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In the Empire of Islam

There is truth to these views, but they are affected by Naipaul’s own preoccupations. For Naipaul, too, has had fantasies, of the old world, of the Indian past, of history, about which he has written a great deal. He often projects these fantasies onto those of others. In Beyond Belief, he describes a village in Java. He has been there before, in 1979, to visit a poet named Linus. Linus loves Javanese culture and tries to catch its nuances in his poetry. Naipaul, perhaps inspired by Linus, had remembered Java as a pastoral idyll, “still a complete civilization.” Returning in 1995, he realizes this had been a fantasy. He now sees Linus’s Javanese world in a state of decay—“a precious world in dissolution.” This mood of disturbed elegy, of lamenting the rotting remains of an old world, has colored Naipaul’s writing about India in his earlier books. Even his masterpiece, The Enigma of Arrival, set in England, is soaked in it. One wonders how much Naipaul’s visions of decay, so beautifully described, really have to do with Islam.

One thing that remains obscure in Naipaul’s account of his Islamic journeys is the distinction between historic Islam and the modern, revolutionary, or at least militant versions he observed. Perhaps he sees no meaningful distinction. But Islam was not always revolutionary. Mullahs don’t have a history of ruling countries. Here and there Naipaul’s rage against Islam reminds one of the modern Hindu rage, which can itself become a form of fundamentalism (borrowing enviously from the rhetoric of Islam). There are many references in his book to the Muslim conquests of northern India and the ravages they caused. There are references to the eighth-century Arab conquest of Sindh, an area that is now in Pakistan. Naipaul mentions later conquests too, when Hindu temples were looted and infidels converted by force. The “neurosis” that resulted from these experiences still compels Pakistani Muslims to take pride in phony Arab bloodlines and look to Arabia as their spiritual homeland.

The violence, the looting, the conversions all took place. Naipaul points out that “vital fragments of the past lived on” in Pakistan, nonetheless. Still, without being told that most conquests of northern India were by non-Arab peoples, who often married Hindus and mixed their Islam with older Indian traditions, the reader might conclude that northern India was effectively Arabized centuries ago. It is interesting to read what Jawaharlal Nehru had to say about these matters in his classic book The Discovery of India. Nehru believed it was “wrong and misleading to talk of a Moslem invasion of India or of the Moslem period in India, just as it would be wrong to refer to the coming of the British to India as a Christian invasion….” Islam, he says, “did not invade India.” The Afghans did, but they “might well be considered a border Indian group….” And the Mongols, or Mughals, who attacked the Delhi Sultanate in the fourteenth century, “fitted into the Indian structure with remarkable speed and began the Indo-Mughal period.”1

Mahmud (Afghan, eleventh century; a brutal raider and a Sanskrit scholar) and Timur (Turkish, fourteenth century) were undoubtedly hard men who caused a lot of damage. But there are good reasons to believe that the Muslim neurosis described by Naipaul may not have such deep historic roots as he implies. For what he sees among the believers has less to do with ancient wars than with a populist reaction to modern failures. Islamic fundamentalism is fed by resentment (or “rage,” to use a favorite Naipaul term) about official corruption, uneven economic development, and political oppression. It is in this way like communism, from which fundamentalist Islam borrowed quite a lot, even as the ayatollahs tried to stamp it out. In former colonies, communism and Islamic fundamentalism are also expressions of militant nationalism. Khomeini, like the Communists, ranted against “liberals,” corrupt capitalists, and Western imperialism, or “world arrogance.”2

There are many hints of this parallel with communism in Naipaul’s own account. During his first visit to Tehran, in 1979, he looks at the booksellers and cassette-sellers on Revolution Avenue, near the university. He sees books on the Persian revolution. He sees cassette tapes of Khomeini’s speeches, and those of other ayatollahs. And he sees piles of English translations of Marx and Lenin. As he observes: “One revolution appeared to flow into the other.”

The similarities do go back further than the recent Islamic upheavals. In the Prologue to Beyond Belief, Naipaul writes that the revealed religions (like Marxism) are more concerned with large humanitarian and social problems than the old beliefs. That is why so many Indians converted to Islam in the past, without having to be forced: Islam, with its egalitarian ethos, seemed the perfect way out for low-caste Hindus, who felt oppressed by the old beliefs. Naipaul doesn’t make a point of this, even though he gives a chilling description of the continuation of Hindu caste prejudices under the Islamic surface of contemporary Pakistan.

Communism, too, has (or had) Meccas far removed from most converts—in Moscow or Beijing. And communism is a notorious wrecker of the past: history is a mere collection of dustbins along the way to Utopia. In his section on Indonesia, Naipaul makes a very interesting comparison between nineteenth- century Sumatran pilgrims to Mecca and colonial students sent abroad in the twentieth century. The pilgrims returned from Arabia under the influence of Wa-habi fundamentalism and were “determined to erase local errors, all the customs and ceremonies and earth reverences that carried the taint of the religions that had gone on before….” This is precisely what the most monstrous tyrants did in our own time, in the name of communism. Pol Pot wanted to remake Cambodia in the image of hazy visions picked up from revolutionary circles in Paris (not perhaps a Mecca of world communism, but at least a major shrine).

Naipaul’s greatest rage—a Hindu rage perhaps?—is reserved for Pakistan. This makes the account of his trip there the liveliest section in the book. There is indeed much in Pakistan to be enraged about. Nehru’s greatest worry, before Partition in 1947, was that a Muslim state would be dominated by feudal landowners, who would run their fiefdoms like despots. He turned out to be quite right.3 Just how nasty these rural despots can be is shockingly illustrated by Naipaul’s story about a Baluch woman who had been bought as a slave by a landlord when she was ten. He was a cruel man, who raped his serfs and punished them for disobedience by tying them up like beasts and making them eat excrement. The Baluch serf became the landlord’s mistress, then his son’s, and when his grandson demanded her services too, she ran away, to another “feudal,” who tells the story. She knew that if she were handed back, she would be tortured and mutilated. But feudal honor was at stake. Her lord’s pride had to be soothed. So she was given a choice: she could go back, or she could hand over her six-year-old son. Here, unusually, the storyteller’s voice is at least as powerful as Naipaul’s:

She gave that boy away. It was unbelievable how she dressed this little boy. And two total strangers came for him. She dressed him up and said to him that he had to go with them, and that she would follow, and that he mustn’t be afraid. Whenever he cried she said she was going to follow, she would come. She pushed him towards the men. They were tall, with their lungis, and with their big mustaches. She said, “Go with them, I will be right behind you. You are going to meet your father’s family.” The boy was scared. He kept looking back. She was impassive. No tears. She said, “Go, I’m coming.” She kept saying, “I’m coming,” until the boy disappeared. Then she started screaming. They weren’t going to kill the boy. They would let him grow up on the farm. He would grow up as another serf.

The concept of Pakistan, a polity based on a shared religion, was terribly flawed. But it was not the inevitable consequence of Islam. The founding father of Pakistan, Mr. M.A. Jinnah, a lawyer with fastidious Anglophile habits, was a secular man who ate ham—in private. He had no desire to found a religious state, let alone a theocratic state. He just didn’t want to be dominated by Hindus. To him, the Congress Party of Gandhi and Nehru was inevitably a Hindu party, and a rather vulgar one at that, and since Congress would rule India, the only alternative was to create a separate, secular state for Muslims. As it turned out, Congress would enjoy the solid support of Muslims in India. And India is now governed by a party, the BJP, whose more extreme supporters shout slogans such as: “For Muslims there are only two places, Pakistan or the grave.”

Naipaul says nothing much about Jinnah, and there is no reason he should. He is not writing a history book. But he does mention the other founding father of Pakistan, the poetic, spiritual one, as it were, as opposed to Jinnah, the lawyerly politician: Sir Mohammed Iqbal. Iqbal, a convert of Kashmiri Brahmin stock, was a poet and an intellectual. He made a speech in 1930 in which he promoted the ideal of an Islamic state in India. Naipaul describes Iqbal’s dream as a tribal one, a longing for a world that is “neatly parceled out, every tribe in his corner.” It is indeed a dangerous dream, as we know from recent Balkan events where Muslims are the victims of orthodox Christian zealots.

But Iqbal was a more complicated character than Naipaul makes him out to be. Nehru saw him as an exponent not of religious zealotry but of modern nationalism. His Urdu poetry was full of nationalist sentiments. Part of his vision of a Muslim state in India was a desire for Islam to “rid itself of the stamp that Arabian imperialism was forced to give it….” Nehru observed that since “Indian nationalism was dominated by Hindus and had a Hinduised look…a conflict arose in the Moslem mind.”4 In fact, Iqbal later seems to have changed his mind about the Muslim state, and came to believe that it would be harmful to India and Muslims too. According to Nehru, Iqbal turned to socialism in his last years, inspired by the splendid achievements of the Soviet Union.

The increasing political influence of clerics, then, and the fashion for pan-Islamic ideals, with their Arabic trappings, the very things Naipaul describes so well in Pakistan and elsewhere, resulted from the failure of democratic, secular, political institutions to take root. And they were encouraged by leaders such as Zia Ul-Haq, the former Pakistani prime minister, who did not wish democracy well. This failure clearly has much to do with the entrenched interests of feudal lords, and their slaveholding habits, which cannot fail to strike a chord in Naipaul, the native son of a former colony of slaves.


Naipaul’s historical views can be challenged, but to dwell on them would be to miss the point of his book. For its main subject is not Islam. It is, above all, a book about storytelling, about taking a distance from oneself, and seeing the world clearly, and describing one’s place in it. What enrages him about dogmatic beliefs, such as fundamentalist Islam, is the way they close people’s minds, the way they stop people from seeing clearly. For all his laments about the loss of reverence for sacred places, he is not a reactionary dreamer who thinks we can return to village ways. He quotes a Malay expression for a person of limited perspective: like a frog living under a coconut shell. People who are prisoners of a narrow tribal universe, whose limits are clearly defined by traditional beliefs, are like frogs who mistake the coconut shell for the sky. Naipaul’s sympathies are with those who struggle to be free from the “nightmare” of imposed beliefs. He is a champion of the disenchanted. It should come as no surprise that his greatest sympathy is for writers.

This is how he describes one of life’s spiritual prisoners, a young student of the Koran in Iran whose only aim is to be a propagator of the faith: “He had this idea of the vocation; it was sufficient explanation of his fourteen years of study; he couldn’t step outside himself to consider his life and motives. His world had rigid limits. What passed with him for learning was really only a way of learning the rules. To know the rules was to simplify life, and Emami was a profoundly obedient man.”

But it is Linus, the Javanese poet, living with his “precious world in dissolution,” who really engages him. Linus who has broken out of his shell, and yet wants to be at home, in his own house. Naipaul feels he has acquired “a clear knowledge—almost as to something about myself—of the pain Linus lived with, family pain, pain as a writer, pain for all the things of Java and his village which he saw being washed away.”

Almost as to something about myself.” In the end it always comes back to that, to Naipaul’s own pain, as a displaced Indian from Trinidad, as a writer in England, a traveler in the world. Naipaul’s own way of looking at the world is implicit in every question he asks. The mechanics of his enquiry, and the way he digests his information before it finds its form on paper, are described: this is part of Naipaul’s form. He tells us how he asks his questions, where he thinks he has gone wrong, what he needs to ask again. He describes how he “considers” his notes and revises his thoughts. This extraordinary, haunting book is a portrait of a writer. And after all the travels, and interviews, and reflections, it is the writing that will remain.

  1. 1

    Oxford University Press (India), 1989, p. 241. To be sure, Nehru had political reasons to be conciliatory to the Muslims of India. But this doesn’t mean his historical analysis is wrong.

  2. 2

    See Fred Halliday, “Religious Fundamentalism in Contemporary Politics,” in The Changing World, edited by Patricia Fara, Peter Gathercole, and Ronald Laskey (Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 53-77.

  3. 3

    Feudal landlords in northern India are not much better. See Pankaj Mishra, “A New, Nuclear, India?” The New York Review, June 25, 1998.

  4. 4

    The Discovery of India, p. 351.

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