Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Among the Believers

V. S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey is one of his famous travelogues. Originally published in 1981—but reissued after he won the Nobel Prize for literature—it chronicles his journey to Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and then back to Iran in the period after the Iranian Revolution. So journeys in countries that are Muslim but not Arab.

Naipaul spends almost as much time conveying the conversations he has as describing what he sees. This is understanding through witnesses. Experiencing countries in the words of people who live there.

The casual Jew-hatred common in contemporary Islam comes across quite strongly. Even more remarkable given that Naipaul was travelling in countries with few, if any, Jews. A sad feature of globalisation—hateful images of The Jew resonate in places without any actual Jews.

Reading the book 25 years after it was published, it is a bit startling to realise who the Muslim Malay youth leader Anwar Ibrahim, or the rising Muslim activist Abdur Rahman Wahid are.

Naipaul is wrestling with what Islam means to people. A man between cultures himself—ethnically Indian, Caribbean (Trinidad) by birth, British by culture—Naipaul is very alert to the problems and ambiguities of identity. Naipaul’s own comments and analysis is more a matter of passing comments: one does not get long analytical passages.

In Iran, Islam means looking to an Arabian source of righteousness, not the Iranian past. But that is true of all the converted realms:
It turns out now that the Arabs were the most successful imperialists of all time: since to be conquered by them (and then to be like them) is still, in the minds of the faithful, to be saved (p.164).
In Pakistan, the state withers but the faith endures: the faith that is the endlessly sought, but never achieved, solution to the failures of the state. In Malaysia, Islam means trying to overcome the lassitude of the Malay village and a solace to the replacement of the timeworn patterns of village life by a strange and disorienting modernity. In Indonesia, Islam is both the latest layer over a Hindu and Buddhist past and a force attempting to sever all connection to that past, depending whether one is taking a Javanist or a purifying approach to Islam. In both Malaysia and Indonesia, it is Islam and the village that is Naipaul’s main focus.

Not a man of faith himself, Naipaul nevertheless has a Western perspective that is ultimately derived from Christianity. Christ’s message was that salvation was personal, a matter of personal choice. The Kingdom of Heaven was not of this world. The West is a civilisation in which the Reformation and the Enlightenment have also occurred. So religion is not, except in a very limited sense, a source of social solutions, of public policy.

Islam is a much more political faith, in the full sense. Muhammad preached about achieving a righteous society and became a ruler. So Islam can be seen as a source of political solutions. This perplexes Naipaul. He sees the notion of Islam as a solution to political problems, to social problems, as belief without a centre: a fabric of hopes, even delusions, without sustaining substance. Islam is seen as the source of social order, but the problems of social order now extend beyond what Islam covers. Muhammad was the conduit of the Word of God. But the conduit of God died, so how are issues to be settled? A problem that divided Islam from its earliest years—the division in Islam between Sunni and Shi’a is over the proper successor to the conduit.

Naipaul sees the Shia obsession with the death of Ali and his sons as an endless and empty recycling of emotions over a receding and unchangeable past. But, he notes, the Sunnis equally see a few decades in Arabia in the C7th as some perfection that must be endlessly aimed at recapturing. So the West changes and develops, but Islam ages (p.295). The belief that Islam is the basis for social order and the capstone of God’s Revelation is a great burden.
This late twentieth-century Islam appeared to raise political issues. But it had the flaw of its origins – the flaw that ran right through Islamic history: to the political issues it raised it offered no political or practical solution. It offered only faith. It offered only the Prophet, who would settle everything – but who had ceased to exist. This political Islam was rage, anarchy. (Pp 411-2)
(This nine years before Bernard Lewis published his famous essay.) And it is rage that Naipaul encounters again and again: not a personal rage directed at him, but a rage at things not being how they ought. But fervent hopes without resolution are a great source of rage. (Jew-hatred is part of that rage—Israel as cosmic insult.)

The Teheran hostage crisis (which still poisons US-Iranian relations) brings Naipaul back to Iran, where his journey began. He is struck how the belief in a past best-time by Islamic revolutionaries and his communist Iranian guide (who believes that the Soviet Union from 1917-1953 was a pinnacle of human achievement) are, in a sense, interchangeable revolutions. Both backward-looking rages over injustice.

Naipaul is a master of English narrative, so the reader gets carried along by delightfully clear and simple language. Naipaul is also free of modern cant. He is direct and unapologetic in what he sees, asks and reports. Among the Believers is a book that is of a time and place, but will not date. And which still informs.

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