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
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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