duo were right on track. Once one understands that the line "In Penny Lane there is a Barber showing photographs of every head he's had the pleasure to know" is referring to the Barber people of Africa the picture begins to gel since one very important demographic about those fine African lads is that they are like 99.99% Islamic.

    On top of that, work in John's controversial statement: "Christianity and Rock and Roll will disappear. It may take 50 or 100 years but it will happen. I'm sure of it and I will be proved right". Now, what on earth could John have been talking about? Well, one thing we know right now is that Rock and Roll doesn't exactly flourish in Islamic societies. Plus, when we look at the state of Islamic expansion today we must admit that it appears that John's quote has quite a good chance of materializing right before our very eyes.

    Anyway, Islam's goal of controlling the world took a slight hit recently but nothing has changed. They will accomplish their goal regarding the spreading of Islam virtually everywhere. It just can not be stopped.

    The only thing you can do is prepare either yourself or your children, because the Christian anti-Christ will make it's appearance in the form of a world Islamic leader around 2050, on that you can be sure. To put it another way – we aint seen nothing yet as far as Islamic expansionism goes. At this point the best way to prepare is to get informed – read thegoodguise at wordpress. Once you have a handle on things you will know what to do. Take care and post comments while reading the book with questions or whatever. Make yourself known...stand!!

    May 5, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Xdoc

      Is it really necessary to scare people like this? Why do religious folks always try to scare people about something in the future. First it was Y2K, then the towers fell and said the Bible "predicted" it, now the Anti-Christ. Christians have been waiting for the Anti-Christ for 2000 years! Not to mentioned they claimed that Nero was the anti-christ, so was Hitler, so was Stalin, the list goes on. Has it ever occurred that maybe the Bible is WRONG? That a couple of poor oppressed people 2000 years ago were thinking.... "Hmm, life sucks, there's gotta be something behind this, I just can't believe that I'm gonna be poor all of my life without meaning. There's gotta be something else, something more. Ahh, that book that Moses wrote seems to be a good book, but needs a bit of modification, because that God is too vengeful. Let's take this guy over here and say he performed all of these miracles. Hey! You, what's your name? Jesus, look, come here, we got a job for you." We don't need to follow a myth anymore and should think of ways to make our society better?

      May 5, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  9. TheTruth

    that day is coming, that day when we all will face our deeds of this earth and the truth shall be revealed – who was right and who was 'wrong'.

    May 5, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  10. Stephen Gash

    Who personally beheaded 900 Jewish men in a single day and gave their wives as slaves to his followers (according to his official biography)? Hitler or Mohammed?

    Here's a clue, it wasn't Hitler.

    Who drove all Christians and Jews out of the Arabian peninsular and boasted about it?

    May 5, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  11. Xdoc

    The world could be a better place without the Bible/Koran/Torah/every other religion. It will weed out all of the people using religion as an excuse to perform evil deeds.

    May 5, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Jacob

      Hi Xdoc,

      You obviously dislike religious people, which is fairly common. However, I think that what you are saying is just not possible because religion is part of the human condition. Virtually every individual calls on their 'god' at some time or another. You are fighting with the idea that 'it can only be real is I can touch it with my hands and see it with my eyes'. However, you place too much emphasis on the superiority of the human being – meaning that you assume that humans percieve all of our existence correctly. This is far from the truth. The truth of the matter is that nothing is stranger than reality – it is simply a physical manifestation or emulation of the will of God. Look around, everything is an emulation of something beyond this 'reality' of ours. Well, read thegoodguise at wordpress and let me know about everything after you have thought about it for awhile.

      Take care,


      "There are many here amongst us / who think that life is but a joke / but you and I we've been through that / and this is not out fate / let us not talk falsely now / the hour is getting late (zimmy)

      May 5, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Xdoc

      I never said I disliked religious people. I just said I think that the books can mislead folks to do evil deeds. I don't believe in those books or a spuernatural being that created all of us. Some people need that comfort, I don't. Nothing is emulating our existence, nor some "will" of some "God". Also, I thought God gave use "free will" so as to not interfere with our "uniqueness" in creation. Which also brings into question why us? Why not apes, or chimpanzees, who share some of our brain capabilities. Looks like "God" was gonna make chimps the "chosen" creation, but left them short. Too many inconsistencies man. Again, I don't dislike religious folks, just that I think we would be better off without religion and this notion of a "God", as it turns people blind to facts sometimes.

      May 5, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • MisterP

      Yes, God exists!! But what I don't believe is that he instructed or contacted no one to form or create all those stupid religions around the globe. Yes, I'm agnostic and Yes I Agree with Xdoc. All those religions created by HUMANS are the cause of all HUMAN misery and Wars.

      May 5, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  12. The Leader


    May 5, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  13. The Leader


    May 5, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  14. janet williams

    In assessing bin Laden keep in mind that he does espouse a brand of Islam that is fundamental. He is the one and only leader of al-kaida and as such, and in his perverted mind, he can act as "head of state".... When he offered the US a chance to convert to Islam he felt he had offered an olive branch. We did not take him up on his offer and he then declared war on the US. He believed he was being fair and when US didn't convert, US kept "robbing" their treasures i.e. oil, He saw we were not going to take his offer to convert, get out of the islamic lands, ect. ect. bin Laden thought he was not only being fair but thusly justified in his attacks on Americans whether in their own country or in other countries. He was perverted in his fundamental beliefs and in his defensive jihad.

    May 5, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  15. noboat1

    That is the biggest bunch of B S I've ever read! Taqyyia!!!!!!!

    May 5, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  16. machmad

    Actually it is Jeremiah 48:10, not Ezekiel. It supports OBL, but the Quran does not.

    May 5, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  17. machmad

    Doesn't Ezekiel 48:10 support OBL's actions? Yes, the Bible!

    May 5, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  18. Md. Shamsul Alam

    I do not know laden what his view about Islam. From the resent history he was fighting against Russian military in Afganistan with the alliance of Afgan militant. At that time USA helped this force. After the withdrawing the Russian military form the Afganistan USA stop the helping to the Afgan militant. In Afganistan all the militants are fight each other for many years. In the mean time relation between Laden and USA come very loose and become enmity. From that time this relation come so bad to worse that they attack each other and such pathetic destruction of humanity happened. There are no connections of Islam and Islamic Ideology is present there. The enemy of Islam propagates this propaganda against Islam and Muslims. There are much injustice in humanity and independency of week and poor country in the world by the powerful countries, nations and there alliance for there own narrow interest. It is the very pathetic and painful for the humanity independency.

    May 5, 2011 at 8:20 am |
    • gabby haney

      i know right that is not good to what he did to the compoud r u glad

      May 5, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  19. Harry

    Well Obama administration is created this story of Bin Laden killing to boost his electoral prospects just like Bush caught Saddam just before his re election bid. actually they had saddam already in their grip. same with Bin Laden he is long killed now they have build all this up to boost Obama getting second term as his ratings were down.

    Well but here one thing Obama is Terrorist but Netanyahu is not, or Edud Barak was not and others from Israel when they are everyday killing innocent civilians in their own land which is grabbed by Israel and US supports them.

    I dont support people like Bin laden because what he was doing or did was totally against humanity which can never be justified, but US only created him and used him till he was useful for them and then discarded. infact there is strong belief that 9/11 is not a reality it was executed by CIA, US and Israel themselves to have an excuse to go after various countries including IRAQ and Afghanistan.

    Infact Bush did admit at one time they knew and had intelligence then that thing never ever appeared in media.

    Well it is simple today's world must listen what US says. and believes.

    May 5, 2011 at 8:09 am |
    • Bill

      Harry, you need to straighten up your tinfoil hat. Some of the mind control rays are slipping under the edge...

      May 5, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • Xuss

      obviously, you are simultaneously crazy and stupid.

      May 5, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • janet williams

      Harry..a little too much talk radio?

      May 5, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  20. DaLe

    I know you guys mean well and want to show to an audience of which part seems to be seriously mentally-ill or possessed (that part which would attack Mosques and Muslims because in their very limited world-view more or less everything is black and white) that ObL was not clergy or similar. You guys do realize though that to some it might look such as ObL and Islam being similar to Jesus and Judaism? Eg. remember the historical context of early Christians being persecuted and such?

    May 5, 2011 at 7:57 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.