V. S. Naipaul
V. S. Naipaul; drawing by David Levine

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 racial and religious mixture, is being reasserted in its “pure” form.

This is not, of course, the whole Islamic world. It omits Arabia, the original source of Islam, where “the sour Wahhabi fanaticism,” as Doughty called it, has been tempered and corrupted by the sudden wealth from oil, and the Arab countries of Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, where it is given a new character and direction by the Israeli intruder in their midst. It omits Egypt, an island—but for how long?—of secular rationality. It omits Libya, the active center and stimulator of Arab terrorism, and the still half-Westernized Berber societies of the Maghreb; not to mention the black Islam of central Africa, where religion runs in tribal channels. There too Islam competes with Christianity, and there too is repeated the great division which runs through Islam between rich and poor: between Nigeria and Uganda, oil and non-oil. Mr. Naipaul’s Islam is, in fact, the Islamic world of further Asia, the Islam that is unconcerned with Israel, except for political rhetoric, being directed primarily against the corrupting influence and ideas of the once admired and dominant but now despised and decadent West.

Even thus limited, Mr. Naipaul’s four countries are very different. The religion of Iran is Shi’a: that is, schismatic. Shi’ism is a very early heresy, beginning as a protest against the political caliphates of Damascus, Baghdad, or Cairo, which claimed to rule in the name of the Prophet. It was made the state religion of Persia by the Safavid dynasty in the sixteenth century and became the ideology of Persian resistance to the orthodox Sunni caliphate of the Ottoman emperors. From that time, Iran has been the established capital, the Vatican, of Shi’ism, which still thrives as a minority religion in neighboring states.


Quite how Shi’a doctrine influences or distinguishes the revolution of Khomeini is not clear. The Persian believers lament the death of Ali, the true heir (as they maintain) of the Prophet, and of his sons, after which the succession was diverted to political usurpers. So, to them, Ali and his sons are men of sorrows and their deaths, annually commemorated, are, as Mr. Naipaul writes, “an extended agony in the garden, unavenged after 1300 years.” This no doubt gives to their religion a messianic character, like the Christian millenarianism of the seventeenth century. However, as Mr. Naipaul says, it is difficult for the uninstructed “to keep alive ancient animosities, to hold on to the idea of personal revenge even after a thousand years,” and he does not attempt to isolate its distinct social deposit. Besides, within Shi’ism, as within any religion, there are divergences: Sufi mysticism, epicurean hedonism, and the Bahai heresy of the nineteenth century which has broken away from Islam, has its temple in Haifa, and has established itself, like so many other deviant cults, in California. But today these heretical voices are muted. Epicureanism is unfashionable, and the Bahai are persecuted. Shi’a puritanism is the only ideology of the revolution in its present stage.

From what social springs, we naturally ask, does this new fanaticism arise? Mr. Naipaul’s visits with a Persian communist guide to the holy men of Qom and Mashhad do not provide much of an answer. All that we learn is that “rage” is an essential quality in the Persian revolution, “resentment” its motor; that “justice for the pure and the suffering”—the central idea of Shi’ism—is inseparable, in Persian minds, from “the idea of punishment for the wicked”; and that, this being so, a Persian must be either a fanatic for religion or a communist: “there was no middle, or other, way in Iran.” This at least was the view of Naipaul’s communist guide, who believed that true freedom had existed only once in world history, in Russia under Lenin and, more especially, Stalin.

In Pakistan the pattern becomes a little clearer, for it has not been obfuscated by revolution. There Islam has made its most explicit political claims. Indeed, the state of Pakistan is itself an Islamic construction: a political system consciously based on an exclusive religion. Hence the name of its new capital, Islamabad, and its intention to produce not a Pakistani but an “Islamic” bomb. Of this new political construction, this Israel of the Indian subcontinent—for it is an idea made geographical and political—the poet Iqbal was the prophet, Mohammed Ali Jinnah the architect. Like Israel, it was created out of the dissolution of British imperialism, in blood and civil war, in 1947, and it was transformed, in blood and civil war, in 1971.

But whatever its internal changes, Pakistan has never lost—cannot lose—its religious definition. It is “the land of the pure, the first truly Islamic state since the days of the Prophet.” It is also, of course, something else: the refuge of the Muslims of India who—like the Protestants of Ulster—refused to live as a minority under the rule of their former subjects; for they remember the days of their glory, the days of the Moghul empire. But whereas the Moghuls, the confident rulers of an empire, were tolerant in religion, the modern rulers of Pakistan, embattled in their defensive redoubt, are not. They know that if Pakistan loses its religious definition, it loses its identity. So the definition must be emphasized, and must continue to be emphasized until some wider definition—some national identity or valid institutional structure—is secured.

Will it be secured? We are told that it will, once the present changes are complete. Pakistan inherited British institutions, British law, a British-trained army; and as long as this inheritance was respected, a secular tolerance prevailed. But gradually the British institutions have been undermined and, since the overthrow of Bhutto, General Zia seeks openly to restore Islamic institutions for an Islamic state. But what are these institutions? What is “an Islamic state”? Mr. Naipaul’s conversations with Pakistani editors and officials suggest that none of its advocates has a very clear idea of it. The pure Islamic state existed, they say, only under the first four Caliphs—that is, for a period of thirty-two years. It will reemerge naturally if the Islamic faith is restored. So—as in Libya, as in Saudi Arabia, as in revolutionary Iran—the Koran is reestablished as the ultimate authority not for a nomadic desert tribe or a usurping personal sultanate, but for a twentieth-century society. By law the old ritual of the desert must be enforced. And by law is meant a tariff of punishment. So, by law, hands are to be chopped off, there are to be public floggings, adulterers are to be stoned to death. “Step by step,” says Mr. Naipaul, “out of its Islamic striving, Pakistan has undone the rule of law it had inherited from the British, and replaced it with nothing.”


However, since Pakistan is not only the refuge for persecuted saints but also the model of the ideal Islamic society—the Geneva of the Islamic Reformation—its brand of Islam is for export, and it is exported mainly, it seems, to the East: for Shi’a Persia blocks the western path, and the Arab world, the original home of Islam, looks after itself. The East, in this context, means Malaysia and Indonesia. They were Islamized from India, Islam peacefully overlaying and superseding the previous Indian religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. When the British came to Malaysia, they found the Malays an easygoing people, pampered by their natural riches and uniform climate, and they brought thither more energetic immigrants, especially Chinese, to modernize the country. The Malay rulers continued to rule, the Muslims remained the ruling class; but they became, inevitably, a defensive ruling class, and so, once again, Islam was the religion of resentment: resentment against the disturbers of traditional society, the spoilers of the innocent playground of the Malays. Now, to counter the pressure of the “immigrants”—who sometimes immigrated long before those who, being Muslims, regard themselves as “natives,”—and to strengthen the defenses of these “natives,” Islamic purism, not to say puritanism, has been imported from Pakistan.

To some in Malaysia, Islam is a comforter: it consoles the faithful for the loss of the cohesive village world, half-destroyed by modernity, and leads them back to its values. But that village world is itself “impure” in its religion, corrupted by animistic and Hindu traditions; and so it needs the new message from Pakistan. That message—absolute, fundamentalist, intolerant—is carried, in particular, by a Muslim youth movement called ABIM. This movement, “the most important and the most organized youth group in Malaysia,” is controlled by one Anwar Ibrahim: a man who was in touch with Muslim movements abroad, in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and had even been to Iran and met the Ayatollah Khomeini, which had added to his local reputation. For Anwar Ibrahim Islam is “the energizer and purifier” of the Malays, the revolutionary “destroyer of false ways and false longings”—i.e., longings for the shabby, materialist culture of the West which penetrates so insidiously into a multiracial society.

The movement does not seem to be very successful; or at least, if Mr. Naipaul’s experience is typical, it is successful only in part. That is, the ritual of purity is punctiliously observed: regular ablutions, five times a day before prayers, in whatever water is handy. The hotel servants “used sinks and wash basins to wash their feet and genitals,” and worse; for “ritual cleanliness had nothing to do with cleanliness for its own sake, nothing to do with regard for the other man.” But weightier matters of the law seem to be overlooked. I enjoyed Mr. Naipaul’s encounter with the prize Islamic girls produced for him, who gave all the correct answers about ritual taboos, but whose favorite reading—Mills and Boon books and the novels of Barbara Cartland—hardly suggests emancipation from the decadent West.

As in Malaysia, so in far more populous, more heterogeneous Indonesia. Here too Islam, though not the badge of a particular race, has been rotted by contact with other religions—the religions of a long Hindu-Buddhist past—and needs to be “purified” from Pakistan. Pakistan, indeed, as the Islamic state par excellence, has become a kind of surrogate Arabia for the Muslim colonies in the Far East. The traditional, sophisticated, conformist Muslims, who have lived happily in their syncretist world, hate this new fundamentalism, brought into Indonesia via Malaysia. They call it “the Malaysian disease,” and see it as a sacrificio dell’intelletto, a retreat into an easy, mechanical obscurantism, idealized as moral and social virtue.

Mr. Naipaul describes a visit to a famous pesantren, an Islamic village school in which the Islamic virtues were professed. The pesantren is a former Hindu-Buddhist monastery, taken over by Sufi Muslims, converted by the Dutch into a village school, and now changed again into a seminary of revived Muslim orthodoxy. The system is one in which there are no teachers, only a “leader” and a group of fellow learners—what our radicals of 1968 would have called “an equal community of teachers and learners” or a “teach-in.” Mr. Naipaul’s summary shows what we have been spared:

The sufi centre turned school: the discipline of monks and dervishes applied to the young: it wasn’t traditional, and it wasn’t education. It was Islamization; it was stupefaction, greater than any that could have come with a Western-style curriculum. And yet it was attractive to the people concerned, because twisted up with it was the old monkish celebration of the idea of poverty: an idea which, applied to a school in Java in 1979, came out as little more than the poor teaching the poor to be poor.

As Mr. Naipaul takes us in turn through his various experiences of the Islamic revival in Asia, we find certain themes recurring: hatred of the West and its materialist civilization, represented as decadent and “sick”; and yet, at the same time, complacent parasitism on the material achievements of the West and on the unearned wealth which Western technology has bestowed upon its passive critics. Resentment of modernity, of superior intelligence or energy, of other peoples, expressed in “rage” and sometimes exploding in iconoclasm and murder; intellectually, a rejection of secular history and historical explanation in favor of theology—a theology reduced to fundamentalist belief, ritual observance, and the categorical imperatives of the Koran; and the assurance, or pretense, or delusion, that all will be solved by the creation of an “Islamic state”—which no one can define except by its ideological purity: from this, it seems, all else will automatically flow. This is a somewhat dispiriting picture of the boasted revival of a world religion. Is there any relief to be found in it?

Perhaps we should not see Islam in isolation but compare it with its historical rival, the only rival which has stood up to it: Christianity. What would an intelligent Muslim, a Muslim Naipaul, make of modern Christian movements if he were to make a similar journey and write an updated volume of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes? Take fundamentalism. On the face of it, this is purely reactionary; but what about the Protestant revival of Christianity in sixteenth-century Europe? There too we find a revolt against “colonialism”—the domination of northern Europe by the Mediterranean world. There too the established, formal religion had become diluted, paganized, sophisticated, and the reformers appealed to the uncorrupted primitive Church. They too were antihistorical, fundamentalist, bigoted. They too sought to ban usury. Do the Muslim reformers accept only the first four Caliphs and see, after them, only a long usurpation by corrupt dynasties and truth upheld by isolated and oppressed “imams”? But did not the Protestant reformers accept only the first four General Councils and, thereafter, see only a usurpation by the corrupt papacy and truth upheld by isolated “martyrs”? Nevertheless, the Protestant Reformation was not entirely negative. Its fundamentalist form was a stage only: a stage in the process of fertile change.

More serious is the charge of parasitism. To a certain extent, Islam has always been parasitic. A dry, fierce wind from the Arabian desert, it has swept up and carried along with it whatever it has found in more settled, cultivated lands: the arts and sciences of Syria and Egypt, Greece and India. But that was when the period of conquest was over, when it could afford to become an open religion, tolerant of diversity and deviation, ready to acknowledge its debts. Today’s fundamentalism is less tolerant and less honest. While openly rejecting the West as a “sick” civilization, it secretly lives on it, enjoying the luxury of moral disapproval without in fact offering any alternative. Western technology, Western medicine, Western money to buy it, are the necessary basis of an anti-Western virtue whose only positive expression is in bigoted ritualism and mechanical despotism rising out of an institutional void.

For again and again we are reminded that there is no such thing as a definable “Islamic state.” The definition is always evaded, or passed over to the theologians. “If you know the Koran, you know everything”: “the reorganisation of the world would follow automatically on the rediscovery of the true faith.” The political function of Islam seems in Mr. Naipaul’s account to be entirely negative: to cleanse the world of its modern impurities, to cleanse it by holy rage and holy war: “millions will have to die” (as a million did in Indonesia in 1965). Other civilizations, with their immoral earnings, can pay the bill. “Parasitism is one of the unacknowledged fruits of fundamentalism.”

Perhaps, perhaps…. But is not this true of other religions, too? Was not early Christianity parasitic on the “sick” Greco-Roman civilization which it rejected? Have not Christians always talked about a “Christian state” without having any clear idea of such a state, except that it should not willingly tolerate unbelievers? Christian societies have flourished because they were parasitic, because, after periods of intolerance and struggle, they contrived or were forced to draw nourishment from other beliefs, other systems. The same is true of Islam in its great days. It conquered the world from Morocco to Indonesia by its message, which cannot therefore have been trivial; and if it seeks to recover its authority by a return to that message, this is intelligible. Perhaps its parasitism will again transform it into a more civilized and agreeable form. At present it is in a less agreeable stage, which Mr. Naipaul invites us to deplore, and indeed we must deplore it; but perhaps we too should avoid the error of seeing a world religion, thirteen centuries old, in an antihistorical manner, from a mental enclosure of our own “liberal” values. Mr. Naipaul’s book is a perceptive and fascinating personal record, but it leaves us asking, what is the force behind this still active religion? The Islamic revival is not a mere condition to be examined, a bundle of anachronisms stirred into life here and there by disparate resentments. It is a movement; and it is not yet finished: it will have a next stage.

This Issue

November 5, 1981