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
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.
If the Chinese convert to Islam, the Malays would become Buddhists
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.
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.
- Islam was used by aggrieved people who do not know where to look for solutions, and
- Islam, in an intrinsic and structural way, provides no political solution to these people
Next: Naipaul’s observation of the relationship of Islam with the West.