Born in Dublin in 1942, he earned an MA in English Literature at Cambridge University, before working as a scriptwriter with the BBC Arabic and World Service, and a consultant on Middle Eastern affairs.
Family and education
Malise Ruthven is the younger son of Patrick Hore-Ruthven and Pamela Margaret Fletcher. His elder brother is Grey Ruthven, 2nd Earl of Gowrie, formerly a minister in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet. Alexander Hore-Ruthven, 1st Earl of Gowrie, was his grandfather. He is the godson of the late Dame Freya Stark, whom his parents knew in Cairo in 1942. The Independent describes the family background of his brother Grey Ruthven as follows:
- His father, a commando in the SAS, was killed in action during the Second World War. His mother worked in Intelligence with Freya Stark, so their two small sons - Gowrie and his younger brother, Malise - were left with their grandparents in Ireland.
A biographical note in his Islam in the World (1984) displays a keen awareness of his ancestry: 'On his father's side he is descended from a military family of Scottish ancestry, on his mother's from a line of Irish Protestant clerics and scholars'.
'After leaving school', the note states that he 'spent a year doing relief work in Jordan, were he began learning Arabic and spent several weeks travelling among the Huweitat beduin'.
'After several years as a staff writer and editor with the BBC's Arabic Service in London he became a freelance journalist specializing in Middle East affairs.'
He earned his PhD in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge University.
Ruthven has taught Islamic studies, cultural history and comparative religion at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, Birkbeck College, University of London, UC-San Diego, Dartmouth College (New Hampshire, USA) and Colorado College (Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA)
He has been described by Madeleine Bunting for The Guardian in a review of his 2004 book titled Fundamentalism as "one of today's most perceptive observers and historians of religion".
Views on Islam
In the context of discussing the actions of Saddam Hussein just after his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Ruthven went on to argue that there was something about Muslim states that resulted in authoritarian government. He made this argument in part in reply to an earlier criticism of his work by Shabbir Akhter who Ruthven describes as a 'fundamentalist':
- Having been anathematised by Dr Shabbir Akhtar (Faith and Reason, 11 August) as an anti-Islamic 'orientalist propagandist' of the worst type, who gets everything wrong all the time, I am reluctant to offer predictions. One question he raises, however, needs to be addressed. 'Why' - he has me asking - 'does this strange religion defy all explanation?'
- This is not how I would actually phrase the question, since my curiosity in this area is not focused exclusively on Islam. There is a sense in which all religions 'defy explanation' while continuing to invite it. I would certainly agree with Dr Akhtar that the traditional orientalist discourse has proved inadequate in explaining the durability of Islam as a political factor in the modern world. But the 'fundamentalist' alternative, which suggests somehow that 'Islam' or the 'power of faith' is sufficient explanation, is also inadequate.
- The fundamentalism with which Dr Akhtar is proud to associate himself is the mirror image of old- fashioned orientalism, sharing many of its assumptions. Both fundamentalists and orientalists are inclined to look on 'Islam' as some kind of sovereign subject, an 'active entity', which occupies 'a precisely known, historical, social, cultural space' (the terms are Muhammad Arkoun's, one of the most perceptive of contemporary Muslim analysts). If 'Islam' were as monolithic as as some of its contemporary apologists maintain, the 'Islamic factor' operating in contemporary politics would surely be far more predictable than it is. Instead we find as much diversity of political action among Muslims, not to mention shifting alliances, or sudden reconciliations like the recent rapprochement between Iran and Iraq, as among 'secularist' infidels.
Having attempted to carefully distinguish himself from both the 'orientalists' and the 'fundamentalists, Ruthven comes to what he seems to portray as a puzzle:
- Nevertheless there is what might be called a 'political problematic' affecting the Muslim world. In contrast to the heirs of some other non-Western traditions, including Hinduism, Shintoism and Buddhism, Islamic societies seem to have found it particularly hard to institutionalise divergences politically: authoritarian government, not to say 'Islamo-fascism', is the rule rather than the exception from Morocco to Pakistan.
At the time this drew some riposte. Singapore based writer Asad Latif wrote:
- Malise Ruthven, an Islamic scholar who faults both Orientalists and fundamentalists and goes on to note approvingly the political pluralism present in the Muslim world, nevertheless feels constrained to speak of "authoritarian government, not to say 'Islamo-fascism' (being) the rule rather than the exception from Morocco to Pakistan".
- Note the expression "Islamo-fascism". By putting it within quotes, the author does not blunt the implication that there is something in Islam that lends itself to fascism.
In his defence Ruthven might argue that he did soften the blow, not by the use of inverted commas, by the phrase 'not to say'. It seems clear that Ruthven is criticising Muslim societies in general, comparing them unfavourably with those of some other religions.
Ruthven states that he doubts that he himself coined the term, stating that the attribution to him is probably due to the fact that internet search engines don't go back beyond 1990. It is of course the case that then - as now - the internet was capable of searching for material published before 1990. 
- Torture: The Grand Conspiracy (1978). London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
- Cairo (Time-Life, 1980)
- Islam in the World (1984, 1999, 2006). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Traveller Through Time: A Photographic Journey with Freya Stark (1986). London: Viking.
- The Divine Supermarket: Travels in Search of the Soul of America (1989). London: Chatto.
- A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Rage of Islam (1990). London: Chatto.
- Freya Stark in the Levant: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine (1994) Reading: Garnet Publishing
- Freya Stark in Iraq and Kuwait (1994) Reading: Garnet Publishing
- Freya Stark in Persia (1994) Reading: Garnet Publishing
- Islam: A Very Short Introduction (1997, 2000). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Fury for God: the Islamist Attack on America (2002). London: Granta.
- Fundamentalism: the Search for Meaning (2004). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Historical Atlas of the Islamic World (2004). (with Azim Nanji). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Ruthven, M. (2007). Fundamentalism: A very short introduction (Vol. 155). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Malise Ruthven Radical Islam’s failure, Prospect, 20 July 2002,
- Burke's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage 2003, vol 2, pg 1615
- Birthdays, The Guardian page 39, 14 May 2014.
- Oxford University Press: Islam in the World: Malise Ruthven, oup.com; accessed 23 July 2017.
- Angela Lambert, Grey by name, passionate by nature: The famously charming Lord Gowrie, critic and Booker Prize judge, discusses of his love affair with literature, The Independent, 5 October 1993.
- Malise Ruthven, Islam in the world, London: Pelican, 1984, p. 1.
- Malise Ruthven's profile at Oxford University Press website Retrieved from the Internet Archive of 4 June 2011.
- Madeleine Bunting Review: Fundamentalism by Malise Ruthven' The Guardian 29 May 2004.
- Avner Falk Islamic Terror: Conscious and Unconscious Motives ABC-CLIO, 2008.
- William Safire Islamofascism The New York Times 1 October 2006
- Christopher Hitchens Defending Islamofascism Slate Magazine October 2007.
- Malise Ruthven, 'Faith and Reason: Construing Islam as a language' The Independent (London), September 8, 1990, Saturday. GAZETTE PAGE; Page 15.
- Asad Latif, Comment/Analysis Need for deeper understanding of Islam in today's world. Straits Times, 24 September 1990.
- Ruthven, Malise (2012). Encounters with Islam: On Religion, Politics and Modernity. I.B.Tauris. ISBN 9780857733948. p. x.
- Görlach, Joseph-Simon (2011). "Western Representastions of Fascist Influences on Islamist Thought". In Feuchter, Jörg; Hoffmann, Friedhelm; Yun, Bee (eds.). Cultural Transfers in Dispute: Representations in Asia, Europe and the Arab World since the Middle Ages. Campus Verlag. p. 151.