In 1979, V. S. Naipaul traveled through Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The itinerary had a theme: He wanted to find out how Islam was faring in countries whose citizens descended from non-Arab converts. The book he wrote afterward, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey(1981), is a disturbing album of profiles, interviews, history, personal drama, and analysis, which together portray Islam among converts as culturally confused, turbulent, wholly authoritarian and legalistic, and politically stultifying. Yet the religion is also precious to the faithful, for whom it gives life identify and purpose, defines community, and instills moral certainty.
Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples returns readers to the four countries seventeen years later—five months of travel during 1995. It was a moderately stable time for the countries, prosperous for Indonesia and Malaysia, shortly before the Asian economic crisis began. Of the people whom Naipaul revisits, many are materially and politically better off than they had been. Yet like the first book, the tone is grim, although relieved occasionally by situational humor or lovely scenic descriptions, as the reader finds Naipaul questioning those around him, thrusting himself into dangerous company, considering local history and culture, sizing up personalities, noting both the absurd and the noble, and, always, portraying the individual as a cobbled-together chimera of incidental personal experience, half- understood values, taboos, and malleable desire. Readers are fortunate to have in Naipaul an acute observer who is also a master prose stylist, but the book is sobering.
In the preface, Naipaul warns that Beyond Belief is not so much a travel book as Among the Believers was. The emphasis is on storytelling, not opinion; his authorial role as commentator is muted. He is relentless in getting people to talk about themselves and records their stories at length. The ordering of material naturally follows Naipaul’s trips through each country, but beyond that, readers may find the connection among stories, anecdotes, and historical summaries a little obscure. Often the stories appear to be emblematic, capturing some essential effect of Islam or of a nation’s culture, and it is left to the reader to decide exactly which effect. Occasionally, particularly in the book’s last section, “Malaysian Postscript,” the sequence of stories seems to have as little continuity as a jumble of photographs—although sharply focused, dramatic photographs.
While his presence in the narrative is reserved, Naipaul nevertheless is part of the book’s story. He is almost confessional at times, remarking upon parallels between what he observes in his host countries and his own experiences growing up in Trinidad. Those experiences make him particularly sensitive to the dilemmas posed by cultural mixing. His parents were Indian Hindus who settled in the British Caribbean. He was educated at Oxford University. As a novelist, he, like Joseph Conrad, has written about cultural conflicts among European and Third World countries. This background gives him a particular ability to remain disinterested. At one point, Naipaul, summarizing the credo of a Pakistani journalist, appears to describe himself: Valuable writing is more than a facility with words, he says. It comes from a “moral wholeness” in the writer, which finds lodging only in an independent intellect. Naipaul has it.
The soul of the book lies in the people Naipaul profiles. They are diverse, and the diversity is what first brings depth to a subject few Western readers know much about, life in Islam. To give readers perspective, Naipaul compares their 1995 lives with those in 1979. One of the most arresting characters of Among Believers is Imaduddin, an engineer turned religious advocate whose “mental training” seminars are designed to prepare young Indonesians to be effective exponents of Islam. In the first book, he is much persecuted by the government but full of energy and boundlessly devout. The energy and faith reappear in the second book, but he has become successful, the protégé of the country’s president and director of an organization for Islamic intellectuals. As Naipaul tries to hold him still long enough for an interview, Imaduddin begins to sound more and more like a modern politician and even a little menacing. In contrast, one of the scariest...
(The entire section is 1817 words.)