Islam: Putting the Pieces Together

Vision speaks with Malise Ruthven, formerly with the Arabic Service of the BBC, to provide a clearer picture of the Muslim world.

Malise Ruthven is a noted authority on Islam and author of A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America (June 2002). In his book he examines the terrorists’ anti-Western grievances and motives in the context of current fundamentalist Islamic thought. Ruthven recently spoke with Vision managing editor John Meakin about his book and the events of September 11, 2001.


JM What sparked your interest in the modern development of Islam?

MR My main interest in Islam started in the 1970s when I was working at the BBC and later as a consultant to various Middle East publications. What started as a series of articles, actually for an English-language Middle East magazine, developed into a book called Islam in the World. I also had an interest in political Islam and in Christian fundamentalism in America. I wrote a book, which came out in 1990 in the U.S. (1989 in the U.K.), called The Divine Supermarket: Shopping for God in America. I suppose one of my primary interests is finding a kind of structural parallel between different religious systems and exploring what is loosely called fundamentalism. In fact, I am currently working on a book for Oxford on that very subject.

JM You don’t seem to particularly like the word fundamentalism as it applies to the fanatical interpretation of Islam that we have seen. Could you elaborate on that?

MR Well, it’s not my favorite term. But I think there is an advantage in using it sometimes, because you are then made aware of certain common areas that you find between the people I would prefer to call Islamists and American fundamentalists. I think the problem with fundamentalism as a word is that it originated in the context of something very specific, which was the conservative challenge to liberal theology at the turn of the 20th century. And although the term has colonized other movements, the situation in the Islamic world and even in other non-Protestant traditions is not exactly the same. You have a problem of semantics, and that can be rather misleading.

In the Islamic world, generally speaking, the arguments are not really about textual inerrancy or textual origins. They are much more focused on the relationship between the beliefs of Islam and the governmental systems. And that is why I think the term Islamist is more useful, because the Greek suffix ism, as in Islamism or Islamist, indicates what one might call the ideologization of the faith, in the sense that the faith is given a very specific orientation toward a political goal.

JM The focus of your latest book is obviously the events of what has popularly come to be called “9/11.” Most people look at those events as just an unspeakable atrocity. Was this also your reaction?

MR My reaction, which I described at the beginning of the book, was that of many people. This was surreal and absolutely, utterly astonishing, and of course it was horrifying. But I think one’s horror was slightly tinged with, “My goodness, these guys know what they are doing”—because they had tried it before and hadn’t got away with it.

JM Do you share the view that the extremists are to blame, but the broad sweep of Islam is blameless?

MR I don’t think a religious tradition can be wholly exonerated. In this particular instance you have condemnations by responsible religious leaders. But particularly in the Sunni Islamic tradition, the religious establishment doesn’t have very decisive powers. Mainstream Sunni Islam is a kind of priesthood of believers, so the formal condemnations that come from some senior Muslim authorities, particularly if they are employed by government, do not carry much weight.

You really have to go beyond the statements of leaders to the attitudes of the people, and here I think there is much more ambiguity. For instance, among the population in Saudi Arabia, particularly among younger people, and in the Muslim world at large, there is a nationalism that resents the American military presence there. There is also the perceived corruption of the ruling dynasty. There is the fact that they spent billions on weaponry, and at the first whiff of grapeshot when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, they ran terrified to the skirts of America because they had been buying weaponry that they were incapable of using.

Among the population in Saudi Arabia, particularly among younger people, and in the Muslim world at large, there is a nationalism that resents the American military presence there.” 

Malise Ruthven

These things suggest a rather more nuanced view. In fact, many Muslims feel so angry at the way things have gone in the last decade or more, that they unfortunately see an attack on the United States as something the Americans had coming to them. But on an individual level, the vast majority of Muslims would probably deplore the loss of individual life.

JM What, in particular, do we need to understand in the aftermath of 9/11?

MR Well, I am obviously attempting to deal with aspects of Western policy. Particularly, I am highly critical of the way in which the Western oil industry and arms industry sustain a very oligarchic and unrepresentative regime in Saudi Arabia. I think we have to be prepared for a bumpy ride there. Also, I am very critical of the way America seems to be supporting the policies of the Sharon government. Although, of course, one has to recognize the appalling damage and pain and hardship that has been inflicted on the Jewish people by the suicide bombers. I wouldn’t deny that. I am not looking at the Muslims as the innocent fall guys in the situation.

There is a deep-rooted problem in the Muslim world, which focuses on what I call “the argument from manifest success”—the idea that somehow the proof of the truth of Islam is in its historical successes. Many young Muslims today really do believe that the truth of Islam has to be vindicated, not in terms of personal morality or making a better society through individual moral improvement, but actually on the basis of taking power and establishing Islamic government on earth. And I think that ideology is one that has to be challenged.

JM You mentioned at the beginning of your book that your own father died in the Second World War, which you actually described as a jihad against fascism. Hitler’s movement was quite widely recognized as utopian or millenarian, as were Marxism and Leninism. Is the nature of Islam really any different?

MR Islam is a very broad tradition. In fact, some scholars will never even use the word in the singular. There are many different Islams. But it is certainly true that there are some correspondences (and one has to be careful how one expresses this) between the totalitarian movements of the 1930s in Europe and the Islamist movement. I wouldn’t apply that to all aspects of the Islamist movement, just as one wouldn’t apply the label totalitarian to all aspects of socialism. It’s a big umbrella. There were democratic socialists, just as there are democratic Islamists. But the people we often call extremists, the people who basically believe in seizing power by force and imposing Islamist ideology on the basis that this is a religious revelation, are invoking a transcendental imperative as a way of imposing their political will. I think this does have close parallels with the transcendental imperatives invoked by the Bolsheviks and the Nazis—and indeed by the fascists, by whom my father was killed.

JM The 9/11 attack was in effect a suicide bombing. How do you view the claim that suicide is not permissible within traditional Islamic teaching?

MR If you look back into Islamic law, intihar (suicide) is strongly discouraged. And indeed, there is a famous hadith (tradition of the prophet) where he is supposed to have said that the suicide must repeat his act in hell for eternity. That is a very clear antisuicide statement. But the suicide bombers and the people who commit these appalling acts do not define them as suicide. The word they use is istishhad, which means self-martyrdom.

The suicide bombers and the people who commit these appalling acts do not define them as suicide.” 

Malise Ruthven

Now, on self-martyrdom the teaching is a lot more ambiguous. I mentioned in my book an incident recorded in the biography of Muhammad concerning one of the warriors of the Battle of Badr, which was Muhammad’s first great victory against the Meccans. This warrior tore off his suit of armor and plunged into battle, killing five of the enemy before he was overcome. This act met with the prophet’s approval. Now, it wasn’t suicide, but it was getting quite close to it.

Your modern suicide bombers dig up these ancient stories, and some of the clerics justify it on the basis that if the suicide can produce greater good for the Muslim community, i.e., because it’s an effective weapon against the enemy, then it is justified. In fact, if you look at the fatwas (the legal rulings) that have been issued on the subject of suicide bombings in Israel, opinion among the Sunni Muslim divines is divided. Some sheikhs have said that there are circumstances where it is permissible, and these are the rulings that are used by clerics in Palestine to justify it. Others have ruled against it. So on that question, it isn’t that the jury is out, but that legal opinion is actually divided.

JM Do you think there is a hopelessness among these people?

MR Oh, unquestionably. Take a look at Terror in the Mind of God, a study of religious terrorism by Mark Juergensmeyer, an American academic. He interviewed the families of some suicide bombers, some of the volunteers, and also some of the clerics in Palestine. Of course, this was before the current crisis, but nevertheless there is no doubt from his text that there is considerable despair and hopelessness behind it. But there is another aspect among the more sophisticated people, which has more to do with theology. There is a mood of what I call Nietzschean despair—that the God of Islam is supposed to deliver victory. Of course, that isn’t how the Sufis, the mystics of Islam, ever really interpreted the tradition. But there are people who believe that the tradition must be vindicated through the argument from manifest success. Because of historic failure—Islam being overcome by colonial governments, the Muslim world falling behind sub-Saharan Africa in terms of economic growth, and so forth—there is a theological despair. The “God of manifest success” has not delivered, and there is anger and rage, which I think one could describe as existential and the opposite of hope.

JM Would Muhammad have approved of the events of 9/11?

MR There would be a chorus of protest if I said that Muhammad would ever approve of an atrocity of this kind. But one does have to look at the context. There was an occasion at the siege of Taif, which was one of the last battles he fought in his campaign against the pagans. According to the sources, although one doesn’t know how accurate they are, one of the faithful commanders came to him and asked if it was legitimate to use mangonels (catapults that threw rocks into cities). According to tradition, he basically authorized their use. In response to the suggestion that women and children might be in the firing line, he is related to have said in a typically elliptical phrase: “Their children belong to them.” This is interpreted as meaning that in a conflict, collateral damage is inevitable.

Obviously there isn’t a direct analogy between 9/11 and the siege of Taif. But that is the kind of discourse used by Islamists to rationalize that theory. And in a way, to ask whether Muhammad would have approved or not isn’t perhaps quite the right question. Religious tradition and religious languages are resources that are used for good or ill by contemporary peoples. One must look at religions not so much as ideologies but as symbolic systems or symbolic languages, which can be used in either way. There are positive things that come out and negative things that come out, but it is all about how you define the context of the conflict.

To say [Islam] is a tolerant religion is a half-truth. To say it is an intolerant religion is a half-truth.”

Malise Ruthven

Al-Qaeda and the perpetrators of 9/11 persuaded themselves that they were involved in a jihad, a conflict against the West. And on the basis of that, there is a rationale for that kind of attack. I think one has to be very cautious about saying “Islam allows this; Islam forbids that.” The argument about whether this goes with Islam or against Islam is not really an argument for the outsider to engage in. It is an argument for Muslims themselves. To say it is a tolerant religion is a half-truth. To say it is an intolerant religion is a half-truth.

JM But is Islam a tolerant religion?

MR Islam has a tradition of tolerance going back to the fact that at the time of the prophet Muhammad, Christians, Jews and others were given the status of protected communities. But that tolerance was always qualified. It was predicated on the idea that these were the protected subjects of a Muslim state.

Part of the problem has been developing a theology for Muslims who make up minorities, and the classical jurisprudence of Islam doesn’t have much to say about that. One of the big problems facing the Muslim world at the present time is that, in a sense, all religious traditions are minorities in the modern world. So Islamists want to reconstruct boundaries relating to Muslim minorities living in non-Muslim countries and Muslims living in majority countries. In majority countries they are saying, “We want to reimpose the laws of Islam,” but that is an extremely problematic agenda. When it comes to real tolerance in the sense of giving equal weight or equal space in society to competing religious traditions, I don’t think Muslims are any more tolerant than the believers of other religious traditions.

JM The Wahhabi variety of Islam, which dominates Saudi Arabia, is generally thought of, from the Western perspective, as intolerant. Yet you say in your book that 80 percent of the mosques in America are of the Wahhabi persuasion. Can we anticipate similar intolerance in the development of Islam in America?

MR You’ve put your finger on a very important problem, which is that the Wahhabis have been exporting a very hard-line, intolerant version of Islam. It celebrates particularly the writings of the 13th-century divine Ibn Taymiyya, who would argue that Islam really begins at the point of maximum distance from other religious traditions.

Where Wahhabism has been exported to the United States, while it doesn’t take the same form as in Saudi Arabia, there is a tendency for young people to be encouraged to maintain very distinctive, different lifestyles and not to assimilate in society. One can see that there are good reasons for that: it is a form of collective self-protection, and it confers a distinctive identity. But it also fosters supremacist attitudes.

JM Does jihad mean holy war, or does it refer more to an inner struggle?

MR It means both. Jihad simply means “struggle,” and it is sometimes interpreted as meaning what Marxists would call armed struggle against an oppressive state. It can also mean the struggle against one’s own lower spiritual impulses. There is a broad spectrum of meanings and interpretations in the writings of the so-called fundamentalist Islamists—Abu-Ala Maududi in Pakistan and Sayyid Qutb in Egypt. It has taken on an explicitly political definition, because the ruling powers are identified as pagan. The word is jahiliyyah, which makes them comparable to the Meccans against whom Muhammad fought his battles during his career as a prophet and statesman. That meaning is transferred to contemporary governments, and then jihad is invoked to justify conflicts—in some instances even terrorist acts—against the powers that be.

It is indeed a very complicated matter, because if you go to the text of the Qur’an itself, you will find particular passages that encourage believers to fight against idolaters and kill them wherever they meet them. On the other hand, there are passages that say there is no compulsion in religion. So the classical Islamic jurisprudence finds a rather nuanced way of elaborating the doctrine within those parameters. Generally speaking, a distinction was made between jihad as a collective duty, which really meant it was up to the sultan to decide if a strategic situation warranted a declaration of jihad, and what you might call the hard jihad, which was an individual duty incumbent on every Muslim.

JM The Western way of life is in some ways anathema to Muslims because of its perceived immorality. Do we in the West have anything to fear from the concept of jihad?

MR There are two elements in your question. We have plenty to fear from acts of terrorism. When it comes to the perceived immorality of the West and the threat that this is seen to pose to Islamic value systems, it is worth making the point that, traditionally, Muslim society has drawn boundaries around individual behavior. It wasn’t a matter of individual moral choice, it was the limits established by God that determined the boundaries of human behavior—limits guaranteed by the application of Islamic law.

The difficulty is that under conditions of modernity, an aspect of which is cultural and religious pluralism, sustaining those kinds of boundaries is problematic. The tendency in the modern world has been to retreat from drawing external boundaries around behavior and to rely on individuals to make up their own minds about these things. This is something that American fundamentalists find very difficult to deal with. They fight against it and try to reimpose “Christian values” on American society. Muslims are approaching things the same way.

Personally, I think it is not a sustainable outlook, because the world has become pluralized. In fact, when you create external boundaries on behavior without, as it were, creating a media-free totalitarian state, you have a recipe for hypocrisy—cultural schizophrenia. You have perfect examples of that in some contemporary Muslim societies, such as Pakistan. On the one hand, there are people watching MTV on satellite, getting pornographic materials, etc. On the other hand, women are being stoned publicly for sexual misdemeanors that they may not even have committed. It becomes an extremely nasty example of public violence. You also had that in the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. At the end of the day, modernity requires the privatization of morality, just as it requires the privatization of religion. But this is something Muslims are not happy with.