DRAFT   © Rosalind Gwynne, Department of Religious Studies, University of Tennessee.  September 18, 2001

[NB: This is only a draft, hastily edited to help in the current crisis. There may be some repetition, citations are not always complete, and a number of the websites are no longer in existence or accessible. I have been working from hard copies made three or four years ago. RWG]


Al-Qacida and al-Qur’an: The “Tafsir” of Usamah bin Ladin


Specialists have analyzed the actions of Usamah bin Ladin on the basis of everything from National Security to Freud. Some have even attempted to judge in what way his conduct may be called “Islamic”,[1] an approach that is at least a step up from the usual formula that bin Ladin is “using Islam” to cover “real motives” originating in anything but religion. Yet I have found no one who has paid close attention to the “Islamic” contents of his declarations, epistles, and interviews. These are studded with significant quotations from and allusions to the Qur’an and Hadith. The present article studies the first of these topics: how does Usamah bin Ladin interpret the Qur’an?

1. Sources

Two sources have furnished the material for this article. The first is bin Ladin’s long, three-part “Declaration of War” (October 12, 13, and 14, 1996) [2]; the second is his Fatwa, the “World Islamic Front’s Statement Urging Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders” (February 23, 1998).[3] I have used the English versions of the Declaration and the Fatwa (the latter checked against the Arabic original), both because they are more easily accessible and because that is how many of the intended audience will read them: on the internet and in English, not Arabic. As Olivier Roy has remarked, “The militants are a pure product of globalization and the New World Order – using dollars, English, cellular phones, the internet, and living in camps or hotels.”[4]

In times past, Orientalist scholars might fail to appreciate significant developments in Islamic thought because the thinkers whom they were studying had sought authoritative support by forming their books not as independent works but as commentaries upon the books of their predecessors.  In the same way, those not familiar with Islamic discourse may miss the radical significance of a passage by a modern author because he studs his pages with quotations from medieval authorities. The Epistle and Fatwa are a bit short to contain many explicit references to works of classical Islamic scholars, though the two-page Fatwa contains four such references. Such is not the case with a work that appears to have, at least in part, inspired bin Ladin’s various declarations: the important militant Islamist manifesto al-Faridah al-Gha’ibah, by Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj. Translated by Johannes Jansen as The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat’s Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East, its author was executed on April 15, 1982, “together with the four actual assassins of Sadat.”[5] Faraj and bin Ladin analyze the abuses of rulers of Muslim countries and the plight of their peoples as a framework within which to focus upon two questions: When is armed struggle required? Who are its legitimate targets?

The answer to the latter question is fraught with dangerous implications. Muslims are brothers in faith and must not allow themselves to be separated; they certainly must not attack each other. Moreover, numerous Qur’anic verses enjoin believers not to make alliances with unbelievers against other Muslims. But how does one know who is a Muslim? Most Muslims will not take it upon themselves to declare a person not a Muslim if that person professes the Islamic faith, engages in visible practices such as daily prayer and fasting during Ramadan, and does not aggressively flout religious laws against such practices as drinking alcohol and engaging in sex outside marriage. The inner quality of that person’s faith is known to God, and that is sufficient.

A particular historical context, however, informs the arguments of both authors, and the works of a particular thinker address these problems. Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyyah (1262-1328) lived (mainly in Damascus) at the time when disappearing remnants of Crusader states showed the victory of Islam over non-Muslim invaders. At the same time, the Mongols who had destroyed the Abbasid caliphate in 1258 had by the end of the century professed Islam. Mongol armies included non-Muslims and Muslims; of the latter, some had been conscripted against their will and some were freely violating the commandment not to take non-Muslims as allies against Muslims. But Ibn Taymiyyah, who himself had fought the Mongols, noted how little Islam seemed to have affected them. According to him, they did not govern by the law of God but combined bits of it with traditional Mongol tribal law (the “Yasa”) and things they made up themselves. In their camps one heard no call to prayer and saw no one pray. For all these reasons, the Mongols were legitimate targets. Muslims who fought on their side under duress would go to heaven if killed; but Muslims who allied with them voluntarily had removed themselves from the ranks of the believers – had become apostates – and the punishment for apostasy is death.[6]

Bin Ladin refers to no Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) in the Epistle, but he and the other authors of the Fatwa mention the Tafsir of al-Qurtubi (d. 671/1273). Its full title is al-Jamic li-Ahkam al-Qur’an; its author was a Maliki, not a Hanbali like Ibn Taymiyyah, but he was capable of presenting other opinions and of disagreeing with his own school. A modern authority says of his 21-volume tafsir that it is “an encyclopedic work combining hadith with popular piety, jurisprudence, and linguistic considerations. It is well organized and extremely usable.”[7] For these reasons, that is the tafsir to which I shall refer.

Ibn Taymiyyah, so important in forming the thought of militant movements, was a jurist, not an exegete. He apparently produced no independent Qur’anic commentary as such, but his works were so laden with Qur’anic citations that they amount to the same thing. His output was vast, due to tireless energy and to the fact that he was a thorn in the side of the rulers and spent long periods in prison because of his combative and literally iconoclastic nature. (He died in prison, six months after being deprived of pen and paper.)  Faraj relied upon Ibn Taymiyyah’s legal decisions (fatawa, sing. fatwa) but has himself been criticized for taking useful parts of them out of context and drawing parallels where none existed.[8] Bin Ladin in turn has taken useful bits from (presumably) Faraj; but he has also gone to the full collection (about 36 volumes) of the fatawa rather than the brief, five-volume version used by Faraj.

2. Interpretation of the Qur’an

Bin Ladin’s choice of verses to support his arguments shows that he holds a particular position on a complex question of Quranic interpretation, al-nasikh wa-l-mansukh – the so-called “abrogating and abrogated verses”.[9] The notion originates from the interpretation of a number of Qur’anic verses and from the fact that the Qur’an was not revealed all at once but piece by piece, in such a way that some interpret certain later revelations as replacements for earlier ones. “None of Our revelations do We ‘abrogate’ (nansakh) or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar. Do you not know that God has power over all things?” (2:106).[10] “When We substitute (baddalna) one revelation for another – and God knows best what He reveals (in stages) – they say ‘You are nothing but a forger!’ But most of them do not understand” (16:101). “God blots out (yamhu) or confirms what He pleases; with Him is the Mother of the Book” (13:39).

Quotation marks around the word “abrogate” in the above translation of Qur’an 2:106 indicate that the meaning of the word is not uncontested. While Ibn Salamah gives only one possibility: “to abolish” or “remove” (rafa’a)[11], al-Nahhas says that it derives from two things: “to obliterate” (azala) as the sun obliterates the shade, and “to transcribe” (naqala), as when a scribe copies a book.[12] Several types of naskh were identified: one in which the legal principle was changed but not the Qur’anic text itself, another in which the text was changed but not the legal principle, and a third in which both the text and the principle had been removed. Nor did the authorities agree on which were the abrogated and abrogating verses, and how many of them there were: al-Suyuti said 20, al-Nahhas 134, Ibn Salamah 213, and the Shi’ite sources 571![13]

While many continue to believe that the legal implications of certain parts of the Qur’an have been abrogated, some scholars are re-examining the principle of eternality of the Last Revelation and have concluded that “abrogation” refers not to parts of the Qur’an but to previous laws imposed on the Semitic peoples. The laws of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy may have been removed by the Qur’an, but in the Qur’an itself there is no abrogation.[14] Furthermore, they maintain, careful reading will demonstrate that abrogation is not needed because there is no conflict in revelations, however widely separated by time and circumstance: when proper cognizance is taken of context, definition, and the grammar of inclusion, exclusion, and exception, apparent contradictions disappear and with them the need for the concept of abrogation.[15]

As mentioned, the Qur’an appeared sequentially and in highly varied circumstances. In the Meccan period, the believers were few, disorganized, and in danger. Revelations dealt with the existence and identity of the One God, the signs of his existence, and the coming of the Last Judgment. Believers, therefore, were in the process of learning the nature of piety and virtue, forming their characters accordingly, and recognizing these virtues in others, perhaps especially those recipients of earlier Books, the Jews and Christians. In the Medinan period, the community was organized and cohesive but was, at first, impoverished and threatened politically and militarily. Still, revelations continued to praise the virtuous Jews and Christians:

Not all of them are alike: of the People of the Book are a portion that stand (for the right); they rehearse the Signs of God all night long, and they prostrate themselves in adoration. They believe in God and the Last Day; they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong; and they hasten (in emulation) in (all) good works: they are in the ranks of the righteous. Of the good that they do, nothing will be rejected of them; for God knows well those that do right. (Q 3:113-115)


But by now the community also included individuals who varied widely in piety and observance; given the circumstances, a few persons’ hypocrisy, irresolution, or compromise with the enemy could endanger the entire ummah. These persons the Qur’an dealt with sternly.

Whoever attempts to analyze any pair of verses of which one is held to abrogate the other must know which is the earlier and which the later verse, in other words, be familiar with the area of Qur’anic exegesis known as “occasions of revelation” (asbab al-nuzul). Some “occasions” - but by no means all - are well known. A date traditionally accepted may result from surmise based upon the content of the verse and, while the surmise may be accurate, the reasoning involved is circular, hence fallacious. Hadith, accounts of the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, with all the difficulty involved in establishing their authenticity, at least offer the possibility of independent corroboration of the asbab al-nuzul.

Some remarks on Qur’anic citations are appropriate here. Usamah bin Ladin truncates some of the verses and passages that he cites, usually removing phrases that qualify or mitigate the application of the principle with which those verses are concerned. There are standard rules regarding the maintenance of context when reading the Qur’an. A pause between passages may be obligatory, preferred, permissible, or not permitted; I have indicated these notations in my description of bin Ladin’s use of the passages. Clearly, he chooses his quotations to suit the purposes of argument, but the short length of the Epistle and Fatwa do not lend themselves to lengthy exegesis. Most interpreters of the Qur’an have produced commentaries of five, ten, twenty, even thirty volumes, allowing themselves plenty of room to explain the historical background, discuss the etymologies of words, compare parallel passages, challenge or concur with other authorities, and generally explore as many aspects as it pleased them to do.


3. “The Ladenese Epistle: Declaration of War (I)”

Observant Muslims begin a significant undertaking with the phrase “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful” (bism Illah al-Rahman al-Rahim). Every surah of the Qur’an begins with the phrase except for Surah 9. This anomaly is usually explained by pointing out that invocation of divine mercy does not suit the topic that begins the surah: war following the expiration of treaties, as epitomized in the “verse of the sword” (Q 9:5).  Thus it is significant that the Epistle and the Fatwa do not begin with the formula of divine mercy.

Bin Laden opens his Epistle with praises to God and prayers for help and forgiveness. These are followed by a credal statement: “Who ever been [sic] guided by Allah will not be misled, and whoever has been misled, he will never be guided.”[16] Although not a direct quotation from the Qur’an, it echoes many verses, such as Q 39:23: “. . . That is the guidance of God. He guides with it whom He pleases, but whom God leaves to stray has no guide” (cf. e.g. Q 18:77, 39:36-37, 4:88, 13:27). While bin Ladin’s vocabulary is Qur’anic, his syntax is closer to the creeds of two scholars who are mentioned in the February, 1998 fatwa: Ibn Qudamah (d. 620/1223) and Shaykh al-Islam [Ibn Taymiyyah] (d. 728/1328): “What reaches you could not have missed you, and what misses you could not have reached you,”[17] an affirmation of God’s omnipotence which emerged from the debate over free will and predestination. Having defined itself theologically, the introductory passage ends with a common, slightly expanded version of the Profession of Faith (shahadah).   

The body of the Epistle opens with three quotations from the Qur’an[18] that remind believers of their duties to God, all with the commandment ‘ttaqu Allah. The verb is a notoriously complex one: it is more often translated as “fear God”, and a related noun, taqwa, is usually rendered as “piety,” a word which in English has no verbal form. Commandments in the Qur’an are not always simple imperatives from a powerful Being to powerless ones but – as here - are often expressed as corollaries of humans’ obligation to God for his creation, bounty, protection, and forgiveness. Bin Ladin has retained the full context of commandment-cum-justification but has chosen passages that refer to human obligation in the most general possible terms. Specifics will come later.

O you who believe! be careful of (your duty to) Allah with the proper care which is due to Him, and do not die unless you are Muslim. (Q 3:102)


Al-Qurtubi notes that when Q 3:102 was revealed, the Prophet was asked, “O Apostle of God, who is strong enough to do that?” - that is, fulfill one’s entire duty to the Creator. As a consequence, He revealed Q 64:16 “Be careful of your duty to God as much as you are able,” and the previous verse was abrogated. It has also been said that the second verse is a clarification of the first, a view Qurtubi regards as more correct. Ibn cAbbas says that “proper care” (haqqa tuqatihi) has not been abrogated: it means that “one should strive with proper exertion (haqqa jihadihi) in the path of God,”[19] a phrase which echoes yet another verse: “And strive in God[‘s cause] as you ought to strive” (jahidu fi-Llah haqqa jihadihi)” (Q 22:78).  It seems in character that bin Ladin begins with a verse considered notably difficult to fulfill, and one in which traditional interpretation equates “proper duty to God” with jihad. The verb ittaqa and its derivatives occur hundreds of times in the Qur’an; and while most contexts will not allow it to be equated with jihad, a considerable number offer at least that possibility.

O people! be careful of (your duty to) your Lord, Who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind) and spread from these two, many men and women; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, by Whom you demand one of another (your rights), and (be careful) to [sic] the ties of kinship; surely Allah ever watches over you. (Q 4:1)


 In his commentary on Q 4:1, Qurtubi reminds the reader that he has already glossed the words in question and says that there is no point in repeating them.

O you who believe! be careful of (your duty to) Allah and speak the right word; He will put your deeds into a right state for you, and forgive you your faults; and whoever obeys Allah and His Apostle, he indeed achieve [sic] a mighty success. (Q 33:70-71)


Qurtubi’s brief remarks on Q 33:70-71 likewise do not deal with the commandment ‘ttaqu Allah but refer both to the particular context (the controversy raised by the Prophet’s marriage to Zaynab, his adopted son’s former wife) and to the possible interpretations of “the right word” (qawlan sadidan): speech that is appropriate, or truthful, or irenic, or that does not impute impropriety to the Prophet, or that seeks only to please God. cIkrimah and Ibn cAbbas identify it with the witnessing that God is One: la ilaha illa Allah. 

The three verses enjoining duty to God are immediately followed in the Epistle by two others, the first of which concerns the necessity for reform. The prophet Shucayb exhorts the people of Midian against false gods and social injustice:

[He said: O my people! have you considered if I have a clear proof from my Lord and He has given me a goodly sustenance (rizqan hasanan) from Himself, and I do not desire that in opposition to you I should betake myself to that which I forbid you:] I desire nothing but reform so far as I am able, and with none but Allah is the direction of my affair to the right and successful path (wa-ma tawfiqi illa bi-Llah); on Him do I rely and to Him do I turn. (Q 11:88)


Bin Ladin has omitted the initial bracketed passage, but the meaning is not changed thereby. Moreover, according to the reading instructions included in the printed text of all copies of the Qur’an, a pause between the two passages is allowed (ja’iz), as indicated by the letter jim over the last word of the first passage.

Al-Qurtubi’s approach to this text considers each phrase of the verse individually: he notes that Shucayb was a man of wealth, that the wealth (rizq) came from an unobjectionable (hasan) source, that he was not himself doing something that he was forbidding others, that he was urging reform (islah) of their lives in this world through justice and in the next world through acts of devotion. It is possible that in this combination of wealth, belief and action bin Ladin sees parallels to his own situation.[20] Note that the verse contains one of only eight occurrences in the Qur’an of the word islah, “reform,” which also forms part of the name of bin Laden’s Advice and Reform Committee.

The fifth and final Qur’anic quotation in the first sequence is the one most often held to affirm the moral status of the Muslim community and the reason for that status:

You are the best of the nations raised up for (the benefit of) men; you enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong and believe in Allah . . .  (Q 3:110)


 To gloss the phrase “best of nations”, Qurtubi begins with the well known hadith that the Prophet’s generation is the best of humanity, and that successive generations are less virtuous in proportion as they are farther away from the Prophet. But he answers this hadith with variations on another one: “Blessings upon him who sees me and believes in me; and blessings seven times upon him who does not see me and believes in me.” Qurtubi’s conclusion: “There is no contradiction between the traditions (ahadith), because the first one deals with the particular [persons.] And God grants success [sc. in interpretation.]”

Qurtubi refers to reader to “the beginning of the surah” for his explanation of “you enjoin what is right and forbid the wrong;” in fact, it is to be found in his commentary on Q 3:21-22.[21]


. . . God has made commanding good and forbidding evil a criterion/difference (farqan) between believers and hypocrites. And He has indicated that the most particular (akhass) of the characteristics of the believer is to command good and forbid evil, the beginning of which (ra’suha) is to summon others to Islam and to fight for it. But commanding good is not appropriate for everyone; rather, it is the ruler (sultan) who undertakes it, since carrying out [the various punishments] is his responsibility . . . and he sets up in every community a virtuous, strong, knowledgeable, believing man and charges him with [the duty]. 


Bin Ladin’s point, of course, is that the Saud family has failed to fulfill these conditions.

He has omitted the latter part of the verse:

and if the followers of the Book had believed it would have been better for them; of them (some) are believers and most of them are transgressors. (Q 3:110)


A notation in the Qur’anic text indicates that pausing between these two passages is permitted, in fact is preferable. Given the context, however, omission of the last half of the verse is significant. The omitted part signals the existence of some Jews and Christians who may be called “believers;” by implication, then, blanket condemnation of People of the Book is illegitimate. The verse introduces the sequence that contains Q 3:113-115, which bin Ladin omits but which millions of Muslims observe as a code for honoring and respecting pious recipients of earlier scriptures.

Having excluded this potential counter-argument, bin Ladin proceeds from the verse establishing the superior virtue of the Islamic community to a saying of the Prophet: “The people are close to an all encompassing punishment from Allah if they see the oppressor and fail to restrain him.” The verses and the hadith, then, sum up Muslims’ covenantal duties as follows: piety, obedience to divine and prophetic commands, duty to family and fellow believers, right speech, reform, commanding good and forbidding evil, and restraint of the oppressor.  This sequence moves from the ideal to the real, from definition to action. Now bin Ladin begins to enumerate specifics:

It should not be hidden from you that the people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders alliance and their collaborators, to the extent that the Muslims[‘] blood became the cheapest and their wealth as loot in the hands of the enemies. Their blood was spilled in Palestine and Iraq. The horrifying pictures of the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon . . . Massacres in Tajakestan [sic], Burma, Cashmere, Assam, Philippine, Fatani, Ogadin, Somalia, Erithria, Chechnia and Bosnia-Herzegovina . . .


He cites the world’s failure to respond, the “clear conspiracy” between the US and its allies “under the cover of the iniquitous United Nations” to prevent the oppressed peoples from obtaining arms to defend themselves, and the “false claims and propaganda about ‘Human Rights’” exposed when human rights advocates ignored massacres of Muslims. The latest and greatest act of aggression is

the occupation of the land of the two Holy Places – the foundation of the house of Islam, the place of the revelation, the source of the message and the place of the noble Ka’ba, the Qiblah [direction of prayer] of all Muslims – by the armies of the American Crusaders and their allies.


Although a “blessed awakening” is now sweeping the world, bin Ladin names scholars and proselytizers who have been assassinated, arrested, and silenced out of fear that they “will instigate the Ummah [world community] of Islam against its enemies as their ancestor scholars . . . like Ibn Taymiyyah . . . did.” Bin Ladin and his own group were prevented from speaking out and  were “pursued in Pakistan, Sudan, and Afghanistan.” They are now safe in the high Hindu Kush, “where – by the Grace of Allah – the largest infidel military force in the world was destroyed,” and whence they are working to “lift the iniquity that had been imposed on the Ummah by the Zionist-Crusader alliance, particularly after they have occupied the blessed land around Jerusalem, route of the journey of the Prophet . . . and the land of the two holy places.” The allusion is to the first verse of Surah 17 al-Isra’: “Glory be to Him Who took His servant by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs . . .” The verse dates from before the Hijrah, during the period when Muslims were still praying towards Jerusalem. They still characterize Jerusalem as “the first qiblah (direction of prayer) of the Muslims” as well as the focus of the Night Journey; bin Ladin does that in Part II of the Epistle, but here he confines himself to a brief allusion.

Continuing to enumerate the injustices perpetrated by the Saudi government and the measures taken by the Saudi opposition in order to resolve the problems peacefully, he notes that even some of the princes have privately expressed their concern for the “corruption, repression, and intimidation,” but competition within the Saud family has “destroyed the country.” His long description of the plight of the Islamic world and especially the “land of the two Holy Places”[22] includes the ignoring of Shari’ah law, denial of legitimate rights, unjust imprisonment of “sincere scholars” on “orders from the USA,” allowing American “occupation,” massive debt due to overspending on foreign troops while the price of oil is set artificially low, and the unemployment of hundreds of thousands of educated persons. Private remonstrance had no effect. Finally, in May, 1991 (Shawwal, 1411 A.H.), a letter of protest with over 400 signatures – scholars, merchants, retired officials, and other “prominent and educated people” was sent to the king demanding redress of grievances. The king, however, ignored it, as he did the “Memorandum of Advice” that followed it in July, 1992 (Muharram, 1413).

Bin Ladin’s Epistle sums up the long and very detailed findings of the Memorandum into nine broad areas of abuse, of which four relate to our present concerns because of their Qur’anic resonances.

(1) The government has disregarded the Shari’ah and taken it upon itself to declare what is lawful (halal) and what is forbidden (haram). While bin Ladin cites no verse, the Memorandum itself quotes several to make the point that God alone defines the lawful and the prohibited in Islam. Qur’an 10:59 contains the wording in question: “Say: See what things God has sent down to you for sustenance? Yet you make some of it forbidden and some of it lawful. Say: Has God permitted you to do that, or have you made it up and attributed it to God?” (cf. Q 2:275 [also below], 5:87).[23]

(2) The press and media promoted the “cult of certain personalities” and spread misinformation and scandals among the believers “to repel the people away from their religion.”[24] Both the Memorandum and the Epistle quote the first part of Qur’an 24:19 (before a permitted pause) to illustrate the nature of the violation: “Surely (as for) those who love that scandal should circulate between the believers, they shall have a grievous chastisement in this world and the hereafter; [and Allah knows, while you do not know.]”

(3) “Shari’a law was suspended and man made law was used instead.” This is related to the first point but with broader scope. In particular, the term “man-made” (wadci) is important in Islamist discourse, and both the Memorandum and the Epistle use it. Putting man-made laws in place of God’s law entails putting man in place of God, the cardinal sin in Islam. Again, bin Ladin himself cites no verse but the Memorandum cites five, noting that the verse which makes void the faith of anyone who turns away from God’s judgment and law is Qur’an 4:65: “No, by your Lord, they will have no real faith until they make you the judge in all disputes between them [and find in their souls no resistance against your decisions, but accept them with fullest conviction].” The verse is one of the keys to Islamist thinking on government legitimacy, and the Memorandum quotes it several times.[25] As we shall see, bin Ladin does indeed quote the verse, but in a context that lends it even harsher implications.

(4) Saudi foreign policy has disregarded Islamic issues, ignored the Muslims, and provided “help and support . . . to the enemy against the Muslims.” The Memorandum quotes verses 21:92 and 8:75, which emphasize the unity of Muslims. Bin Ladin quotes no verse at this point but cites two examples of alleged cooperation with non-Muslims against Muslims: “the cases of Gaza-Ariha [Jericho] and the communist [sic] in the south of Yemen . . . and more can be said.” But now he ends his summary of the Memorandum and begins to set up his key argument: that the Saudi rulers can no longer be considered Muslims at all.

First, he reminds readers that Muslim scholars have ruled that using “man-made” law in place of the Shari’a and supporting infidels against one’s fellow Muslims are among “the ten ‘voiders’ that would strip a person [of] his Islamic status,”[26] in other words, render him an apostate. To establish the non-Islamic – hence, apostate - character of the Saudi regime, bin Ladin quotes the same verse that Faraj used against Sadat: “And whoever did not judge (yahkum) by what Allah revealed, those are the unbelievers” (Q 5:44).[27]

Exegetes have a problem with this interpretation, however. Both Faraj and bin Ladin omit the context, namely, five long verses that discuss the Torah, the rabbis, and the Law of Moses; and Jesus son of Mary and the Gospel sent to confirm the Torah. Al-Qurtubi begins his treatment of the passage by stating that a Muslim, even if he commits a great sin (kabirah), does not thereby become a disbeliever. He pursues this matter of the judge’s (or the ruler’s) mental state with an opinion attributed to Ibn Mascud and al-Hasan [sc. al-Basri]:

It is applied generally (cammah) to all who do not judge by what God sent down – Muslims, Jews and kuffar – believing that and [still] holding that it is lawful (mustahillan lahu). As for one who does it while believing that he is [in fact] engaging in something forbidden, then he is among the sinning Muslims (min fussaq al-muslimin) and his affair is with Almighty God: if He wishes, He will punish him; and if He wishes, He will forgive him.


Bin Ladin’s interest in the verse appears to stop here, as his charge against the Saud family is precisely that they perceive that they have the right to pronounce their own actions lawful. Qurtubi, however, launches into a discussion of the syntax of the verses and the antecedents of crucial pronouns; the best opinion, he concludes, is that the phrase in question applies to the Jews. The notion that “whoever takes bribes and judges by something other than God’s ordinance is a kafir” he attributes to the Kharijites, with whom modern militants have been compared because of a tendency to judge the quality of another’s faith on externals and then to punish in accordance with the judgment.[28] By contrast, the exegetical method that seeks the meanings of verses in context not only eliminates the possibility of abrogation (as discussed above) but also limits the application of terms which amount to judgments and so carry specific penalties. In this spirit, Jad al-Haqq ‘Ali Jad al-Haqq, then shaykh of al-Azhar, opined that “in its context this verse addresses rather Christians and Jews, and . . . the context makes the militant interpretation impossible.” [29]

But while Faraj’s purpose in his passage is to analyze the nature of an Islamic state,[30] bin Ladin’s is to declare war. At this juncture he introduces the full text of Q 4:65 to call into doubt the Saudi rulers’ sincerity of belief:

But no! by your Lord! they do not believe (in reality) until they make you a judge of that which has become a matter of disagreement among them, and then do not find the slightest misgiving in their hearts as to what you have decided and submit with entire submission. (Q 4:65)


Once again he ignores the very particular circumstances of revelation supplied by al-Qurtubi. True, the story is of limited relevance: it concerns a dispute over irrigation rights in which one party unjustly rejects the Prophet’s arbitration, claiming that he has favored the other party because he is his cousin. But for Qurtubi, the verse is Qur’anic evidence of an actual case that the Prophet judged; whereas contemporary Islamists who demand that a case be submitted to “the judgment of God and His Apostle” disingenuously ignore the fact that it is ordinary, fallible humans who will select and apply the precedents. Perhaps the strong documentation that bin Ladin offers for the hadith that he quotes indicates some sensitivity on the issue.

Far from accepting the “soft words and very diplomatic style” of the scholars who signed the Memorandum of Advice, the government rejected its contents; the authors and their supporters were “ridiculed, prevented from travel, punished and even jailed.” By contrast, they have left “the main enemy in the area – the American Zionist alliance – [to] enjoy peace and security.” Having closed “all peaceful routes”, Prince Sultan and Prince Nayeff have “pushed the people toward armed actions . . . which is the only choice left for them to implement righteousness and justice.” The “Zionist-Crusader alliance” uses all possible means to keep the Muslims divided. Officials from the Ministry of the Interior who are graduates of Sharicah colleges are “leashed out” to promulgate faulty fatwas, engage in disinformation, and pursue minor issues at the expense of major ones. “In the shadow of these discussions and arguments, truthfulness is covered by the [sic] falsehood”, a reference to Qur’an 2:42, where God commands the Children of Israel: “Do not clothe Truth with falsehood and knowingly conceal the Truth!” (cf. Q 3:71). Qurtubi reports versions that equate “falsehood” with “Judaism and Christianity” and “truth” with “Islam,” but he prefers Ibn cAbbas’s paraphrase of the verse: “Do not mix the truth you have in the Book with falsehood, that is, changing [it] and replacing [genuine verses with false ones],” because the latter “is more general and all opinions can be covered by it.”

Now bin Ladin begins to set forth his plan of action, quoting extensively from Ibn Taymiyyah’s legal decisions (fatawa) on fighting the enemy:

People of Islam should join forces and support each other to get rid of the main Kufr (irreligion) who [sic] is controlling the countries of the Islamic world, even to bear the lesser damage to get rid of the major one, that is the great Kufr [31]


Bin Ladin then applies this general principle to the matter at hand : “Clearly after Belief (Imaan) there is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the holy land. No other priority, except Belief, could be considered before it.”  Though it is not apparent from the apodictic tone, this flat statement, which paraphrases Ibn Taymiyyah, is actually the logical conclusion of a number of Islamist arguments that are by no means universally accepted among Muslims. Thus Sayyid Qutb’s strategy is to deny the “liberal” interpretation of jihad as purely defensive warfare, holding that jihad fulfills the right and the duty of Islam to take the initiative in abolishing all “man-made” jahili political and religious systems, which force some humans to submit to others. Jihad will free them to make a real choice, which might or might not be Islam.[32] Muhammad cAbd al-Salam Faraj, whose “Neglected Duty” is of course jihad, casts his contribution as a deduction of legal logic:

From [Q 5:44 and 24:55] (it follows) that the establishment of the Rule of God over this earth must be considered to be obligatory for the Muslims. God’s prescripts are an obligation for the Muslims. Hence, the establishment of an Islamic state is an obligation for the Muslims, for something without which something which is obligatory cannot be carried out becomes (itself) obligatory. If, moreover, (such a) state cannot be established without war, then this war is an obligation as well.[33]


What is the Qur’anic basis for bin Ladin’s claim that jihad is second in importance only to belief? Most Qur’anic lists of religious duties (e.g. Q 2:3, 4:162, 8:2-3) mention belief, prayer, and alms in that order; others add fasting, the hajj, and such things as honoring one’s parents and solidarity with fellow Muslims.[34] Even some verses from the crucial Surah 9 (e.g.18 and 71) are so arranged; but the proof-texts upon which bin Ladin’s claim must be based are verses 19 and 20:

What! do you make (one who undertakes) the giving of drink to the pilgrims and the guarding of the Sacred Mosque like him who believes in Allah and the latter day and strives hard (jahada) in Allah's way? They are not equal with Allah; and Allah does not guide the unjust people. Those who believed and fled (their homes), and strove hard (jahadu) in Allah's way with their property and their souls, are much higher in rank with Allah; and those are they who are the achievers (of their objects). (Q 9:19-20)


Citing these verses, Ibn Taymiyyah asserts that “jihad is better (afdal) than the hajj and cumrah.”[35] Without quoting either these verses or this passage from Ibn Taymiyyah, bin Laden presents his even more categorical assertion as a foregone conclusion.

His conclusion leads him into that area of Islamic law that deals with collective and individual obligations. Again, Ibn Taymiyyah:

To fight in defence of religion and Belief is a duty according to consensus[36]. . . There [are] no preconditions . . . (ref: supplement of Fatawa). [37] If it is not possible to push back the enemy except by the collective movement of the Muslim people, then there is a duty on the Muslims to ignore the minor differences among themselves.


The legal criterion for a “collective duty”(fard kifaya) is that if a sufficient number of qualified people undertake it, it is discharged for all. Islamic law traditionally has held that jihad against a distant enemy is a collective duty. If Muslims are attacked, however, the other legal category takes effect: self-defense becomes an individual duty (fard cayn).[38] But what constitutes an “attack”? Bin Ladin repeatedly refers to military actions against forces in Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Palestine and other areas of conflict. The fact that Saudi Arabia served as base for attacks on Iraq has led bin Ladin to construe US political pressure on the Saudis and the resulting military presence as an “occupation.” But if the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia is a military occupation, the usual conclusion would be that defensive jihad had become an individual duty.  

If the danger to the religion from not fighting is greater than that of fighting, then it is a duty to fight them even if the intention of some of the fighters is not pure . . . To repel the greatest of the two dangers on [sic] the expense of the lesser one is an Islamic principle that should be observed.[39]


Part I closes with three more Qur’anic quotations.

The first is the Qur’an’s most concise equation of polytheism with evil: “And when Luqman said to his son while he admonished him: O my son! do not associate aught with Allah; most surely polytheism is a grievous iniquity (inna al-shirk la-zulmun cazim)” (Q 31:13). Qurtubi notes that an earlier revelation (Q 6:82) commanding the believers not to cover their belief with iniquity caused the Companions of the Prophet to worry: “Which of us has not done wrong?” Then this verse was revealed to confirm the precise meaning, and the Companions’ worry abated. Bin Ladin intends the opposite effect: to raise concern over “the prevalence of the great sins that had reached the grievous iniquity of polytheism” in the kingdom.

The last two citations are from the Qur’anic passages that ban usury (riba). The first brief quotation comes amid expostulations against permitting what god has forbidden:

Banks dealing in usury are competing, for lands, with the two Holy Places and declaring war against Allah by disobeying His order (“Allah has allowed trading and forbidden usury”) . . . All this taking place at the vicinity of the Holy Mosque in the Holy Land!


The verse from which it is taken is quite long; the quoted portion has a “pause preferred” mark at the beginning, a “pause permitted” mark at the end.  


[Those who swallow down usury cannot arise except as one whom Shaitan has prostrated by (his) touch does rise. That is because they say, trading is only like usury; and] Allah has allowed trading and forbidden usury. [To whomsoever then the admonition has come from his Lord, then he desists, he shall have what has already passed, and his affair is in the hands of Allah; and whoever returns (to it)-- these are the inmates of the fire; they shall abide in it.]

(Q 2:275)



The passage seems an odd sort of tangent, but further investigation reveals some very interesting connections.

First, Ibn Taymiyyah quotes the verses banning usury in a fatwa allowing jihad against the Mongols even though they claimed to be Muslims. He notes that the verse was originally revealed concerning the people of Ta’if, who accepted Islam, prayed and fasted, but refused to renounce the practice of usury and thus were a legitimate target of war.[40] His fatwa, then, emphasizes war and not usury; usury is an occasion for war, the last and least of reasons. “And if one who does not renounce it wages war against God and His Apostle, how is it with one who does not abandon other forbidden things, which were forbidden earlier and more severely?”[41]

Ibn Taymiyyah defines usury as “money (mal) that is taken by mutual consent of the two parties,”[42] making it clear that the transaction entails fault on both sides. It is worth mentioning that subsequent treatments of the passage progressively weaken and distort this description. The editor of al-Fatawa al-Kubra rewords it to read “money which is taken by the consent of its owner;”[43] while Jansen translates Faraj’s rendition as “anything which is not taken with the consent of its owner.”[44] Whether the mistaken addition of “not” is the fault of Jansen, Faraj, the editor or the printer, it makes nonsense of the passage. By going to the original, bin Laden keeps the original wording, but he changes the focus to put the Saud family on a level with the usurers of Ta’if and the Mongol falsifiers of divine law.

Second, bin Ladin has previously spoken of Saudi economic decline, inflation, devaluation of the currency, and the hundreds of billions of riyals “owed by the government to the people in addition to the daily accumulated interest, let alone the foreign debt.”[45] He, of course, is well qualified to speak of high finance. He calls his own father “one of the founders of the infrastructure of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” during the boom years, who built the mosque enclosing the Kaaba in Mecca and the Prophet’s mosque in Medina and also restored the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. “Because of God’s graciousness to him, sometimes he prayed in all three mosques in one single day.”[46] Western media are fascinated with bin Ladin’s ascetic lifestyle against the background of his personal and family wealth, apparently assuming that wealth gives him the status of a member of the Saudi ruling class. But Egyptian sociologist Sa’d al-Din Ibrahim notes that because bin Ladin’s family originated in Hadramaut and not Saudi Arabia proper, “despite its considerable wealth, [it] is still considered a marginal one in Saudi Arabia.”[47] Among other sanctions, the Saudi government has sequestered bin Ladin’s bank accounts; but there are also reports that he receives Saudi money to continue his work in Afghanistan and elsewhere, perhaps from dissident members of the Saud family.[48] At this writing, Saudi Arabia is one of only three sovereign states (with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates) that recognize the Taliban.

Bin Ladin’s second quotation regarding usury ends where a note in the Qur’anic text indicates that connecting it to the passage that follows is preferable.

O you who believe! Be careful of (your duty to) Allah and relinquish what remains (due) from usury, if you are believers. But if you do (it) not, then be apprised of WAR from Allah and His Apostle; [and if you repent, then you shall have your capital; neither shall you make (the debtor) suffer loss, nor shall you be made to suffer loss.] (Q 2:278-279)


 Presumably, omission of the second half is justified by the fact that Saudi bankers have had ample opportunity to repent of their ways but have not done so. By allowing non-Islamic banking practices, the Saudi government has made itself “a partner and equal to Allah” and declared lawful what God has prohibited. Al-Qurtubi quotes Malik, his own imam, as follows: “I have searched page by page through the Book of God and the Sunnah of his Prophet, and I have seen nothing worse than usury; because God permitted war over it.”[49] Bin Ladin ends with an a fortiori argument that echoes Ibn Taymiyyah’s comment on the first passage but changes its emphasis: if a “Muslim”[50] is promised war for being a party to usury when he knows it is a sin, “what is it then to the person who makes himself a partner and an equal to Allah, legalising . . . what has been forbidden by Allah”?


4. “The Ladenese Epistle: Declaration of War (II)”

If the focus of Part I of the Epistle is the shortcomings of the Saudi regime and the machinations of the US and Israel, the main focus of Part II is “the soon to be established Islamic state,” the resistance expected from the “Zionist-Crusader alliance”, and the efforts that will be demanded of Muslims to achieve the former and ward off the latter. The author foresees two main dangers: destruction of the oil to keep it out of the hands of the new Islamic state and partition of “the land of the two Holy Places,” with the north being annexed by Israel. Muslims must unite in spite of attempts – both external and internal – to keep them divided.

As we have seen, Part I quotes over a dozen Qur’anic verses, with the text set off in brackets and (at least in the English version) chapter and verse indicated; and there are allusions to several more. Part II quotes no whole verses but evokes the Qur’an in a number of places by its use of Qur’anic references and locutions from Surah 9 al-Tawbah. It quotes numbers of hadith and historical anecdotes (akhbar) from the early Islamic and even pre-Islamic periods, the latter with poetry.

Muslims are to seek inspiration from the Companions who fought beside the Prophet:

The sons of the two Holy Places are directly related to the life style (Seerah) of their forefathers, the companions, may Allah be pleased with them. They consider the Seerah of their forefathers as a source and an example for re-establishing the greatness of this Ummah and to raise the word of Allah again.


The last line is the first of several allusions to Q 9:40, one of a number passages in this surah which bin Ladin has clearly found relevant to his own situation.

If you will not aid him [the Prophet], Allah certainly aided him when those who disbelieved expelled him, he being the second of the two, when they were both in the cave, when he said to his companion: Grieve not, surely Allah is with us. So Allah sent down His tranquility (sakinatahu) upon him, and strengthened him with hosts which you did not see, and made lowest the word of those who disbelieved; and the word of Allah, that is the highest; and Allah is Mighty, Wise. (Q 9:40)[51] 


Qurtubi gives credence to the report that Q 9:40 was the first verse revealed of this most militant surah. The opening phrase refers to the Prophet’s expedition in 9-10 AH/630 CE to the northern town of Tabuk, when a number of his followers chose to stay behind. As Qurtubi puts it, after the Prophet’s return “God reproached them”; and a number of verses in the surah (Q 9:81-83, 86-87, 120) dwell at greater length upon the failure of these erstwhile supporters.[52] Given bin Ladin’s feelings that his own government had withheld support from him, it seems not unlikely that he would see parallels with his own situation.

“Raising the word of God” is part of a call to arms specifically addressed to “my brothers of the security and military forces and the national guard . . . you grandsons of Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqaas, Almothanna ibn Haritha Ash-Shaybani . . . ,” who joined the armed forces “with the intention to carry out Jihad in the cause of Allah – raising His word (Q 9:40) – and to defend the faith of Islam . . . That is the ultimate level of believing in this religion” (cf. Q 9:36: dhalika al-din al-qayyim.) But the armed forces have been betrayed by a regime that “promised the Ummah to regain the first Qiblah” (that is, Jerusalem; cf. Q 17:1 above) but has now handed it over to the Zionists and invited the Christian army in to defend the regime. “The crusaders were permitted to be in the land of the two Holy Places. Not surprisingly though, the King himself wore the cross on his chest” (!)[53]

To these charges of betrayal bin Laden adds another reminder that helping non-Muslims against Muslims is “one of the ten ‘voiders’ of Islam, deeds of de-Islamisation.” He speaks of the regime’s refusal to replace “the crusaders” with “an Islamic force composed of the sons of the country and other Muslim people,” an episode that has attracted the attention of Western media. Newsweek reported that after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, bin Ladin offered to defend Saudi Arabia. “To his horror, the royal family instead allowed Americans – infidels – to do the job.” [54]  And the “protectors” still have not left the country. This bin Ladin ascribes to a deliberate deception by King Fahd, which he compares to one allegedly perpetrated in 1936 by Fahd’s father, King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud. According to bin Ladin, as Palestinian Mujahidin were attempting to retain the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Ibn Saud offered to guarantee the safety of “the first Qiblah” promised by “his British masters” and to respond positively to the demands of the Mujahidin, freeing them from the need to fight. They ceased fighting, the British left, Ibn Saud did nothing, and Jerusalem was lost to the Zionists. “The King joined the crusaders against the Muslims and instead of supporting the Mujahideen in the cause of Allah, to liberate the Al-Aqsa mosque, he disappointed and humiliated them.”

Bin Ladin repeats the phrase in question at the end of a long passage in which he advocates guerilla warfare, then calls for an economic boycott of American goods. “The time will come – by the Permission of Allah – when you’ll perform your decisive role so that the word of Allah will be supreme and the word of the infidels (Kaferoon) will be the inferior.” Deriding US Defense Secretary William Perry’s remark that those who laid the bombs in Riyadh and al-Khobar were “coward terrorists,” bin Ladin compares stories of bravery in warfare among early Muslims and pre-Islamic Arabs with the “disgraceful” withdrawal of US forces from Beirut, Aden and especially Somalia. “It was a pleasure for the ‘heart’ of every Muslim and a ‘remedy’ to the ‘chests’ of believing nations to see you defeated in the three Islamic cities of Beirut, Aden, and Mogadishu.” The remark seems to borrow yet another phrase from Surah 9 (again without reference to Shakir’s wording):

Fight them, Allah will punish them by your hands and bring them to disgrace, and assist you against them and heal the hearts [sudur – “chests”] of a believing people. And remove the rage of their hearts; and Allah turns (mercifully) to whom He pleases, and Allah is Knowing, Wise. (Q 9:14-15)


Finally, two more passages from Surah 9 are worth mentioning as having clearly inspired bin Laden in battle, although we learn this bit of background not from the Epistle but from an interview. The first passage[55] comes during the description of the Battle of Hunayn, about 14 miles east of Mecca:

Certainly Allah helped you in many battlefields and on the day of Hunain, when your great numbers made you vain, but they availed you nothing and the earth became strait to you notwithstanding its spaciousness, then you turned back retreating. Then Allah sent down His tranquility upon His Messenger and upon the believers, and sent down hosts which you did not see, and chastised those who disbelieved, and that is the reward of the unbelievers. (Q 9:25-26)

The second comes in that part of Q 9:40, quoted above, which refers to the episode of the Hijrah in which the Prophet took temporary refuge from his pursuers in a cave and sought to calm his companion Abu Bakr’s fears by assuring him that God was with them, whereupon God sent down upon him His divine tranquility (sakinah).

That the granting of “divine tranquility” in times of danger has impressed bin Ladin deeply can be seen in a story he tells about himself. In an interview with Robert Fisk, he said that while fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, he was never afraid of death.

As Muslims, we believe that when we die, we go to heaven. Before a battle, God sends us seqina, tranquility. Once I was only 30 metres from the Russians and they were trying to capture me. I was under bombardment but I was so peaceful in my heart that I fell asleep. This experience has been written about in our earliest books. I saw a 120mm mortar shell land in front of me, but it did not blow up. Four more bombs were dropped from a Russian plane on our headquarters but they did not explode. We beat the Soviet Union. The Russians fled. [56]


5. “The Ladenese Epistle: Declaration of War (III)”

If Part II is a discussion of strategy and tactics with a rising note of belligerence, Part III is the crescendo: stirring tales from Islamic history of bravery in war, a dozen hadith on the duties and rewards of battle, triumphal poetry addressed to both Romans and those who died at Khobar Towers; and poetry taunting former Defense Secretary William Perry and anyone who is afraid to die a martyr. The ultimate impression is that, while the ostensible target may be the US government the Epistle is more effective as a call to arms directed at – in Wilfred Owen’s phrase – “children hungry for some desperate glory.”

The first two sentences assert “our youths’” belief in paradise after death and in the fixed term of their own lives, which fighting will not hasten nor staying behind postpone. The first Qur’anic quotation establishes the theological basis: “And a soul will not die but with the permission of Allah, the term is fixed . . .” (Q 3:145; the unquoted portion follows a preferred pause.) Al-Qurtubi’s commentary on Q 3:145 neatly combines the issues of predestination and jihad:

This is an incitement to jihad, and a notice that there is no alternative to death, and that everyone – killed or not killed – is dead when he reaches the term that has been prescribed (maktub) for him . . . It is not correct to say “If he had not been killed he would be alive.” And the textual indicant (dalil) to His saying “the term is fixed” is “When their term comes, they cannot postpone it for an hour, or hasten it” (Q 7 al-Acraf 34) . . . And the Muctazilite says, “The term can be hastened or postponed . . . 


Although the time of death is fixed, “these youths” believe that death is not the end of the fighter but the beginning of his reward. First, two passages from the Qur’an are quoted:

. . . and as for those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will by no means allow their deeds to perish. He will guide them and improve their condition. And cause them to enter the garden – paradise - which He has made known to them (Q 47:4-6)

And do not speak of those who are slain in Allah's way as dead; nay, (they are) alive, but you do not perceive. (Q 2:154)

These are followed by four hadith describing the vastness of paradise, God’s smiling upon the martyrs, the near-painlessness of the martyr’s death, and - that favorite of the Western media - a reward which includes certain salvation, a crown, a ruby worth more than the world, and marriage to “seventy-two of the pure Houries.”

In a statement for which as yet I have found no authority, Bin Ladin assures any future combatants that their rewards will be double what they would be for fighting someone not from the People of the Book. He pictures “our youths chanting and reciting the word of Allah, the most exalted:”

Fight them; Allah will punish them by your hands and bring them to disgrace, and assist you against them and heal the heart of a believing people. (Q 9:14) [and will still the indignation of their hearts . . . Q 9:15]


So when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then smite the necks . . . (Q 47:4)[57]


We have seen the first of these verses alluded to for its promise of a remedy for the suffering of the believers, and the latter part of the second (with two following verses) cited for their promise of the Garden to those who die on the path of God.

Qurtubi’s comment on Q 9:14 is purely grammatical and very short. The reading instruction in his Qur’anic text, however, indicates that pausing between the two verses is not allowed; A Yusuf Ali says that it is preferable to join them. The point appears to be that the “indignation” is what requires the “healing”; omitting it would create ambiguity where none exists in the original.

Qurtubi’s remarks on that part of Q 47:4 quoted here concern disbelief and neck-smiting. He accepts the broadest interpretation of “those who disbelieve,” mentioned by al-Mawardi and Ibn al-cArabi but apparently of anonymous origin. “It has been said [that it applies to] whoever goes against the religion of Islam: polytheist or one of the People of the Book if he does not have a covenant (cahd) or guarantee of security (dhimmah).” And why does the Qur’an speak of “smiting the necks” and not just “killing”?

Because in the expression ‘smiting the necks” there is a ruthlessness and violence that do not exist in the expression ‘killing’, because of the way it portrays killing in its most hideous form, which is an incision at the neck which removes the member which is the head of the body, its highest part and the most excellent of its members.[58]


Two more things should be noted about the verse. First, it is comparatively long and complex, with commands and result-clauses, a disjunction, and a hypothetical.

So when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then smite the necks [until when you have overcome them, then make (them) prisoners, and afterwards either set them free as a favor or let them ransom (themselves) until the war terminates. That (shall be so); and if Allah had pleased He would certainly have exacted what is due from them, but that He may try some of you by means of others;] and (as for) those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will by no means allow their deeds to perish. (Q 47:4)


We have already seen bin Ladin quote the end of the verse, which follows a preferred pause; but when he quotes the very beginning, he pays no attention to the reading notation. The word “necks’ carries no notation at all, presumably because no reader is expected to stop there. The first notation comes on the phrase “make them prisoners” (literally “fasten the shackle tightly”) and indicates that the reader is not permitted to stop there, signifying that, once the battle is over, the Muslims must either free the prisoner or accept ransom for him.[59] Having already defined “battle” as secretly-planned guerilla actions against selected targets, with no references to taking prisoners, bin Ladin essentially interprets the first part of the verse as a license to kill.

These two Qur’anic passages are followed by more threats and lines of graphic poetry which exhibit great relish in frightening the adversary. Bin Ladin says, “Terrorising you while you are carrying arms on our land is a legitimate and morally demanded duty;” he compares it to killing a snake that enters one’s house. Appearing to claim some authority in textual scholarship, he defines the falsity of the fatwas extorted from the culama’ as having

 . . . no basis neither [sic] in the book of Allah, nor in the Sunnah of His prophet (Allah’s blessings and Salutations may be on him) of opening the land of the two Holy Places for the Christians [sic] armies and handing the Al-Aqsa mosque to the Zionists. Twisting the meanings of the holy text will not change this fact at all. 


The suffering of Muslims, especially children, in Lebanon and Iraq has nullified any treaty the US may have had with Saudi Arabia, just as violations by the other party voided the Prophet’s treaties with Quraysh (Hudaybiyya) and with the Bani Qaynuqac. “Allah knows that there [sic] blood is permitted (to be spilled) and their wealth is a booty; their wealth is a booty to those who kill them.”

Only now does bin Ladin invoke ayat al-sayf, “the verse of the sword.” Before the long discussion that follows, it is instructive to view side by side the verse in its Qur’anic context and in the context supplied by bin Ladin in his Epistle. The portion of Q 9:5 that he omits follows a permitted pause.

And an announcement from Allah and His Messenger to the people on the day of the greater pilgrimage that Allah and His Messenger are free from liability to the idolaters; therefore if you repent, it will be better for you, and if you turn back, then know that you will not weaken Allah; and announce painful punishment to those who disbelieve. (Q 9:3)

It is a duty now on every tribe in the Arab peninsula to fight, Jihad, in the cause of Allah and to cleanse the land from those occupiers.

Except those of the idolaters with whom you made an agreement, then they have not failed you in anything and have not backed up any one against you, so fulfill their agreement to the end of their term; surely Allah loves those who are careful (of their duty). (Q 9:4)

Allah knows that there [sic] blood is permitted (to be spilled) and their wealth is a booty; their wealth is a booty to those who kill them.

So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. (Q 9:5)

The most Exalted said in the verse of al-Sayef, The Sword: So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush . . . . (At-Tauba 9:5)

And if one of the idolaters seek protection from you, grant him protection till he hears the word of Allah, then make him attain his place of safety; this is because they are a people who do not know. (Q 9:6)

Our youths knew that the humiliation suffered by the Muslims as a result of the occupation of their sanctities can not be kicked and removed except by explosions and Jihad. As the poet said:


The walls of oppression and humiliation cannot be demolished except in a rain of bullets


The freeman does not surrender leadership to infidels and sinners


Without shedding blood no degradation and branding can be removed from the forehead.



Both proponents of the doctrine of abrogation and political Islamists hold that the “verse of the sword” abrogates large numbers of earlier verses that favor non-aggression and co-existence. Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj begins his long discussion of the verse with the following:

The Qur’an scholar Ibn Kathir noted . . . “Al-Dahhak ibn Muzahim said: ‘It cancelled every treaty between the Prophet – God’s Peace be upon him – and any infidel, and every contract and every term.’”[60]


Some authorities maintain that later verses in turn supersede or modify the “verse of the sword.” Faraj, for example - although he does not agree - balances his treatment of the question by quoting two authorities (al-Suddi and al-Dahhak) who hold that Q 9:5 was abrogated by Qur’an 47:4 (see above), which they consider harsher:

So when you meet in battle those who disbelieve, then smite the necks until when you have overcome them, then make (them) prisoners, and afterwards either set them free as a favor or let them ransom (themselves) until the war terminates. . . (Q 47:4)


There is enough disagreement over the relative dates of the verses, however, that al-Nahhas (d. 338/949-50), one of the principal authorities on the doctrine of abrogation, gives five different theories on the matter. Variations of the theory that Q 47:4 abrogates Q 9:5 he relegates to third and fifth places, while he accords first place to the theory that it is Q 9:5 which abrogates Q 47:4.

Al-Qurtubi accepts the concept of abrogation, defines it carefully, and says that the topic is of immense importance “because by it are ordered revelations of rules (ahkam) and distinction of the lawful from the prohibited.”[61] With Malik and against Shafici, he accepts the notion that Qur’an could be abrogated by Sunnah, as both have the status of divine authority (hukm Allah), but that was possible only during the Prophet’s lifetime.[62] Thus he says that the phrase “slay the idolaters (mushrikin)” is general (camm), but was particularized by Sunnah to exclude women, monks, children, and so on; and he allows the possibility that the expression mushrikin may not include People of the Book. The generality of the command extends to the method of killing: all are permissible, except that historical narratives (akhbar) forbid maiming.[63] He summarizes the above data on abrogation and the relation between Q 9:5 and 47:4 but prefers the statement of “Ibn Zayd”[64] that both verses are “established” (muhkamatani), not abrogated, because the  ways of dealing with captives (i.e. freeing, ransom, and execution) persisted throughout the life of the Prophet “from the first day he fought them, that is, the day of Badr.” Qurtubi’s judgment, then, is that killing legitimate targets in war by almost any means is allowable; that some persons, possibly including People of the Book, have a special dispensation; and that captives may be treated in one of three ways “as the ruler (imam) sees fit.”[65] 

Clearly, bin Ladin considers neither Q 9:5 nor 47:4 to have been abrogated. Surah 9 was by most accounts the last or next to last to be revealed, at the time when the Prophet’s forces had achieved success. Verse 5 is unquestionably severe, yet it is qualified and set in context for any who care to read carefully, as we have seen Qurtubi do. But by citing attacks on Muslims anywhere as sufficient provocation, and by equating the presence of US troops in the Peninsula with military occupation, bin Ladin moves the context from offensive to defensive and has it both ways: a generalized order to attack, and a dispensation on the grounds of self-defense from applying any scripturally sanctioned exceptions to the order.

The final Qur’anic quotation in the Epistle supports a call to Muslims everywhere to support their brothers in Palestine and the land of the two Holy Places:

[Surely those who believed and fled (their homes) and struggled hard in Allah's way with their property and their souls, and those who gave shelter and helped-- these are guardians of each other; and (as for) those who believed and did not fly, not yours is their guardianship until they fly]; and if they ask your support, because they are oppressed in their faith, then support them [except against a people between whom and you there is a treaty, and Allah sees what you do.] (Q 8:72)[66]


The first unquoted part of the verse fits the situation well. The actual quotation begins after a permitted pause; however, there is no notation permitting a pause or stop at the point where it ends. Qurtubi notes that the people asking for help here are "those who have not emigrated” – also applicable to Muslims in the Peninsula. Military assistance should be given if numbers are sufficient, but “Malik and all the culama’” condemn those who leave their brothers captive to the enemy “while in their hands are treasurehouses of wealth, and surpluses of means, ability, numbers, power, and endurance.”[67]

The final page of the Epistle consists of pleas to God for help, strength, power, patience, fortitude, and victory. It ends with blessings upon the Prophet and “our last supplication . . .: All praise is due to Allah.”


6. The Fatwa

The signatures on the Fatwa of February 23, 1998, “Kill Americans Everywhere,” may have been intended to answer those who criticized Usamah bin Ladin for lacking the religious credentials necessary for interpreting the Qur’an and issuing authoritative legal opinions (fatawa). Bin Ladin’s signature is mentioned first, followed by those of four other men, of whom at least one appears to be a member of the culama’. Ayman al-Zawahiri, amir (“commander”) of the Jihad Group in Egypt at the time, was reportedly trained as a pediatrician, but gave up professional life to “wage a jihad.”[68] Abu Yasir Rifaci Ahmad Taha led the [Egyptian] Islamic Group. Both are said to have “operated from Afghanistan since the mid-1990s.”[69] Shaykh Mir Hamzah is listed as secretary of Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan,  Fazlul Rahman as amir of the Jihad Movement in Bangla Desh.[70]

The Fatwa is available online in Arabic as well as English.[71] It opens with the same portion of Q 9:5 quoted in the Epistle: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war). . .” In a phrase omitted in the English text, the passage is described in the Arabic as min muhkam kitabihi, that is, from the Qur’anic passages which have not been abrogated. Announcing a position on this textual question is another apparent attempt to head off criticism of the authors’ (or author’s) scholarly credentials. As I have discussed Q 9:5 at length above, I need not repeat myself here, except to point out that translators of the Fatwa have used A. Yusuf Ali’s English rendering of the Qur’an, not that of M. M. Shakir.

Next comes a militant-sounding hadith: “I have been sent with the sword between my hands to assure that no one but God is worshipped, God who put my livelihood under the shadow of my spear and who inflicts humiliation and scorn upon those who disobey my orders.” This completes the introduction.

Here it must be noted that the translators, while including all the Qur’anic verses that the text indicates as such, have failed to recognize certain key points in the text. We have already pointed out the missed reference to the scholarly problem of abrogating and abrogated verses, an important point of intra-Islamic dialogue summarized above; and we shall signal others as they appear.

The authors call attention to the unprecedented nature of the “Crusader” presence in the Peninsula, in a passage which is only partly translated and in which a Qur’anic citation goes unrecognized. Once again, a table of comparison will serve our purposes:

No one argues today about three facts that are known to everyone; we will list them, in order to remind everyone.

No one argues today about three facts which evidence repeatedly confirms and upon which impartial people agree. We shall mention it so that those who choose to will remember; and so “. . . that those who die might die after a clear Sign, and those who live might live after a clear Sign . . .”

(Q 8:42)


The Qur’anic quotation is part of a description of the battle of Badr, the first great Muslim victory, which is held up as proof of the Muslims’ divine support. The initial, unquoted part of the verse alludes to the Muslims’ poor planning which was nevertheless put right by God. Al-Qurtubi’s paraphrase of the passage quoted is

So that the one who dies will die after a clear proof he has seen and a warning example he has viewed with his own eyes: the argument has gone against him. And so also the life of the one who lives.


One overlooked threat in a list of threats is probably not crucial to understanding the aims of the authors, but it does remind us to “consider the source” of this translation.

The three “facts” referred to are:

(1)   the US “occupation” of the Peninsula, using it as a base to fight “the neighboring Muslim peoples;”

(2)   the US attempt to repeat their “horrific massacres” of Iraqis and to “humiliate their Muslim neighbors;”

(3)   the US aim – in addition to the foregoing “religious and economic” ones - to “serve the Jews’ petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there,” hence the attempt to weaken Iraq, “the strongest neighboring state,” and to keep the Arab countries divided.

Now the authors sum up in legal terms the situation and the action it demands. First, they stipulate that these and other US actions “are a clear declaration of war on God, his messenger and Muslims.” Second, they cite unanimous opinion among culama of every age that, in case of attack from outside, jihad becomes an individual duty (fard cayn).

This was revealed by Imam Bin-Qadamah in “Al-Mughni,” Imam al-Kisa’i in “Al-Bada’i,” al-Qurtubi in his interpretation, and the shaykh of al-Islam [not further identified] in his books, where he said “As for the fighting to repulse [an enemy]. it is aimed at defending sanctity and religion, and it is a duty as agreed [by the ulema]. Nothing is more sacred than belief except repulsing an enemy who is attacking religion and life.”

All spelling, punctuation, and parentheses are original. Again we see to what extent the translators’ knowledge of Islamic thought is deficient. Proper voweling of Ibn Qudamah’s name is well known. Translating the word tafsir with the lower-case “interpretation” seems to show ignorance of the basic genre of Qur’anic scholarship. Failure to understand that shaykh al-Islam refers to Ibn Taymiyyah has meant failure to recognize that the word ikhtiyaratihi, here translated as “his books,” actually refers to a selection of his fatwas[72] that is printed at the end of volume four of al-Fatawa al-Kubra, the five-volume collection cited by Muhammad cAbd al-Salam Faraj in al-Faridah al-Gha’ibah. The translation is not word-for-word but is acceptable in that it does not distort the original meaning as does the version in Epistle I.

The fatwa itself follows.

On that basis, and in compliance with God’s order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims[73]

The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.

Seven Qur’anic passages are cited in support. It is worth noting that here the authors of the fatwa conclude their reasoning and present the seven proof-texts as self-evidently relevant. This is in contrast to the style of Ibn Taymiyyah, whose fatawa pursue every point of comparison and distinction between the Qur’anic and Prophetic precedents and the cases at hand.

[The number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve (in a year)- so ordained by Him the day He created the heavens and the earth; of them four are sacred: that is the straight usage. So wrong not yourselves therein,] and fight the Pagans all together as they fight you all together. [But know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.] (Q 9:36)


Yusuf Ali points out that this and the following verse must be read together in order to understand points being made about the Islamic calendar. As can be seen, however, the part quoted deals with fighting, not the calendar; reading notations place permitted pauses at its beginning and end. Qurtubi’s own remarks have mainly to do with grammar. He rejects the notion that the verse was initially directed at individuals but that that application was then abrogated and made a collective obligation; he prefers Ibn cAtiyyah’s interpretation that it is a generalized encouragement to fight in a unified manner, which happens to be cast in the plural and is tied to the idea of proportionate response, “but God knows best.”

And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God; [but if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression.] (Q 2:193)


The recommendation not to pause before the bracketed portion is not observed.

Qurtubi gives two possible interpretations. For those who consider that this is an abrogating verse (nasikhah), it is “a command to kill every polytheist in every location;” for those who consider it non-abrogating, it applies only to those who are aggressors. Qurtubi himself says that the first interpretation is the more likely one (azhar)  )), “a command for unrestricted battle, not [based] upon the condition that the unbelievers start it.” The evidence (dalil) is the phrase “until . . .there prevail justice and faith in God” (hatta . . . yakuna al-din li-Llah), which (along with a hadith) “indicate that the cause of the fighting is unbelief (al-kufr) . . . and that the goal is the absence of kufr. That is clear.” Ibn Taymiyyah likewise uses the verse to legitimize fighting against the rulers, in this case the nominally Muslim Mongols; he defines din as “obedience.” Faraj repeats the passage in al-Faridah al-Gha’ibah.[74]

Although Qurtubi’s and Ibn Taymiyyah’s reasoning is not explicitly reproduced in the fatwa, their readings of Q 2:193 offer more scope than even Q 9:5 to those who affirm Muslims’ absolute right to establish an Islamic regime. Aggression by non-Muslims is not a necessary preliminary to battle: the very existence of irreligion is sufficient cause and justification. The current presence of non-Muslims in the land of the two holy places, then, is a provocation in and of itself, whether or not these non-Muslims support the Saud family or fight Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere. Perhaps use of a stronger proof-text together with omission of the underlying reasoning reflect the presence of at least one scholar among the signatories.

And why should ye not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed) [al-mustadcafin]?- Men, women, and children, whose cry is: "Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; [and raise for us from thee one who will protect;] and raise for us from thee one who will help!" (Q 4:75)


The bracketed passage exists in the original but by design or an error of reading has been omitted by the translators. Qurtubi’s commentary once again must have seemed to the authors to be uncannily appropriate for the current situation. He calls the verse “an instigation to jihad, which includes freeing the oppressed from the hands of the polytheist unbelievers . . . And He – may He be exalted – has made jihad obligatory to raise His Word . . . and rescue the believers . . .” Freeing prisoners of war is also obligatory, whether by arms or ransom. “This town, whose people are oppressors” is Mecca. This is the first occurrence in the Qur’anic text of the word mustadcafun/-in; perhaps it is no coincidence that the term was also important in the rhetoric of the Iranian revolution (cf. Q 4:97, 8:26).

Evidently, readers are not to identify the “one who will help” with Usamah bin Ladin, for the authors now call upon “every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money” whenever possible, and they urge “ulema, leaders, youths and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops.”

O ye who believe! give your response to Allah and His Messenger, when He calleth you to that which will give you life; and know that Allah cometh in between a man and his heart, and that it is He to Whom ye shall (all) be gathered. (Q 8:24)


The authors have observed the recommendation not to stop after the phrase “that which will give you life.” The bulk of Qurtubi’s commentary is philological, but he does note that no one disagrees that Q 8:24 is a call to all believers.

O ye who believe! what is the matter with you, that, when ye are asked to go forth in the cause of Allah, ye cling heavily to the earth? Do ye prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter? But little is the comfort of this life, as compared with the Hereafter. /Unless ye go forth, He will punish you with a grievous penalty, and put others in your place; but Him ye would not harm in the least. For Allah hath power over all things. (Q 9:38-39)

The juxtaposition of these two verses with Q 8:24 is indeed interesting. The combination of promise, reproach and threat are clear enough without commentary. Qurtubi, however, agrees with authorities who hold that Q 9:39 (with Q 9:120-121) has been abrogated by Q 9:122, which says that not all believers should go out into battle together: “If a contingent from every expedition remained behind, they could devote themselves to studies in religion and admonish the people when they return to them . . .” By Qurtubi’s reasoning, the fact of being “called out” to jihad (Q 9:38) adds nothing to the conditions which render jihad sometimes a collective, sometimes an individual obligation; while both the divine reward of knowledge and the necessity to fight in the cause of truth will continue until the Day of Resurrection (ad Q 9:122). But he ends both commentaries with the phrase “And God knows best” (wa-Llahu aclam.)

We have already seen bin Ladin agree with Faraj that, after belief, nothing is more important than jihad. Faraj does not cite Q 9:122, but he (or the translator) titles Sections 63 and 64 of The Neglected Duty “To Be Occupied With the Quest for Knowledge:” one of a list of “excuses” advanced by those trying to avoid jihad. Although we have seen Qurtubi ignored when convenient, both Qurtubi and Faraj can be accepted when – by the authors’ previous conclusions - jihad becomes an individual duty: the US presence in Saudi Arabia is defined as a military occupation; any Muslim anywhere is attacked, and the interests of Israel are given priority despite its occupation of Jerusalem and “murder” of Muslims there.[75]

So lose not heart, nor fall into despair. For ye must gain mastery if ye are true in Faith (Wa-antum al-aclawn in kuntum mu’minin.) (Q 3:139)


This verse was revealed after the Muslims were defeated at Uhud (4 A.H). Qurtubi’s commentary, though only about half a page long, reproduces both literal and figurative interpretations. Qurtubi begins by paraphrasing the initial encouragement and consolation which God offered the Muslims. He then presents the view that the second sentence refers to Muslim archers on the mountain side who held back the enemy as long as they kept their place but brought defeat when they broke ranks in a quest for booty. His final words, however, apply it to Muslims in general:

In this verse is made clear the virtue of this community (ummah), because He addresses them as He addressed the prophets . . . (cf. Q 20:68) . . . And this expression (sc. al-aclawn, “the uppermost”) is derived from His highest Name, for He – may He be glorified – is the Lofty, and He has said to the believers, “And you are the uppermost.”



6. Conclusion

Bin Ladin’s reasoning depends upon two techniques: (1) taking parts of Qur’anic verses out of context and (2) defining the enemy and the enemy’s supporters, actions, and property in such a way as to include them in the category that deserves the very worst of punishments. Contrary to my expectations, he does not rely upon the concept of abrogation of some Qur’anic verses by others. He accepts  Faraj’s and Ibn Taymiyyah’s assertion that jihad is more important than anything except belief in God, and that allows him to define away what most Muslim legal scholars consider to be war crimes, such as the killing of noncombatants.

To dismiss the man as a “devil quoting scripture” is to remain ignorant of both the attraction he holds for supporters and the factor that may in the long run deprive him and his movement of that support: effective, credible opposition from Muslims themselves.

DRAFT   © Rosalind Gwynne, Department of Religious Studies, University of Tennessee.  September 18, 2001



[1] Reuven Paz, “Is There an ‘Islamic Terrorism’?”, The International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (Herzliya, Israel), on their website: http://www. Ict.org.il/. S.a. other articles at that site.

[2] See theMuslim Student Association (Ohio State U.) website at <http://msanews.mynet.net/Scholars/Laden/>.

[3] Ibid. The Arabic appeared in al-Quds al-Arabi (London, UK), 23 February, 1998, p. 3. It is available at http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/fatw2.htm.

[4]Olivier Roy, “The Radicalization of Sunni Conservative Fundamentalism,” ISIM (International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World) Newsletter no. 2 (March, 1999), p. 7.

[5] Johannes Jansen, The Neglected Duty, (New York: Macmillan, 1986), 1.

[6] Ibid., 56-57; and ___________

[7] Mahmoud M. Ayoub, The Qur’an and Its Interpreters, (SUNY, 1984-,) vol. I, 4-5.

[8] ‘Ammara; Jansen

[9] Classical works: Ibn Salamah, al-Nahhas. Modern works: David S. Powers, Ahmad Hasan, Amin al-Btoush

[10] Translations of the Qur’an in the Epistle (with one possible exception) are those of M.M. Shakir; in the Fatwa, those of Abdullah Yusuf  Ali. I have updated most King James English: e.g. “Do you not know?” for “Knowest thou not?”; and  I have occasionally done my own translation, as context required.

[11] Ibn Salamah, 5.

[12] Al-Nahhas, 14.

[13] Btoush, 41. I have not verified the last figure but am rather skeptical, as he includes the Shi’ah among those he blames for the “innovation” of naskh (104).

[14] Saqqa.

[15] Jabri, Btoush.

[16] Cf. Faraj, §2, in Jansen, 160. S. a. A. J. Wensinck, The Moslem Creed, _______.

[17] See H. Daiber, “The Creed (‘Aqida) of the Hanbalite Ibn Qudama al-Maqdisi”, ______. Ibn Taymiyyah’s wording is identical except that he uses the third person: “Whatever reaches the person (al-insan) . . .” See S. al-Fawzan, Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Wasitiyyah, Riyadh, Maktabat Dar al-Salam, 1414/1994.

[18] Translators of the Epistle have, with occasional slight changes, used M.M. Shakir’s English translation of the Qur’an. Translators of the Fatwa have used that of A. Yusuf ‘Ali, with one exception. A useful website puts three popular English translations of the Qur’an (A. Y. Ali, Pickthall, Shakir) side by side. See http://cwis.usc.edu/dept/MSA/quran/.

[19] al-Qurtubi, al-Jamic li-Ahkam al-Qur’an, IV, 100ff. Unless otherwise indicated, all references to Qurtubi are taken from his commentary on the verse(s) under consideration.

[20]However, it is not Shucayb but Muhammad (Q33:21) and Abraham “and those with him” (Q60:4-6) who are specifically held up as “good examples” to be emulated. 

[21] Op. cit., IV, 30ff.

[22] Islamist and opposition groups refuse to attach the name of the Saud family (“Saudi Arabia.”) to the land of the two holy places, Mecca and Medina.

[23] The Memorandum also quotes Q 12:40 and 42:21.

[24] One possible reference is to the imprisonment of Sheikh Salman al-cAuda for allegedly leading an uprising in the city of Buraydah, the so-called intifadat Buraydah. See Fandy, 92.

[25] The Introduction contains the entire verse but, as usual in such cases, subsequent references are shorter and omit the bracketed passage.

[26] For a current version of this list, see the website of the University College London Islamic Society, “Ten Things Which Nullify One’s Islaam,” http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~uczxisl/nullify.html.

[27]Neglected Duty, #21, 167. The pause before the quoted passage is permissible. There is no consensus on how the word yahkum should be translated. The translators of bin Ladin’s Epistle (with A. Yusuf Ali) use “judge,” while Jansen translates it as “rule.”

[28] See Jansen, s.v. Kharijis. The best known example of the latter is the case of the Egyptian professor of literature Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. Religious courts determined from his writings that his opinions on the Qur’an were Islamically unacceptable. Since he had been born a Muslim, this now made him an apostate; and since he was no longer a Muslim, his marriage to a Muslim woman was no longer legal. The court therefore decreed that the two were divorced, even though neither wanted a divorce! The couple now live in the Netherlands. 

[29]Jansen, Neglected Duty, 33, n. 22, ad p. 7.

[30] Ibid., #16, 165; s.a. 7.

[31] I have not yet located this quotation in Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatawa.

[32] Milestones, Ch. 5, passim.

[33] The Neglected Duty, §16, p. 165.

[34] Others add fasting, the hajj, and such things as honoring one’s parents and solidarity with fellow Muslims. The classic formula of the “Five Pillars” comes not from any single place in the Qur’an but from a hadith reported by Muslim (Iman 19).

[35] Majmuc al-Fatawa, vol. 35, p. 160.

[36] The original translation says “collective duty”, but this appears to be a mistranslation of the word ijmacan.

[37] This is actually Kitab al-Ikhtiyarat al-cIlmiyyah fi Ikhtiyarat Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, in al-Fatawa al-Kubra, (both compiled by cAla’ al-Din Abu al-Hasan cAli al-Bacli), Beirut, Dar al-Macrifah, 1409/1988, vol. 4, p. 319-559. The quotation paraphrased here is from page 520.


[38] Cf. Faraj in Jansen, p. 199ff. It is possible that the translator of the Epistle is not fully familiar with the nuances of legal terminology in Arabic and English. Ibn Taymiyyah goes beyond the conventional dichotomy of fard kifaya/ fard cayn to speak of actions as “necessary for” or “incumbent upon” (wajib cala) a person. See Majmuc al-Fatawa, vol. 28, p. 65. The matter is beyond the scope of this article.

[39] The reference is to Ibn Taymiyyah’s Majmuc al-Fatawa, vol. 26, p. 506. This is a possible misprint, as the edition I consulted has the passage in question in vol. 28, also at p. 506; nor does the reference cover all passages quoted.

[40] Note that the Qur’an uses harb [war] and not jihad, and that Ibn Taymiyyah uses words etymologically related to harb, whereas the editor of al-Fatawa al-Kubra has gratuitously substituted the word jihad.

[41] Majmuc al-Fatawa, XXVIII, 512.

[42] Ibid.

[43] al-Fatawa al-Kubra, IV, 296.

[44] The Neglected Duty, 171.

[45] See the website http://www.terrorism.com/terrorism/binladintranscript/html. Copyright © 1996-99 Terrorism Research Center, Inc.


[47] Ibid.

[48] See, e.g., Mary Anne Weaver, “The Real Bin Laden”, The New Yorker, Jan. 24, 2000, p. 38.

[49] Qurtubi, III, 235.

[50] Quotation marks are original.

[51] The translators apparently translated the phrase directly, without referring to their usual authority, M.M. Shakir, whose wording reproduced here.

[52] See, e.g., F. E. Peters, Muhammad and the Origins of Islam, SUNY, 1994, 240-241, 307.

[53] It is unclear from the (English) context whether this is meant literally.

[54] “Making a Symbol of Terror”, March 1, 1999, p. 42, c.3. The Guardian added that bin Laden’s offer was made on condition that the US not be asked for help.

[55] That is, the first to be encountered in the text, although it was apparently revealed later. See A. Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an, p. 436.

[56] The Independent, December 6, 1993.

[57] This is the correct reference. The Epistle gives it incorrectly as Q 47:19.

[58] al-Qurtubi, al-Jamic li-Ahkam al-Qur’an, vol. 16, p. 150. The entire passage is at pp. 150-153.

[59] This has given rise to a branch of the Islamic law of war that concerns itself with whether or not it is permissible to execute prisoners of war.

[60] Faraj, al-Faridah al-Gha’ibah in Jansen, The Neglected Duty, 195ff.

[61] Al-Jamic li-Ahkam al-Qur’an, vol. 2, p. 43, ad Q 2:106. Space does not permit discussion at length, as Qurtubi discusses 16 separate questions (masa’il) raised by this problem, not including cross-references.  

[62] Ibid., p. 46.

[63] Ibid., vol. 7, p. 47

[64] This may be Kharijah b. Zayd b. Thabit. See Ayoub, vol. 1, p.27.

[65] Qurtubi, vol. 8, p. 47

[66] The brief portion quoted was translated without reference to Shakir, but the context supplied here is taken from his translation.


[67] Qurtubi, op. cit., vol. 8, p. 37.

[68] Bodansky, p. 1.

[69] Mark Huband, Warriors of the Prophet: The Struggle for Islam, Westview, 1998, p. 111.

[70] This is the list as it appears in both online versions of the Fatwa. Bodansky’s list adds a sixth name and changes the job titles of two of them.

[72] Kitab al-Ikhtiyarat al-cIlmiyyah fi Ikhtiyarat Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, in al-Fatawa al-Kubra, (both compiled by cAla’ al-Din Abu al-Hasan cAli al-Bacli), Beirut, Dar al-Macrifah, 1409/1988, vol. 4, p. 319-559. The quotation is from page 520.

[73] Original boldface type and lack of punctuation.

[74] The Neglected Duty, 177. The reference given is to “p. 298, question 217” of volume 4. My edition has it at p. 295-96, question 467.

[75] Note that the use of quotation marks in this paragraph signals a quotation, not necessarily a disagreement,