Our ash trees are dying, but don't despair: catastrophes are natural events in the lives of trees

Dutch elm disease is a tragic thing to watch, but we shouldn't be too gloomy. Woody vegetation responds, adapts, regroups. What emerges in its recovery stage may not be the same as before, but it will always be a vital, dynamic, arboreal community.

These spring days I gaze out of my study with a mite of foreboding, waiting for a premature and possibly terminal autumn. Rooted in the bank of the ancient pond beyond the window are two multi-trunked ashes, airy, sprawling trees, which together form a canopy stretching 20 metres across. They’re fine at the moment, but just a few miles further north is the wood (its name, Ashwellthorpe, now seems an eerie black joke) where ash dieback first appeared in the wild. All winter the gales have been blowing Chalara spores southwards and it’s almost inevitable that the fungus will reach our garden. If these two trees are smitten, it will change the whole feel of our home patch.

They have a spaciousness that ashes rarely have the chance to reach on narrow hedgebanks or in the tight ranks of woods. They’re amphitheatres for flocks of birds, vast and dramatic weathervanes. Ash branches are elastic, and when they flail in the wind it is as if waves of wood are breaking across the garden. Losing them would bring not just a transformation of our view, but an unsettling shift in our sense of what constitutes a landscape, and what it contributes to our sense of home and security.

Much of Britain waits for the coming summer in a similar mood, wondering what the country will look like without our third-commonest tree. Ash doesn’t have the craggy grandeur of oak or the voluptuous grace of beech. It’s short-lived, usually collapsing at about 200 years, unless it’s been coppiced or pollarded. Its pale trunks and filigree leaves, and a habit of regenerating in dense colonies, make it an often unnoticed choral background in woods, a visual hum behind the strong timbres of the big trees. But it’s this quality that we love in it, that quiet, pale, graceful, background presence. Woods will, for a while, look emptied of depth if the disease hits badly, and in hedgerows they make up a tenth of all mature trees. Most of the older individuals are pollards, low-slung and often cloaked with second-storey thickets of ivy, so these, too, are easily passed by, unremarked. We will notice their absence, if and when they go.

But catastrophising (entirely understandable after Dutch elm disease) is not a helpful response to threats to trees, and our anxious concern for them is easily trumped by our ignorance of their survival skills and community life. So, back home, I take a dispassionate surveyor’s tour of the garden, trying to imagine what it will be like if these two great sheaves of wood, and half a dozen younger trees, succumb. Close to, the portents don’t look so bad. Our ashes are surrounded (as they are in many places) by thorn trees, burgeoning self-sown oaklings, suckering wild cherries. In ten years’ time the gaps they will leave, if struck down, will have closed up, and the ashes will be metamorphosing into complex catacombs of decaying wood, full of beetles and woodpecker probings.

We have a cultural block against looking at trees like this, as dynamic and evolving vegetation. We want them to stay exactly as and where they are, and don’t entirely believe in either their powers of self-generation or their afterlife. In an unstable world they’ve become monuments to security, emblems of continuity and peacefulness. We hug them, plant them as civic gestures and acts of reparation, give them pet names. When this cosy relationship is turned upside down – as it was, for instance, during the great storm of October 1987 – we are shipwrecked, wondering if we’ve been bad guardians, not protected them enough. “Trees are at great danger from nature,” warned the Tree Council after that storm – in an extraordinary solecism that seemed to place the arboreal rep­ublic entirely inside the kingdom of man. Very rarely do we ask whether we might have mothered them too much.

When Chalara struck the UK in 2012 it was clearly, in part, a breakdown in proper stewardship. The general public (and a good number of landowners) had never heard of the disease, but woodland ecologists and commercial foresters had been nervously tracking its inexorable westward march across Europe since the mid-1990s. Some urged the government to impose greater restrictions on the importation of ash saplings, but most had few ideas about how to interpret or react to it. That is not surprising. The fungus, now known as Chalara fraxinea, is biologically mysterious, an entirely new organism of uncertain origins. It probably evolved in eastern Asia, where it appears to be harmless to native ash species. Its ancestor is a benign and widespread leaf fungus called Hymeno­scyphus albidus, native even in the UK. But at some recent date, this threw up a mutant, Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, with slight genetic differences but a terrible virulence. The windblown spores infect ash foliage in spring, turning the leaf-tips brown. The fungal “roots” (hyphae) spread through the leaf stalks into the branches and trunk, blocking off the tree’s water supply. Diamond-shaped lesions appear on the trunk and the leaves turn brown and wilt. Young trees can die within year, but older ones appear able to survive for much longer. The fungus forms its spores in the leaf litter in summer and these are dispersed in the wind over the following months. This is effective at spreading the disease over relatively short distances, but wind dispersal is limited by the fact that the spores survive in the air for only a few days. In Norway, Chalara has moved by between 20 and 30 kilometres a year.

The first European cases were recorded in Poland in 1992. It had reached Lithuania by 1994 and then moved west and north, arriving in Italy, France and the Netherlands between 2007 and 2010. In Denmark the susceptibility of trees proved to be almost total, with not much more than 1 per cent of Danish ashes left alive since the disease first arrived there in 2003.

It was this frightening, epidemic contagiousness that caused such alarm and confusion when Chalara was spotted in Britain, first on nursery saplings imported from Holland, then on wild trees, which it can only have reached on the wind. Fantastical statistics were banded about in the media – that 30 per cent of all Britain’s trees were ashes and that, with a host of other tree diseases already established here, we were facing a dead and denuded landscape, like the Somme after the Great War. In fact, ashes make up a little over 5 per cent of our tree cover in Britain and they are highly diverse genetically. The consequences of this variability, in terms of disease susceptibility, are already making themselves shown in Poland, the first country to be hit. Between 10 and 25 per cent of Polish ashes are showing some level of natural immunity. In closely monitored populations in Lithuania, 10 per cent of trees have survived infection for eight years and appear to be able to pass this resistance on to their offspring.

Natural resistance is likely to be the best hope for the survival of a core population of ashes in the UK. Isolated from the continent for nearly 8,000 years, our trees may be more genetically diverse than those in Poland. For example, ashes that thrive in the sparse clitter of Yorkshire limestone are quite distinct from the tall poles that grow in damp East Anglian loams, and neither will survive if transplanted to the other habitat. Many ashes have male and female branches (and therefore flowers) on the same tree, so the potential for complex cross-pollination and extreme genetic variation is high. It’s a relief that for once the government has listened to its scientists and based its response on giving time and space for natural resistance to appear, and then capitalising on it, if need be, with cross-breeding. Sanitation felling, which was talked about in the first wave of panic, would have been worse than useless, doing the disease’s work for it by eliminating potentially resistant trees and throwing more dormant spores into circulation.

But this laissez-faire approach isn’t much liked. The public cry is for “something to be done”, for the excoriation of scapegoats in what is as much a natural event as a bureaucratic disaster, for raising the barricades, conjuring up a new woodland estate for the next generation. How have we come to regard trees like this? As human products or, worse, dependent arboreal children, capable of appearing only if we artificially inseminate the ground. As vulnerable to abuse from outside agencies (“nature” or nasty foreign organisms), but never from ourselves, and best put out of their misery if they become ill or old. Understanding how these stereotypes and attitudes originated, and what perpetuates them today, is crucial if we are to make a proper cultural response to, and an accommodation with, ash dieback, and with the many other diseases that are likely to affect our trees in the decades to come.

The 17th-century jobbing journalist, whimsical gardener and discreet royalist John Evelyn is most often credited with popularising the idea of trees as property, as status symbols, models of order, heritable goods, investments with a guaranteed growth rate. His book Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions (1664) was publicly commissioned in response to a largely imaginary naval wood shortage, but its hidden agenda was to provide a manifesto for a tree-farming bonanza, a wood rush. Evelyn, plucking figures from the air, boasted to the king that his book had been “the sole occasion of furnishing for your almost exhausted dominion with more than two millions of timber trees”, or maybe just one million, he suggested in the second edition. But plantation fever was really ignited in the next century, by German forest science. Forstwissenschaft was steering the growing of timber towards a mathematically precise system, with the trees (increasingly conifers rather than “hearts of oak”) spaced and organised for maximum productivity.

This devotion to order and tidiness entered the aesthetics of landscape, too, and planners such as Capability Brown, whose regimented parks are still mystifyingly seen as epitomes of rural beauty, made fortunes. Not all his contemporaries admired him. The radical landowner Richard Payne Knight urged the people to vandalise Brown’s landscapes to release the incipient wildwood. Uvedale Price, the doyen of the picturesque movement, was more subtly scathing of Brown’s trademark – the clump, a kind of woodland canapé: “the clump”, Price wrote, “a name, which if the first letter were taken away, would most accurately describe its form and effect . . . from the trees being generally of the same age and growth, from their being planted nearly at the same distance in a circular form, and from each tree being equally pressed by his neighbour, [they] are as like each other as so many puddings turned out of a common mould”.

For their part, ordinary rural people were mystified by the need for plantations, having lived for thousands of years with woods that renewed themselves spontaneously and indefinitely by seeding, or by regrowth from cut coppice stools and pollards. In place of this system of natural regeneration came the notion of trees as artefacts, biddable machines for the production of timber, programmed at every stage of their lives from planting to cutting.

The fundamental grammar of our relationship with them had been changed. Previously, “growing” had been an intransitive verb in the language of woods. Trees grew, and we, in a kind of subordinate clause, took things from them. In the forest-speak of the Enlightenment, “growing” became a transitive verb. We were the subject and trees the object. We were the cause of their existence in particular places on the earth.

In our own time, the idea that trees have reproductive processes of their own has almost disappeared from our cultural memory. Instead, we like to believe that they can begin their lives only if we deliberately instal them – an idea that feeds off our ecological guilt. Tree-planting has become the great ritual of atonement, a way of making painless amends for the devastation our species had wreaked across the planet. It is a perfect symbol of procreation: the penetration of the soil, the implantation of new life, the years of aftercare and cosseting. This is the way to repair the earth, nudge it towards renewed vitality, without in any way surrendering our authority over it. Human beings know best, make better parents than nature.

Now, in the extremities of ash dieback, we can see that decades of well-intentioned planting have been not only often unnecessary, but, quite possibly, dangerous. Runtish saplings, often mislabelled and of unknown provenance, are shoved into the ground, regardless of whether they might be vectors for disease, or whether the soil is right and the site appropriate. Often they are so completely misplaced (compared to the exact choices that have been made by successful, naturally sprung seedlings) that they soon expire, even with the tree equivalent of intensive care. Those plantations that do survive into maturity are sometimes as conducive to epidemic disease as hospital wards. The trees are too closely packed, too evenly aged, too genetically uniform.

Natural regeneration isn’t universally appropriate. Trees don’t easily establish themselves in thick grassland, for instance, or, necessarily where we want them. But in most situations they are irrepressible (oak, ash and birch especially), witness how much time is spent hacking them down, in gardens, in nature reserves, on road verges and heathland. Nor, when it is successful, is the result often recognised as young or nascent woodland. It’s written off under that pejorative term, “scrub”. This transient vegetation, full of wild rose, brambles and thorn bushes, which act as protection for broadleaved saplings in their vulnerable early years, is another demonised natural form. The landscape architect Nan Fairbrother was dismissive of it in her influential 1970 book, New Lives, New Landscapes. “Incipient scrub always lurks,” she wrote, “only temporarily suppressed: it is the state of original sin in our landscape.”

In this dystopian vision – the opposite of the Romantic ideal of the immemorial wildwood – woodland ravaged by disease, mugged by alien squirrels and bashed about by un-British extremes of weather could only survive with continuous human vigilance. Scrub, the recovery mode, was not woodland in the making; it was the threatening new climax vegetation, the bleak future of unmanaged England.

This patronising desire for human control, an insistence that trees’ natural growth should conform to our current cultural stereotypes, pesters them at every stage of their life. Middle-aged trees, which lack a commercially viable uprightness, or are ruffed with low branches, are referred to as “rubbish”, or examples of “inadequate management”, as economic and aesthetic judgements meld. We have a soft spot for the truly old, for those gnarled and hollow hulks that inhabit Arthur Rackham’s drawings and, in the real world, ancient wood-pastures such as the New Forest. But we don’t like either the circumstances or the stages that are necessary to generate these awesome wooden monuments. Gale damage, fungal invasions, lightning strikes, repeated defoliation by insects are all regarded with distaste, and as intrinsically inimical to a tree’s “health”.

In fact, trees deal with stress and disease and ageing much better than we do. Oaks easily recover from complete defoliation by insects within a month or two. “Stag-heading”, where a fork of dead branches protrudes above a reduced crown of leaves, is looked on with horror as some kind of illness, a malformation that transgresses our fixed ideas of what a tree “should” look like. Yet it is an almost universal adaptation, a budgeting move that trees make when they need to economise with water. What looks like decrepitude in an old tree is often a sign of a state of calm senescence that can last for centuries. Trees knocked flat by gales can survive perfectly well in a horizontal position.

Oliver Rackham tells a cautionary story about the ancient beeches in the Pindus Mountains in northern Greece. Pindus is a remote area, far from any industrial centres, but in the 1980s the beeches showed all the signs of another fashionable affliction – Waldsterben, forest death from acid rain. The symptoms were the familiar ones of stress: dieback at the tops of trees, leaf-yellowing, early leaf fall. But many of the huge trees were then more than 300 years old. They were covered in luxuriant lichens, a sure sign of unpolluted air. And their narrow annual rings showed they had been in this state of retrenchment for centuries. Reduced vitality was the reason for their survival.

There are, of course, degrees of stress that trees can’t survive – prolonged drought, epidemics such as elm disease and the Asian canker that devastated sweet chestnuts in America. But bufferings by the weather, minor ailments, limb loss, have been the circumstances of their evolution, and they’re well able to cope. It is worth considering what a wood unaffected by any of the organisms we regard as hostile would be like. There would be no insects, and therefore no birds. No lichens or toadstools or intriguing hollows. It would not be an ecosystem at all, just barren rows of leaves on poles.

I’m not immune to the lure of ideal woodland images myself. In the 1970s and 1980s I owned a 16-acre ancient wood in the Chil­terns, which I ran as a community project. But it was also a private playground and I got to understand very well the seductive licence to control that ownership grants you. I behaved like a matronly gardener at times, clearing brambles around my pet flowers and clipping twigs to give seedling trees more light. I thought I knew what I was doing at the time, but I’m not so certain now.

In one sense, I was entirely selfish. I wanted the wood to be my kind of wood, to my taste, yet I wanted it to be ecologically sound, too. I nipped and tucked the vegetation round our primrose clumps so they would make a better show. I ring-barked the spongy, alien poplars to provide a bit of standing deadwood. But when they started to topple over, years later, I nudged them into a position where they’d take down other trees’ branches with them, in a wildwood-circus tumbling act. I lopped sycamores that were shading out ash, and ashes that were shading beechlings, as if I had certain know­ledge of the proper hierarchy in trees. And I remember the excuses I made to myself for gardening in a place that was supposed to be halfway wild. I was simply speeding up its progress towards a more “natural” state. I was doing no more than would be done by a localised wind, or a tribe of bark-beetles making a corner of the wood commodious for themselves. I was part of nature myself, for heaven’s sake, deserving of a niche along with the rest of them.

This was true, but disingenuous. Finding a balance between affectionate engagement and overbearing management is a philosophical and practical conundrum that needs a different approach in every situation; the challenge presented by ash dieback is no exception. But there are precedents, such as the great storm of 1987, which toppled 15 million trees in a matter of five hours. An important lesson which emerged from that event was the folly of rushed or aggressive action. There was more damage caused by reckless clearing up after the storm than by the wind. Still-living trees, millions of seedlings and even the topsoil were swept away by bulldozers in many woods, in response to political pressure and the public distaste for what appeared to be “untidiness”.

The contrast between the miserable replanting in these areas and the spectacular regrowth in areas left completely alone is a lesson that has been absorbed by conser­vation organisations, but not yet into our civic culture.

That favourite GP’s phrase – “watchful waiting” – is also appropriate. There is still much to learn about the Chalara fungus, about, for instance: its speed of spread and which ages of trees are most susceptible. The detection, and protection, of trees that seem to be resistant must be the highest priority. So, wherever issues of safety aren’t important, should the preservation of larger trees that succumb. A “dead” tree is still a tree, and provides a rich habitat for birds, insects, fungi and mosses.

The existence of a large population of indigenous ashes is our best safeguard for the future and makes rather baffling the Forestry Commission’s experiment, initiated early in May, of planting out trial plots with 150,000 saplings of “15 different varieties”. The intention is to discover whether a few may be resistant and eventually propagate from them. But as 80 million ashes from probably ten times that number of genotypes are already engaged in just such an experiment across Britain, it is hard to see this as much more than a PR exercise – one that fits tidily in to our long, hubristic belief that the salvation of trees lies with us and our superior arboreal intelligence only. Beyond that, the encouragement of much more diverse, self-regenerating and uneven-aged woodlands – even where these are non-native (such as sycamore, sweet chestnut and turkey oak) – is the best contribution we can make.

The sycamore is currently demonised as an “invasive alien”, introduced to Britain some time in the late Middle Ages (though it is quite possibly an indigenous species given to erratic and untypical behaviour for a native because of its own fungal affliction, tar spot). But we will need to make an accommodation with it as perhaps the best natural coloniser of bare patches that is available. It can’t host many of the insects that have co-evolved with ash over thousands of year, but it will be a partial refuge for the lichens which are ashes’ outstanding familiars, and restore a general ambient woodiness. Climate change is making the categories of native and non-native increasingly fuzzy and we may find ourselves grateful for some immigrant biodiversity.

Above all, the lesson of the storm was that catastrophes – be they disease, or climatic trauma, or insect predation – are entirely natural events in the lives of trees and woods. Woody vegetation responds, adapts, regroups. What emerges in its recovery stage may not be the same as before, but it will always be a vital, dynamic, arboreal community. The same process will happen with ash, perhaps more quickly than we think.

Copyright Richard Mabey. The Ash and the Beech by Richard Mabey was published by Vintage Books on 6 June (£9.99).

Waving, not drowning: we take the palely unobtrusive ash for granted and yet strain to impose unnatural order on the tangle of our forests. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era