JEBEL SARAJ, AFGHANISTAN
The Kabul street was dark and empty at 4 a.m., when Khalid Masood stepped outside. His mother gave him a sack of bread, some eggs - as well as farewell tears.
"I may die, but you're young, and you don't have to," she told her oldest son, still shaken by bombs falling on the Afghan capital.
Mr. Masood, a pseudonym, rode out of Kabul, leaving his mother and eight siblings behind. Terrified that he might be press-ganged to fight if he were caught leaving, he kept his head lowered, passing the last checkpoint of the radical Islamic Taliban militia.
When he crossed that military front line, however, the literature student from the University of Kabul also crossed a religious chasm of perceptions about Islam that divides Afghanistan as completely as any set of trenches.
Masood is no fan of the Taliban, and lived for years under their rule only because of his family's presence in Kabul. But his observations about how "Islamic values" are molded to suit the political interests of both sides are on the tip of every Afghan tongue.
"There are two different Islams here," Masood says, after recounting his escape at the village of his birth, in territory controlled by the opposition Northern Alliance.
"The Taliban are really ... how shall I say it?" he asks, groping for words and shrugging his shoulders. "They are not Muslims. They only use that name to make their state. They have the wrong view of Islam."
What he means is that he is not convinced by the Taliban's version of Islam, and its unbending interpretation of everything from social rules to reasons for waging war. On the Northern Alliance side, such interpretation is more relaxed, as in many other parts of the Islamic world.
Virtually all Afghans are Muslim. But Masood's sentiments point to a perplexity in Afghanistan, where perceptions of Islam - and which side can marshal the term "jihad," or holy war, to greatest popular effect - define the nature of conflict.
Both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance - a loose grouping of anti-Taliban, ethnic minority armed groups - read the same Koran. Both recite the same prayers, conduct the same Islamic ablutions, and aim their prayer rugs southwest, toward the holy city of Mecca.
But they both also invoke divine will and guidance when going into battle against each other, and abhor their rival's social rules. They also say that it is their enemy - the other - which is un-Islamic, carries out gross violations of human rights, and has strayed from the path set forth by the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.
"We want life as a human being in society, to show Islam as a good religion," says Salim Jallal, a doctor in the rebel-held town of Golbahar, 45 miles north of Kabul. "The Taliban wants to destroy Islam, because they kill people and show Islam as an ugly religion," he says, neglecting the fact that the Alliance also has been responsible for atrocities. "Islam is a religion of peace, not a religion of fighting."
The currents of religion run deep in Afghanistan, and social mores stipulating that women should wear the all-enveloping head-to-toe burqa are de rigueur on both sides of the front line. But Taliban rules - which they claim are Islamic - prohibit television and photographs because they portray the human form. Nonreligious music, and any work outside the home for women are also taboo.
In opposition areas, by contrast, such rules are deemed to be overzealous and unconnected with any reasonable reading of the Koran. Cassette tapes of Indian pop music blare from cars, music sellers do brisk business, and photo shops churn out one portrait after another.
Still, the Taliban are true believers in their ideology and rules, and constantly invoke the will of God in addressing the outside world. Its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, has declared a jihad against the US for its attacks.
The language of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network - blamed for conducting the suicide attacks in New York and Washington last month - also asks for divine blessing in waging a holy war.
In a videotape broadcast around the world this past Sunday, Mr. bin Laden said: "As to America, I say to it and its people a few words: I swear to God that America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine, and before all the army of infidels depart the land of Mohammad, peace be upon him.:"
For many Afghans, however, such rhetoric is a grave misinterpretation of true Islamic teaching. "All Afghans are Muslim, but the Taliban use the word Islam like a tool," says Qary Sofatulah, a mullah in the rebel-held town of Jabal Sarij who runs a madrassah, or religious school, for boys. "The Taliban ignore the Holy Koran, and make something up from their minds, telling people to do this and that.
"They teach division, and wherever they gain territory, they never respect people," Mr. Sofatulah says, leaning forward from his red cushion in a tower beside his dusty mosque. "Mullah Omar calls for jihad against America, but they are the terrorists, the assassins, the cruel killers, the murderers, robbers, and maggots," he says. "They can't call a jihad against nonbelievers."
He tells a parable to illustrate the Prophet Muhammad's merciful will - a fact neglected by the Taliban, he says, which shows they are not "true" Muslims. It also handily shows that war can be necessary at times. Once the prophet sent a deputy to the pagans, but the deputy was killed. When Muhammad marshaled his troops, he advised them: "Don't treat the people like the pagans treat us; don't kill the warriors."
But there are no choir boys at war here. Despite the current Northern Alliance hold on the moral high ground - at least in the West, where it is seen by the US as a focus of efforts to overthrow the Taliban - the Alliance has also conducted its share of atrocities.
When it was briefly in control in Kabul in the early 1990s, Alliance groups engaged in summary executions, torture, and a civil war that flattened entire districts of the capital. In 1997, in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, some 3,000 Taliban fighters were killed by units under Alliance command.
So whose Islam is the "real" Islam? On this side of the front line - where the young Masood sought refuge from the Taliban, who were press-ganging non-fighters like him to take up the gun - there is no doubt about the answer.
"I don't know which rules the Taliban are following - it's not in Islam what they are doing," says Mohamed Ilias Zarra, the education minister of the Alliance government, which is still recognized by the UN but only controls 10 percent of the country. "It is not in the Koran to be a terrorist or a murderer."
That view echoes in the Jabal Sarij mosque also, says Qary Sofatulah. The Taliban "direct people in the wrong way," he says, by forbidding women to work. The prophet directed that women should be educated and work, because "they are the future."
"Women carried milk and food to the front line during the time of Muhammad. He didn't prohibit them from working," the mullah says, stroking his jet-black beard. He didn't say: 'Don't go out of the house without a veil,'" Sofatulah says. "He said: 'You are free.' This is the will of Islam."