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.


19 thoughts on “Among The Believers by Naipaul – A Review (Part 1 of 3)

  1. “The lack of political solution in Islam, Naipaul deems as a intrinsic structural flaw in the religion itself:” – this would be true of any religion – no religion has much to offer by the way of political solutions to problems.

    Someone wrote in a comment in Dawn today about instituting “Islamic fair-play and justice” in Pakistan. What is Islamic fair-play versus non-Islamic fairplay? Don’t Pakistanis play cricket, which is supposed to be the epitome of fair-play? “That’s not cricket” means being unfair or breaking the rules. I assume that cricket as a game from the kafir firangis does not have Islamic fair-play, but it does have some kind of fair-play. This mystery about what “Islamic fair-play” is compared to just “fair-play” has another solution – the belief that fair-play is possible only when administered by Muslims. What would Islamic fair-play mean for cricket? Would it mean only Muslims could be umpires? Would it mean only kafir batsmen could be l.b.w.? Would it mean that a test match could start only after the sighting of the new moon?

    The point I’m trying to make is that fair-play has no religion associated with it. There is no Islamic fair-play (or Christian or Hindu or Jewish fair-play) that is superior to plain, unadorned fair-play. In all cases the religious variety is usually a downgrade of the concept.

  2. Naipaul conclusions have a basic flaw. He studies the behavior of Muslims but gives judgments about Islam.

    If his book was an academic thesis it would be failed for following an unscientific methodology and for using the wrong variables. To pass judgments on Islam he should talk about issues in the Quran.

    Second, people often question the benefits of religion to society. Religion is not meant to be a factory that produces goods and profit, religion is not there to offer you a quick step up or a shortcut to social equality. Religion is meant to be for your personal satisfaction only. People turning to Islam for a shortcut will soon be disappointed, those accepting it for its solace will not.

    Lastly, Islam does offer an equitable system to the aggrieved, and the non=aggrieved. It’s not Islam’s fault if society fails to implement them adequately.

    • “Naipaul conclusions have a basic flaw. He studies the behavior of Muslims but gives judgments about Islam.”

      I am sorry if my review indicated otherwise. Naipaul does not criticize Islam itself as much as he vehemently criticizes of the use of Islam for unintended purposes. In addition, he also criticizes the lack of imagination and intellect of people who use Islam for unintended purposes.

      As you yourself observe, religion is for personal satisfaction. But what if it is used to construct a system of Governance like in Iran? Will it succeed? What if it is used to impose rules such as declaring an entire sect to be heretic and use such a declaration to deny them political rights? Will that be in accordance with modern notions of equality and freedom?

      “It’s not Islam’s fault if society fails to implement them adequately.”

      Again, Naipaul expresses his amazement and criticism at the contention that “Pure Islam should be imposed, everything else will follow” – He points out that people who propound such solutions have no ideas for institutions, such as those to serve the cause of peasants without land (in malaysia), who are uprooted by rapid modernization. He challenges the reader with the question that if a true Islamic society has not been established since the time of the rightly guided caliphs and if all attempts at doing so has resulted in anarchy, oppression, violence and economic underperformance, is the likely explanation that Islam does not have political solutions or is is it likely that the society for a thousand two hunded years has failed to implement them adequately? Even if it is the case that Islam has solutions to everything, but no society has implemented it adequately for a thousand two hundred years, what are the chances that any society can successfully do so today?

      • “… no society has implemented it adequately for a thousand two hundred years, what are the chances that any society can…”

        I agree that if ‘a perfect islamic society’ wasn’t achievable in the past there’s a fat chance in hell that it’ll be achievable in the future. But lets look at it in context. If humans haven’t achieved a perfect society in 5000 years or so of civilization, does it guarantee that they’ll never achieve it? Probably, but that doesn’t mean that humans stop trying. Probably not.

        “sorry if my review indicated otherwise. Naipaul does not criticize Islam itself as much as he vehemently criticizes of the use of Islam for unintended purposes”

        Thank you for the clarification. I apologize for misunderstanding your words.

        By nature man is imperfect, unique and prone to unethical attributes such as the 7 deadly sins. By extension, society, if allowed to develop freely, will also exhibit these imperfections. Islam, Christianity, Government and all other forms of interventions to suppress the natural desires will give rise to discontent. Some are bound to view this discontentment as oppression of freedom or imperfection in society. So basically, you come to a catch 22 situation where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t

        But this would hold true for all religions and all man-made laws, so singling out Islam to be declared the winner of the ‘no solution’ trophy is a bit biased. Proponents of every religion and every government usually believe that their system is the best so again muslims are no different on that account. Similarly, many people also turn to Christianity for quick solutions only to be disappointed to learn that they’re still untouchables. Likewise, every religion has its share of followers who use it to promote their own agendas and to commit persecution of others.

        What I’m saying is that Naipaul may not be wrong in his observations that Islam has failed to provide solutions and that it has been misused, but it is wrong of him to single it out

      • Atiq, almost everyone has stopped going to their religions to seek solutions to their political problems. Politics is about setting policies and implementing them for common goods. What does religion have to do with the provisioning of roads, water supplies, schools, garbage pickup, telephone service, ambulances, police force, courts, freedom of information, rules of traffic, irrigation canals, etc.,etc. etc.?

        Large-scale human systems require trust to operate. There is no way to enforce all the rules that must be followed Trust arises only when there are ethical people. To the extent that a religion helps its adherents be ethical people, to that extent religions are relevant to politics.

        The problem with Pakistan is that somehow a lot of people seem to believe that Islam is considered to be an essential part of running all the of the things I’ve listed in the first para.

  3. This review makes me want to read this book. Very profound indeed. Islam does outlines some basic rule & code of ethics but it doesn’t offer a system of governance. For the believers, it outlines the right attitude to life. But thats not all.
    “The Koran is not the statute book of a settled golden age; it is the mystical or oracular record of an extended upheaval” : how does the author expalins Sharia laws then?

  4. Atiq: You can’t really separate Muslims from Islam. Especially in countries/areas where Muslims have been in a majority for over hundreds of years. Their culture, morality, attitudes have been deeply shaped by Islam.

    If there are common problems in every Muslim country, or if there is a lack of development in every Muslim majority country, then Islam the institution, also has to share some of the blame. The designer of Islam, God, has created an institution of living. You happen to believe that the fault lies in the people, Muslims, and not Islam per se. However, as Major pointed out, if the mythical ‘true Islam’ has not been implemented for over 1400 years, then maybe, Islam the system, is not one which can ever be implemented on a wide scale at an idealized level. Marxists made the same argument about the poor implementation of an idealized version of Communism by Communists. A system, like Islam, which is incapable of not being implemented in an idealized form because if the inherent inadequacies of human nature is a flawed system.

    One tangential point on your possible counter-argument about the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam:

    – In the Golden Age of Islam, the average believer was neither as knowledgable on the Hadith, Quran, nor as devout in practice as the average believer is today. For example, In the 11th century, the average peasant in Sindh or Alexandria or Tunis was nowhere as informed about Islam or devout in practice as an average peasant in 2011. Increase in education, the invention of printing press, radio, cheap books, tv, and now the internet have ushered in the real Golden Age of Islam in terms of knowledge and practice by the average believer. So the illusion that Muslims in the Golden age if Islam were practicing the ‘true Islam’ is a fallacy.

  5. Good review!
    Wonder if Naipaul were to repeat his journey in the present, ie 2011, whether he would find changed attitudes towards seeking political solutions in early Islam in most of these countries.

    Pakistan IMO is going against the trend in moving further along on route of rage and chasing of mirages. Faith and critical discourse cannot coexist in the public sphere, so the space for ‘searching’ will get progressively smaller.

  6. I am now reading “India-wounded civilization” will move on to “among the believers”..
    VS Naipaul is India’s Hitchens albiet

  7. “What I’m saying is that Naipaul may not be wrong in his observations that Islam has failed to provide solutions and that it has been misused, but it is wrong of him to single it out”

    If there was such a thing as self correction there would not be a need for a critic.

    Islam has touched many with different results. Consider for a moment what I learned as I grew up my forefathers were at the receiving end of its magnanimous influence, uprooted , dispossessed , turned to refugee living in a camp with no hope for future, kith and kin killed and a large family to support. Those who survived had to start again,worked hard and turned things around and some still live with hardships and their generations bearing the brunt for time to come. Despite all this great influence, the survivors recount that they are better off than before while the people and the countries which implemented the true nature of Islam remain impoverished.
    Going by the Islamic argument that the socially and materially disadvantaged ones like my forefathers should have accepted Islam and indulged in its glorious activities. The Islamic doctrine needs to change and if change is not coming from within then it will be from outside.

  8. What i see here is many comments supporting your views…by hindus and Indians….but…what do you say to the kid that has lost his father and mother to an israeli attack…and wants revenge….Islam offers him a path…he thinks that he doing good, revenge is powerful emotion and when supplemented by religion and an enemy, a deadly emotion. What do I tell him? That Islam is offering you a bullshit solution and all that???

    The problem is not religion. It is not faith. It is the attitude on either side to avoid reconciliation, to avoid saying sorry. Cause sorry is the hardest thing to say.

    Point is, we can pontificate all about theories of religion and practices, and what qua ran said(no disrespect, may allah forgive me if i implied any disrespect)
    But we need to see a few concrete actions that may heal the wounds….an Isreali mother saying sorry and adopting palestinian kids…a mujahid doing the same, an Indian punjabi hindu coming to kashmir and providing livelihood.

    Its not all that difficult…just needs a push…

    Till then we can debate about religions and their solutions
    But remember, religion is what we make of it. We people.
    I can quote you enough passages in Geeta(my religious book btw) which make revenge and killing acceptable. But I have not suffered enough to make those metaphorical passages literal.
    Lets understand those people who take it literaly, and see if a little love and reconcialation can make them understand those passages metaphorically.

    Insha allah, peace will be eternal.


  9. Good choice, Major. It has been a long time since I read this book or its successor; Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. The latter was a more dyspeptic look at how Islamicization of non-Arabs was similar to (and very possibly worse than) the effects of colonization by the Europeans on these cultures. I also recommend Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer, which is in a similar vein to Among the Believers but more current, and just as well written.

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