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. Eagle from davao

    a religion of envy and jealousy on the jews. ismaelites,edomites,misri,midianites are envious of the jews.So they created one that will compete agains judaism but take that blessings bestowed by God on the israelites for them declaring that ismael is the one who received that blessings. A impose that fabricated books teachings,they start killing all jews, christians and non-muslims.
    It is not surprising that islam is a religion of terror and mayhem.

    May 5, 2011 at 4:43 am |
    • Xuss

      bla bla bla bla (incoherent rambling) bla bla. SHUT UP!

      May 5, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • David

      This Moosa guy is very misleading. I've have read a lot about Islam theology and from the the historical standpoint - if we are to treat the Quran and Hadith as historically reliable - Muhammad and his fellow believers have a responsibility to wage war against nonbelievers. This is an historical fact. If you were a Jew or Christian and survive a Islamic raid you were given three choices: 1. Submit to Islam 2. Remain uncoverted but pay a special tax to Islam 3. prepare to fight for your religious freedom. Bottom line is that according to the Quran's teachings a radical muslim is a good muslim. Muhammad was a radical muslim! I would like to hear Moosa claim otherwise. Of course those kinds of questions aren't to be asked are they. If you are interested in learning more about the facts of Islam Robert Spencer does a good job exposing truths about Islam. He studied Islam for 25 years so I think he's qualified on the subject. Of course, verify the sources before coming to your own conclusion.

      May 5, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

      David....... A HISTORICAL not AN HISTORICAL.

      H is not a vowel and is not silent in the word historical. It's not pronounced "istorical"

      May 5, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Wordy Woodpicker


      Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage: "both a and an are used in writing a historic an historic".

      Pretty dang minor in the overall scheme of things, though.

      May 5, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Malika

      All the negative comments are from people who have not studied Islam but who like Osama bin Laden are ignorant of Islam. Haters.. will continue to hate. period. They are as full of hatred and ignorance as the terrorists. They are made for one another. The peaceful Muslims, Jews and Christians will continue to have interfaith conferences, visit each other's places of worship and respect each other. In Spain during Muslim rule, Muslims Christians and Jews all lived in peace until the Christian inquisition. The Puritans came to this country and kills and tortured anyone who did not share their view. These extremists are as the Puritans. So all religions persecuted someone at some time, it doesn't mean that is what the religion was intended to do. Again, haters will always find excuses to hate. So.. to those any words of peace sound like' bla bla bla..."

      May 5, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Muneef

      Am not sure but who remained as unconverted among Muslims had to pay tax as much as they Muslims had to pay but in their case it was named Jiziah which went to the "Islamic House of Finance" which was later spent on development and in the fight against poverty. All citizens benefited from this whether Muslims or non Muslims...

      May 5, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  2. Ana

    Bin Laden's shocking death revealed he died in 2002. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDs-mEeh-k4&feature=player_embedded#at=468

    May 5, 2011 at 3:18 am |
    • Free

      Come on now, nobody believes your crackpot conspiracy theories. Everyone knows the Chupacabra got him back in 2003!

      May 5, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  3. Agnostic

    We must stop focusing on what separates us and embrace what connects all of us, our humanity. Only then will we be able to achieve that which is our true right. Until then, we are just the same monkeys running around with ink stained parchments and sticks repeating "my god can beat your god" , ever unworthy of being called gods chosen creation in all of creation.

    May 5, 2011 at 1:14 am |
  4. LegendOfAmerica

    Fellow non Muslims, never compare Bin Ladin and his followers Beliefs and Toughts with real Islam, which is Quran and Hadiths. Like you already read in above Blog, Nobody even knows if Osama Bin Laden spent a month in a Madrasa. In Hadiths and in Quran it said clearly to be good with Non Muslims, Help them, If your neighbor is a Non Muslim an he is sick visit them, Be sure that your neighbour have something to eat before you eat anything, even if your neighbour is a Non Muslim and when in war with Non Muslims, don't harm the Non Muslim Women and Children, Unarmed Men, Crops Fields and there Houses. Do You think Islam grew this fast for Killing innocent Non Muslims?
    There was a non Muslim Old Lady who used to throw dust she gathered while cleaning her home, on Prophet Mohammad (P.B.U.H) everyday from her balcony when he passed from her house. one day He passed by, but there was no sign of Dust and the Old Lady, so he tought maybe she is busy or something and passed by. The next two days he passed again from there but again no signs of the Lady, so he become worried and knocked her door. The Lady said come in and when he entered her house, she was sick and on bed. She asked what are you doing here Mohammad? He said well i didn't see you from last few days so i got worried and come to visit you. The lady started crying and was ashamed of what she did in past to Mohammad. Thats what Mohammad said in his Hadith, and it shows how tolerant the Islam Holy Prophet was. He didn't said kill innocent non Muslims for revenge, He didn't said if a Non Muslim do something bad to you in return do something worse. But Bin Laden said i will kill anyone who don't help me in killing (Those who are not with us are Against us) no matter if you are a Muslim or a non Muslim. Go tie a bomb around yourself and explode yourself in a Mousque where other Muslims gather to pray, just because those Muslims weren't in his side. Don't forget the victims of Osama were more Muslims than Non Muslims. Maybe he is responsible for the death of about 3000 people in 9/11, but he is responsible for the death of tens of thousands of Innocent Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other Islamic countries, who died in suicide attacks, cross fire using them as human shield and made there children orphans and wives widows . So not only you people were his victims but also a big numbers of Muslims are still paying for his sins.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
  5. Charlie

    quoting the quran: "Fight the unbelievers wherever you find them". The quran has a lot more verses like this one. Muslims will say that those unbelievers were fought only at a certain point in time, but yet I see nothing from the verse that refers to time. It bluntly says to fight the unbelievers, thus all non-Muslims.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  6. Enoch2000

    I have one question: Christians advise other Christians to read the Koran and judge by themselves how violent it is. Now, do Muslims recommend other Muslims to read the Bible, and judge by themselves how corrupt the Bible is?

    May 4, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • Johnson

      Exactly our argument with the now bnaned Billy Bob/B-Rob back in December, johngalt. It ain't a question of tax increases on any segment of American, but cutting spending to be below anticipated revenue income. And that needs to be based on anticipated economic recovery that isn't happening. You could tax every working American 100% of their taxes, and it still wouldn't take care of the deficit and debt not to mention 100% taxation would kill any tax revenues for future years.Reply

      July 29, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  7. Seals did osbl out not obama

    If you dont believe in God then why are you so afraid of religion? ignose it if it doesnt concern you? why put it down?

    May 4, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
  8. Charlie

    Before bin laden's death a lot of people from the middle east called him a terrorist and a non-orthodox Muslim. then after his death, we find a large number of Muslims from the entire Arab world supporting him and calling him a martyr. Why is that? The thing is, that Muslims like to lie about their faith. They would like to call Islam a relegion of peace, but after studying the "ahadeeth" and the quran I find that i was totally violent. Take for example this: A woman who loved writing poems once wrote a poem about mohammed the Muslim prophet. He didn't like the poem so he captured the woman and tied her legs and hands on two camels and made the two camels run in opposite directions so then the old woman was split in half and died. Does this doing sound peaceful? I have proof of the story for people who don't believe me. There are two kinds of Muslims. Muslims who are not knowledgeable about their religion, and muslims who do, yet they lie to promote their religion. Muslims who do not have enough knowledge about Islam say it's peaceful because simply, they don't know better. Muslims who lie use "Taqiya". It permits Muslims to lie to make Islam look better. Muslims will deceive you to think that they are telling the truth.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  9. No Muslim slave

    Wow – what a bunch of lying sacks of crap are these Islamodefenders. Murdering people is simply the Islamic way, period. The defenses ring hollow. And we're G-D sick of it!

    May 4, 2011 at 9:39 pm |
  10. Seals did osbl out not obama

    America is built on a Judo Christian foundation. If you choose not to believe thats your choice. Islam doesnt give you a choice. we dont want that bull here. Think that way go back where you came from. Islam would wipe out much of hollywood stone adulters and gays. Past post indicate wacko, fruits are out. Those who put the USA down. Get out go live somewhere else.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
  11. Ismaeel

    “Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-39 NASB)

    These are the words of Jesus Christ.... However, when you take this verse into the CONTEXT it was said, you can interpret this verse reffering to an ideological conflict (Man vs Satan), and not a physical one.... Likewise, I wish that others were to read the Quran in the context it was revealed in...

    May 4, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • Evan

      wow, very eye opening. These american christians don't ever read their own bible first..... if they had, 90% of the world problems would be solved. Their hearts are sealed...

      May 4, 2011 at 11:04 pm |
    • Frank

      What Jesus is saying in this context is that to follow him will require sacrifice and as a result, social unrest. Jesus is not telling his followers to create social unrest, he is just completely aware that anytime the status quo is uprooted there will be unrest. Simple, period. Those words are not advocating war, violence, nothing of the sort. Jesus gave his life, in sacrifice, so that is what he asks of his followers. He didn't run, hide, or warmonger. He knew his fate, and accepted it. He lead by example and understood completely what it would require of people to follow his words. Not all Christians are not stupid, uninformed, easily deluded, etc. We get the message, do you?

      May 10, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
  12. Christopher Logan

    Esposito is a Saudi puppet.


    May 4, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
    • Muneef

      Didn't you know that the whole of U.S.A is a Saudi/Israeli Puppet ?? You are useless with out both of those....

      May 4, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
  13. i hate liers

    please get your facts right.. professional liers!!! come on, don't be bias... you know nothing about islam, quran, prophet mohammad's traditions .... stop spreading lies and hatred to muslim people... your're planting lies about islam in the mind of non muslims so that they will hate islam... liers(western medias) will not prevail.. BIAS!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
  14. Kat

    It has never been about Islam or converting people to Islam or America's way of life. This is the war and hate mongers narrative that OBL never endorsed. BY lying, they keep the largely ignorant and lazy-to-search feel-good-about-my-religion public in the dark. The conflict has always been about the Zionist US congress blind support to Israel and its wars that have killed and made homeless millions of people in the region.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  15. Christopher Logan

    This article is another IslamiCON, as Koran verse 33:21 says the actions of Mohammad the self-professed terrorist are to be followed for all time.

    Here is another IslamiCON.


    May 4, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • Muneef

      Man you have reserved your self a place in Hell so enjoy it on earth and after life....the con is that some people invent a
      Iie and then believe it as you did.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Shardik

      "The messenger of God has set a good example for those among you who seek God and the Last Day, and constantly think about God" – – – Yeah, that's just such a "scary" passage.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:56 pm |
  16. carlos007

    My post and comments were erased? What is this? where is the freedom of speech. you people should learn to respect each others beliefs. this isn't about who right and who's wrong, there is only one god. Who you choose to believe is your god is your choice, but the true god wants peace for us all.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  17. Agnostic by choice

    Battling about whether the Christian or Islamic war has killed more people..utterly ridiculous. Seriously, religion in general is to blame for irrational extremist thinking, whether it's the closed-minded Middle Easterners who have been warring amongst themselves for thousands of years or the Christians who murderously defined the crusades.
    Think about it.. just live your life morally and ethically straight and you'll be ok. Stop being sheep, people.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  18. Iba

    'll trust that islam is a religion and not an idealogy once I see a stable, majority muslim country that respects freedom of speech (yes, including such things as saying Mohammed is a dog, the quran can be burnt like an overcooked tv dinner, etc.), has equal education and opportunities for women, respects the rights of religious minorities (Hey Turkey, how's that genocide working out for ya? Hey Egypt, how's it going getting rid of those pesky Copts?), acknowledges for the love of God that the quran is not bloody perfect as can be shown numerous times, and acknowledging that the prophet is not the \perfect example of a human being.

    And if all that fails, seal off immigration from these lands until they're ready to join the modern age. By that, I don't mean taking a token muslim for a space trip to show 'Hey look, muslims can go to space too!' Hoy.

    History shows what the end result of islam is, and it is not pretty... I don't really wish to see the entire world screwed by this cult spreading along with the ignorance they bring. Kids, do your own research about islam, and don't listen to the opinions of others. Read differing opinions, and draw your own conclusions.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:07 pm |
    • SpyX

      I respect what you are saying here but you need to watch what your saying.... it doesnt make sense. The freedom of speech does not mean freedom to be stupid and disregard common decency, if one where to go to a muslim state and say that mohamed is a dog that is not freedom of speech ! that is ignorance and stupidity ! there is a limit to eerything in this world and the problem with you haters of islam is that you cant seem to see what makes sense to regulate or not !

      May 4, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
  19. ephraim balarabe

    The truth about this life is that people don't believe in saying the truth,if someone is bad let him no that all what his doing is bad
    bless memory the 9/11 where there no Muslim in the trade center,for God sake why did he choose to perish people innocently
    like that.my dear. people we need to support the American government in the fight against the so call al kaida group.and the problem here is that they are every where even in Nigeria my dear country if not WHAT IS THE MEANING OF GBOKO HA RAM.
    if we can remember no religion preaches or teaches evil because even by justifying your self.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  20. Tyrone

    All evil come to a end that why the devil got cast out may Bin landen follow

    May 4, 2011 at 8:39 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.