Amidst all the paranoid, hysterical and bigoted writings that have flooded the market in the wake of 9/11 Malise Ruthven's "A Fury for God" is a beacon of restraint. Except for the somewhat overly dramatic first chapter this book is a serious attempt to trace the roots of the seeming incomprehensible fury unleashed against anything American in the late Summer of 2001.
Although, in his preface, he makes no claims to great originality, Ruthven's approach of the subject matter is refreshingly different from most other books, the vast majority of which run aground in superficial treatment and overly easy conclusions regarding the motivations of Muslim extremists. It is a bit of a pity that Ruthven did not resist the temptation to graft his narrative on the dramatic imagery of eyewitness accounts. But he quickly makes good on this by shifting to a philosophical approach. For this the author brings with him a solid grounding in religious studies. Although his specialism is indeed Islam, it becomes obvious that he is also conversant with the broader field of comparative religion, enabling him to draw parallels with Christian and even Hindu traditions.
One of the most important points he makes in the first chapter is the key realization of the incommensurability of fundamentalist and more liberal thought patterns. Where the latter tend to see religions as 'cummulative traditions', a syncretism of various cultural influences, the former search for pristine faith: with clear-cut and neat oppositions. Fundamentalists are hardcore dualists, says Ruthven, reducing the world to the Manichaean dimensions of good and evil. In fact, for fundamentalists, faith IS Manichaean. A very interesting observation in this context is that, in that sense, the religious views of many Americans are equally dualist. As Ruthven points out American diplomacy has a distinctly 'Manichaean' streak because American politics has deep biblical and puritan roots.
A major difference between fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Protestants is however how far they are willing to carry their literalism. In the remainder of the book Malise Ruthven sets out to uncover the genealogy of Islamic fundamentalism.
The writer commences with an extensive historical examination of the Jihad doctrine, beginning with its Quranic origins in the so-called "Sword Verse", he moves on to the importance of the rapid territorial expansion of the Islamic empire during its first generation, and introduces later-day conceptualizations such as the differentiation between individual and collective obligations to defend the faith, and religious warfare as a sociological agent. Ruthven also signals the centrality of the rewards of martyrdom in Jihad doctrine.
Probably the most revealing chapter of the book is "The Aesthetics of Martyrdom". Here Ruthven tries to make sense of the intellectual heritage left by one of the chief ideologists of fundamentalist Islam: Sayyid Qutb. Most source books on Muslim radicalism recognize the seminal importance of this writer, but Ruthven assigns key importance to Qutb's stay in the USA during 1949-1950. This experience changed his worldview so profoundly that he gave up his earlier literary career and became a Muslim activist. Qutb's statement that he was born in 1951 sounds eerily familiar: 'Reborn' Christians refer to their religious experience in similar terms.
Another important point made in this chapter is the new way in which Qutb encourages his followers to read the Quran. Ruthven calls this 'proof-texting', meaning that certain passages are taken out of context and treated like talismans for spiritual guidance and "fetishes" of scientific truth. This is further elaborated in the next chapter, where the phenomenon of dedication to a cause until death is investigated. Alongside references to accepted authorities in the fields of Islamic and general religious studies, Ruthven also maps the emergence of a plethora of radical Muslim organizations since the late 1960s. This chapter is also used to set up another key notion: the question of identity. Finally, Ruthven makes some rather surprising connections with `70s urban guerrilla groups (like Germany's Baader-Meinhoff Gruppe) and the philosopher Nietzsche.
In "Cultural Schizophrenia" the writer tries to get into the perpetrators' heads. Not in an effort to come up with some sort of apologetic explanation, but to make sense of how basically rational, relatively well-educated young men can be brought to such horrific acts. This chapter is a search for a common ground in the life experience of the young Saudis of 9/11 and Sayyid Qutb's American sojourn. It also unveils some interesting facts on the pervasiveness of tribal affilitation in Saudi society and the latent dissent among the Wahhabi religious scholars.
The two following chapters cover territory that is also dealt with in other books: Saudi Arabia's 'Islamic imperialism', the creation of - in the end uncontrolable - Jihadist organizations fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and the importance of the 1990-1991 Gulf War and its aftermath in breeding resentment against the governments in Riyadh and Washington, a feeling ruthlessly exploited by Bin Laden c.s.
In the concluding chapter "A Clash of Civilizations?", Ruthven critically examines the doctrines propounded by two "spin doctors" of the Clash-of-Civilizations thesis: Samuel Huntington and Benjamin Barber. Malise Ruthven acknowledges the plausibility of Huntington's civilization concept, but finds his ideas on religion wanting. According to Ruthven, Huntington is shortselling religion because he limits it to formal doctrines and ritual practices, better were it to take them as communication systems or symbolic languages expressing a vast array of human impulses. This might be especially relevant for Islam, which can be characterized as institutionally poor but rich in discursive tradition. Although Barber provides a powerful antidote to the Huntington doctrine, his explanation has another flaw: the denial of modern Islamism's claim of universality, lumping it together with mysticism and nationalism.
Some of Ruthven's references provide already a hint of the direction in which the author is looking for a way out of the cul-de-sac into which Muslim fundamentalism is leading the Islamic world. In the closing paragraphs the author points at the need of unwavering commitment to restructuring Muslim society on democratic principles, which are not inherently incompatible with Islam.