Among The Believers by Naipaul – A Review (Part 1 of 3)

The latest controversy surrounding VS Naipaul’s statement about women writers re-kindled my interest in his works. I read his book “Among the believers–An Islamic Journey”. It is a travelogue of Naipaul’s travel (in 1979) through Islamic countries. Not Saudi Arabia, but the countries of the “converted peoples”. The countries which are separated from Arabia either through heresy (Iran, with its Shiite beliefs) or through distance — Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In these travels Naipaul talks to a cross section of the society: people from drivers, students, guides, government officials to people of power like Ayatollah Khalkhali and Anwar Ibrahim (during his student politics days). Naipaul then synthesizes his experiences into a commentary on the history of the people, their faith, the impact of their faith on their way of life. This book written in the early 80’s offers a perceptive and prescient analysis of the impact of Islam on the politics and society of these countries.

This review is divided into three parts. The first two parts are about Naipaul’s impressions of Islam: Its effect on the culture and attitude of the people and the politics and society of these countries. The third part is about Naipaul’s impressions of Pakistan.Naipaul comes across as a man with a sharp sense of observation and intellect and a sharper tongue. His analysis of the role of Islam in the countries he visits is brutal and honest. The first of the two recurring themes of his work (the second theme in the second review) is:

The Lack of Solutions in Political Islam

Naipaul’s most vehement opinions about Islam have to do with (his) perceived misuse of Islam by a set of aggrieved people and the lack of solutions in Islam to address the very grievances of these people, which made them turn to religion in the first place. For example, in Iran, what started off as a revolution triggered by the injustices of the Shah, quickly took on an Islamic fervor. Naipaul is pessimistic about the ability of this fervor to carry the civilization forward. About Ayatollah Khomeini, Naipaul says

He was the kind of man who, without political doctrine, only with resentments, had made the Iranian revolution

This theme of lack of political solutions in Islam and the adoption of Islam by aggrieved people is their search for solutions (which do not exist in Islam) to their grievances pervades Naipaul’s keen commentary. About the Islamic fervor in the “born again” Muslims in Malaysia, Naipaul observes
The new men of the villages, who feel they have already lost so much, find their path blocked at every turn. Money, development, education have awakened them only to the knowledge that the world is not like their village, that the world is not their own. Their rage—the rage of pastoral people with limited skills, limited money, and a limited grasp of the world—is comprehensive. Now they have a weapon: Islam. It is their way of getting even with the world. It serves their grief, their feeling of inadequacy, their social rage and racial hate. This Islam is more than the old religion of their village. The Islam the missionaries bring is a religion of impending change and triumph; it comes as part of a world movement. In Readings in Islam, a local missionary magazine, it can be read that the West, in the eyes even of its philosophers, is eating itself up with its materialism and greed. The true believer, with his thoughts on the afterlife, lives for higher ideals. For a nonbeliever, with no faith in the afterlife, life is a round of pleasure.
Thus Naipaul attributes the fervor of the “born again” Muslims as their attempt at satiating their rage at the perceived inequities due to their inability to deal with the modern times. He also comments on the use of Islam by the Malays as a tool to look down upon the Chinese–who through their hard work and entrepreneurial skills outstrip the Malays in education and business. Malays perceive the Chinese to be unclean, due to their animist beliefs and pork eating. But of Malays he says
If the Chinese convert to Islam, the Malays would become Buddhists
But Islam has offered no solution to social inequities or injustices in Iran. During Naipaul’s trip, the Kurds were massacred, the communists brutally suppressed. The very acts of suppression and brutality for which the Shah was despised are now justified in the name of Islam. Malays, in their search for equality, have built a framework of race-based discrimination rooted in Islam. Pakistan, in its search for identity and a paradise for Muslims was under military rule with mobs attacking newspapers, jailed journalists and the brutal massacre of the Balochs. The lack of political solution in Islam, Naipaul deems as a intrinsic structural flaw in the religion itself:
Religion, which filled men’s days with rituals and ceremonies of worship, which preached the afterlife, at the same time gave men the sharpest sense of worldly injustice and made that part of religion. This late-twentieth-century Islam appeared to raise political issues. But it had the flaw of its origins—the flaw that ran right through Islamic history: to the political issues it raised it offered no political or practical solution. It offered only the faith. It offered only the Prophet, who would settle everything—but who had ceased to exist. This political Islam was rage, anarchy.
Naipaul further argues that contrary to the contention of the Islamic fundamentalists, there is no scope for Islam prescribing an institutionalized method of cratering to people’s political and social needs while taking their civilization forward. Because:
The Islamic fundamentalist wish is to work back to such a whole, for them a God-given whole, but with the tool of faith alone—belief, religious practices and rituals. It is like a wish—with intellect suppressed or limited, the historical sense falsified—to work back from the abstract to the concrete, and to set up the tribal walls again. It is to seek to re-create something like a tribal or a city-state that—except in theological fantasy—never was. The Koran is not the statute book of a settled golden age; it is the mystical or oracular record of an extended upheaval, widening out from the Prophet to his tribe to Arabia.
Thus, his conclusion is two-fold:
  1. Islam was used by aggrieved people who do not know where to look for solutions, and
  2. Islam, in an intrinsic and structural way, provides no political solution to these people
This conclusion cannot be dismissed as shallow opinions of a man who is hostile to Islam and ignorant of its key tenets, but rather can be countered (if at all) only by equally keen and perceptive arguments.

Next: Naipaul’s observation of the relationship of Islam with the West.