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V. S. Naipaul is known primarily as the author of a series of widely acclaimed novels set in the Caribbean or in other postcolonial societies: The Mystic Masseur (1957), The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), Miguel Street (1959), A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), Guerrillas (1975), A Bend in the River (1979), and numerous others. He has also published extensively in other genres—the short story, the essay, history, and travel literature. In the last category, he has written mainly of his experiences in and his reactions to the Third World—for the most part, with profound skepticism and distaste.

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Naipaul was born in Trinidad, his Hindu family having migrated there from northern India as part of that far-flung Indian diaspora which was one of the side effects of nearly two centuries of British rule in the Indian subcontinent. Reared in a British West Indian colony, Naipaul was exposed to a thoroughly Anglicizing education, which was completed at University College, University of Oxford, after which he embarked upon one of the most distinguished literary careers of the second half of the twentieth century. With his Indian ancestry, with his Trinidadian boyhood (“the mystery—Conradian word—of my own background: that island in the mouth of a great South American river, the Orinoco, one of the Conradian dark places of the earth, where my father had conceived literary ambitions for himself and then for me”), and with his Oxford education, Naipaul emerged as the classic embodiment of cultural deracination. He is ever the alien, at one and the same time a cosmopolitan man of the world and, in his own words, “a colonial, without a past, without ancestors,” one of those pieces of flotsam which departing imperial systems—British, Habsburg, Ottoman, even Roman—eject.

Following the justifiable success of such historical and traveler’s meditations as The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies—British, French, and Dutch—in the West Indies and South America (1962), An Area of Darkness: An Experience of India (1964), The Loss of El Dorado: A History (1969), and The Return of Eva Peron, with The Killings in Trinidad (1980), Naipaul decided to turn his penetrating, bleak gaze upon those Muslim (but non-Arab) societies in which Islam has become a force for the revolutionary reassessment of both traditional and modern values. Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) embodies the outcome of that investigation.

After the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979, the media in Europe and the United States were flooded with articles and discussions centering upon the revival of religion as a social and political force in virtually all late twentieth century Muslim societies, and in particular upon what is generically described as “Islamic fundamentalism.” Talk of religious revival and fundamentalist attitudes generally refers to the increasingly visible reaffirmation of Islam as both a religion and a way of life and a concomitant rejection of European or Western influence. (A distinction is often made, however, between Westernization, which is regarded as almost wholly bad, and modernization, which is good if it can be fitted into a preexisting framework of Islamic values.) Unfortunately, the inner dynamics and the complexities of very diverse Islamic societies were generally impenetrable to Western journalists and political commentators.

This difficult and dangerous subject—a veritable minefield for the uninitiated— drew Naipaul, so that Among the Believers stands as a record of his experiences as a traveler through postrevolutionary Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Yet this is no ordinary travel account of exotic and colorful lands; rather, it is an account of Naipaul’s narrowly focused quest to encounter and explicate the phenomenon of Muslim revivalism in those four countries.

Among the Believers

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In an era when many writers prefer to be identified with their roots, at least for sentimental reasons, it is astonishing to come across a brilliant one who refuses to acknowledge his own people. V. S. (Vidiadhar Surajprasad) Naipaul is one such deracinated writer. Throughout his works, this brilliant, prolific, Oxford-trained writer incessantly points the accusing finger at his native land and areas of similar predicament in uncompromising, scathing, vituperative language. Naipaul is an escapist. Haunted by his Indian ancestry, his Trinidadian origins, his fear of “the bush” (his favorite metaphor for third world countries), and his social ignorance, he seeks shelter in his Wiltshire cottage in London, from where he vents his rage and resentment on what he calls the “half-made” societies of the world. He is unforgiving of West Indian vices in The Middle Passage (1963), and The Loss of El Dorado (1970), snobbish at the filth of India in An Area of Darkness (1965), and disdainful of unreliable African politics in A Bend in the River (1979).

Like that of many of his sixteen earlier works, the theme of Among the Believers is “failure.” The causes of the failure are many: conservatism, political demagoguery, poor administration, economic myopia, and, the worst of all, religious fanaticism. The book is an unsympathetic account of how some people’s ardent quest for spiritual nirvana results in abject social phantasmagoria. It is the story of the shattering influence of Islam on the politics, the economies, and the life-styles of Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia—the four countries Naipaul visited during a six-month period between August, 1979, and February, 1980.

The first part of the book discusses the two-headed Iranian revolution. In this section, the reader learns that the revolution is not only an uprising for democracy to replace the Shah’s secret police and his Fascism but also a religious or “holy” war between the Shia and Bahai Islamic sects, who dispute succession to the Prophet Muhammed, who died in A.D. 632. The Shia claim to have been waiting endlessly for the return of Ali, the Twelfth Imam, who is supposed to be the last of the Iranian succession to the Prophet. The Shia assert that Ali, who vanished in A.D. 873, survived elsewhere and that, after his death or disappearance, the succession had been passed to political usurpers. The Twelfth Imam and his sons are, therefore, men of sorrow whose deaths must be continually commemorated.

The Bahia, on the other hand, believe that a deputy or surrogate, or the Twelfth Imam himself, came and left again in the nineteenth century and that only the Bahias recognized him. To the Shia, the Bahai claim about the Imam is punishable blasphemy; hence their sporadic revolutionary executions when Khomeini finally came to power in 1979. Prior to this time, the Shia Muslims had remained suspicious of the authority of the state and had repudiated the Shah’s repression, his betrayal of his country to the West, his plundering of their money and, worst of all, his total neglect of the Islamic religion, particularly the Shia faith. Consequently, rampant corruption, prostitution, and sodomy have engulfed the nation.

The Iranian revolution is, therefore, both an offering to the Twelfth Imam and a rejection of the Shah’s nondivine rule. To the Shia Muslims, transfer of authority from the autocratic Shah (who represented the annihilation of Islam) to the divine Ayatollah Khomeini (his France-exiled opponent) is the best thing Allah has done for Islam in recent years. Politically speaking, therefore, the revolution is both Khomeini’s victory over the Shah, who had compelled him to free the country, and the Shias’ triumph over the Bahias.

In Pakistan, the Ahmadi Muslims are similarly being persecuted by the majority Bihari Muslims. Followers of Ahmad, a northern Indian (born in 1890) who, they claim, had many revelations that he was Mahdi, the Promised Messiah, the Ahmadis believe that the Messiah will appear when Islam has degenerated. To them, therefore, the present unhealthy state of their country’s economy and politics indicates a dwindling of the effectiveness of Islam and thus presages the coming of their Messiah. Ironically, they have been declared non-Muslim (in 1976) by the government of a country which was founded as a haven for refugee Muslims.

Despite unceasing efforts to combat social vice through the enactment of strict Koranic laws, the Pakistani government is still beset with political corruption, sectionalism, religious zealotry, and severe inflation. Perhaps its greatest problem is the lack of a proper infrastructure congruent with twentieth century development and the absence of a reliable leadership to build one. Unfortunately, strikes and police brutality conspire with malnutrition, disease, and unemployment to deal the death blow to the people’s faith, swelling the ranks of the nation’s aimless emigrants.

Like their Pakistani counterparts, the Malayan believers attempt to solve moral, racial, economic, and developmental problems through rigid religious discipline, but fail. The real causes of the failure are the people’s strict adherence to the Islamic faith and their ambivalence toward industrialization and progress. The Malay Muslims frown on using tobacco, in order to cripple the Jewish economy, and boycott imported goods to prevent subordinating their economy to foreigners. Many adherents equate civilization with correct religious belief, so they seek coexistence with nature in order to be closer to the Creator. Guided by the divine principle of life-after-death and judgment-in-the-hereafter, they strengthen their adherence to the Islamic virtues of life, in order to be completely “energized” and “purified” through their faith.

Unfortunately, a similar religious steadfastness seems to militate against Indonesia’s development. After nearly four centuries of dazzling history, comprising three hundred years of iron-handed Dutch colonialism and a tumultuous half-century of Japanese occupation and a Sukarno-style government, many Indonesians have lost their personal identities. It is incumbent on the government to reeducate the nationals to compromise or adjust their deep-rooted sense of value, their cultural pride, and their inflexible religious consciousness.

Indonesian Islamization is epitomized in the pesantren, the old-fashioned, dilapidated, poorly staffed sufi village schools which are as unstructured as the school run by Mr. Squeers in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839). Unlike traditional, pragmatic schools, the pesantrens are (solely) religious institutions where, Naipaul observes with typical snobbishness, one finds “the poor teaching the poor to be poor.” Again, Islamization is manifested in the people’s ambivalence toward the new grain of rice, which has increased their meager output to twice-a-year bumper harvests but has broken up the familiar rhythms of their lives and interfered with their cultural festivals and puppet shows.

Other aspects of the Indonesian proclivity for the old order are their preference to borrow from the traditional money lenders, for fear of becoming puppets to (or victims of) the impersonal banking system, and their antagonism toward the treachery of family planning programs on the extended family system. Disappointed by the high-sounding Western-educated intelligentsia and their wealthy but spiritually sick politicians, the Indonesian Muslims, like their brethren in Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia, can only pray and meditate.

Naipaul connects the problems of Islamization with the ills which are characteristic of third world countries. The first of these is the emasculative influence of colonialism, as depicted in the history of Indonesia, and, particularly, in the life of Sitor, who begins to learn his own culture after he is fifty. The book also highlights the problems associated with bad leadership, particularly the devastating allures of politics, and the inequitable share of the national cake. A recurring figure is the short-sighted redeemer who leads his people into calamity.

In Pakistan, the King of Abu Dhabi feeds five hundred servants in a mansion which he visits once a month for hunting, and the affluent Khalid Ishaq spends two thousand dollars a month on books. In Iran, the Shah’s dynasty is over-thrown, and he is humiliated for allegedly plundering millions of his country’s money; and Presidents Bhutto and Sukarno, his counterparts in Pakistan and Indonesia, have been similarly ousted.

Throughout these countries, egocentrism and economic myopia are bed-fellows. An interesting theme here is that, despite the great, nationalistic outcries against the West, third world countries desperately cling to Western technology and other accoutrements of Western progress. It is ironic that the Maulana of Pakistan, who speaks so vehemently against the West, goes against his principles and entrusts himself to a Boston hospital, a prototype of the science and civilization from which he has shielded others. His death in Boston is an ironic comment on the fate of the selfish and the hypocritical.

The best thing about Among the Believers is its style. The book is written in clear, lucid, poetic prose. The sentences are simple and direct and the vocabulary is vivid, rich, and pithy. An important aspect of Naipaul’s style is his keen observation and his use of detail. Using repetition like a professional dancer, he makes beautiful “steps” with the stroke of his pen; then, after a while, he retraces those “steps” in almost exactly the same words. The effect is that the scene does not merely reappear in the reader’s mind but is permanently fixed there.

Despite its style, Among the Believers is a hurried, superficial, and pessimistic book. Naipaul’s attempt to describe a complex subject such as Islam from a six-month experience in four countries is not only presumptuous but unfair to the subjects of his attack. His conclusions are based on a random sampling of events which may not necessarily typify the societies he describes. Consequently, many important details are missing, thus making his account too superficial for historical, economic, or sociological analysis.

In an interview with Newsweek (November 16, 1981), Naipaul claimed that he preferred to observe the machinery of a society himself, to minimize falsification. He also boasted that he looks at the world through the eyes of “the other man.” What Naipaul does not realize is that a preponderant neglect of certain aspects of society limits the scope of the writer’s investigation. Objectivity presupposes a careful consideration of both sides of an argument or phenomenon. Naipaul fails to interpret the Islamic revival because of his distant, superior attitude. The preferred approach to a study of this magnitude is Bronislaw Malinowski’s Participant-Observation Technique, which requires a researcher to become culturally enmeshed in a society to be able to properly describe its life-style.

Although Naipaul may be pardoned for the shallowness of his information (he is, after all, a literary artist, not an anthropologist), he should still be taken to task for his stereotypes, for his condescension and sneers at Muslims and their leaders, and for his incessant contempt for the third world in general. He is suspicious of his first guide for his “simple origins,” and his cinematic eye never misses the thin, shrunken bodies of the poor. Antagonistic to Islam, Naipaul implies that Muslims are great iconoclasts of history; their frequent prayers and fasts are unnecessary, and Islamization is stupefying. Not even his favorite Behzad’s girl friend nor the very young escapes his sneering contempt.

Naipaul’s descriptions of Islamic governments and leaders are particularly scathing. Condescending toward Ayatollah Khomeini, he sees him as a hard-eyed, sensual, roguish-looking old man with an unheavenly face. The reader cannot miss Naipaul’s intolerance of Ayatollah Khalkhalli, Khomeini’s “hanging judge,” “the hatchet man of the revolution,” who chokes with laughter and shows “his tongue, his gullet.” Naipaul loathes the shoestring Pakistani government, ridicules the stop-and-start development in Indonesia, and mocks the “petty intelligence” of the Javanese-Malaysians. His description of Mecca-bound pilgrims is full of teeth-clenching ethnocentrism: “there were Arabs, Indonesians and even Africans . . . unashamedly enjoying the ethnic sensation. . . .”

Naipaul mars his literary skills with his polemicism and superiority complex toward the third world. Insofar as he continues to write nonfiction, he needs to go back to school, if not to change his narrow-mindedness, at least to study modern anthropologists’ Cultural Relativity Theory. According to this theory, one can understand and appreciate a society’s behavior only by considering the society from within. As a pessimistic tourist, he will always fail to understand that, despite his hosts’ relative lack of technological aptitude, they feel secure in the knowledge that they play a role in the divine system, where all things have a place. Finally, some readers may agree with V. S. Pritchett, who, commenting on Naipaul’s work, says: “One does not ask a novelist to be absolutely true to life, in the sense of social or racial record; one asks him to be true to his design.” However, while accepting the adage that a writer should be committed to his own creative genius, one is still inclined to believe that V. S. Naipaul slavishly serves a fastidious and inflexible god.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 127

Sources for Further Study

Ajami, Fouad. “In Search of Islam,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI (October 25, 1981), pp. 7, 30, 32.

American Scholar. L, Summer, 1981, p. 362.

Cameron, James. “Trans-Arabia,” in The Spectator. CCXLVII (October 3, 1981), pp. 21-22.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, October 13, 1981, p. B3.

Library Journal. CVI, October 1, 1981, p. 1911.

Marzan, Julio. “Romance of the Golden West,” in The Village Voice. XXVI (November 4-10, 1981), p. 43.

Mudrick, Marvin. “The Muslims Are Coming! The Muslims Are Coming!” in The Hudson Review. XXXV (Spring, 1982), pp. 130-138.

Nation. CCXXXIII, October 24, 1981, p. 415.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, November 4, 1981, p. 31.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, November 5, 1981, p. 8.

Said, Edward. “Expectations of Inferiority,” in New Statesman. CII (October 16, 1981), pp. 21-22.

Saturday Review. VIII, October, 1981, p. 70.

Time. CXVIII, October 26, 1981, p. 92.

The Wall Street Journal. CXCVIII, October 28, 1981, p. 28.

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