With evidence that Muslim militants were responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, prominent Islamic scholars and theologians in the West say unequivocally that nothing in Islam countenances the Sept. 11 actions. But in interviews, they explained that certain scriptural passages are distorted by Islamic extremists like Osama bin Laden.
In his office in Leesburg, Va., Taha Jabir Alalwani, the chairman of a council that issues Islamic legal opinions for Muslims in North America, opened a copy of the Koran to Page 1,732 and read aloud in Arabic a verse that lays out the rules of when a Muslim may fight.
"The verse says you have a right to fight those people who try to force you to adopt another religion or to leave your home," said Dr. Taha, a Muslim judge who founded a graduate school in Leesburg to teach Islam to Westerners and Western values to Muslims. "But America didn't ask you to abandon your religion. America didn't deport you, or tell you to leave your homes."
Questions about the role of religion in justifying the attacks have taken on fresh urgency with the discovery of letters that the Justice Department believes belonged to the hijackers. The letters cited from the Koran and reminded the hijackers that they were on a holy mission that would lead them to "eternal paradise with all righteous and martyrs."
The scholars said they had not had time to judge the letters' authenticity, but, as far as the attacks themselves, they said that such atrocities violated the ethics of battle spelled out by the prophet Muhammad.
In part because of this conviction, the scholars — educated intellectuals who teach in Western institutions — remain unconvinced that Muslims, even radical militants, were behind the attacks.
Some of them even said that with the release of the letters by the Justice Department on Friday, it appeared that Muslims were being framed. The attack, they said, could have been the work of an American militia group, a religious cult like Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, or even the Israeli government.
Dr. Taha said he was skeptical that Muslims were involved "based on who is the beneficiary of the crime," adding: "The Arabs, they lost a lot. A lot was jeopardized, even their relationship with the U.S."
The scholars said that the terrorist acts clearly violated the ethics of battle spelled out by Muhammad. The Koran, which Muslims believe was revealed by God to Muhammad at a time of vicious conflict between Arab tribes in the early seventh century, includes verses that prescribe the rules of war.
Like scriptures of every faith, the Koran is open to interpretation and has been twisted to justify the actions of extremists, the scholars said.
Mahmoud Ayoub, a professor of Islamic studies and comparative religion at Temple University, said: "The Bible has descriptions of the peaceable kingdom, where the lamb and the lion lay down together, but it also has the Book of Joshua about the bloody conquest of Canaan. Likewise, the Koran has plenty of verses that talk about peace, even with Muhammad's enemies, if they are inclined toward peace. But then there are also verses that advocate war. And so, we have to make choices."
War has defined limits, said Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, a Muslim scholar who is founder and director of the Zaytuna Institute, an Islamic study center in Hayward, Calif.
"The prophet clearly prohibited killing noncombatants, women and children," he said. "The prophet prohibited poisoning wells, which I think can be applied to biological warfare. The prophet prohibited using fire as a means to kill another being, because only the Lord of fire can punish with fire. And the destruction of property is prohibited. Even in war, you can't destroy other people's property."
The Koran specified a grisly punishment for those who destroy themselves, said Zaki Badawi, principal of the Muslim College, in London.
"God will punish him by making him commit the same act of suicide, the same cycle of torture, on the day of judgment," Dr. Badawi said. "If he kills himself with a dagger, his punishment is to sink the dagger in his heart again and again."
Most of the Koran and the Hadith, the sayings of Muhammad, have nothing to do with war or violence, and their rules for battle bear little relation to the lives of most Muslims.
Even the term jihad, which means struggle and is associated in the West with radical Islam, means something different to most Muslims. To them, it can refer to an individual's internal spiritual struggle, for example, and opposition to bad morals in a culture, as well as to armed conflict. But jihad is not among the five pillars required of Muslims (affirming that God is one, performing prayer, giving charity, fasting during Ramadan and making pilgrimage to Mecca).
But while the rules of war are irrelevant to most Muslims, extremists are likely to be aware of the Koran's strict rules for engagement, the scholars said. That is why they said they did not believe that Muslims could have been the attackers. Adding to the scholars' skepticism is an expectation of racial profiling by American authorities, and their memory of Muslims being wrongly blamed for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
The rules of evidence spelled out by the Koran also play a role in these scholars' skepticism. Under Muslim law, two witnesses or a confession are necessary for a murder conviction, said Dr. Taha, who is chairman of the 12-member Council of Islamic Jurisprudence of North America.
Circumstantial evidence, said Dr. Badawi in Britain, is not sufficient because "it can lead to miscarriage of justice." Dr. Badawi said it had not been proved that Muslims flew the planes.
In twisting the Koran, the Palestinian group Hamas never refers to its operatives as "suicide bombers" but as "martyrs,"the scholars said. Martyrdom is permissible on the battlefield, Dr. Ayoub said. Israel is clearly a battlefield, the scholars all said, because Israeli troops have evicted Palestinians from their homes and shot at children. Attacking Israelis is self-defense, which, according to the Koran, is the only acceptable justification for fighting.
This helps explain why the same Muslim leaders who denounced the attacks on the United States have long refused to condemn the terrorism directed at Israel. Even the prohibition against killing noncombatants does not apply to Israel, where, the scholars said, civilians and settlers have attacked Muslims and taken their land.
But Osama bin Laden's approach is beyond the pale, they said. Bin Laden, in two fatwas, nonbinding pronouncements issued in 1996 and 1998, justified attacking American targets. He redefined the United States itself as a battleground because of its support for Israel, its occupation of Saudi Arabia's holy ground and the war and blockade against Iraq, Dr. Ayoub said.
In modern Islam, there is no religious hierarchy, no Vatican to excommunicate heretics. Islam is more akin to Judaism, where ultimate authority lies in scriptures.
Fatwas were once issued primarily by recognized religious authorities of a country or Islamic university, said Shaykh Hamza in California, but "now, every Tom, Dick and Abdullah gives fatwa."