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In the Empire of Islam

1.

Humility is perhaps not the first thing most people associate with V.S. Naipaul. Fools are not indulged in his books, and even less in interviews; stories abound of tearful reporters sent home for not having read the master’s complete works. Naipaul’s writing voice can sound like that of a peevish (and sometimes enraged) traveler in a world of fools. And yet his latest book is the product of a profound humility. Few writers, let alone writers as grand as Naipaul, would have the patience, the curiosity, or the energy to immerse themselves in the lives of so many people in far-flung and not always hospitable places.

Naipaul was in Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia before, in 1979, to find out about fundamentalist Islam. His book Among the Believers came out of that trip. Beyond Belief is a second look at the same countries, inhabited by non-Arab peoples, whose spiritual center lies in Mecca. It is not a conventional travel book. And thank goodness for that. Travel writers too often use “abroad” as a showcase for literary style, or, especially if they are British, a source of comedy—foreigners, as Evelyn Waugh demonstrated, are inherently comical. Few writers, however, stop to listen to what people actually have to say about themselves. Naipaul asks, and listens, and takes notes, and asks and listens again, over and over, until he is satisfied that he has figured out what makes a person tick. This is what I mean by humility.

In earlier books, about India, Africa, or the Caribbean, Naipaul did most of the talking himself. Here he lets others speak, but not to the exclusion of his own voice. He started this mixture of travel and oral history in his book about the southern United States, A Turn in the South, and continued in the same vein in his last book on India, A Million Mutinies Now. There are risks involved. Voices taken down verbatim, often in translation, can become wearisome. Sometimes you wish the speaker would shut up, especially since Naipaul’s own voice is so incisive. In Beyond Belief, I think he has got the balance about right. Even so, the passages that stay with me still tend to be those written in Naipaul’s own prose. He is a master of the telling detail: the sinister blue gates of the prison in Tehran, through which the bodies of executed prisoners are carted out; the “choking, wide-throated laugh” of an Iranian hanging judge, jesting about killing animals and men.

Naipaul explains his technique in the beginning. His aim is not to offer his theories or political opinions. He is a “discoverer of people, a finder-out of stories.” Naipaul wrote much the same thing in his masterly little book Finding the Center, published in 1984. He said his task as a traveler and writer was to expose himself to new people. “But the people I found, the people I was attracted to, were not unlike myself.” Again there is humility here. Far from being the blustering brown sahib or the colonial “Orientalist” he is sometimes made out to be, Naipaul finds common ground between himself and others everywhere, in a Malaysian village, on the Ivory Coast, or on the Pakistani northwest frontier.

It is of course untrue that Naipaul has no opinions. He does, and they affect his narrative. For a man who dislikes abstractions, his opinions tend to be daubed with a fat brush. In the case of his latest book, he is convinced that Islamic fundamentalism is the cruelest and “most uncompromising kind of imperialism,” because it strips converted peoples of their past, their sacred places, and their attachments to their native land. Only Arabs are allowed, so to speak, to be at home. This was also the premise of Naipaul’s previous book on Islam. The truth is of course complex, and imperialism is never complete. Mecca and Medina (and Jerusalem) are the holiest places of Islam, but Persians also worship at the shrine in Mashad, and Naipaul himself talks to Muslims who are, in fact, deeply attached to their native land.

The imperialism of Islam is indeed destructive: it deadens the human mind. But I’m not sure it is the worst we have seen. The cult of sacred places and native soil has been at the core of other forms of pseudoreligious political fundamentalism. State Shinto in pre-war Japan turned the entire nation into a sacred shrine. Nazism was built on worship of the German “race.” The results were every bit as murderous and cruel as any Islamic revolution has been so far—indeed more so. The same is true of Communist imperialism, which is in some ways more comparable to Islamic fundamentalism.

But there is something else that guides Naipaul in his task as a “manager of narrative,” something more interesting than his opinions. Naipaul has a set of particular preoccupations which crop up in all his writings. It is these preoccupations which lead him to certain kinds of people, and certain kinds of questions. They have to do with growing up in Trinidad, as a Hindu son of a frustrated writer. For a Hindu in Trinidad, the sacred soil, the spiritual center, the ancestral land lies elsewhere. But so does the metropole, where ambition can be fulfilled, where a writer can be published, and read, and not feel frustrated. Naipaul has created a body of work from these preoccupations. There is a kind of myth here, an echo of older stories: the son leaving the village, breaking free from tribal beliefs, and spending a lifetime filling the void, trying to find the center.

In Finding the Center, Naipaul tells the story of a British journalist named Gault MacGowan, who came to Trinidad from London in 1929 to modernize the Trinidad Guardian. It was MacGowan who taught Naipaul’s father, Seepersad, how to write. He told him that everybody had a story, and that a writer should elicit these stories with sympathy. MacGowan, an honest man, upset his bosses by running stories that harmed their business interests, and was denounced. He left. Seepersad languished in frustration. He was to become Mr. Biswas in his son’s most famous novel. Naipaul: “…The book that came out was very much my father’s book. It was written out of his journalism and stories, out of his knowledge, knowledge he had got from the way of looking MacGowan had trained him in. It was written out of his writing.”

Another story, at the end of The Enigma of Arrival. Naipaul has gone back to Trinidad for his sister’s funeral. It is the 1980s now. He is a famous author. He watches the pundit—a relative—go about the business of funeral rites. He realizes that he and the rest of his family had “made ourselves anew.” The rites of village India, transplanted in Trinidad, had become part of another world, beyond their grasp. They were, in the true sense of the word, disenchanted. But there was no way back: “We had come out of the nightmare; and there was nowhere else to go.” And then comes one of the most moving passages in Naipaul’s writing:

Our sacred world—the sanctities that had been handed down to us as children by our families, the sacred places of our childhood, sacred because we had seen them as children and had filled them with wonder, places doubly and trebly sacred to me because far away in England I had lived in them imaginatively over many books and had in my fantasy set in those places the very beginning of things, had constructed out of them a fantasy of home, though I was to learn that the ground was bloody, that there had been aboriginal people there once, who had been killed or made to die away—our sacred world had vanished.

The father, the village, the house. They return in the last, and to me most affecting, chapter of Beyond Belief. The subject is a Malaysian playwright named Syed Alwi. I happen to know Syed Alwi. He is a humorous, intelligent, melancholy figure, whose stories about Malaysian life are a mixture of love and despair. (Writing serious plays in Malay is not a thankful task; there is not much of an audience for them.) I recognize Naipaul’s physical description of Syed Alwi. But the rest of his story is new to me. Somehow, without inventing anything, Naipaul has turned Syed Alwi into a Naipaul character. And he does so by telling the story of Syed Alwi’s father.

But first he describes Syed Alwi’s half-finished house. After a life of writing in Kuala Lumpur, Syed Alwi wanted to return to village life. He had a Malay vision of rivers and trees. But the man he asked to build his house in a kampong was incompetent, and Syed Alwi was left with a “mere dangerous outline, wall-less and floorless….” The house, as in many Naipaul stories, serves a symbolic function: the return to the village was incomplete; ambition was thwarted.

Syed Alwi was born in his father’s house. His father was a schizophrenic. He had built the house in a period of lucidity. But he lacked enough money to finish the house, so it remained without an upper story. In this house, Syed Alwi’s father drifted in and out of two mental worlds. In his public world, he refused to speak English and wrote little. In his private world, he spoke nothing but English and wrote incessantly. His breakdown began when he was twenty-two, a successful civil servant with big questions on his mind, about life and religion and the nature of God. But he was alone with these questions. There was no place for them in his constrained, colonial, Muslim, village world. Syed Alwi’s writing might have been born from this sad father’s experience. Or so Naipaul suggests.

It is as though Naipaul is telling his own story through that of Syed Alwi and his father. This is the remarkable thing about the book, indeed most of Naipaul’s books: even while doggedly recording the facts of other people’s lives, he keeps on coming back to his own. Without saying much about himself, Naipaul has written a kind of autobiography out of the lives of strangers. I’m not sure humility is the best word to describe this, unless it is the humility of a writer toward his art.

2.

Why Islam? Why did Naipaul feel the urge to return to the Muslim believers? He offers some reasons. Peoples converted to Islam, he says, become part of the Arab story; they reject their own histories, turn away from nearly everything that is theirs. As a result, he writes, people “develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can easily be set on the boil.” There is another, more sweeping reason. Conversion, Naipaul argues, “can be seen as a kind of crossover from old beliefs, earth religions, the cults of rulers and local deities, to the revealed religions—Christianity and Islam principally—with their larger philosophical and humanitarian and social concerns.” The crossover to Islam, which still goes on, is “like a cultural big bang, the steady grinding down of the old world.”

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.

3.

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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