Bin Laden's violence is a heresy against Islam

By Tim Winter (aka Dr. Abdul Hakim Murad)



IN what sense were the World Trade Centre bombers members of Islam? This

question has been sidelined by many Western analysts impatient with the

niceties of theology; but it may be the key to understanding the recent

attacks, and assessing the long-term prospects for peace in the Muslim


Certainly, neither bin Laden nor his principal associate, Ayman

al-Zawahiri, are graduates of Islamic universities or seminaries. And so

their proclamations ignore 14 centuries of Muslim scholarship, and

instead take the form of lists of anti-American grievances and of

Koranic quotations referring to early Muslim wars against Arab

idolators. These are followed by the conclusion that all Americans,

civilian and military, are to be wiped off the face of the Earth.

All this amounts to an odd and extreme violation of the normal methods

of Islamic scholarship. Had the authors of such fatwas followed the

norms of their religion, they would have had to acknowledge that no

school of traditional Islam allows the targeting of civilians. An

insurrectionist who kills non-combatants is guilty of baghy, "armed

transgression", a capital offence in Islamic law. A jihad can be

proclaimed only by a properly constituted state; anything else is pure


Defining orthodoxy in the mainstream Sunni version of Islam is difficult

because the tradition has an egalitarian streak which makes it reluctant

to produce hierarchies. Theologians and muftis emerge through the

careful approval of their teachers, not because a formal teaching

licence has been given them by a church-like institution.

Despite this apparent informality, there is such a thing as normal Sunni

Muslim doctrine. It has been expressed fairly consistently down the

centuries as a belief system derived from the Muslim scriptures by

generations of learned comment. Until a few decades ago, a Koranic

commentary containing the author's personal views would have been

dismissed as outrageous. In the 19th century, the Iranian reformer known

as "the Bab" was declared to be outside the pale of Islam because he

ignored the accumulated discussions of centuries, and wrote a Koranic

commentary based on his own direct understanding of scripture.

The strangeness as well as the extremity of the New York attacks has

been reflected in the strenuous denunciations we have heard from Muslim

leaders around the world. For them, this has been a rare moment of

unity. Mohammed Tantawi, rector of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the

highest institution of learning in the Sunni world, has bitterly

condemned the outrages. In Shi'ite Iran, Ayatollah Kashani called the

attacks "catastrophic", and demanded a global mobilisation against the

culprits. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, normally well

known for its indecision, unanimously condemned "these savage and

criminal acts".

Why should apparently devout Muslims have defied the unanimous verdict

of Islamic law? The reasons - and the blame - are to be found on both

sides of the divide which, according to bin Laden, utterly separates the

West from Islam.

On the Western side, a reluctance to challenge the Israeli occupation of

Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem has unquestionably contributed to the

sidelining of mainstream Muslim voices in the Middle East. Those voices,

speaking cautiously from ancient religious universities and venerable

mosques, have been reluctant to exploit, rather than calm, the hatred of

the masses for Israeli policy, and thus for the United States. This

perceived failure to make a difference has allowed wilder, more

intransigent voices to gain credibility in a way that would have been

unimaginable before the capture of Arab Jerusalem in 1967.

It is unfair and simplistic, however, to claim that it is Western policy

that lit the fuse for last month's events. Without a theological

position justifying the rejection of the mainstream position, the

frustration with orthodoxy would have led to a frustration with religion

- and then to a search for secular responses.

That alternative theology does, however, exist. While Saudi Arabia

itself has been consistent in its opposition to terrorism, it has also

on occasion unwittingly nurtured revolutionary religious views. Before

the explosion of oil wealth in the 1960s, its Wahhabi creed was largely

unnoticed by the wider Islamic world. Those erudite Muslims who did know

about Wahhabism typically dismissed it as simple-minded Bedouin

puritanism with nothing to add to their central activity - exploring

Muslim strategies of accommodation with the modern world.

When I myself studied theology at Al-Azhar, we were told that Wahhabism

was heretical - not only because of issues such as its insistence that

the Koranic talk of God's likeness to humanity was to be taken

literally, but also because it implied a radical rejection of all Muslim

scholarship. Grey-bearded sheikhs departed from their usual

imperturbability to denounce the tragic consequences for Islam of the

claim that every believer should interpret the scriptures according to

his own lights.

This sort of radical move leads to liberal re-readings of the Koran, as

in the case of the South African theologian Farid Esack, who has

horrified traditionalists by advocating homosexual rights among Muslims.

Much more commonly, however, it allows young men whose anger has been

aroused by American policy in the Middle East to ignore the scholarly

consensus about the meaning of the Koran, and read their own

frustrations into the text


Another result of this rejection of traditional Islam has been the

notion that political power should be in the hands of men of religion.

When he came to power in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini remarked that he had

achieved something utterly without precedent in Islamic history. The

Taliban, by ruling directly rather than advising hereditary rulers, have

similarly combined the "sword" and the "pen". Far from being a

traditionalist move, this is a new departure for Islam, and mainstream

scholarship regards it with deep suspicion.

Islamic civilisation has in the past proved capable of, for the times,

extraordinary feats of toleration. Under the Muslims, medieval Spain

became a haven for diverse religions and sects. Following the Christian

reconquest, the Inquisition eliminated all dissent. The notion that

Islamic civilisation is inherently less capable of tolerance and

compassion than any other is hard to square with the facts.

Muslims none the less have to face the challenge posed by the new

heresies. The Muslim world can ill afford to lapse into bigotry at a

point in history when dialogue and conviviality have never been more


It is a relief that the mainstream theologians have come out so

unanimously against the terrorists. What we must now ask them is to

campaign more strongly against the aberrant doctrines that underpin


Both "sides", therefore, have a responsibility to act. The West must

drain the swamp of rage by securing a fair resolution of the Palestinian

tragedy. But it is the responsibility of the Islamic world to de- feat

the terrorist aberration theologically.



* Tim Winter (Abdul Hakim Murad) a Muslim, is lecturer in Islamic Studies at the

University of Cambridge


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