Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1508
In many ways, Among the Believers is vintage Naipaul in the Third World: the blighted human landscape of suburban sprawl and shanties, the dingy offices, the self-serving petty bureaucrats, the bland propagators of myth, the unpredictable transportation systems, the anticipated relief at eventual escape from the horror of it all. True to his craft, Naipaul is rarely dull, although there are more languid passages in this work than in its predecessors, and he displays his usual skill in capturing the personalities and conversation of those whom he meets. Predictably, he is sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued, characteristics which have always won for him both admirers and enemies, who can find in this book material either to reaffirm their admiration or to reinforce their distaste. On the other hand, Naipaul approaches the Islamic world with all the prejudices and all the predilections toward stereotypical judgments of the least sensitive of Western travelers: He does not come in order to learn and to understand, but to have his presuppositions confirmed, to find what he knew he would find before he ever embarked on the journey. There is an animosity toward Islam—greater even than the animosity which he appears to feel for the Third World in general—which pervades the entire book. Reviewers have commented extensively on this trait, noting that had he written with such malice toward Christianity or Judaism the applause of his aficionados in Europe or America would have fallen off rather sharply. When he does not maul, Naipaul trivializes or mocks all of those whom he encounters on his travels, even those for whom he seems to feel a degree of empathy: Behzad, the Iranian student; Ahmad, the Pakistani civil servant; Shafi, the Malaysian, and Muhammad Imaddudin Abdul Rahim, the Indonesian, both involved in Muslim service movements for young people. As in earlier travels, Naipaul plays on the leitmotif of rage, in this book the sacred rage of Islam, but sometimes the reader must wonder whether it is not Naipaul himself—exasperated by these societies and cultures which decline to adopt what he sees as the coherence and rationality of Western civilization—who feels so much rage.
Looking only for what he wants to find, apparently rejecting whatever lies outside his immediate concern, Naipaul gives his readers a diminished account of the lands through which he traveled and a diminished version of their cultural life. He seems to have sought out the half-educated or the parochial in preference to those who might have explained more articulately or more convincingly what Islam is all about. Naipaul surely knows about the achievements of Iranian Islam in terms of philosophy, poetry, mysticism, and the arts. He must know enough about the subcontinent to know about the Mogul cultural legacy and the literary development of Urdu. In Among the Believers, however, there is little hint of the enormous contribution of Islamic civilization to world history. Perhaps Naipaul never did his homework. Perhaps he unconsciously absorbed the stereotypes of Middle Easterners and Muslims so sedulously circulated by the Western media. A month or two of serious reading of books by both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars in advance of his travels might have enabled him to see much more than what his tunnel vision revealed.
The Iranian Revolution was a far more complex, multifaceted phenomenon than Naipaul appears to have realized. In an early chapter, “The Night Train from Mashhad,” he describes a visit paid to the late Ayatollah Shariatmadari, presumably shortly before the latter’s fall from grace in the eyes of his government. At the time of Naipaul’s visit, Shariatmadari was one of the major figures in the months of turmoil leading up to the departure of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and one of the most respected religious leaders in the Shi‘ite world. Several European journalists and writers had interviewed him in the preceding months, and the Harvard University scholar Michael Fischer had published the outcome of extended conversations with him during a period of research in Qom. In fact, Shariatmadari was one of the most accessible and open-minded of senior clerics, yet apparently Naipaul had nothing to say to him, nothing which he wanted to ask him. A brilliant Naipaulean vignette of the scene is memorable in its details, yet has no substance; as the author revealingly remarks, “the occasion remained an occasion—a Ramadan evening with a lecture by an ayatollah.”
The next day, he drives out to see Firdusi’s tomb at Tus, not one of Iran’s ancient monuments but an erection of the late Shah, and architecturally quite unmemorable. Still, Firdusi ranks as one of Iran’s greatest poets, and his influence on the literature and art of the eastern Islamic world has been immense. Characteristically, Naipaul only notices the negatives:All the inscriptions had been defaced; every reference to the Shah or the royal family or the monarchy had been obliterated. . . . And there were photographs of Khomeini everywhere on the marble. It was as though the scholar in Mashhad had sent me to Firdowsi’s tomb less for the sake of Firdowsi than for this evidence of the people’s rage. And rage was what I saw—more clearly in this rich, reconstructed town than in Tehran—when we returned to Mashhad. . . . The holy city was also a city of rage.
Once again, he has found what he expected to find.
How then is the obvious success of Among the Believers to be explained? Undoubtedly, the work has many of the strengths common to Naipaul’s writing: intelligence, a splendid feel for words, insight and sensitivity (when he lets himself go and temporarily discards his prejudices), the assurance of a proven master of his craft. Yet it is probably, and regrettably, accurate to say that many who took up and enjoyed Among the Believers did so for the wrong reason—to have their own prejudices confirmed by one who was famous, who was admired for his unique vision of the non-European world, one who could be quoted.
There are, in the main, two traditions of writing in the West with regard to Islam and the Middle East. One, hostile and ungenerous, was formed in the age of Europe’s colonial ascendancy (although derived from a tradition of medieval polemic dating back to the Crusades), when Muslims preeminently among subject peoples refused to acquiesce to their subjugation by the West, just as they did later in the age of superpower rivalries and interference in their regional affairs. Another tradition, associated with Lawrence of Arabia and other European wanderers in the world’s desert places, if it has sometimes erred in the direction of romanticism, has been both generous and perceptive and has at least laid the groundwork for a dialogue between age-old enemies. Tragically, Naipaul, as always, closes ranks with the colonialists—tragically because had a writer so articulate, so convincing, and so persuasive set out to explain and to help Westerners to understand the origins of modern Islamic fundamentalism, had he attempted to lay out some common ground for debate, his literary reputation alone would have ensured that he would have been taken seriously.
How is one to account for Naipaul’s seeming rejection of virtually every aspect of non-European cultures? Any attempt to answer the question inevitably provokes another: How is one to account for his rejection of so much of his own background and upbringing, as if such roots as he has were first put down in Oxford’s seductive soil? To attempt an explanation of why this man without a country rails so angrily and so eloquently against Third World societies, one must accept that, in Naipaul’s view, those societies have betrayed such promise as they once may have had, that they have failed utterly to rise to the challenges presented by independence and the painful business of establishing a place in the world of the twentieth century. In his view, they have withdrawn into parochial cultural autochthony or worse, into the Heart of Darkness, traveling, with Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, “back to the earliest beginnings of the world.” Such societies Naipaul sees as “unfinished,” as if the Creator had grown tired of His handiwork and had cast them to one side, to turn to something better. In his essay “A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa,” Naipaul approvingly quotes an anonymous writer in the Zairois official daily newspaper Elima, who declares: “We are wrong to consider the word ’underdevelopment’ only in its economic aspects. We have to understand that there is a type of underdevelopment which issues out of the habits of a people and their attitudes to life and society.” As the diagnostician of unfinished societies, which clearly fascinate as well as repel him, Naipaul nurtures his affinity with the Conradian worldview:a vision of the world’s half-made societies as places which continuously made and unmade themselves, where there was no goal, and where always “something inherent in the necessities of successful action . . . carried with it the moral degradation of the idea.”