Born Again

Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey

by V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, 430 pp., $15.00

Since the end of antiquity two great religions have competed for the soul of the world: Christianity and Islam. Both have their origins in Judaism. But whereas Judaism, though of irreducible strength, has been a defensive, non-proselytizing religion, Christianity and Islam have been aggressive, missionary, imperialist. Other religions have invariably gone down before them. The state paganism of the Roman empire, the state Zoroastrianism of the Persian empire, were almost totally destroyed by their impact. Hinduism and Buddhism shrank at their approach, or were overlaid by them. Primitive religions were dissolved or absorbed by them. Only against each other do they seem to fail.

In its first conquering days, Islam bowled over the as yet unfortified Christianity of the Levant and the Maghreb, but thereafter direct collision was on equal terms. The Christian crusades failed in Syria and Palestine; the Ottoman conquest did not destroy Christianity in the Balkans. Islamic and Christian states have subjected each other politically, but spiritually hardly ever. Asia Minor had to be repeopled from the Turkish steppes before it became a Muslim country, just as Spain had to be repeopled from the Pyrenees, and the Moriscos—the superficially Christianized Moors—expelled, before it became a Christian country. There have been individual conversions of course, but in the last thousand years has any Muslim society become Christian? Has any Christian society—except Albania—become Muslim?

How can we account for the extraordinary reserves of power, both aggressive and defensive, in these two religions? This is a question which one is bound to ask when faced with the Islamic revival, or recrudescence, of recent years. Fifty years ago, Islam seemed a subject religion. Only four Islamic countries—Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, and Arabia—remained politically independent, and their independence owed more to the balance of Christian power than to their own strength. Today almost all Islamic countries are politically independent. Some of them, through no virtue of their own, are grotesquely rich. To gain this independence, and this wealth, they imitated their Western conquerors, borrowed Western science, Western ideas. Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, the Pahlevi shahs in Persia, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan, all, openly or secretly, disdained Muslim ideas. Their successors have returned to those ideas, some of them aggressively. In Persia, Pakistan, and Libya we see a revival not only of Muslim religion but also of Muslim law, customs, social organization. The secular West is declared to be “sick”: in Islamic fundamentalism lies the hope of the future.

In an attempt to understand this Islamic revival, to penetrate its mentality, and discover its significance, V.S. Naipaul has traveled through four Islamic countries, observing, discussing, reflecting. His observations, as we would expect, are acute, his discussions wide-ranging, his reflections sometimes disconcerting. The four countries which he visited are, first, Iran, still then and still now in the throes of the most violent Islamic revolution of all; then Pakistan, the new model of a “pure” Islamic society; finally Malaysia and Indonesia, where Islam, long diluted by a …

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