Normative Islam and Osama

There's so much interesting journalism happening in the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden killing. You can learn more about everything from War Dogs to secret helicopters. I was intrigued by one story that appeared on headlined "Bin Laden's theology a radical break with traditional Islam." It basically asserts that, well, Bin Laden's theology is a radical break with traditional Islam. I began with an inclination to agree but I was a bit confused by it. Here's how it begins:

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.

To begin with, I'd simply like more substantiation on all these points. I mean, how many more well-heeled Al Qaeda terrorists do we have to meet before that "poverty breeds terror" theory is put to rest? Or at least not included without support in a story? And the other points are debatable, at least.

We hear from Ebrahim Moosa, a Duke University professor of religion, who says that Osama was influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood more than "orthodox Islamic teachings." I'd like to learn more about how those two compare and contrast. And for what it's worth, the story does give specifics about how some American Muslim scholars believe that Osama deviates from traditional Islam. Here's one thing Moosa says:

"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.

Hmm. That second paragraph is really where I'm confused. What does it mean? Obviously the assertion that the "vast majority" of Islamic scholars say you need to know history doesn't mean that they embrace the historical critical method, does it? Of course not. But, on the other hand, everyone understands that you need to understand history when reading the Quran. What you do with that understanding is where the debate surely lies. Where people are in that debate we undoubtedly don't know. I haven't heard of any global survey of scholars and imams that tell us about Muslim embrace of historical criticism or other methods of historical interpretation. Have you? So how are we quantifying this?

And then we get this:

"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."

There's no question that there's a "reputation deficit" among al Qaeda leaders when it comes to formal religious education. But what I'd like here is someone who could argue from a different perspective. I mean, take the Taliban's Mullah Omar. He certainly spent some time attending and teaching in a madrassa. He's "the likes of bin Laden" and he's gone on a destructive path. Are we really supposed to believe -- contra evidence -- that exposure to a madrassa will heal the terrorism out of an individual?

Anyway, there are also quotes from Georgetown University professor John Esposito and Aftab Malik, a global expert on Muslim affairs at the United Nations Alliance of Civilization. Malik says that one of the most important deviations of Osama bin Laden from traditional theology is that he thinks anyone who doesn't want to implement sharia is an apostate deserving of death, and:

"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."

But this isn't true. It's not true that bin Laden "ignored" those injunctions. Back in 2002, al Qaeda leaders -- partly in response to that reputation deficit mentioned above -- released a comprehensive defense of why they deemed it permissible to attack protected classes. I can't find a link to the document (oddly) but it's excerpted with great analysis here. Basically the document lays out seven reasons why it's permissible:

First: It is allowed for Muslims to kill protected ones among unbelievers as an act of reciprocity. Second: It is allowed for Muslims to kill protected ones among unbelievers in the event of an attack against them in which it is not possible to differentiate the protected ones from the combatants or from the strongholds. Third: It is allowed for Muslims to kill protected ones among unbelievers on the condition that the protected ones have assisted in combat, whether in deed, word, mind, or any other form of assistance, according to the prophetic command. Fourth: It is allowed for Muslims to kill protected ones among unbelievers in the event of a need to burn the strongholds or fields of the enemy so as to weaken its strength in order to conquer the stronghold or topple the state. Fifth: It is allowed for Muslims to kill protected ones among unbelievers when they are using heavy weapons that do not distinguish between combatants and protected ones, as the Prophet did in Taif when he attacked its people with catapults. Sixth: It is allowed for Muslims to kill protected ones among unbelievers when the enemy is shielded by their women or children. Seventh: It is allowed for Muslims to kill protected ones among unbelievers if the people of a treaty violate their treaty and the leader must kill them in order to teach them a lesson.

Each of the reasons has an accompanying description and there's also a part devoted to the killing of Muslims in terror attacks and how that can be justified. So, you see, far from ignoring these injunctions, he went out of his way to defend his actions. He argued that al Qaeda was behaving as better Muslims than those who disagreed.

It's also worth noting that the theology of attacking non-combatants is not limited to al Qaeda in either time or place. It's not like Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda are the only Muslims to have ever attacked children or bombed a bus. Heck, they're not even the only ones to have done that in recent weeks. This isn't exactly a limited approach.

At the end, we're told that bin Laden's theology is waning, particularly in light of the revolts against various dictators. Egypt is cited as an example. But, again, I wonder if that's not also confusing. I mean, no one knows what's going to happen in Egypt but we do know that the Muslim Brotherhood there is on the rise. The New York Times recently highlighted the growth of Salafiya there. So on what basis are we saying that this theology has waning influence in Egypt?

It's not news that bin Laden's theology differs, at times, from other Muslims. And I so appreciate a story attempting to explain how. But I think this particular story could have used more input from defenders of al Qaeda's theology or, at least, people more familiar with it.

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