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Bin Laden’s Odd Religious Library

Osama bin Laden spent the latter years of his life portraying himself as an authority on Islamic law who was qualified to order Muslims around the world to strike Western targets — and then capable of giving them the purported scriptural justifications for their actions.

AL-FAROUQ BASE, AFGHANISTAN:  A video grab dated 19 June 2001 shows Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden in a video tape said to have been prepared and released by bin Laden himself. Copies of the tape, which shows members of bin Laden's organization Al-Qaeda, or "The Base", training at their al-Farouq base in Afghanistan, have been circulated to a limited number of Islamists. (Photo credit should read AFP/Getty Images)
AL-FAROUQ BASE, AFGHANISTAN: A video grab dated 19 June 2001 shows Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden in a video tape said to have been prepared and released by bin Laden himself. Copies of the tape, which shows members of bin Laden's organization Al-Qaeda, or "The Base", training at their al-Farouq base in Afghanistan, have been circulated to a limited number of Islamists. (Photo credit should read AFP/Getty Images)

Osama bin Laden spent the latter years of his life portraying himself as an authority on Islamic law who was qualified to order Muslims around the world to strike Western targets — and then capable of giving them the purported scriptural justifications for their actions.

But the trove of new documents seized from the former terror leader’s compound in Abbottabad in 2011 and released on Wednesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence included a number of books and pamphlets about Islam that were surprisingly basic, including several texts seemingly intended for novices. Some additional texts may not have been declassified yet.

He had a copy of the Quran and several Sunni hadith collections — we don’t know which editions. He had a short book titled, The Hijab.. Why? [sic], by Muhammad Ismail, consisting of annotated passages from the Quran and brief segments of analysis laying out simple theological justifications for the obligation for women to wear headscarves and other conservative garments, capped by the rambling testimony of a Japanese woman who converted to Islam and began covering her entire body in public. Islam Is Your Birthright, another of his books, lays out a straightforward, quite conservative introduction to the religion, including a moral directive: “The taking of an innocent life is one of the worst and most hideous crimes. The Prophet forbade breaking the bones of a dead animal so what about the taking of an innocent life?” Bin Laden, of course, saw no problem with the murders of thousands of civilians.

He also had a copy of What Must Be Known About Islam, from Saudi publishing house Darussalam, detailing hundreds of fundamental prescriptions of a conservative, Saudi iteration of Islam, with a section on women obeying their husbands and a section on the sexual benefits of polygamy. In addition, he had a lengthy apologetic discourse — Was Jesus Crucified for Our Atonement? — seeking to refute the Christian biblical narrative of the life and death of Jesus and to uphold the Muslim interpretation of these events. Muslims see Jesus as a prophet — not as God — and reject the idea that he was crucified. In a section on the Christian understanding of the crucifixion, the author, Monqith Ben Mahmoud Assaqar, cites an English cardinal by the name of Mining, who does not exist, according to Google. But if he did, he would belong to a hierarchy of particular interest to bin Laden: British clergy.

Alongside bin Laden’s other books on religion, the ODNI listed “Profiles of bishops in the Church of England.” We don’t know who wrote the profiles or who was profiled. If he was watching the church, he might have been interested to note the installment of the its first female bishop, Libby Lane, in 2014 — had he lived to see it.

AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @bsoloway

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