The strange fascination with Islam in the West continues. Most recently, the originally Trinidadian but now
British author V S. Naipaul has brought out a massive volume about his travels in four Islamic countries --
all of them non-Arab -- as a sequel to a book he wrote on the same four places about 18 years ago. The first
book was called Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey; the new one is Beyond Belief: Islamic
Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. In the meantime Naipaul has become Sir V S Naipaul, an extremely
famous and, it must be said, very talented writer whose novels and non-fiction (mostly travel books) have
established his reputation as one of the truly celebrated, justly well-known figures in world literature
In Paris, for example, Sonia Rykiel's fancy showrooms on windows on the Boulevard St Germain are filled
with copies of the French translation of Beyond Belief, intermixed with the scarves, belts and
handbags. This of course is one kind of tribute, although Naipaul may not be very pleased about it. On the
other hand, the book has been reviewed everywhere in the prestige English and American press, paid tribute to
as the work of a great master of shrewd observation and telling detail, the kind of demystifying, thorough
exposé of Islam for which Western readers seem to have a bottomless appetite. No one today would write a
similar kind of book about Christianity or Judaism. Islam on the other hand is fair game, even though the
expert may not know the languages or much about the subject.
Naipaul's, however, is a special case. He is neither a professional Orientalist nor a thrill seeker. He is
a man of the Third World who sends back dispatches from the Third World to an implied audience of disenchanted
Western liberals who can never hear bad enough things about all the Third World myths -- national liberation
movements, revolutionary goals, the evils of colonialism -- which in Naipaul's opinion do nothing to explain
the sorry state of African and Asian countries who are sinking under poverty, native impotence, badly learned,
unabsorbed Western ideas like industrialisation and modernisation. These are people, Naipaul says in one of
his books, who know how to use a telephone but can neither fix nor invent one. Naipaul can now be cited as an
exemplary figure from the Third World. Born in Trinidad he is originally of Hindu Indian stock; he emigrated
to Britain in the l950s, has become a senior member of the British establishment and is always spoken of as a
candidate for the Nobel Prize -- someone who can be relied on always to tell the truth about the Third World.
Naipaul is "free of any romantic moonshine about the moral claims of primitives," said one reviewer
in l979, and he does this without "a trace in him of Western condescension or nostalgia for
Still, even for Naipaul, Islam is worse than most other problems of the Third World. Feeling his Hindu
origins, he recently has said that the worst calamity in India's history was the advent and later presence of
Islam which disfigured the country's history. Unlike most writers he makes not one but two journeys to
"Islam" in order to confirm his deep antipathy to the religion, its people, and its ideas.
Ironically, Beyond Belief is dedicated to his Muslim wife Nadira whose ideas or feelings are not referred to.
In the first book he does not learn anything -- they, the Muslims, prove what he already knows. Prove what?
That the retreat to Islam is "stupefaction". In Malaysia, Naipaul is asked "what is the purpose
of your writing? Is it to tell people what it's all about?" He replies, "Yes, I would say
comprehension." "Is it not for money?" "Yes. But the nature of the work is
important." Thus he travels among Muslims and writes about it, is well paid by his publisher and by the
magazines that run extracts of his books, because it is important, not because he likes doing it. Muslims
provide him with stories, which he records as instances of "Islam."
There is very little pleasure and only a very little affection recorded in these two books. In the earlier
book, its funny moments are at the expense of Muslims, who are "wogs" after all as seen by Naipaul's
British and American readers, potential fanatics and terrorists, who cannot spell, be coherent, sound right to
a worldly-wise, somewhat jaded judge from the West. Every time they show their Islamic weaknesses, Naipaul the
Third World witness appears promptly. A Muslim lapse occurs, some resentment against the West is expressed by
an Iranian, and then Naipaul explains that "this is the confusion of a people of high medieval culture
awakening to oil and money, a sense of power and violation and a knowledge of a great new encircling
civilization [the West]. It was to be rejected; at the same time it was to be depended on."
Remember that last sentence and a half, for it is Naipaul's thesis as well as the platform from which he
addresses the world: The West is the world of knowledge, criticism, technical know-how and functioning
institutions, Islam is its fearfully enraged and retarded dependent, awakening to a new, barely controllable
power. The West provides Islam with good things from the outside, because "the life that had come to
Islam had not come from within." Thus the existence of one billion Muslims is summed up in a phrase and
dismissed. Islam's flaw was at "its origins -- the flaw that ran through Islamic history: to the
political issues it raised it offered no political or practical solution. It offered only the faith. It
offered only the Prophet, who would settle everything -- but who had ceased to exist. This political Islam was
rage, anarchy." All the examples Naipaul gives, all the people he speaks to tend to align themselves
under the Islam vs. The West opposition he is determined to find everywhere. It's all very tiresome and
Why then does he return to write an equally long and boring book two decades later? The only answer I can
give is that he now thinks he has an important new insight about Islam. And that insight is if you are not an
Arab -- Islam being a religion of the Arabs -- then you are a convert. As converts to Islam, Malaysians,
Pakistanis, Iranians, and Indonesians necessarily suffer the fate of the inauthentic. For them Islam is an
acquired religion which cuts them off from their traditions, leaving them neither here nor there. What Naipaul
attempts to document in his new book is the fate of the converted, people who have lost their own past but
have gained little from their new religion except more confusion, more unhappiness, more (for the Western
reader) comic incompetence, all of it the result of conversion to Islam. This ridiculous argument would
suggest by extension that only a native of Rome can be a good Roman Catholic; other Catholic Italians,
Spaniards, Latin Americans, Philipinos who are converts are inauthentic and cut off from their traditions.
According to Naipaul, then, Anglicans who are not British are only converts and they too, like the Malysian or
Iranian Muslim, are doomed to a life of imitation and incompetence since they are converts.
In effect, the 400-page Beyond Belief is based on nothing more than this rather idiotic and insulting
theory. The question isn't whether it is true or not but how could a man of such intelligence and gifts as V S
Naipaul write so stupid and so boring a book, full of story after story illustrating the same primitive,
rudimentary, unsatisfactory and reductive thesis, that most Muslims are converts and must suffer the same fate
wherever they are. Never mind history, politics, philosophy, geography: Muslims who are not Arabs are
inauthentic converts, doomed to this wretched false destiny. Somewhere along the way Naipaul, in my opinion,
himself suffered a serious intellectual accident. His obsession with Islam caused him somehow to stop
thinking, to become instead a kind of mental suicide compelled to repeat the same formula over and over. This
is what I would call an intellectual catastrophe of the first order.
The pity of it is that so much is now lost on Naipaul. His writing has become repetitive and uninteresting.
His gifts have been squandered. He can no longer make sense. He lives on his great reputation which has gulled
his reviewers into thinking that they are still dealing with a great writer, whereas he has become a ghost.
The greater pity is that Naipaul's latest book on Islam will be considered a major interpretation of a great
religion, and more Muslims will suffer and be insulted. And the gap between them and the West will increase
and deepen. No one will benefit except the publishers who will probably sell a lot of books, and Naipaul, who
will make a lot of money.
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