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. Vincent Romeo

    Bin Laden is an individual who took his hate and used his miniscule understanding and interpretation of the Quran to mislead thousands of other angry muslims.

    One fact about the Quran is that it "contains at least 109 verses that call Muslims to war with nonbelievers. Some are quite graphic, with commands to chop off heads and fingers and kill infidels wherever they may be hiding. Muslims who do not join the fight are called 'hypocrites' and warned that Allah will send them to Hell if they do not join the slaughter" (http://www.thereligionofpeace.com/Quran/023-violence.htm).

    The Quran is baed on a revealation to Muhammed from God and was written based on what was happeneding in the 7th century. The scripture of the Quran should be read and analyzed based on historical context (http://www.musalmantimes.com/?p=633).

    Like many Christians, Muslims will listen to the elders as to what the scripture truely means without researching the issue fully by reading the bible or Quran for themselves and reading the historical information of the times in which the scripture was written.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Syed

      Vincent, you need to get educated as well. Ignorance is very dangerous. You don't know anything about Quran ok

      May 4, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • John

      bin Laden and Terry Jones??? Kind of the same ideology... hmmmm

      May 4, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • DR

      Syed, please provide some infomation instead of just calling people ignorant. The fact is that everythign Vincent says seems to be true. We see this in the Islamic world all the time, so stop telling us what we know and don't know. Reality is there for all to see, I guess you choose not to see it!

      May 4, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Alan

      So I suppose the author of this article and all the actual Muslim religious figures (rather than closet clerics advocating jihad) who denounce Bin Laden are just pretending?

      May 4, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • xtianityisasham

      Quoting something from http://www.thereligionofpeace.com really makes your post more reliable and believable. Genius!

      May 4, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • fwd-thinking

      There's plenty of problems that society has to deal with and fighting among humans should not be one. We got to deal with diseases, animal rights, obesity, overpopulation, etc. Do respect religions, learn the good portion that applies and also understand that it was written during much older time.
      Be responsible, understand the current problems and if you have the energy, help or take part in coming up with solutions. Ancient texts should not be one of the problem. There's plenty of modern books that can better relate to the *modern* age. Give credit to all the people who has help to keep up or improve our society: doctors, social workers, teachers, aid workers, even average citizens who understand the necessity to follow the law and not put others at risk.

      May 4, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  2. SB

    I'm tired of the whole "bin Laden wasn't a true Muslim" thing. So what if bin Laden had his own ideas about the Quran? It doesn’t make him any less Muslim. Much like the Christian faith is divided between tens of thousands of denominations, the Islamic faith is not of one mind either. By definition, no fanatic has ever represented the majority, yet the beliefs held by the fanatic derive from the same texts and traditions practiced by the moderate majority. Put succinctly, it's IMPOSSIBLE to separate the moderates from the fanatics. The very thing that produces religious fanatics is the very thing moderates work to protect in the first place. And this brings up another problem; the tendency among moderates to not speak out against radicals within their own religion.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  3. Dirk Rogers

    joe-thank you.Its a brutal,self centered religion.We try to make everything a stupid feel good.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  4. muslimah

    I could not help but to post something on this page in defense of Allah's religion, seeking only the pleasure of my Lord by upholding the truth regarding Islam.

    Let me begin by saying that I have read and heard many ignorant statements regarding Islam, specifically on these news websites where anyone can post practically whatever comes to mind. However, the post by "Reality" is especially distasteful and clearly based on ignorance (lack of knowledge).

    Unfortunately, it seems that you and all of the other anti-Islamists have a very twisted and confused idea of what Islam really is. I am a well educated, non-brainwashed, American, female muslim who converted from Christianity to Islam a little over 10 years ago, because I found that Islam provided so much common sense, clarity and guidance to every aspect of life. In addition, the foundation of Islam is easier to understand than any other religion, which is that you worship Allah, The Creator, The Most High, ALONE, without associating any partners with him, since he is The Creator and everything else is therefore from the CREATION, and that you testify that Muhammad (peace be upon him) is the final prophet and messenger.

    This is the main belief that true muslims (believers) focus on everyday, along with the 6 articles of faith, which include belief in Allah, His angels, His books, His prophets, the last day (the day of Judgement) and belief in the divine decree, its good and its bad. The Quran and prophetic traditions (Hadith) teach us to worship Allah through prayer, supplication and fasting. It also teaches love, peace, obedience to one's parents and kindness to one's family. However, you will always have anti-Islamists and extremists, who pick and choose what they want and leave the rest when it comes to discussing Islam.

    People should speak the truth when referring to Allah's religion and if they can't, then it is obligatory for them to keep quiet, since everyone will be asked about that which their hands and mouths have put forth on the day when we are all called to account for every deed which we have done.

    I ask Allah to give you all the correct understanding of Islam and to guide you to THE TRUTH.

    If you'd like to learn more about the correct teachings of Islam, please visit http://www.spubs.com or http://www.troid.org.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      The Quaran has verses about Jesus and Mary, which means that Christianity is included in Islam. To venerate Jesus is to venerate all of His teachings, and to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, not separate from God. Christianity is not idol worship, but worship of the one true God. I hope that you also respect Christianity therefore.

      May 4, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  5. bdgfn

    There are a lot of American so-called Christians who are just as far off base from traditional Christianity as bin Laden was from traditional Islam.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      You can get grants and loans to study, but you can't get a dime to study theology, divinity, or religion courses. Of course this will lead to people not knowing anything about their own religion, and will lead to kooks like bin Laden. Just look at CNN promoting a cult who believes the world will end May 21st 2011: if that group is going around the country in R.V.s, what could some other cult be doing? Our enforcement of ignorance will cost America a lot.

      May 4, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  6. NewYork Nick

    Islam IS Islam IS Islam....

    May 4, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  7. Suzanne

    bin Laden's mutated Islamic faith notwithstanding, "normative" Islam in the Quran still encourages jihad.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  8. Boz508

    Relly as soon as people understand that god/faith/or the church is not responable for what happens in life ... $#!t just happens... unless its one of thouse people who say god (of somekind) told them to do it ..WARS would end ...people would not die because some book told some person what some guys beleaf was... the only reason that random guys beleaf was inbrased was .... well simply back then he was mostliky the only one in his village/tribe who could write it down... hell if i was the only one in my city that could read or write .. I would go around telling people i was a profet... annd if another city told me i was wrong... i would send the uneducated ones in my tribe to vanqush the infadells ... while i sit back and write another book and saw it came from the gerat thing in the sky...

    May 4, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
  9. Boz508

    Relly as soon as people understand that god/faith/or the church is not responable for what happens in life ... $#!t just happens... unless its one of thouse people who say god (of somekind) told them to do it ..WARS would end ...people would not die because some book told some person what some guys beleaf was... the only reason that random guys beleaf was inbrased was .... well simply back then he was mostliky the only one in his village/tribe who could write it down... hell if i was the only one in my city that could read or write .. I would go around telling people i was a profet... annd if another city told me i was wrong... i would send the uneducated ones in my tribe to vanqush the infadells ... while i sit back and write another book and saw it cam f4ro

    May 4, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      Interesting ideas; I had to say your words out loud two or three times, and try to figure them out. Spelling helps others to understand you better. We all make typos, but... really, those, belief, responsible, embraced, most likely, prophet, vanquish, (to name a few).

      May 4, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  10. Ibnica

    In the name of Allah.
    The message of Islam is simple: There is no god but God.
    It is the only true monotheistic religion on the planet. Christianity today is all about idol worshiping and Judaism today is nothing but an exclusive club. Still, Islam guides its followers to leave non-Muslims alone (unless its for self-defence) as He will deal with them.
    Surah al-Kafirun:
    Say (O Muhammad): O ye who reject faith! (1)
    لَآ أَعۡبُدُ مَا تَعۡبُدُونَ
    I worship not that which ye worship. (2)
    وَلَآ أَنتُمۡ عَـٰبِدُونَ مَآ أَعۡبُدُ
    Nor will you worship that which I worship. (3)
    وَلَآ أَنَا۟ عَابِدٌ۬ مَّا عَبَدتُّمۡ
    And I will never worship that which you worship. (4)
    وَلَآ أَنتُمۡ عَـٰبِدُونَ مَآ أَعۡبُدُ
    Nor will you worship that which I worship. (5)
    لَكُمۡ دِينُكُمۡ وَلِىَ دِينِ
    Unto you is your religion and unto me is my religion (Islam). (6)

    May 4, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • SB

      "There is no god but God."

      I'll simplify that for you. There is no God.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      What is greater than infinity? Monotheism means one God. Christianity worships one God in three Persons: this is infinity, and there is no other or greater infinity, it is not polytheism or idol worship. The Persons of the Trinity are infinite, and therefore part of each other; these are never separate, and never argue with each other, because God is one God. The Three illustrate a foundation of truth, which was a philosophical and mathematical illustration of infinity and also stability or the closest definition of a plane or foundation stone while at the same time greater infinity at the time of the Gospels. Christianity has many saints and p rophets, but we do not worship our saints; they have left us a legacy of history and of prayer, and all Christians continue to pray whether they are alive or dead because Christians enter into the infinity of God.
      The Quaran honors Jesus and Mary. Attacking Christians is attacking the Quaran. If the Quaran includes Jesus and Mary, the Quaran includes all of their teachings. Any other interpretation is less than the truth.

      May 4, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  11. steve

    jesus is lord

    May 4, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  12. Alejandro Dron

    Graphic Commentaries on the Middle East

    May 4, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  13. joe

    furthermore, regarding "wage war against allah and his messenger"
    we know from modern day islamic scholars that "wage war" and "fighting" in the koran can mean both with violence and/or words. In this context, that would mean that even people who verbally critique Muhammad's teachings are "waging war against his messenger" and must be killed.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  14. Gary

    Ahhh yes. I wonder how many of his alotted 72 virgins he has had a chance to bibically "know", thus far?? Being an older guy, it is probably taking a bit of time in between each one. In any case, Mr. Allah certainly has a great thing going here.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  15. only 4u

    There is a theory confirms that bin Laden was an American agent and certain destinations in the United States planned for September 11 in several years, including the liquidation of many things Is it possible that America's superpower could not arrest one person for a period of ten years and also when it was announced they had killed him curious invention of the story of throwing his body into the sea because they basically did not kill him if killed him and buried him in any site will be asked to examine the body therefore Achtlqo the idea of ​​throwing the corpse into the sea is certain that bin Laden was an American agent and served American interests for some Americans and others and ended its role and the role of the film base and the boot to pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq and engage in a scenario of a new film planned him in the past years and was really a great game over the imagination and the next will be more professional

    May 4, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  16. Boz508

    Untell we as people look at gods/faith as an idea and not as a rule... we will always see an OBL or worse in this world trying to strike fear into anyones life being Foren or there Home. people like that are eather the child that never got a hug or the poor child that huged to much by the strange uncle.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  17. Linda

    I don't think he had a theology at all. I think he simply used selected passages from the Quran for his own purposes. Did he believe what it said? Even those specific passages? Probably not. However, he got high on being in power, manipulating people, mistreating women, and killing. If he really believed them, he would have been a suicide bomber himself instead of hiding away and getting others to do his dirty work.

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

      Not that those passages actually mean you should kill people. But if that is how he was interpreting them, then he should have been out doing it instead of hiding.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      His "theology" resembled the "assassin" theology of the 12th century, where the true believers would be cannon fodder, while the top members wouldn't believe anything. They promoted this in radical schools in Afganistan and Pakistan, not mainstream, but if it is the only school where a family could send its boys... (Please CNN, do not moderate the real history this time.)

      May 4, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  18. whatever

    Such debate. At the end of the day many deaths were avenged and I could care less about what influenced who, or who's religion is better. A killer was served justice, and I'm proud to be an american.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      He was a bad guy, sure, but he used ideas to do his deeds, and it is the lack of understanding of ideas that allows this evil in.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  19. Jacob

    Ok, let's just get one thing straight. Religion has always gotten the raw end of the deal. And this time should be no exception. I can't think of anything else where millions of people have been killed in the name of a god. Considering, that every religion has killed another in the name of their own! This is what happens when people take the holy scripts in the wrong sense, or make up their own views and beliefs! We get people like Osama. But think of it this way. Was King James any different for rewriting the bible and leaving out key books!? No, he didn't want certain things to be read so he kept them out of the holy word, which in a sense is kind of what Osama did. He grew up Muslim, but followed his own way of Muslim! I've read the Quran and I can tell you, no where in it does it say we should be killing innocent people. No where in it does it say that America is the enemy. No where in the Quran does it say anything about using 12 year old children as suicide bombers. Brainwashing is certainly a powerful weapon eh!? And I really believe that we should be more focused on remembering why Osama was a bad man, rather than celebrating his death. I don't support what his followers did to this country, nor do I condone poking jokes, or celebrating the fact that another human being, who may have been misunderstood, has been killed. Life is a valuable asset to all that live, but celebrating one's death the way we have in America, will only lead to further hatred towards us!

    May 4, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
    • MAKU

      Exactly. I also read the quran when I lived and worked on Muslim countries for years. Because what my experience with Muslims was, did not match what I heard. People that generalize Islam have never met Muslims and have never touched the book at all. Honestly, I can find tons of things in the bible that show hate and violence too. You just have to take it in the right context and time.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • beelzabarber

      Organized religion is the root of all Evil. And the reason there is such a strong hatred for the west is our political practices (mostly Christian based) and how we operate in oil producing countries, aiding and abetting the corrupt leaders in power in order to get the oil rights we need, while turning a blind eye to their human rights records. Before you ask, I am a white, US born average American. I just know how we operate and how we are viewed because of it

      May 4, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Mikefrombx

      What the article and several posters are saying is absolutely true, the quran like many other religious texts speaks of violence and restraint. The problem that educated people have with arab leaders and countries is that you do not have any speaking out against this "form" or radical islam. If a fundamentalist christian were to kill a doctor because he performs abortions christian leaders and leaders of countries would speak out against it. If you dont want to be lumped in with the bad you have to show that you are not among the bad by speaking out against them. This is what people are asking, instead after terrorist attacks many muslims sidestep the attack by trying to discuss what has happened to other muslim groups, or have groups dancing in the streets.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Elizabeth

      If the only scholarship money is available for future doctors and engineers, but even a single theology course must be funded by a poor student, and students learn nothing about religion except very watered-down versions before college, then what do you expect? We have the same problem in America, where there isn't enough training in religion, and many religious leaders are inadequately trained, in any religion.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  20. koz1029

    I th54k so16th54g 1036 5s 4015ng f03 8ll y02 f301 0s818 .....

    May 4, 2011 at 2:00 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.