One annoying old canard, reinserted into the mainstream media reporting of Osama Bin Laden’s death, is the claim that his theology represents a radical break with traditional Islam. The usual propagandists and apologists for “normative Islam”—peaceful and tolerant, and totally at odds with terrorist violence—are back peddling their old wares.

CNN had Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, as saying that Bin Laden had “no official religious training” and therefore “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”:

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.

This is pure taqiyya in action. Professor Moosa has told a series of outright falsehoods in less than one minute, but he relies on the ignorance of his infidel audience and on the self-censoring, tactful restraint of those few Westerners who know the score. In reality, however,

  1. In mainstream Islam every Muslim is qualified equally to draw inferences from the Scripture; no sane Muslim is considered disqualified by his lack of formal religious training from making judgments about what he should or should not do, provided that he uses only the Kuran and the Hadith as his source, and provided that he does not stray from strict deduction into speculation.
  2. Scriptural imperatives must be taken “at their face value” in orthodox Islam. They exist to be obeyed, not analyzed, and any attempt to critically scrutinize and contextualize the Kuran is a mortal sin today just as it has been ever since the “prophet” Muhammad declared it to be so 14 centuries ago.
  3. The Kuran is indeed “the only instruction and command,” and “mediating” that message “by understanding”—by human reason—has been explicitly forbidden for a thousand years, ever since Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, one of Islam’s most respected authorities of all times, asserted that “the science that the Qur’an brings is all science.”
  4. The above is exactly how the “canonical tradition” is interpreted in each and every bona-fide madrassa from Rawalpindi to Rabat when it is interpreted at all: the bulk of their curriculum consists of learning Kuranic verses by hart.

John Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Islam’s apologist-extraordinaire, claims that Bin Laden distorted the traditional teaching, and extended its parameters in order to legitimate his struggle. In England, Imam Taj Hargey, chairman of the Muslim Education Centre in Oxford, hailed Osama’s death as an opportunity for the misguided to return Islam “to its original and non-belligerent tenets”: “For too long, moderate Muslims have surrendered the stage to radicals and extremists who have maligned Islam and distorted its pristine teachings. The death of Osama bin Laden is therefore a turning point. We must … openly jettison the monstrous deformity of the doctrines that he preached.”

That “monstrous deformity” looks hardly deformed at all, however, if we look at al-Qaeda’s own theological justification for its actions published in 2002. The document asserts that the United States is waging an offensive war against Islam and al-Qaeda’s operations were therefore Kuranically ordained defensive measures to protect the Muslim community from aggression. It points out that Al-Azhar University scholars confirm that “according to Islamic law, if the enemy steps on Muslims’ land, jihad becomes a duty on every male and female Muslim.”

More significant for the non-Muslim world is the document’s detailed argument that there is no firm prohibition against killing non-combatants, women and children in Islam. It lists seven conditions when Muslims are allowed, under Islamic law, to kill non-combatants:

  1. Since America has targeted Muslim civilians, either itself or by proxy (Israel), the same response is legal: “And one who attacks you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you.” (Kuran, 2:194) If the unbelievers have targeted Muslim women, children and elderly, it is permissible for Muslims to respond in kind.
  2. Muhammad allowed killing civilians when it is hard to distinguish combatants from non-combatants: asked about the infidel children and women who stayed behind with the enemy fighters and were killed, he replied, “They are from among them.” They ceased to be innocents by remaining with the combatants.
  3. Non-combatants may be killed if they have assisted in combat “in deed, word, opinion, or any other way.” This is justified by Muhammad’s order to kill Duraid Ibn al-Simma, an old and infirm poet who provided advice to his enemies. This sweeping concept of combat assistance includes indirect forms of support of which every employed American is theoretically guilty.
  4. Women and children may be killed when it is necessary to sap the strength of the enemy by destroying his property (“the fortifications or the fields of the enemy in order to weaken his strength, to breach the ramparts, or to topple the country”), such as the prophet of Islam did in his attack on Banu Al-Nadhir.
  5. Muhammad condoned the use of the contemporary weapons of mass destruction, specifically the catapult, against Taif. It was an indiscriminate weapon: many civilians were killed or maimed by these machines that hurled heavy rocks at the fortified city.
  6. “Inviolable infidels” may be killed if they are used as human shields.

Al Qaeda interestingly asserts that through their participation in the domestic political process that results in anti-Muslim policies, all Americans are effectively guilty of aiding and abetting “Crusaders and Zionists” and therefore not deserving of “protection”: “If the successive Crusader-Zionist governments had not received support from their people, their war against Islam and Muslims would not have taken such an obvious and conspicuous form. It is something that would not attain legitimacy except by the voices of the people.”

It is possible to dispute, with greater or lesser vigor, the validity of al-Qaeda’s justifications for terror from within Islam, that is to say, using the tools of Islamic scholarship. It is not possible to dispute that these arguments are based on incontrovertibly valid Islamic sources, precedents, and methods of deduction. While it is true that in some details Islam is not monolithic and that there is no single canonical Islam, the apologists for terror invoke sources and principles that are independent of any capricious or dubious interpretations of the Kuran or the Hadith.

Over 600 years ago one of the leading Islamic thinkers of all time, Ibn Khaldun, summed up the mainstream consensus when he defined systemic violence as a religious duty based on the universalism of the Muslim mission and the obligation to convert all men to Islam either by persuasion or by force. He readily conceded that “Islam is under obligation to gain power over all nations.” That consensus is still valid. It reflects the true “canonical tradition” of mainstream, orthodox Islam. Osama did not hijack or distort that tradition, he emerged from within its time-tested mainstream.