Commentary Magazine


Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, by V.S. Naipaul

Born-Again Muslims

Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey.
by V.S. Naipaul.
Knopf. 430 pp. $15.00.

The celebrated novelist V. S. Naipaul began his “Islamic journey” in Teheran in the late summer of 1979, eight months after the fall of the Shah and the concomitant enthronement of the Ayatollah Khomeini as de facto ruler of Iran. “Dear Guests. God Is the Greatest” read the sign that greeted Naipaul on his arrival at Teheran airport, and everything that he encountered thereafter in Iran was imbued with the same surrealist and menacingly comic quality. Teheran he found to be a city in chaos: what had not already broken down was in the process of disintegration, as if in the wake of some terrible natural disaster. Hysteria held much of the populace in its grip, fueled daily by large demonstrations (attendance at which was virtually obligatory) where a succession of mullahs, master practitioners of the art of invective, harangued the assembled mobs mercilessly—“a competition in frenzy or the display of frenzy” is Naipaul’s impression of these occasions.

Everywhere, whether in the slogans scrawled on walls, in the tirades of the mullahs, or in the posters and other pictorial representations of the revolution, the emphasis was on death, blood, and vengeance. Everything was depicted in stark shades of black and white—oppression, revolution, martyrdom, the whole an intoxicating and noxious blend of the atavistic elements that lie at the heart of the Shi’i profession of Islam and the all-too-familiar sanguinary attributes of late 20th-century “proletarian” revolutionary movements. To Naipaul, the most troubling aspect of Iran’s Islamic revolution was the intense rage it generated, a rage directed less against the late Shah and all his works than against Western civilization and its influence in the world at large. Yet the Iranians hungered for the products of Western technology. “Their possession,” Naipaul notes, “was part of a proper Islamic pride.” How were this anger at the West and the passion for its goods to be reconciled? By regarding these goods, Naipaul concludes, as neutral objects without recognizable provenance. “They were not associated with any particular faith or civilization; they were thought of as the stock of some great universal bazaar.”

Thus, when Naipaul traveled to the holy city of Qum, the seat of Khomeini and the home of what seemed to be a thousand theological schools, all of them shrouded in a dense medieval twilight, he found that the learned divines who counseled the faithful to live their daily lives in consonance with a material order of things laid down over a millennium ago, and who constantly railed against the Christian West for its sinfulness and debauchery, did not scorn to make good use of telephones, automobiles, and the other fascinating artifacts of Western industry. Nor did the supreme divine of all, Ruhollah Khomeini, whom the great body of Iranian Shia now revere as the deputy of the Twelfth Imam (the messianic figure whose emergence will herald the ultimate triumph of Islam throughout the world), hesitate to avail himself of the gadgetry and weaponry of the decadent and infidel West. On the day of Naipaul’s departure from Teheran airport, he watched American-made Phantoms of the Iranian air force take off, on Khomeini’s orders, to strafe rebel Kurdish strongholds in the west of the country. “Later,” Naipaul records, “I learned that two Phantoms had crashed, and the news was curiously sickening: such trim and deadly aircraft, so vulnerable the inadequately trained men within, half victims, yet men that morning obedient to the will of God and the Twelfth Imam and full of murder.”

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The ambivalence toward the West that agitates the hearts and minds of the Iranian Shia carries over, so Naipaul discovered, into the next Islamic republic to which his travels took him—Pakistan, founded as a Sunni Muslim state at the time of the breakup of the former British Indian empire in 1947. Here he found an equally pervasive though slightly different brand of illogicality. Whereas in Iran people appeared to Naipaul to be maddened by anger and frustration, expending their energies in a continual round of demonstrations and outpourings of hatred (but not in hard work, as he tartly remarks, which was the only means by which the revolution might possibly have succeeded), in Pakistan he saw a populace cast down and debilitated by the failure of the original experiment of a modern Muslim state.

Since its inception, Pakistan has never developed the political or economic institutions necessary for the progress and prosperity of its people. The general reaction to this failure has been to blame, not the concept of the Islamic republic but the inadequacies and faults of the citizens themselves:

Failure only led back to the faith. . . . If the state failed, it wasn’t because the dream was flawed, or the faith flawed; it could only be because men had failed the faith. A purer and purer faith began to be called for. And in that quest for the Islamic absolute—the society of believers, where every action was instinct with worship—men lost sight of the political origins of their state.

To sustain its tottering economy, Pakistan now largely depends upon the export of its own citizens and upon the earnings they remit from abroad—notably from the Gulf oil states and from the infidel West. The many ironies implicit in the recourse to this economic expedient are captured by Naipaul in a passage which brilliantly encapsulates the whole Muslim dilemma of treating with a civilization held to be anathema by the true believer but whose liberties and institutions he is only too ready to exploit:

All the rejection of the West is contained within the assumption that there will always exist out there a living, creative civilization, oddly neutral, open to all to appeal to. Rejection, therefore, is not absolute rejection. . . . [So] the emigrants pour out from the land of the faith: thirty thousand Pakistanis shipped by the manpower-export experts to West Berlin alone, to claim the political asylum meant for the people of East Germany.

From Pakistan Naipaul’s quest for the motives and impulses which lie behind the contemporary resurgence of Islam took him eastward to Malaysia and Indonesia. There, in his conversations with local Muslims, mostly of the younger generation, he encountered the same intellectual and emotional confusions he had met among their Iranian and Pakistani counterparts. Rage, though less violently expressed than in Iran, characterizes the outlook of the young Malaysian Muslims—in this case a rage directed primarily against the Chinese community in the Malaysian Federation, at once cleverer, more industrious, and therefore wealthier than the Muslims. Again Islam seems to function not so much as a system of belief to enable men to reconcile themselves to the vicissitudes of life but as a vehicle for protest.

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One begins to wonder, as one follows Naipaul down the Malay peninsula and across the straits to the Indonesian archipelago, if the spark which has ignited the Muslim revival may be nothing more than plain envy. Does Islam, whether in countries rich in natural resources or in less bountifully endowed lands like Pakistan, serve as nothing more than an avenue of retreat from the hurly-burly of the modern world? Does it, in the last analysis, only provide a rationalization for the failure of the Islamic state, a refuge wherein young “born-again Muslims” (as Naipaul calls them) can shelter from the chilling suspicion that the fatal flaw may lie not in the corrupting influence of the West, or even in men themselves, but in Islam as a politico-religious system?

Naipaul has written a splendid, profound, and utterly depressing book. Sincerity and humanity illuminate every page; the prose is a sheer delight; and the whole is a tribute to a deep understanding of the myriad complexities of the Islamic faith. Yet to read the book is to be left with an acute sense of hopelessness. Despite the gentle humor and graceful delineations of places and people with which Naipaul lightens his narrative, the overwhelming impression one carries away is of the awesome gulf that lies between the Muslim order, where the law is the grim law of punishment and vengeance, and the rational and liberal traditions of the West. At the same time, however, one is left with the irreverent and lingering suspicion that were it not for Western acknowledgment, an acknowledgment which the younger, semi-Westernized Muslims seem continually to crave, the present revival of Islam might lose some of its momentum and significance.

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