Back in the mid-1990s, Osama bin Laden had a problem, and it was Islam. He wanted to say the Qur'an gave his followers license to kill innocents—and themselves—in the cause of "jihad." That was how he could justify his global campaign of terror. But that's not what the Muslim holy book says, and that's not the way it was interpreted by any of the great scholars and preachers of the faith.
So bin Laden set about spinning the revelations contained in the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, known as the Hadith, which provide much of the context for actual religious practice in the Muslim world. The Saudi millionaire wrote a diatribe that he called a declaration of war and then a fatwa, or religious edict, cherry-picking quotations from Islamic Scripture and calling on dubious scholars to back him up. The tracts were political propaganda, not theology, but for his purpose they worked very well. The apocalyptic notion of holy war he promoted—and the reality of it that he demonstrated on 9/11—became the dominant vision of Islam for those with little understanding of the faith, whether in the West or, indeed, the Muslim world. Even many religious scholars were intimidated.
Now that's starting to change. Important Muslim thinkers, including some on whom bin Laden depended for support, have rejected his vision of jihad. Once sympathetic publics in the Middle East and South Asia are growing disillusioned. As CIA Director Michael Hayden said last week, "Fundamentally, no one really liked Al Qaeda's vision of the future." At the same time, and potentially much more important over the long run, a new vision of Islam, neither bin Laden's nor that of the traditionalists who preceded him, is taking shape. Momentum is building within the Muslim world to re-examine what had seemed immutable tenets of the faith, to challenge what had been taken as literal truths and to open wide the doors of interpretation (ijtihad) that some schools of Islam tried to close centuries ago.