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Encounters With Islam: An Interview with Author Malise Ruthven

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Encounters With Islam: An Interview with Author Malise Ruthven
By Joseph Richard Preville, Aslan Media Contributor
Category: Literature

Malise Ruthven is an internationally recognized scholar on Islam and the Middle East. Born in Dublin in 1942, Ruthven was educated at Cambridge University (M.A., English Literature and Ph.D., Social and Political Sciences). He is a former scriptwriter with the BBC Arabic and World Services. Ruthven has taught Islamic Studies, cultural studies and comparative religion at the University of Aberdeen, Dartmouth College, the University of California, San Diego and other colleges.

Ruthven is the author of more than a dozen books, such as Islam in the World (Oxford, 1984); A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America (Granta, 2002);Islam: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 1997), and A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Wrath of Islam (Chatto and Windus, 1989).

His new book, Encounters With Islam: On Religion, Politics and Modernity (I.B. Tauris, 2012), is a lively collection of nearly 30 of his best essays and reviews from 1981-2011. These essays were originally composed for The New York Review of BooksThe Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, and The Guardian. Encounters With Islam is no ordinary collection; it is an elegant portfolio of meditations on Islam in the contemporary world. Ruthven discusses the new book with Aslan Media contributor Joseph Richard Preville.

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Joseph Preville (JP): What inspired your passion for the study of Islam?

Malise Ruthven (MR): I am not sure that "passion" is the right word. I was working as a journalist specializing in Middle Eastern affairs in the 1970s when Islam was clearly becoming a political factor, so I decided to educate myself by writing a book -- Islam in the World -- which came out in 1984. Its warm academic reception led to invitations to teach, and in order to teach you have to try to keep up with -- at least some- of the literature. The study of Islam made me aware of its debt to, and affinities, with other religious traditions and the contributions they have made to history. So my interest in religion is far from being limited to Islam.

JP: How did your travels deepen your understanding of Islam?

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MR: Before university I spent a year working with beduin in southern Jordan and I think this gave me an insight into the fragility of human existence in a harsh, desert environment and how this informs such basic concepts as "the straight path" and Sharia (the "way" to a watering place) . My subsequent sojourns in Cairo and Lebanon, and visits to Central Asia (including Afganistan), India, Pakistan and Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa have helped to broadened my understanding of the way a tradition originating in Arabia interacts with local customs and social practices. Travels in the broad belt of territories where Muslims are indigenous, though not always majorities, gives colour and richness to the idea of "diversity"

JP: Why do you think "empathy" and "intellectual humility" are important qualities for engaging in the study of Islam?

MR: If "empathy" means discarding the idea of Islam as utterly different or "other" and "intellectual humility" means avoiding any assumptions of cultural superiority, then I would certainly regard both qualities as absolutely essential.

Western -- that is to say Christian and post-Christian -- societies face massive problems in areas such as financial management, while the environmental crisis originating in western industrialism is now threatening everyone. Islam has much to teach us in both these areas. In order to take what I hope is a reasonably objective approach one has rid one's mind of pre-existing assumptions that might prevent one from hearing what "Islam" -- or Muslims -- are trying to say.

JP: You have been credited with originating the term "Islamo-fascism" by William Safire in The New York Times Magazine (October 1, 2006)? Was he correct?

MR: I used the term in a reference to authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, in a 1990 article accessible to search-engines. Previous uses may be lost in the dust of libraries. There are family resemblances between modern Islamist ideologies and the mid-twentieth century totalitarian movement, but also significant differences. Maududi, for example, admired communist and fascist organisations while rejecting their moral bases. One should be wary of drawing the parallels too closely. Islamist movements are generally less well-organised and more ambivalent in their approaches to power than their communist and fascist counterparts. But there are fascist elements, for example in a strain of anti-semitism that goes far beyond legitimate opposition to Israeli policies.

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JP: You have been critical of the scholarship of Bernard Lewis. What are your core objections to his work? Have you read his new book, Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian (Viking, 2012)?

MR: I haven't yet read Lewis's latest book. I wouldn't criticize the quality of his scholarship, and he is a wonderfully accessible writer. But his overall approach in recent years has been increasingly blinkered by neo-conservative prejudice. An old school textual scholar, he is dismissive of the social science approaches which I believe to be essential in understanding modern complexities. The theory of a "clash of civilizations" which the late Samuel Huntington borrowed from him is a dangerously simplistic mirror-image of jihadists views about the "West". Olivier Roy, for example, offers a much more plausible analysis of the multiple interactions between Islamic tradition and today's global society.

JP: How do you think Muslims around the world will react to Salman Rushdie's new memoir (Joseph Anton, Random House, 2012)?

MR: I expect the response will be varied, depending what he chooses to reveal. Despite the row over The Satanic Verses Rushdie's work honours Muslim and South Asian traditions of story-telling. Indeed Shame, the novel that preceded The Satanic Verses, won a literary prize in Iran. While the Muslim Council of Britain which came into being on the basis of opposition to The Satanic Verses has now admitted its error in demanding that the book be banned, there are doubtless many Salafists out there for whom he remains a figure of hate. The Nobel Laureate Neguib Mahfouz was physically attacked for expressing religious skepticism in a much more nuanced way than Rushdie.

JP: What advice would you give to young journalists, who wish to specialize in the study of Islam?

MR: Apart from working in the field with Muslims its important to bone-up on Islamic history and anthropology. Marshall Hodgson's 3-volume Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in the World Civilization is a good place to start -- a tough but necessary read. Ira Lapidus's History of the Islamic Peoples is also excellent, along with just about everything by Olivier Roy. Gender issues are vital: a place to start investigating the Veil and its multiple significations is Leila Ahmed's A Quiet Revolution. Islamic law is brilliantly analysed and discussed by Laurence Rosen in the Anthropolgy of Justice and in Sadakat Kadri's recent book Heaven on Earth -- a Journey through Shari"a Law.

*Photo Credit: Courtesy of the author


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