Born in Dublin in 1942, he earned an M.A. in English literature at the University of Cambridge, before working as a scriptwriter with the BBC Arabic and World Service, and a consultant on Middle Eastern affairs.
He earned his PhD in Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge. Having pursued a career as a writer, journalist and teacher, he focuses his work on religion, fundamentalism, and especially Islamic affairs.
As a writer, he wrote:
Ruthven contributed an afterword to the most recent edition of Albert Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples, bringing that work up to date following Hourani's death. Dr Ruthven is internationally recognised for his work on Muslim thought and theology, fundamentalism, Mormonism, the social impact of religion and migration and the nexus between contemporary politics and belief.
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Malise Ruthven's book reviews have appeared in The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Observer, The Times Literary Supplement, Prospect Magazine and The New York Review of Books (NYR). His blog for the NYR, Revolution by Latrine, won an award from the Overseas Press Club of America in April 2011.
He is a regular contributor to the NYR, where he has written articles and reviews on such topics as Al Qaeda, Islam in Europe, unanswered questions in the Lockerbie crash and the repression of gay people in Iran. He also contributes occasionally to the BBC. He used the term "Islamofascism" as early as 8 September 1990 in The Independent. In 2004, London's Prospect Magazine ranked Ruthven among the 100 top public intellectuals in the UK.
He 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 given numerous lectures as an expert on the Middle East. He has been described by Madeleine Bunting for The Guardian as "one of today's most perceptive observers and historians of religion".
Malise Ruthven is the younger son of Patrick Hore-Ruthven and Pamela Margaret Fletcher. His elder brother is Grey Ruthven, 2nd Earl of Gowrie. 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; Ruthven published several collections of Stark's photographs.