Malise Ruthven

Malise Ruthven has written many books on Islam and the Middle East, among them Islam in the World, Fundamentalism and Encounters with Islam.

The Saudi Trillions

Malise Ruthven, 7 September 2017

It made perfect sense that the first port of call on President Trump’s first foreign trip, in May, was Riyadh. Saudi Arabia – the world’s second largest oil producer (after Russia), the world’s biggest military spender as a proportion of GDP, the main sponsor of Islamist fighting groups across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq, the leader of a coalition in a devastating war against Yemeni rebels now in its third year – is a country one can do business with.

More than a Religion: ‘What Is Islam?’

Malise Ruthven, 8 September 2016

For many years​ now – and especially since 9/11 – there has been much strongly felt disagreement about what Islam is. Is it a religious faith like Christianity, where theological notions such the Incarnation or the Trinity (rejected by Muslims) or the ‘messengership’ of Muhammad (denied by Christians) can be accounted for as variations between different groups of...

Tower of Skulls: Baghdad

Malise Ruthven, 23 October 2014

In​ 2006, when Baghdad was mired in sectarian killings and the murder rate was more than a thousand a month, Justin Marozzi spoke to Donny George, the director of the National Museum of Iraq, which had been looted after the invasion of 2003. The museum had lost as many as 15,000 pieces, including the priceless alabaster Warka Vase, thought to be the world’s oldest carved stone ritual...

Our Deputy Sheriffs in the Middle East

Malise Ruthven, 16 October 1997

Last month saw the massacre of two hundred innocents in the Algiers suburb of Bentalha, but British newspaper headlines were taken up with more exotic matters: the sentences facing two British nurses apparently convicted of murdering a third at a hospital complex in Saudi Arabia. Executions and floggings are routine in the wealthy desert kingdom: a version, Aziz al-Azmeh suggests in one of the best essays yet written on Saudi Arabia, of the ‘bread and circuses’ principle favoured by the Romans. Until now, however, the victims of these popular spectacles have either been Saudi nationals or expatriate workers from poor countries such as Sri Lanka or the Philippines. The much more menacing situation in Algeria would have barely merited a mention had it not been for the fact that the latest massacre – the third in as many weeks – took place near the centre of Algiers, too close to the international communications networks to be ignored.’

Politics and the Prophet

Malise Ruthven, 1 August 1996

For too long Islamic studies have existed in an academic ghetto which reinforced the essentialist view shared by the Islamologues, that Islam was somehow ‘different’ from the West. A more fruitful approach is taken by Michael Gilsenan in Lords of the Lebanese Marches, based on field work he conducted in a Sunni Muslim rural area of North Lebanon during the early Seventies, before the recent civil war. This beautifully written book describes the culture of masculinity in its multiple refractions through violence and narrative, joking and play, a world where status and power are organised vertically, where big landowners use the small landowners as their strong-arm men to control the sharecroppers and labourers at the bottom of the social hierarchy and to compete for supremacy with their rival lords. Sharaf, ‘the honour of person and family, which is particularly identified with control of women’s sexuality, is crucial to the public, social identity of men.’ The sharaf of the mighty is linked with the destruction of the sharaf of others: great lords gain honour by ritually humiliating subordinates, whom they force to transgress their own codes of honour. Not surprisingly, life at the bottom is brutish and insecure. The poorest women and their children must undertake work that others regard as shameful. They are powerless to resist sexual exploitation or abuse by their masters. It is not so much these actions themselves, as the stories to which they give rise and which give them meaning, that interest Gilsenan. ‘Men struggle to reproduce, memorialise and guarantee narratives of being and place in the world against the ruptures, absences and arbitrariness mat continuously subvert them.’

The Shrinking Sphere

Malise Ruthven, 6 July 1995

Are the Muslims of Bradford, ‘Britain’s Islamabad’, incurably militant? There have been troubles in other cities with Asian Muslim populations, but the Muslims of Bradford have shown a consistent pattern of refusing to ‘take insults lying down’. They first demonstrated their militancy during the Honeyford affair in 1984-5, when the headteacher of the Drummond Middle School, 90 per cent of whose pupils came from Muslim families, was forced into early retirement after publishing anti-Pakistani remarks in the Salisbury Review. The city became notorious in December 1988 for the public burning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Although not the first group of Muslims to demonstrate their sense of outrage in this fashion (the first burning actually took place in Bolton) it was the Bradfordians who knew how to grab the headlines, by alerting the media and selling them videos of the event.

Was Weber wrong?

Malise Ruthven, 18 August 1994

In the Sixties it was widely assumed that politics were becoming divided from religion and that as societies became more industrialised religious belief and practice would be restricted to private thoughts and actions. The processes of modern industrialism, which Max Weber had seen as being characterised by depersonalised relationships and increasing bureaucratisation, were leading, if not to the final ‘death of God’, at least to the ‘disenchantment of the world’. The numinous forces that had underpinned the medieval cosmos would be psychologised, subjectivised and demythologised.

Rambo and Revelation

Malise Ruthven, 9 September 1993

Eighty-six people died in the Waco siege in April, including the ‘prophet’ David Koresh and 17 children fathered by him. David Leppard, a crime reporter with the Sunday Times Insight team who covered the Waco story, describes well and knowledgeably the appalling build-up of weapons in the compound of the Branch Davidians’ ranch and the information and assumptions that led the two law enforcement agencies involved – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the FBI – to make a series of disastrous errors. Fire and Blood, however, does not properly explain the religious background to the tragedy and therefore fails to account for Koresh’s hold over his followers. Preacher of Death has the advantage of Marc Breault’s contribution. Breault, a senior member of the Branch Davidians who defected in 1989, was the prime instigator of the legal moves that culminated in the ATF raid last February. Martin King, an Australian television reporter who interviewed Koresh before the siege, has in corporated into his narrative parts of Breault’s original diary, as well as extensive interviews with him.’

Starting over

Malise Ruthven, 9 July 1987

The title of Frances FitzGerald’s new book comes from the sermon John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, delivered on board the Arabella shortly before landing in the New World in 1630. Fully conscious of the exemplary character of their enterprise, he urged his companions to walk humbly in the ways of God by remaining true to the Puritan tenets of a faith they could no longer practise in England. ‘We shall find that the God of Israel is among us,’ he promised, ‘when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England. For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.’

Making history

Malise Ruthven, 19 June 1986

When, shortly before the Second World War, Freya Stark was asked by a publisher if she would write Gertrude Bell’s biography, she turned the idea down. Although she admired her famous predecessor as a fine traveller and considered Amurath to Amurath one of the best travel books she’d read, Freya was not ‘very fascinated by her as a woman’. At first sight, this judgment seems surprising. Throughout her active career as a traveller in the Middle East, Freya was compared with Gertrude Bell. Both women travelled in remote and dangerous regions. Both wrote about their experiences in highly praised books. As well as being talented linguists and accomplished photographers, both women showed unusual physical courage, having received their early training in the tough and demanding school of Alpine mountaineering. Both women acquired formidable reputations for mental toughness, and for getting their own way. Both were frustrated in love, through indifference, betrayal or bereavement, but enjoyed close and enduring friendships with men. Both were Imperialists who served Britain with distinction in wartime, placing the special knowledge acquired in their travels at the disposal of military intelligence. In the carefully ordered realm of public service, both women showed scant regard for the rules of masculine hierarchy, corresponding with chiefs above the heads of their superiors, inviting accusations of meddling and intrigue. Both of them at times appeared jealous of other women, not least because each was conscious of her reputation as an exceptional woman in a man’s world.’

The Fall of the Shah

Malise Ruthven, 4 July 1985

The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 is the most massive popular upheaval to have occurred in a developing country since the Second World War. Within a period of a few months the Middle East’s most powerful military autocrat and the West’s most trusted ally in the region had been overthrown by an unarmed but disciplined crowd of citizens acting under the instructions of their religious leaders. As with other major revolutions, including the French and Russian, to which this political earthquake can justly be compared, the new group which inherited power was virtually unknown outside the country. Who, before 1978, had heard of the Ayatollah Khomeini – or even knew what an ayatollah was? But more remarkable than the personalities of the leaders was the fact that this revolution – the first since the 17th century – was religious in inspiration and used the language of religion to articulate its aspirations. The goals of liberation and brotherhood, which are common to all revolutions, were subsumed under the rubric – strange and anachronistic to Western ears – of the Government of God.’

Golden Horn

Malise Ruthven, 1 March 1984

Loti performs so beautifully as to kick up a fine golden dust over the question of what he contains or what he doesn’t … To be so rare that you can be common, so good that you can be bad without loss of caste … The whole second-rate element in Loti becomes an absolute stain, if we think much about it. But practically (and this is his first-rate triumph) we don’t think much about it.


Malise Ruthven, 2 June 1983

Lawrence was attracted to Arabia by what he called ‘the Arab gospel of bareness’, as well as by his desire to play the Middle East version of the Great Game. The present generation of adventurers are simply there for the money. The doctors and nurses, teachers and businessmen, truck-drivers and skilled workers who flock to ‘Saudi’ in search of markets or higher incomes would be the last people to dress up in Arab costume or to subject themselves to the austere rules of the desert. Unfortunately the Kingdom is obliged – at least publicly – to live by the puritanical Islamic traditions from which the ruling family derives its legitimacy. Under normal circumstances the Saudis are content to turn a blind eye on forbidden infidel activities, providing no Saudis are ‘corrupted’. Europeans may brew their home-made hooch, and discreetly indulge in extra-marital sex, so long as they remain in their hotel rooms or compounds, though technically these are crimes punishable by imprisonment, flogging or worse. When Abdul Aziz became king after conquering the Hejaz in 1926, he allowed Jeddah’s foreign community to import alcohol openly: he was forced to end this concession when the British consul, who used to serve drinks to his Saudi guests, was shot dead by a drunken young prince. Since then alcohol has been banned completely, and high-living Saudis must indulge in their black-market whisky, along with their pirated ‘blue’ videos, in the privacy of their own apartments.–

Malise Ruthven discusses the Beirut massacre

Malise Ruthven, 4 November 1982

In discussing the cruelty of the Inquisition, the great historian of rationalism, Lecky, noted the intimate connection between the Medieval Church’s constant contemplation of martyrdom and the willingness to inflict it upon others. The monks and friars who excelled in the persecution of heretics, he suggested, had been brutalised by constant exposure to agonising pictures which they associated with the truth of the Christian faith. Several modern writers have interpreted this paradoxical inversion, in which the persecutor sees himself as victim, as a collective version of paranoid projection: just as the paranoiac murderer can feel terrified of his harmless victims, so a dominant social group can perceive itself as threatened by the people whom it exploits and persecutes. As Norman Cohn has written in his masterly study of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Warrant for Genocide, ‘what these people see as the enemy is in fact the destructiveness and cruelty in their own psyches, externalised. And the greater the unconscious sense of guilt, the more fearsome the imaginary enemy.’


Malise Ruthven, 1 July 1982

No one contemplating the events of the past few weeks can doubt that the complex and intractable conflicts of the Middle East pose a far greater threat to world peace than the ugly fight in the South Atlantic ever did. Despite the windy rhetoric about principles, the Falklands conflict has been a comparatively simple one about sovereignty over disputed territory, involving national prestige – and therefore the political survival of two governments (or rather juntas, one has been tempted to add, as the Westminster variety increasingly resembled its Argentine counterpart in shrillness and implacability). The Middle East is a sweltering miasma of political conflicts where sovereignty is only one among a number of issues. Disputed territory in the Shatt el Arab, official cause of the Iran-Iraq war, or on the West Bank of the Jordan, is only an element in much deeper conflicts involving allegiance, ideology and group identity, exacerbated by the existence of oil and strategic assets which keep the super-powers waiting anxiously on the side-lines, hesitating to intervene directly, yet too opportunistic, or unsure of their interests, to blow the final whistle.


Malise Ruthven, 18 February 1982

Edward Said is the first Palestinian to have stormed the East Coast literary establishment. His achievement has partly been the result of what his more paranoid opponents must regard as his uncanny sense of strategy. A Christian-born Arab long resident in the United States, he successfully scaled the ladder of English studies (hardly a quarter where Zionist sentries would be posted) before launching his brilliant attack on the citadel of area studies in Orientalism. This position could be occupied without much difficulty, since no one outside the interests directly concerned was eager to rush to the defence of institutions backed by the Government, big business or the oil companies. By the time his nationalist apologia, The Question of Palestine, came out, Said’s voice was too powerful to be ignored.

The Family

Malise Ruthven, 17 December 1981

To date, the history of Saudi Arabia has largely been the story of its ruling family. No other modern state calls itself by its rulers’ surname and labels its citizens with it. Though there is now a governmental system of growing complexity, and inefficiency, with ministries, departments of state, royal commissions and so forth, power is still wielded in an arbitrary and personal manner. Every leading prince has his majlis, where ordinary citizens can meet him, take coffee and discuss their problems. But there are no corporate institutions or centres of power independent of the royal family. Even the formal majlis al shura (‘consultative council’), promised after the disturbances in Mecca and Qatif in 1979, has yet to come into being. Without us, the Al (family of) Saud seem to be telling the world, the state would not exist. Like it or not, they are probably right.

Onward Muslim Soldiers

Malise Ruthven, 1 October 1981

Fourteen centuries ago the Prophet Muhammad united the tribes of Arabia under the banner of Islam and reconquered for the One True God the Holy City of Mecca which had long been a centre of pilgrimage. Within a generation his successors – the caliphs – were in control of territory stretching from the Atlantic to the Indus valley. This was not just an astonishing feat of world conquest, comparable to the feats of Alexander and the Caesars: it had religious and social implications as far-reaching as the death of Christ and the Bolshevik Revolution. While Christianity merely revitalised the ancient Roman Empire, providing it with a new legitimacy which enabled it to overcome the crises posed by nationalism and barbarian invasion, Islam created a brand new polity – in effect, the world’s first ideological state.


Concern for Israel

4 November 1982

SIR: Jeff Weintraub’s attack on me (Letters, 10 January) is so blunderingly abusive that I have had as much difficulty in finding a coherent line of criticism to answer as he claims to have had in responding to my article. In the first place, he misrepresents the essential point in my argument about the instability of Middle East regimes. I did not blame Israel exclusively, having made it clear...

Islam and Reform

Akeel Bilgrami, 28 June 1990

It is not possible to write about Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, and the Muslim response to it, without writing about the nature and history of Islam, the lives and problems of...

Read More

Hot Dogs

Malcolm Bull, 14 June 1990

In recent years, nothing has done more to reinforce the European sense of cultural superiority than the sight of America’s televangelists. Easily stereotyped as politically reactionary,...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences