DALLAS (Sept. 16, 2001)--Christians are saddled with Paul Hill, who murdered a doctor outside a Florida abortion clinic in 1994. Jews are burdened by Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 people in a Hebron mosque the same year. And Muslims are shackled to Osama bin Laden.

All claimed to kill in the name of their God. And all are rejected by the mainstreams of their faith.

The tradition of mainstream Islam holds that Muslim individuals and nations are all involved in a sacred struggle--the jihad--to purify their hearts and act in accord with God's will. Sometimes the jihad is external, a battle generally defined as a war of self-defense.

But who is the enemy? And what kinds of force are justified? Extremists like bin Laden jump the track by rejecting centuries of Muslim theologians who have wrestled with these questions, many experts on Islam say.

Muslim leaders in this country and abroad--including some who are no friends of the United States--have lined up with powerful condemnations of Tuesday's attacks. U.S. law enforcement officials say they are still building their case against bin Laden and his followers. But many American Muslims say they fear that even the speculation has put their faith on trial.

Like the Bible, Islam's sacred texts frequently discuss battle and war. And like parts of the Bible, parts of Islam's texts justify fierce fighting against enemies. Judaism and Christianity have long traditions of interpretations that define a morally appropriate war. Islam has similar traditions that many Muslim scholars say have been perverted or ignored by Muslims who commit terror in the name of God.

"Anyone can prove anything from any scriptures, provided he has a two-dollar piece of equipment," said Jamal Badawi, head of the Canada-based Islamic Information Foundation. "That is enough to buy a cheap pair of scissors to cut up verses and put them together the way you want."

Most Americans understand Christianity and Judaism well enough to recognize the extremes of those religions. But despite the presence of as many as 6 million Muslims in this country, Islam is still a mystery for many Americans.

The image of Islam is not helped by news reports of Muslims--and even some Muslim clerics--who have been linked to terrorism. And some of the world's most infamous terror groups claim to be acting in the name of Islam: Islamic Jihad, Hamas (an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement) and Gamaa al-Islamiya (the Islamic Group).

"I think they believe that what they are doing is religiously not just justified, but mandated," said Khaled Abou el Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA. "And they believe that they are sufficiently pure that they, rather than anybody else, represent Islam."

The vast majority of Muslims would disagree, he said.

The extremists represent a theology foreign to most of the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, experts on Islam say. And even some Muslims who embrace the causes these groups fight for say extreme pro-terror beliefs represent the lunatic fringe of a puritanical, literalist branch of Islam whose influence has spread in the past 35 years.

The word "Islam" is derived from an Arabic word that means "peace." But mainstream Muslim theology differs from the Judeo-Christian perspectives most Americans are comfortable with. For instance, even mainstream Muslim scholars debate whether suicide bombers in Israel are religiously justified, Badawi said.

Suicide by itself is condemned in several texts. But death in righteous battle is praised, even if the soldier knows he will die. Some Muslim clerics butt heads over the definition of combatants. For example, some Muslim theologians who support the Palestinian cause say every Israeli adult is a potential soldier and therefore a suitable military target. Others dispute that analysis.

There is near-unanimous condemnation of attacks on children and the elderly, Badawi said. And Tuesday's attack is far outside any acceptable Islamic legal standard, he said.

Bin Laden, on the other hand, has declared that all Americans of any age are religiously suitable targets. That extremism is what pushes him and his followers far outside the mainstream, some experts on Islam say.

All Muslims trace the history of their faith to Mohammed, who died more than 1,300 years ago. Muslims revere him as God's greatest and final prophet. Muslim tradition holds that their holiest book, the Quran, was dictated to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel.

As is true for any sacred text, the Quran is filled with difficult and seemingly contradictory passages.

The Bible has its "eye for an eye" verse that some Christians struggle to reconcile with Jesus' command to "turn the other cheek." The Quran says in one verse that Muslims should take care not to transgress the limits of battle "because Allah does not love transgressors." Another verse says that enemies may be subject to execution, crucifixion, having hands and feet cut off, or exile.

Collected sayings of Mohammed, called hadiths, and other writings may reconcile some of the apparent conflicts. One says: "If people do good to you, do good to them; and if they mistreat you, still refrain from being unjust." Another story tells of Mohammed ordering his soldiers not to mistreat women and children, even during a battle. Both the Quran and hadiths offer examples of respect given to Christians and Jews--both considered along with Muslims as "people of the Book."

But bin Laden and some other terrorists say the less militant parts of Muslim teachings simply don't apply to their war with the West. This belief can be traced to a few well-known figures of relatively recent Muslim history.

Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Wahhab was a contemporary of George Washington. His supporters say he was a religious reformer who cleaned up a corrupted version of Islam practiced in his part of Arabia. Opponents call him a political opportunist who used religion as a weapon. In either case, he declared that Islam had been corrupted a generation or so after the death of Mohammed, and he condemned any theology, customs or practices developed after that.

It was as if a Christian suggested that Augustine and Aquinas and every later Christian theologian was a heretic. Or as if an Orthodox Jewish scholar challenged the validity of the Talmud.

Al-Wahhab and his supporters took over what is now Saudi Arabia. Their descendents still control the area and are among the most influential religious leaders in much of the Middle East.

Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian Muslim radical from the mid-20th century, is another important influence. Qutb lived in the United States for several years and declared all of Western civilization the enemy of Islam. In fact, he declared leaders of Muslim nations enemies for not following Islam closely enough. Like the followers of Wahhab, Qutb shoved aside most of Muslim religious historical thought, said Bill Shepard, a retired professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Canturbury in New Zealand who has extensively studied Qutb's history.

"He was one of the first Islamist writers to target the United States as the enemy," he said.

After the Egyptian government executed Qutb in 1966, his followers formed the violent Muslim Brotherhood and were responsible for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

The Taliban, the rulers of Afghanistan who have sheltered bin Laden for several years, follow a religious pattern similar to his. Like the followers of al-Wahhab and Qutb, they reject much of historic Muslim thought and insist that their interpretation of Islam is the only correct one.

Followers of al-Wahhab and Qutb might have remained relatively obscure but for an accident of geography and economics, said el Fadl of UCLA. When the price of oil soared in the mid-1970s, some believers in a narrow version of Islam suddenly had the wealth to disseminate their point of view. Some used their money to build schools and mosques. Bin Laden, scion of a billionaire, chose to spend his millions in other ways.

"Oil is easy money," el Fadl said. "You put easy money with an easy ideology and you have an explosive combination."

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