Many U.S. Muslim leaders called press conferences following the New York and Pentagon attacks to denounce them. The perpetrators were extremists who did not represent true Islam, they declared. They also said the Koran condemns suicide and the shedding of innocent blood.
But globally, there is hardly agreement in the details among Islamic scholars and clergy, as debates now raging in Islamic circles show. All agree that the Koran teaches paradise immediately awaits a martyr-one who dies in a jihad or struggle to defend Islam. Western scholars generally hold that suicide does not count as martyrdom, and that taking of innocent lives will land one in hell.
But in Egypt, the historic fountainhead of Islamic scholarship, some clergy unreservedly support suicide bombings, while others oppose them. Still others sanction suicide bombings by Palestinians under Israeli rule as a special form of martyrdom (there have been 18 such suicides this year), but condemn those in the United States.
Debate may be pointless. Islam has no central binding authority on matters of interpretation, and each cleric who can command a following can interpret the faith any way he wishes.