Malise Ruthven’s books include Islam in the World and ­Encounters with Islam: On Religion, Politics and Modernity.
 (June 2016)

How to Understand ISIS

Bahraini police dispersing protesters at an unauthorized demonstration by the February 14 Youth Coalition, Manama, January 2013. The coalition is named for the day that Bahrain’s uprising began during the Arab Spring of 2011.
In his best-selling History of the Arab Peoples, published two years before his death in 1993, the Anglo-Lebanese scholar Albert Hourani remarked on the surprising levels of political stability prevailing in the Arab world at that time. Despite the rapid growth of its cities, and many disparities of wealth between the governing elites and newly urbanized masses who were calling for social justice, calm seemed to rule, at least on the surface. The events of 2011 saw a cataclysmic change in this picture of apparent stability and continuity.

Inside Obedient Islamic Minds

Ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims listening to a speech by Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh in the northern coastal town of Marsa Matrouh, May 2012
“Throw reason to the dogs—it stinks of corruption” read a slogan written on the wall of the Ministry of Justice in Kabul when the Taliban were in control before the US invasion of 2001. A crude slogan perhaps, but it seems as good a summary of the challenge of Islamist …

Inside the Islamic State

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi preaching in a mosque in Mosul, from a video released in July 2014
In his new book, Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, based on visits to the Turkish-Syrian border, online interviews with jihadists, and the access to leaders he enjoys as one of the Arab world’s most respected journalists, Abdel Bari Atwan draws a convincing picture of the Islamic State as a well-run organization that combines bureaucratic efficiency and military expertise with a sophisticated use of information technology.

Lure of the Caliphate

Tombs of the Caliphs in Cairo, Egypt, circa 1880

The challenge of defeating the Islamic State is a huge one. The group is formidably armed, and, above all, it has been able to attract unprecedented numbers of young recruits from the West—not least by drawing on apocalyptic currents in Islamic culture that have always appealed to people who are at the margins or who are seeking some new source of meaning.

The Map ISIS Hates

After sweeping into Iraq, the jihadists of ISIS tweeted pictures of a bulldozer crashing through the Syria-Iraq border. This symbolic action against a century-old imperial carve-up shows the extent to which such groups are nurtured by the myth of precolonial innocence, when Sunni Islam ruled over an unbroken realm and the Shias knew their place.

What Happened to the Arab Spring?

Demonstrators with a portrait of General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi—now Egypt’s president—at a rally in Tahrir Square, Cairo, January 2014
In 1938 George Antonius, an Egyptian Christian of Lebanese origin living in Jerusalem, published The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement. In his path-breaking book Antonius, who had been educated at Cambridge, charted the Arab national idea from its ethnic and linguistic beginnings in the early Islamic …

Hitler’s Monumental Miscalculation

A five-story German observation tower at Guernsey, Channel Islands

Seventy years ago, on June 6, 1944, a heroic group of American Rangers scaled the one-hundred-foot cliffs of the Pointe du Hoc, a vital promontory on the Norman coast. They were setting out to break through the Atlantic Wall—the German defenses spanning from the Arctic to the Pyrenees. Today, these fortifications are monuments to failure.

Terror: The Hidden Source

A tribesman near a building damaged by a US drone strike that targeted suspected al-Qaeda militants last year, Azan, Yemen, February 2013
Akbar Ahmed’s The Thistle and the Drone makes a clear argument that the president and his advisers are putting the al-Qaeda cart before the tribal horse. Rather than exploiting the denizens of “remote tribal regions” as President Obama has proclaimed, the terrorist activities associated with al-Qaeda and its affiliates are actively engaging the responses of tribal peoples whose cultures are facing destruction from the forces of modern society—including national governments—currently led by the United States.

Will Geography Decide Our Destiny?

Johannes Vermeer: The Art of Painting, circa 1666
When maps were introduced into Ottoman schools in the 1860s, conservative Muslims—people we would now call Salafists—were so outraged that they ripped them off classroom walls and threw them down the latrines. Though Muslim geographers such as Muhammad al-Idrisi (1099–1166) had produced serviceable maps, they were not widely available and …

Can Islam Be Criticized?

Supporters of the Islamic group Jamaat Ahle Sunnat protesting an anti-Islam YouTube video, Karachi, Pakistan, September 19, 2012

It may be ironic, but it is not entirely surprising that the YouTube clip of what appears to be a badly made film satirizing the Prophet Muhammad appeared, causing mayhem and destruction—coinciding with the death of US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens—in the same week of September that the novelist Salman Rushdie published Joseph Anton. The memoir recounts Rushdie’s life as a “celebrity victim” after Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling for his death for offending Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses. Not to be outgunned by the late Ayatollah, the Pakistani railroad minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour has now personally offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who murders the maker of Innocence of Muslims, the crude new film.

Waiting for the Apocalypse: From the Romantics to Romney

Karl Briullov: The Last Day of Pompeii, 1830-1833

The idea of impending doom, whether divinely ordained or inferred by creative imaginations in the wake of absent deities, is a recurring theme not only in the work of writers such as Yeats, Eliot and Beckett. Imagining—or predicting—the end of the world has been the stuff of popular culture from the doomsday panoramas of the English artist John Martin (1789-1853) to the events of the “Rapture” described in the Left Behind series of novels by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. In recent years, apocalyptic rhetoric has turned up in international politics among terrorists and hard-line governments such as Iran, but also their adversaries in Washington, Israel, and elsewhere including the current Republican candidate for president.

Bringing Mecca to the British Museum

A detail from the Catalan Atlas, attributed to the Majorcan Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques, 1375

Conceived by the British Museum with assistance from the Saudi Arabian government, Hajj is an unusual collaboration between a museum dedicated to secular learning and the current rulers of Islam’s holiest sites, who have lent many important works. And while Saudi Arabian officials had no role in the choice or presentation of objects loaned from other collections, the organizers have clearly gone to some lengths to accommodate their Saudi partners. The exhibition’s unskeptical approach seems also to reflect the fact that it is dedicated to a living religion; it lays out Muslim beliefs without exploring the archaeological and anthropological matrices from which they issue.The question this raises is: should a scholarly and secular institution refrain from such exploration in order to accommodate religious sensitivities?

The Revolutionary Shias

The Bazare-e-Bozorg, a covered market on the Meydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan (Image of the World Square), Isfahan, Iran, December 2003
Shiism, as Hamid Dabashi explains in his challenging and brilliant new book, is a perfect foil for power but unimpressive as a modern state ideology. Its origins lie in the disputed succession to Muhammad, who died in 632 in his early sixties without unambiguously naming a successor. His closest kinsman was Ali, his younger first cousin and husband of his daughter Fatima. The Shiite minority came to believe that Ali had been designated to succeed Muhammad and that he was passed over three times for the caliphate, or leadership of Islam, before being murdered by a disillusioned supporter after a brief and contested tenure.

The New European Far-Right

Anders Behring Breivik leaving the Oslo Municipal Court, Norway, July 25, 2011

In the flurry of commentaries about the July 22 Norway killings, certain features stand out. Commentators on the right are more inclined to dismiss Anders Behring Breivik as a deranged lunatic. By contrast, writers and bloggers on the left are more likely to take the view that there is some linkage between his monstrous crimes and new versions of far right ideologies that have been leaching into mainstream European politics. These divergent interpretations have brought fresh urgency to the question of whether highly charged political rhetoric can play a part in motivating extreme forms of violence.

Storm Over Syria

A Syrian soldier waving a flag at a rally in support of President Bashar al-Assad, Damascus, March 29, 2011
“Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives,” wrote Mark Twain after visiting Syria’s capital in the 1860s. “She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.” The turmoil in Syria, where hundreds of unarmed protesters have been mown down by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, who comes from the country’s Alawi minority, is much more menacing than the generally peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, from which the Syrian protesters drew their initial inspiration.

The Birth of Islam: A Different View

Man reading, Sanaa, Yemen, 1997; photograph by Steve McCurry from his recent book The Unguarded Moment. A collector’s edition of his work, Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs, will be published by Phaidon this June.
What do we know of Muhammad? Can we even be sure that such a historical personage existed? For the vast majority of believing Muslims the question simply does not arise. The Prophet lived in Arabia from the time of his birth in approximately 570 CE till his death in 632, …

Why Are the Muhammad Cartoons Still Inciting Violence?

Mohammed receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. From the book Jami' al-Tawarikh by Rashid al-Din, published in Tabriz, Persia (1307)

More than five years after Danish artist Kurt Westergaard published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, lives continue to be lost and—if we are to believe the police and intelligence agencies of dozens of countries—assassinations are still being attempted and plotted because Muslims have been angered by the display of such images. In December, a suicide bomber inspired by other insulting drawings of Muhammad attacked a busy shopping street in Stockholm; on Friday, a court in Copenhagen sentenced a Somali man to nine years in prison for attempting to kill Westergaard. Traditional Islamic doctrine offers little explanation for this violent response. There is no explicit ban on figurative art in the Quran, and representations of Muhammad, though absent from public spaces, appear in illuminated manuscripts up until the seventeenth century; they still feature in the popular iconography of Shiism, where antipathy to pictures of the Prophet is much less prevalent. There are numerous such depictions—faceless or veiled as an indication of his holiness, or even depicted with facial features—in manuscript collections. It is only quite recently that Muslims living in the west have begun lodging objections to the reproduction of these images in books.

Righteous & Wrong

Paul Berman
Paul Berman’s The Flight of the Intellectuals elaborates on the theme of an embattled liberal civilization facing a totalitarian or fascist onslaught. The book points an accusing finger at two particular writers—Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton-Ash—whom Berman regards as exemplifying liberal intellectual pusillanimity. Berman, however, is not to be bothered by inconvenient truths that might arrest the flow of his rhetoric. His vision is crassly ideological: facts that might interfere with his argument are liable to be discarded or ignored.

Excremental India

Women gathering at the tomb of Shaikh Nizamuddin, Delhi, February 2005
Walking above the village of Mehrauli on Delhi’s southern perimeter, we pass a woman with a half-empty bottle of water—one of several we have already noticed since daybreak. Dressed immaculately in a brightly colored sari, she emerges from behind a prickly bush on a tract of waste ground. If she …

Delhi’s Poor: Revolution by Latrine?

Women gathering at the tomb of Shaikh Nizamuddin, Delhi

Walking above the village of Mehrauli on Delhi’s southern perimeter, we pass a woman with a half-empty bottle of water—one of several we have already noticed since daybreak. Dressed immaculately in a brightly-colored sari, she emerges from behind a prickly bush on a tract of waste ground. If she were a man we might not have merited such discretion. India is about the only country in the world where you actually see human adults defecating. When traveling by road or rail you can be struck by the image of men squatting openly, impervious to the public gaze. The UN estimates that 600 million people—or 55 per cent of the Indian population—still defecate out of doors. The practice is clearly born of necessity in a crowded country where the development of public amenities has conspicuously failed to keep pace with economic and demographic growth.

Talibans à la française?

Standing in the passport line at the Gare du Nord in Paris before boarding the Eurostar to London, I become aware of anxious rustling behind me. A family party includes a woman wearing the niqab, the tent-like veil worn in Arabic and Gulf countries that covers the face and head and has a slit for the eyes. I am relieved the woman is behind me in the queue. While she may have no problem passing the police booth marking the exit from France, the UK border control, which has its own booth just a few feet away (an arrangement that saves travelers from having to show their passports on arriving in London), tends to be more exacting. There may be further blockages at the X-ray machines, where passengers are expected to remove their outer garments. In Western Europe, such Muslim attire has long raised understandable—if awkward—security concerns; but in France, it has also provoked a much broader controversy about the nature of French society.

The Big Muslim Problem!

A young Muslim woman who had marched to protest the ban on veils in French schools next to a statue symbolizing the French nation, Paris, February 2004
In April 1968, two weeks after the riots that devastated US cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the British Tory politician Enoch Powell (who as minister of health between 1960 and 1963 had presided over the large-scale recruitment of nursing and health staff from Britain’s former colonies) …

Deception Over Lockerbie?

In his new book Terrorism: How to Respond, Richard English, a historian who has written the definitive history of the IRA, argues that terrorism is best understood as a “subspecies of war” that embodies—among other things—”the exerting and implementing of power, and the attempted redressing of power relations.”

Divided Iran on the Eve

Inside the Jamkaran mosque near Qom, Iran, December 2008
During the past decade the Jamkaran mosque near Qom in Iran has become one of the most visited Shiite shrines, rivaling Karbala and Kufa in Iraq as pilgrim destinations. Here thousands of believers pray for intercessions to their messiah—the Mahdi or Twelfth Imam—whose return they believe to be imminent. Written …

The Rise of the Muslim Terrorists

In London eight men—all British nationals—are currently on trial for an alleged 2006 plot to destroy seven transatlantic aircraft in mid-air, using liquid explosives disguised as soft drinks. According to the prosecution they could have killed some 1,500 people, nearly half the number of those who died in the September …

How to Understand Islam

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center in Washington, where he told his audience, “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith…. The face of terror is not the true faith of …

The Islamic Optimist

No one would deny that the Prophet Muhammad is one of the most influential men in human history. Of all the founders of world religions, he is also the most controversial. Unlike the Buddha and Christ, he not only founded a new religion but created a theocratic state, with all …