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

Follow the Belief Blog on Twitter

- 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. Ben Gazzarah

    The concept of "God" in Islam & in Judaism is that "God" unlike anything else "God" neither a man nor a woman. "God" is beyond our human limited imagination. But the Jews made a mistake by forgetting that "God" is also just and doesn’t make favorites amongst "his/her/its" people and they (Jews) thought they are the chosen people. True "God" will not choose any race or gender over other. We are all equal under one "God".

    May 12, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  2. Ben Gazzarah

    As long as the USA and Europe support and fund Israeli terror against Arabs and Muslims, Arabs and Muslims will terrorize the USA and Europe in self defense. The best strategy for defense is to attack. Stop supporting and funding Israeli terror and solve the Palestinian problem according to the International Law and according to the UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS, then there will be peace in the Middle East and in the world. The reason Ben Laden attacked in 9/11 because he believed when killing a snake you strike it at its head. To fight Israel and Zionism in the Middle East you have to attack those who support it mainly the USA and Western Europe. The USA and Europe are waging war against terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the world but they are refusing to solve the cause of terror which is injustice in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

    May 12, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  3. happymappy

    man can live without God. (happily)

    May 11, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
  4. Michael

    Show us Usama Bin Ladens real picture to beleive you, we still don`t beleive that he is dead, so please somebody show us his real picture when he is dead and how they killed him, there is milion milion people around the world don`t beleive he is dead, the whole thing is conspirancy........................................

    May 11, 2011 at 6:03 am |
    • jazzy

      UmmH!.....How about NO!! and you just keep not believing he's dead!!!!
      Just like you probably believe he's not a murderer but a hero.....

      May 11, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  5. vince

    Islam has been violent since it began with the armed overthrow of the polytheist merchant houses of mecca and medina and the subsequent destruction of their culture and traditions in one man's quest to create a monotheistic religion based on what he knew of Christianity and Judaism and incorporated elements of both. Islam does not play well with others and the subsequent islamic conquests from Spain to India destroyed countless cultures and belief systems in the name of their particular faith. What's sad is that it was only by violence in resisting the muslim expansion that Europe remained Christian. Yet those Christian countries are the same ones that all the immigrant muslims want to go to for a better life and take their religion with them - its all messed up.

    May 11, 2011 at 4:13 am |
  6. Muneef

    Funny story;

    Two little boys, ages 5 and 7, are excessively mischievous.
    They are always getting into trouble and their parents know if any mischief occurs in their town, the two boys are probably involved.

    The boys' mother heard that a preacher in town had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would speak with her boys. The preacher agreed, but he asked to see them individually.

    The mother sent the 5 year old in the morning, with the older boy to see the preacher in the afternoon. The preacher, a huge man with a deep booming voice, sat the younger boy down and asked him sternly, "Do you know where God is, son?"

    The boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response, sitting there wide-eyed with his mouth hanging open.So the preacher repeated the question in an even sterner tone, "Where is God?!
    Again, the boy made no attempt to answer. The preacher raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy's face and bellowed, "WHERE is GOD?!"

    The boy screamed & bolted from the room, ran directly home & dove into his closet, slamming the door behind him. When his older brother found him in the closet, he asked, "What happened?"

    The younger brother, gasping for breath, replied, "We are in BIG trouble this time!" "GOD is missing, and they think WE did it!"

    May 10, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  7. Muneef

    Think Americans should worry more about natural disasters and man made disasters that are sweeping the states one after another,which causes more damages than any attack made by any Enemy...American Muslims in the states are under the same danger treats of natural and man made disasters as you are...!!

    May 10, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  8. jazzy

    What is wrong with everyone....this is not about religion.....this is about the difference from having common sense or being an idiot...And where do we get that from....Education?...God? Does the Bible or Quran give us that? Because if either of these books are our sole resource from knowing right from wrong than we are all doomed!!!.....If someone looks up and see that the sky is blue....they don't have to tell me...i can look and see for myself...although i may not see the same color!!!
    But common sense tells us you don't go around killing people to prove your point!!!

    May 10, 2011 at 12:30 pm |

    We need the Imams in the middle east to start stepping up and countering the drivel that Osama bin Laden and Al Zawahiri keep spouting. Maybe the Imams can incite their people to hunt down and kill the rest of Al Qaeda.

    May 10, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  10. heya1487

    Why are these articles trying to pretty up this religion ? HIstory has told of its "peaceful ways" well enough. Many violent
    acts have been done under the cover of "the church" as well but that is just a name, but it was not really the Church. Islamic theology is its own enemy. Its a mix of jewish and pagan and out right wrong on scientific things and contradicts. Although Muhammed did do away with idols and wanted justice in areas, we must also remember it is said that even satan disguises himself as an angel of light so if an apostle or an angel brings a different gospel even, dont believe them. Their are some wonderful muslims in this world who do give to the poor and care about others, because like other humans they are still made in the image of God, and that reflects Gods heart when done without hidden motives. But are we to wing it with expecting our good to outweigh our bad ? Hidden scales ? The God of Abraham has sent his Holy Son to die for our wrongs, that we may repent and believe and be made new by Him.

    May 10, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  11. deepwater805

    Bin Laden was a douchbag, and all who follow him are the same. These troglodytes want to push back humanity by a thousand years. We should find them, kill them, and be done with it.

    May 9, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
    • Bernard Feder

      The logic here is awe-inspiring and thoroughly convincing!

      May 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  12. Joe

    I have yet to meet a Jew, Christian or Muslim that's read their book in their native tongue. So beyond, interpretation, papacy, talmud, etc, people act on the whims of other people. All people of religion must read and study.

    May 9, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  13. smm

    Who was Osama bin Laden


    May 8, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  14. smm


    May 8, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  15. Nick

    To the party who claims all religions are the same and there is no difference between Islam and Christianity. Name one religion which claims to have an Almighty God Who loved sinful man so much, that He sacrificed His own Son on a cross to provide saving grace to sinful man, who would otherwise be bound for hell. That same Almighty God raised His Son from the grave and glorified Him for His obedience even unto death on a cross and promises that those (anyone) who will accept Almighty God's gift of grace will live eternally with Him. Christianity is the only religion of absolute grace. All others require work or deeds to appease their god. For sure, there are distortions of the Christian gospel message, as there are other religions, but the God of Christianity loved us while we were still in our sins and He does not desire that any should perish, but many will, because they will reject His love and His Son. They therefore condemn themselves. There is a uniqueness to true Christian faith and it changes lives of those who believe in Him with all their heart. May those who have ears to hear do so and receive the grace of God through His one and only begotten Son, the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

    May 8, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • bob

      The bible and quran are just books, written by men, about stories. THAT'S ALL!

      May 9, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • Muneef

      They those books are the total of the Religions that are here today...all scriptures were written by Men but were inspired and revealed by God directly to men or through angels....
      Moses was the outstanding apostle for had spoken with God...he was called "Kaleem Allah" meaning the speaker to God...
      Your notion that scriptures came in a written form from God to his apostles is wrong thought...

      May 9, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • Muneef

      The words were of God and were written by men..."Apostles"....

      May 9, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  16. Bill Wood

    Bin Laden was not practicing a "warped" view of Islam. He was doing exactly what the Qu'ran and Sura say to do - to kill all non-Muslims. The Qu'ran clearly states that Islam will only be at peace when it is the sole religion in the world, and it requires (a command) to kill anyone who does not submit to Islam. It also requires all Muslims to lie if it furthers the goals of Islam. This is not a perversion ... this is what the Qu'ran says is required. So bin Laden did not "pervert" Islam. He just interpreted it quite literally. We should all be very grateful that many Muslims do not share his extreme view. Most Muslims are not that extreme. Unfortunately, millions of devout adherents to a literal interpretation of the Qu'ran do share that view.

    May 8, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Aziz

      Have you read the Qur'an that you can make such certain statement that it tells to kill all non-muslim people?

      May 8, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • abc

      Have you read it? Obviously not. It says nothing like that anywhere. Murder is fully wrong and is said in there.

      May 10, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
    • James

      "Remember thy Lord inspired the angels (with the message): Firmness to the Believers: I will instil terror into the hearts of Unbelievers: Smit ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them." – Qur'an VIII.12

      "But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them and seize them, beleaguer them and lie in wait for them in every strategem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is oft-forgiving, most merciful." – Qur'an IX.5

      May 11, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  17. Steve Hayes

    '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'
    Really? Where are the fatwas procribing Jihad and sharia?

    May 8, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  18. D-DON

    I have learnt how to keep my mouth shut as I started reading Quran and discovered that really it mean well to people. You need to open your mind and not allow sentiment to overcome your reading. I will advise you to read Quran to learn more, please note that I do not say you should change your religion or belief in it but you need to acquire more knowledge about things around you, after all no knowledge is lost.

    May 8, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Chris

      What you should never do is never listen to islam nor read their book. It is abusive, racist, and discriminate religion that puts right to wrong because simply of the God element. This religion is a great con for 1500 years now. If any, humanity should be free from the abuse and manipulation of religion.

      May 10, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  19. markjuliansmith

    How different from mainstream Islam was Bin Laden really:

    A group of Muslim Salafists attacked the Saint Mena Coptic Orthodox Church. Gunfire rang out as people sprinted for cover.
    "With my own eyes I saw three people killed and dozens injured," said Mina Adel, a Christian resident. "There's no security here. There's a big problem. People attacked us, and we have to protect ourselves."

    May 8, 2011 at 2:43 am |
    • Lilly

      Your evidence that bin Laden's ideology was in fact mainstream is anecdotal in nature. It's a single incident by a small group of people. The fact that there is an ancient Christian community in a muslim country shows that bin Laden is not mainstream. You need to look at the larger picture, rather than isolated incidents.

      May 10, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • abc

      A small group of people do not show the whole religion. The KKK and Nazis had similar teachings, they were wrong and did not show a whole population.

      May 10, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
    • Ben Gazzarah

      Scholars, statesmen, and enlighten peoples all over the world warned, from the 1900s, the Western colonial countries not to introduce Jewish and Christian fundamentalism (Zionism)1 …. into the Middle East especially when Arabs were encouraged to revolt against the Muslim Turks during WW I. Unfortunately the West and later the USA ignored the warnings and went ahead in helping European Jews to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine and to develop Jewish nationalism ; At the expense of Palestinian nationalism and peoples who most of them live now in refugee camps and as refugees in other countries since the creation of Israel in 1948 over the land of historic Palestine.2 While Jewish settlers coming from all around the world enjoy the privilege of living in modern settlements upon their arrival to Israel ( Palestine )3 …. [What a great injustice and a clear racism based on race and religion “If you are a Jew you can emigrate and live in Israel regardless of your birth place, and if you are not a Jew even if you are born there, you have no rights to live and be a full citizen there”].
      Creating and maintaining a Jewish state ( Israel ) in which became through natural historical factors a predominately Arab and Muslim region is a destabilizing factor. Perhaps a more just solution for the Holy Land is the establishment of a truly democratic state where religion and its symbols are separated from the state (a Western model will be perfect). All should enjoy equal rights in such multi-ethnic/religious state. Not like the “democracy” that suppose to exists today in Israel (Apartheid kind of democracy where the laws always guarantee the majority of Jews in Israel by encouraging Jews all over the world to immigrate into Israel while refusing the return of the Palestinian refugees to their home land).
      I found no convincing explanation for the reason: Why is it in the best interest of the USA and the West to secure and maintain a superior militaristic Jewish State in modern Middle East? US and Western credibility, in more than 50 Arab and Muslim countries, is shaken by this unquestionable support and double standard policy towards the issues of WMD and human rights (Yes Israel have all kinds of WMD and violate the human rights of defenseless Palestinians).4
      Today in the Middle East, we are witnessing and paying dearly for the failure of the Western (including the US) policies in the Middle East. As a result of introducing Zionism and Christian fundamentalism to the Middle East in the beginning of last century, we have now unstable Middle East, Jewish and Christian fundamentalists who are killing, oppressing, depriving the natives (Palestinians) for their natural birth rights in the name of religion and Western values (Israel), Islamic fundamentalism (Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Algeria, Hamas, Hezballah, Ben Ladin, El Zarqawi, etc.) who wants to restore the Holy Land for the Muslims and grew up hating the West for their help to Israel, and Arab radicalism (Qadaffe, Arafat, Saddam, Nasser, etc.) Who wants to restore Palestine for nationalistic reasons. And we have the Palestinians who lost their homes, lives, dignity in the process.
      Any ideas on how to stop fundamentalism and radicalism in the Middle East?5 … I strongly believe establishing a truly democratic secular state (Westren style democracy) in the Holy Land is a good start. What do you think? Also as you may figure it out, I am confused about US and Western countries foreign policy formulation process. Do they depend on the Biblical prophases or the modern concepts of International Law and Human Rights when making foreign policy decisions in the Middle East? …..Peoples in the Middle East accuse the United States and the West of making their foreign policy decisions in the Middle East based on the Bible and cite the wars going on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine as wars between fundamentalists from both sides Muslim Jihad’s and Christian Crusaders (American and Western Christian right). How do Americans and Europeans respond to this accusation?

      1. The Zionists are those Jews who ignored the Old Testament teachings that only the Messiah could bring them together from the Diaspora. Instead the Zionists and their fundamentalist Christens (Christen Zionists) supporters called for the establishment of a Jewish state ( Israel ) by using force, wars, and weapons of mass destruction if necessary and at any cost. As far as for those Jews who fled with their life from Nazi Germany, we all sympathize with them, but that doesn't give them the right to establish a Jewish state in historic Palestine at the expense of other religious and ethnic groups already living there. As far as the story “that God promised the Jews the Holy Land, we reply that “since when did God play favorites amongst his people and since when did He went into the real-estate business”. Yes the Holy Land is dear to the Jews for historical and religious reasons and nothing wrong with that, it is also dear for Christians and Muslims for the same reasons.

      2. If you want to know the truth about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict you should read about how Israel was created in 1948? And how the helpless native Palestinian bedouins, peasants and city dwellers were murdered and terrorized by the Zionists gangs (the founders of modern Israel)? And the rest of the Palestinians fled and became refugees all over the world and very few stayed in what is known today as Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Read The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Dr. Ilan Pappe, Fateful Triangle by Noam Chomsky, The Zionist Connection by Alfred Linenthal, Perfidy by Ben Hecht, The Decadence of Judaism in our time by Moshe Menuhin, and The 13th Tribe by Arthur Koestler. All Jewish writers. If you want to ignore history facts and just want to make opinions about the issue out of your head, then you are just a person who hates Arabs and Muslims for no reason but for the sake of hate "YOU ARE A HATEFULL AND RACEIST PERSON" and if you want to make your opinion about the issue based on your religious beliefs "THEN YOU ARE A FUNDAMINTALIST". Arab, Palestinian, Muslim individuals became violent recently (perhaps for the last 20 years) after desperation and loss of confidence on world community to regain their rights by legal means and after Arab governments were defeated by American and Western supported Israeli army. Ironically the Christen West and the USA helped creating "Israel” as a Jewish State for fundamentally religious reasons in the past until today which led to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. It is a scientific law "for every action there is a reaction etc…."

      3. Anti-Jewish sentiments have developed and increased in all Muslim and Arab countries after the creation of Israel (as a Jewish State) in 1948 over historic Palestine. Many Arabs and Muslims wonder today at this betrayal of Jews against Arabs and Muslims especially when throughout history Arabs and Muslims have protected them from genocide. This is a serious accusation against the Jewish people.

      4.Those of us, who admire and advocate Western political systems and democracy especially the concept of separation of Church and state, respect for human life, freedom, equality, and living in free world of WMD, are puzzled, confused, and disappointed by the West and the USA specifically for their support of such a State (i.e. Israel).

      5. No the solution is not to kill every one who opposes you, like what the USA is doing right now in Afghanistan and Iraq and plans to do so in the Sudan, Syria, Iran, and perhaps in all the Arab and Muslim countries. Or what Israel is doing now in Gaza. What’s going on? Are we going to play Crusaders vs. Muslims all over again?.

      May 12, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  20. Just a dummy

    Not too many people get, that organized religion is not that great a thing when taken literally. Sure there are some great ideas contained in some of what has been written over the ages but you really do have to "think for yourself and try to give the next guy a break"

    May 7, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • Andrew

      Bin Laden challenged two superpowers....and won. He bled cash out of the Soviet Union as he saw them enslave a people, so they could have oil, gas, and a path to the sea. He then forced the USA to turn a mirror on itself...and what a harsh reflection it showed. We had so, so, SO many chances after 9/11 to take the high road, to show that we were not terrorists, or to think about what happened to garner so much hatred... and at EVERY SINGLE TURN we took the more violent answer. When Obama got elected, I wonder if he thought, "hey I can make everyone start to think sensibly." However, his popularity quickly waned so he had to toe the line. Yes, he has made the USA look better in the eyes of our neighbors, but better than the previous 8 years....aint that hard. Bin Laden gave the USA a tiny little poke...and look what we did with it. Yay.

      May 7, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
    • sla;lkjdf;lkasdf

      i like men

      May 10, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Colmohd

      The way Osama was killed may be seen by his opposition that his theology on not implementing Shariah's Law, labeled as apostate was backfired on himself, was he deserved for his doing?

      May 12, 2011 at 5:37 am |
    • Ben Gazzarah

      As long as the USA and Europe support and fund Israeli terror against Arabs and Muslims, Arabs and Muslims will terrorize the USA and Europe. Stop supporting and funding Israeli terror and solve the Palestinian problem according to the International Law and according to the UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS, then there will be peace in the Middle East and in the world.

      May 12, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
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.