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. tonyL

    Bin Laden was a self proclaimed Islamic leader with a few twisted followers. He had no legal or religious authority of any kind. He had no authority of any nature. He believed in his own twisted interpretation. In fact the west made him more important then he actually represented. He was able to get away with a crime of the century with a few young twisted Arabs on visitors visas and some box cutters. We should recognize more moderate Muslim leaders in the fore front and disregard the extremists. It's up to us to give credence to the pro western leaders.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • MAKU

      Well said and completely agree. Having worked and lived in Muslim countries for 5 years, they do NOT follow what Bin Laden taught and they are not as represented by media. Some of the nicest andmost giving people I have met.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • Qi

      Just like here. We have all kinds of "Christians" including morom presidential canidate Mitt...

      May 4, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Xugos

      I agree, but to Qi: Mitt Romney is one of the better Republican presidential candidates. He's not a total lunatic, and he is the most moderate candidate. Even so, President Obama was obliterate his chances of winning POTUS.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  2. John

    ...and the US government has it's own version on how to avoid dealing with unemployement and the debt.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
  3. charles bernard

    Osama is not a trophy...but we have to continue the war till the next man is dead....we know that osama been gone for a while but you cant run and you cant hide

    May 4, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  4. john greg

    The whole bible is a symbol of love,,,nothing more..nothing less

    May 4, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Stevie7

      So .... stoning disobedient children to death is what, tough love? And where is the love in killing every person on the planet – man, woman, child, infant, and the unborn while only saving one guy a few members of his family? Guess I'm just not seeing it.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  5. illuminated genius

    I am getting sick of people trying to defend Islam when it is clearly responsible 100 percent for influencing Osama Bin Laden and all radical Islamic extremists. Islam is far from being a angels religion as it has been one of the most evil, oppressive, destructive and intolerant, racist totalitarian religions in this world. The atheists are right about Islam as well the corruption in organized religion. If it was not for Islam Al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, Taliban would not exist because there would be no evil prophet to follow like that pedophile narcissist mohammed who allowed and gave way for the deaths of 270 million people in the last 1,400 years including 17,000 terrorist attacks world wide since 9/11 in the last decade alone. I blame radical Islam the true and real Islam which hides beneath the hypocrisy and deceit heavily. If it was not for Islam we would have real peace in the middle east today and not be worried about Islamic global Jihad. No one seems to mention that in Islam there is a law against apostasy which equals death, suicide bombings, honor killings, praising murdering Jews and Christians and other infidels, misogynistic messages to women, denial of human rights in freedom of speech and democracy. Promotion of war, hate speech, arrogance among for racial supremacy, promotion of Islam for world domination, declaration of violence and war to anyone who insults to prophet Mohammed. It makes me really angry when they tell people of the world this religion is not harmless when it is clearly very highly responsible for the radicalization of these people secretly. I don't find it surprising Osama Bin Laden was living in a mansion in Pakistan next to a military academy right in front of it, nor am i surprised that Hamas in Gaza declared Osama Bin Laden a hero. These fellow muslims look out for one another to destroy the great Satan America and Israel and all western civilization. I am against Islamisation and Sharia laws and they should be banned world wide for their barbaric nature and repulsive intend. I find it appalling that these so called scholars never look to really understand the secret intend of this social political militant ideology of the 7th century which seeks to promote totalitarian, fascist, communist like views in the world to enslave everyone into submission to Islamic law just like Osama Bin Laden wanted. There is no such thing as Islamophobia, a phobia is a irrational fear of something. Being fearful of Islamic evil is a rational thought and makes perfect sense in a logical and rational view for anyone who happens to be intelligent enough to understand what some people like Geert Wilders states, Wafa Sultan, Pat Condel, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Orianna Fallaci, Salmun Rushdie, Robert Spencer, Brigitte Gabriel for ACT 4 America.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • georgebush17

      Good idea spread your message of hate. We get it they hate us we hate them, people will never get along.
      How smart do you think you are Mr. illuminated genius? If you are waiting for the day where everyone is on the same page and holds the same ideology then you better not hold your breath. The best way to promote peace in this world is to move toward education and knowledge and move away from the falsehoods of books written thousands of years ago. Thoughtful debate not mindless hate.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  6. MoHam

    Traditional Islam says one killing at a time or one chopping at a time or one Stoning at a time. Bin Laden was so bored with these childish things and he went for BIG. Like Death, Destruction and Amputations in Thousands. That is the only difference.

    Check more in FaithFreedom

    May 4, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  7. news

    Osama's daughter must have seen deaths and heard about murders/deaths, weapons day and ngiht.. !! Her father had blood all over his hands and murdering people was cake walk for him. So, that child of twelve was not witnessing anything new or abnormal. Women and men in that household knew they made a living by killing people.
    THAT mansion was an unknown territory for the Seals. Going into Osama's bedroom is NOT a joke. What kind of weapons or security he had was totally unkown to them, so they did their best. We must rest the issue here and read the news just for information and not jump to conculssions. Finally there is some closure, isn't that enough?

    May 4, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  8. koz1029

    No going to believe Osama Bin laden its dead obama is laying....

    May 4, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Stevie7

      Let's see the long form of the death certificate – nothing less will be sufficient

      May 4, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  9. TheTRUTH

    NOW THAT's THE TRUTH,he is,he was an extremis' you can't be a real Muslim and be extreme UBL, is was Tafiri. an outcast of Islam.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
  10. BgMc31

    @Daniel, does the New Testament not state that if you don't accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior that you are condemned to eternal hell fires and suffering?

    Neither 'holy book' is less violent or more violent than the other both teach that if you don't believe in their way of thinking you should die. The difference is as literacy spread across the Christian world, ordinary people decided to form their own beliefs. Literacy is still an issue in the Arab world. People believe what they are told because they are unable to study for themselves.

    This argument that ones religion is better than another is ridiculous. Its like saying my dragon can beat up your dragon when we know dragons don't exist.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:40 pm |
    • *SIGH*

      Well put. A lot of AQ's following came from the disenfranchised and the impoverished. After all, who wants to upset structure the most than the ones with chaos in their own lives.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Stevie7

      When god is doing or permitting the violence, then its all good. Isn't that basically why we're able to make children's books and songs out of the supposed almost-total planetocide by the almighty? god kills basically everyone and every thing and we build museums to celebrate it.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  11. Kumar

    Bin Laden' terrorists allies were and are far from Islam but close to ISLAMABAD....We did not believe Indians and Afghans because we have a Pakistani lobby in the US second only to Israel- This is why we kept giving 3 billion to Pakistan...they milked us for dollars and continue to blackmail India and Afghanistan for influence and peace using Terrorism. Stop import/buying PAkistani products, stop payments to Pakistan, and declare it a terrorist state. If US knows and knew PAkistan supported HAqqani(which protects Al Qaeda) than why has it not acted- when we know that Haqanni group kills Americans, Afghans and Indians with PAkistan's support...I do not get why 85% of Pakistanis support Afghan Taliban but not Talibanization of PAkistan While 90% Afghans are AGAINST TAlibanization of Afghanistan and rule...and we know Afghans and Indians are 100% anti-Pakistan army/isi while Pakistan army/is is Pro-terrorism in Afghanistan and PAkistan..You can see the power of Pakistani media and their PR spin master all over the world ignorantly do not accept that Osama is dead, when their ISI has stated Osama's daughter has witnessed the kill. Pakistani public is stating this is Indian propaganda and that Osama died in Afghanistan ten years ago(poor Afghanistan can not even defend itself because it lacks a lobby or PR capacity). I think credit has to be given to India for training Afghan intel and Afghanistan for pointing out the house thinking it was a high value Taliban leader. Note: Afghanistan has been fighting terrorism sponsored by Pakistan for 40 years, we are not told this because we were funding them for certain goals.

    Only India+Afghanistan+India= can end terror- so lets support their central Gov'ts

    May 4, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  12. lagunalad

    Just like some right wing extremist repugs who have their own version of the Bible.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  13. Muneef

    What do others say;

    A controversial take on Osama bin Laden's death.
    From Gonzalo Lira:

    May 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  14. M.Delroba

    Sorry people , but these are all B.S.
    I mean real total B.S. leading to nowhere!

    May 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  15. DrBakroChod

    Islam and offers lots of new information untill now hidden by Muslim.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • Jane

      Nope, Islam offers the same ol' same ol'. Not buying it.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  16. jaydee56

    Most of the postings here avoid the most important issue, which is that the quoted authorities, Moosa, Malik, and Esposito, are Islamic reformers. While I'm gratified to see that a form of Muslim reformation is occurring, it needs to be noted that fundamentalist Islam, such as taught by Wahhabists, would consider their statements apostacy and/or heresy. These quoted authorities are, therefore, subject to death, as required by Sharia. (And, yes, I've read three different English translations of the Koran.)

    May 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
    • *SIGH*

      Just note that Wahhabists are very much a minority who admits to making their own rules and interpretations. They seem like more of a presence because a number of Wahhabis happen to have a lot of money.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
  17. Abu Saleem al-Amrikee

    Just wanted to point out to "Moosa" that his criticism that no one in AQ ever studied Islam in a "Madrassa" is inaccurate. Abu Yahya al-Libi, who is the official religious authority in AQ is one of the most well versed scholars in the Islamic world.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  18. Sage

    Everyone needs to put down their respective book of fables and stop all of this hate.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Lance A. Boyle

      People will always hate regardless of the reason. Stop blaming it on faith.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Lou

      I just hate all of this hate

      May 4, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  19. DrBakroChod

    Mo was a uneducated Goat Shephard in Arabian desert. What do you expect out of him ?

    May 4, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • DCTWMT

      The way you write, you seem pretty uneducated yourself.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm |
  20. REG in AZ

    Where were these authoritatively expressed opinions, condemning Osama bin Laden and his actions from inside Islam, before? While they are still needed now, they would have served considerable righteous purpose in the beginning.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Jane

      They're distracting you while they prepare for Friday prayer and more attacks after the cleric blesses it with the new moon.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Dea2

      They have always been there, but they were ignored by the media because they weren't dramatic enough to make the 6:00 news. There have always been announcements by Iman's and community leaders that have been drowned out by the attention placed on the Al Quaida sympathizers.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • *SIGH*

      A bunch of condemnations:


      Nice try on shutting your eyes and ears to the condemnations while yelling for statements of condemnation.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Amy

      My thoughts exaclty. Mainstream Muslims were awfully quiet for a long time regarding Bin Laden and his beliefs. There should have been strong, vocal opposition against OBL from Muslims all over the world right after 9/11, but we didn't hear it. Nothing but silence until now.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:47 pm |

      These people were always there but were never provided any coverage.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • newYorker

      This has always been the case even before his death. Unfortunately the US media as it always does obstructs a lot of the truth about mainstream and normative Islam. Many Muslims have condemned what OBL did in the name of Islam, which restricts shooting elderly, women, children, and even trees even when you are in the state of war.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • muslim religion of hate

      Islam is simply a religion of hatred. Have you ever heard of a terrorist attack by the Amish? The Muslims are the ones who believe in terror.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • newYorker

      What you see and hear in the US is heavily controlled by what the government and what the media wants you to see and hear. Open up your eyes more to what is going out outside and read other sources. There is so much going on that we here in the US are not aware of. So much truth being hidden. The image of Islam that is being projected by the media is very wrong. When a terrorist or a criminal is Muslim, then his religion is at stake. When a terrorist and a criminal is from another faith ((and there are so may of those ) no one mentions his religion...

      May 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Sutemi

      The condemnation was suppressed by those with a vested interest in promulgating Muslims as skapegoats and boogeymen. *Someone* got rich selling full body scanners, for one small example. Can you see anyone else benefiting from the War On Terror? It's job security for Homeland Security, just like the drug trade is job Security for the DEA.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
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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.