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. westerner

    Yes, the professor at Duke says, "If he went to a madrassa he woundn't interpret things the way he did." Boy, that sure seems to be working with all the other madrassa's in Pakistan and elsewhere. They are know for tolerance aren't they?? What a joke, and this guys TEACHES in the US at Duke. Unbelievable........

    May 4, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • jay

      And what do you know about it?

      May 4, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  2. Heri

    White Christians love to talk about the "destructive path" that Muslims embark on as a result of their understanding or misunderstanding of Islam, as if they understand Islam themselves, or even their OWN religion for that matter. But nothing is ever said about the Christian Crusaders and the likes who did they exact same thing and worse over the past few centuries, than so-called radical Muslims. Europeans traveled all over the world with a sword or gun in one hand and the bible in the other using it with chicanery as a weapon. European "Christians" have killed more people on this earth than mankind has ever known. If I detailed all of the injustice and killing by white Christians I would be forced to write a book with 9 volumes. I am saying this and I am not a Muslim.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  3. bitflogger

    Maybe he was like Charles Manson with money.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  4. Bob

    I love the way so many of the negative responders who are discounting Islam by using a computer or digital electronic device to read and write their opinions. But google literacy rates and you will see how low it is in the Islamic world versus the Western wolrd. Before you belittle a religion, read it. After 9/11, I read the Koran and found that suicide is proscribed and none of the 9/11 terrorists fit the requirements for mujaheddin. They are all going to hell just like bin Laden.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  5. stop2think

    When was the last time you saw CNN or any MSM take time to protect the good name of Christianity by saying, for example, Eric Robert Rudolph (Atlanta Olympics/abortion clinic bombings) did not follow true tenants of Christ? Anyone? I can't hear you....

    May 4, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Robert

      I did not recall seeing all the media outlets, especially Fox news and their 'experts' calling the Atlanta abortion clinic bomber a "Christian" or blaming the Holy Bible or his religion for leading the man down this path. In fact, he was acknowledged to be a nut and murderer. The guy who shot Giffords in Ariz. is a Christian, but you don't hear about his religion. But if he was a Muslim, all the experts would have been out on Fox etc.

      May 20, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  6. sonny chapman

    In America, we had George W. Bush & Sen. Bill Frist interpreting the Bible for us.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  7. BabaD Nigeria

    Why is it dat sucide(unresonable solution to a temporary problem) is prevalent to d muslims?Why is it dat any where in d world dat trouble,it must be caused muslims?I tink,Quaran must must be refined so dat there will be proper and legitimate teaching frm d preaches.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  8. William

    That's how it is with extremists. They take what they like from their holy text, ignore what they don't like, and pretend like they're following God's will.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  9. Catherine

    "I was ordered to fight the people until they say ‘there is no god but Allah, and his prophet is Muhammad'." Muhammad 632,
    Osama bin Laden said this in 2001.

    HE WAS A VERY DEVOUT Muslim and followed what Mohammad wrote in the Quran. All Muslims who calls themselves good Muslims follow these teachings. This is traditional Islam. Please do not say it is a misinterpretation. Kill means kill in any language. To lie means to tell lies. Below are quotes with references from the Quran. You will see Osama just repeating Quranic verses and following through.

    "Mohammed is God's apostle. Those who follow him are ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another" Quran 48:29

    Muslim (1:33) – the Messenger of Allah said: I have been commanded to fight against people till they testify that there is no god but Allah, that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah

    Bukhari (8:387) – Allah's Apostle said, "I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah

    Quran (2:191-193) – "And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, and fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah."

    So let’s not fool ourselves and others with our ignorant and misguided political correctness and sophistry.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • ahmed

      Osama bin Laden wore the mantle of a religious leader"
      and some one may say that "President Obama wore the mantle of a democratic leaders"
      OBL doesn't represent the actual spirit of Islam. because he uses non-Islamic way to spread Islam
      But using the same logic, American Presidents Bush also uses non-democratic means to spread democracy in the world. Invasion countries, killing children and women is not a democratic way to bring democracy. Killing people without bringing them to the court is not in line with democracy. Can any one justify what has happened in Abu-Ghraib or Guntanamo prison?
      Even when dealing with criminals human rights should be maintained.
      to be fair, we should ask ourselves a question, why OBL behaved like this ? why he has chosen violence to express his rejection to the Americans policy in middle east?
      We should read about his life, he is a phenomena that should be studied carefully. We should study the Saudi society, the American policy in his country in order to understand why he behaved like this. But keep in mind that OBL behavior has nothing to do with Islam.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Stevie7

      @Catherine, One could easily quote a number of bible verses that promote violence and death. This does not mean that Christianity is an evil religion. I feel sorry for the ignorance and hatred that lives in your heart.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  10. jeff

    We would be better off without religion. The crusaders were one of the most brutal forces in history, the Jewish are notorious for their brutality, but if you read history, Mohammad the prophet inspired a huge Muslim takeover that was decidedly less violent to other religions than the Christians, or Jewish.

    Those are the facts. Muslims have done the least damage to people of other faiths while taking territory among the three religions discussed.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • SlaveofAllah

      What do you want to know about it? Who Allah really is, Ill Tell ya, go head ask. 🙂

      May 4, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
  11. Markm5000

    Bin Laden didn't create this version or interpretation of Islam, Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab created it in the 18th century, and it calls on Jihad for the destruction of false idols and non-believers. That is the fundamental core of radical Islam and Islamic Terrorists today. Bin Laden gets too much credit – he just re-galvanized the movement and brought it into the mainstream, but the core fundamentals have been around for hundreds of years. Wahhabism was created by Wahhab, not Bin Laden.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  12. Sarah

    "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,"
    This is what is wrong with religion. If it takes schooling to understand the true (or interpreted) meaning, then religion is too complex and dangerous for some people. It becomes justification for their hatred and evil intentions.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  13. jorge washinsen

    It is not surprising he had his own religious version. There are over 10,000 recognized religions and versions of religions.The only thing any of them agree on is that there is only one God.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Stevie7

      There are many religions and versions of religions that also say there are many gods, so not sure what your point is.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  14. Typical CNN propaganda

    More of the same old pro-Muslim CNN propaganda. OBL didn’t have his own skewed version of Islam. He followed the Koran to the “T”. He was as devout a Muslim as they come. He was acting just like his prophet Mohammed did. He was doing what his holy books call for: the destruction of infidels and the implementation of an Islamic caliphate.

    And any article with John Esposito quoted in it is trash. This guy is up to neck his neck in Saudi oil bribe money. He couldn’t be any more of an Islamist propagandist and CNN’s infatuation with him really shows their true colors.

    How many pro-Muslim articles is CNN going to post about this? They’ve spent as much time singing the praises of Islam as they have talking about OBL’s death. Pretty pathetic.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • c

      CNN is PRO-Muslim? I don't know any news group that is pro-Islam. Maybe you mean that CNN is not Muslim-bashing, like you want it.

      May 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
  15. Bob

    Literacy is the best way to combat false jihad-ism. With the high illiteracy rates in the Islamic world, the Imams are consider the ultimate religious source, whether the correctly teaching the Koran or twisting it to their ends. For example, suicide is proscribed in Islam, but jihadi propaganda turns it into being a Holy warrior. Literacy, educating the masses will do more to eliminate terrorism than any single thing.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  16. Norm Autrey

    This is true within all religions. Human beings, especially ones that see themselves as in direct contact with God, interpret the teachings of said religions to their own means. It has happened and continues to happen all the time in this country as well as the rest of the world. The thing is, if people didn't fall to the brainwashing of these charismatic individuals, then they would be ineffective in spreading their own particular version. There are countless examples of individuals spreading hate, fear and death in the name of God throughout history and it will continue.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • sargeanton

      The Catholic church abused peoples for centuriues in contradiction of plain New Testament teaching. There is absolutely nothing in the New Testament that says we are to abuse or kill those who do not agree with us. So, please, get it right. The Catholic Church, which is anything BUT Christian, did the wrongs in direct disobedience to the Scriptures.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  17. Muneef

    Interesting site although not related to the blog subject but could be a source of informations related to the Holy Quran....


    May 4, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  18. Randall

    Half of the Taliban's upper cadre has religious training and they still pull the same crap as Al-Qaeda

    May 4, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • orionian

      its a human nature. a man who wants power will do anything and twist everything. get that in your mind.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Hassan

      The religious education the Taliban people had was merely a mindless memorization of scriptures and punishments, combined with the anarchistic conquer-the-world narrative that Bin Laden himself had. These Madrassa's in Pakistan and Afghanistan are not places of actual religious education.

      But Bin Laden's close-minded aggressive theology doesn't come from nowhere. The closeminded literalist foundation is found in Saudi Arabia, his homeland. It's Saudi Arabia and the nations it spreads its beliefs to (Yemen/Pakistan) that produce terrible Imams. It's all from the same source- Saudi Arabia.

      May 4, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  19. Jack

    A nice bit of over-analysis that doesn't explain why bin Laden remains popular. He remains popular because the West, through its success, wealth, and indifference to Islam has been poking a finger in the eye of Muhammad for a hundred years. Bin Laden was the first to give a good solid poke back, and for that he'll be praised for "winning one for the home team."

    May 4, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Darryl

      Time for an education: Osama's "Beef" was with the Saudi Royal Family because they ousted him and they are corrupt. The only ones keeping the Saudi Royal Family in power was the U.S. through the oil export agreements that were favorable to the United States. Therefore, wishing to topple the Saudi Royal Family had to deal with the US. They only power he had to do so was to whip up anti US fervor utilizing Islam and stating the Zionists were trying to make you (Islam) one of them. This worked.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  20. AC

    The line of reasoning in this argument is bizarre. There are clearly statements in the Koran that endorse the killing of enemies (while others that contradict these, saying innocents should not be killed). It is perfectly logical for someone who picks up this book and reads exhortations to violence to condone it using that book's selfsame authority. Saying he would not have gotten his unorthodox ideas had he listened to orthodox interpretations is like saying Martin Luther would not have gotten unorthodox ideas had he simply unquestioningly listened to Catholic teaching. The Koran, like the Bible and other holy books, clearly contains exhortations to violence and sectarianism; these books are not ironic postmodern narratives; when they say kill infidels wherever you find them, they mean it. So if the right sociopathically predisposed person reads that, he can carry it out with a purely scriptural justification. This rushing to defend mainstream Islam is aimed at heading off the worst bigots who write off that entire community, but it is inappropriate to equate all of Islam to its orthodox interpretations, thereby dismissing the potential legitimacy of purely scriptural readings.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • sargeanton

      You're right on ! Bin Laden had Islam pegged properly. He did EXACTLY what the Koran teaches. He didn't misinterpret anything. Articles like these are just another attempt tp get gullible Americans to believe that Islam is a peaceful religion. IT IS NOT ! Islam is the scourge of this planet. One day, perhaps soon, the REAL God will destroy Islamists permanently.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Hana

      @Ac...oh wow, now that you picked up an english intrepretation of the Qur'an and and read through it like you would through Time magazine, you must be an expert on the Qur'an by now huh? Tell me, did you ever happen to read it in the classical Arabic that it was written in and understood it with full meaning? It's really not that simple. The Qur'an cannot simply be translated to mere English and still have its original, full meaning. And you can't expect to skim through passages in english and pick out verses without understanding the context it is being used in. Before you open the book, you shouldn't have the typical, Qur'an-bashing, "ISLAM promotes violence" state of mentality. Why don't you sit down with a knowledgeable, scholar of the Qur'an and try to understand the verses that you are speaking about? So when you say that the Quran commands Muslims to kill all infidels...it's basically saying that kill all NON-MUSLIMS wherever you see them right?? WRONG. SO VERY WRONG. and I find it very sad that with all the crazy islamophobia going on in society and in media in general, when a network tries to present a fair, balanced side of the story....people accuse them of trying to be "Pro-Muslim." Is it not enough for us Muslims to be already going through so much discrimination as it is because of these idiots who hijacked this religion and tries to present it in their own distorted view?? People need to open their minds and stop all the hate. They should talk to real, practicing Muslims and and find out what Islam really stands for and not all this utter CRAP presented by these hate-filled, terrorists.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Hana

      @sargeatan, you really need to stop sitting in the front of the TV and go out to the real world and talk to an ACTUAL Muslim...mm 'kay?

      May 4, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • c

      Great reply, Hana. I couldn't have said it any better. I was one of those people who picked up a bad translation of the Koran and it wasn't until I met other Muslims at my local Masjid that I started to see the real beauty in the words. Saying that OSL represents real Islam is like saying David Koresh represents real Christianity.

      May 4, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • SlaveofAllah

      Sura 10.68 “They say: Allah has taken a son (to Himself)! Glory be to Him: He is the Self-sufficient: His is what is in the heavens and what is in the earth; you have no authority for this; do you say against Allah what you do not know?”

      The Children of Israel
      Sura 17.111 “And say: (All) praise is due to Allah, Who has not taken a son and Who has not a partner in the kingdom, and Who has not a helper to save Him from disgrace; and proclaim His greatness magnifying (Him).”

      The Cave
      Sura 18.4 “And warn those who say: Allah has taken a son.”

      Sura 19.35 “It beseems not Allah that He should take to Himself a son, glory to be Him; when He has decreed a matter He only says to it "Be," and it is.”

      May 4, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
    • SlaveofAllah

      Hey wait a minute, Allah sounds sorta Defensive about the Son issue, The Lord I remember from the Bible seemed like "I dont proclaim innocence, you take the events how they are and let it roll, Ill catch ya on the flip side to give you whats due" Nah, not the same God.

      Also a Theological difference is Action, The Lord says "I AM THAT I AM" but Allah says "BE, AND IT IS" lol oh pleeezzzz

      Sura 10.68 “They say: Allah has taken a son (to Himself)! Glory be to Him: He is the Self-sufficient: His is what is in the heavens and what is in the earth; you have no authority for this; do you say against Allah what you do not know?”

      The Children of Israel
      Sura 17.111 “And say: (All) praise is due to Allah, Who has not taken a son and Who has not a partner in the kingdom, and Who has not a helper to save Him from disgrace; and proclaim His greatness magnifying (Him).”

      The Cave
      Sura 18.4 “And warn those who say: Allah has taken a son.”

      Sura 19.35 “It beseems not Allah that He should take to Himself a son, glory to be Him; when He has decreed a matter He only says to it "Be," and it is.”

      May 4, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
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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.