Naipauls Among the Believers and Beyond Belief

In October 2001, Sir Vidia Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.339 Nalpaul speaks with a unique voice, whether it be in his fiction or his travelogues. He once observed that 'I am the kind of writer that people think other people are reading'.340 Jason Cowley assessed his work as follows:

His books are haunted by solitude and disciplined by a need to understand the anxieties of the decolonised world. Long ago, dissatisfied with the limitations of fiction, Naipaul liberated himself, as he saw it, from borrowed forms, from mechanical patterns of behaviour and ways of seeing. Hence his repeated pronouncements that the novel is dead, by which he means the novel as it is practised by most professional novelists as a preformed mould of plot, character and event into which one pours his or her cheap slurry of words. Naipaul's own novels are novel in the true sense of the word: new, mould-

breaking, experimental, a hybrid of autobiography, social inquiry, reportage and invention.341

Cowley concluded that Naipaul definitely deserved the Nobel Prize:

His work may, at times, be characterised by irritable misanthropy, sexual disgust and by rage; but in the canon of contemporary British writing he is without peer: a scourge of sentimentality, irrationalism and lazy left-liberal prejudices.342

As we have already noted, two of his travelogues deal with his perceptions of Islam. Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey describes his own successive impressions of Iran ('The Twin Revolutions'),343 Pakistan ('The Salt Hills of a Dream'),344 Malaysia ('The Primitive Faith')345 and, finally, Indonesia ('Usurpations').346 The author labels his conclusion 'Reprise: The Society of Believers'.347 Naipaul is the anthropolgist of the word par excellence. He enjoys, and records, conversations with all whom he meets: the conversation is the medium which conveys the message. Among the Believers was written between August 1979 and February 1981.348 In the light of the catastrophe which hit the USA on 11 September 2001, his concluding words have a raw prophetic quality and span the two decades between 1981 and 2001 with a terrible quiet urgency:

It was the late twentieth century that had made Islam revolutionary ... and increasingly now in Islamic countries there would be [those] who, in an inversion of Islamic passion, would have a vision of a society cleansed and purified, a society of believers.349

Naipaul freely confesses that, though there had been Muslims in the Indian community in which he had been raised in Trinidad, he knew little of Islam, nor, indeed, of his own Hinduism.350 Watching television news at the time of the Iranian Revolution had caused Naipaul to ask himself some fundamental questions about Islam such as the treatment of women, the nature of a truly Islamic state and the attraction of Islamic law.351 All these questions had sown the seeds of a journey to the classical lands of Islam in the author's mind.352

Naipaul came, he saw and he reached certain summary conclusions: in Iran the nation's confusion arose from its perception that the present looked back to a 'high medieval culture' and forward to 'oil and money' while surrounded by a Western civilisation which could not be beaten, should be rejected but, at the same time, was needed.353 In Pakistan, fundamentalism feared contamination by alien ideologies. Naipaul recognised the sterile quality of this excessive fundamentalism. 'It offered,' he said, 'a political desert.' But he wondered whether an Islamic transformation might be born from the burden of excess.354 In Malaysia, he met those who yearned for a 'restructuring' of the country perhaps led by an alter Khomeini.355 He encountered a longing among some young Malays to live as 'old Arabs', as it were, as in the days of the Prophet Muhammad himself.356 And in Indonesia Naipaul found a revolutionary current flowing again as it had done in 1965, but Islamicised.357

Naipaul made a similar 'journey of enquiry into faith', visiting the same four countries over five months in 1995. Beyond Belief is the record of that visit, a direct sequel to Among the Believers. Naipaul characterised the later volume as 'a book of stories' and 'a book about people'.358 In it, he also tries even harder to filter out his own presence359 and illustrate further what he calls 'the crossover to Islam'.360 There is no neat summary conclusion at the end of this volume as there was at the end of the first. And the chapter sub-headings are much more cryptic: 'Indonesia: The Flight of the N-250';361 'Iran: The Justice of Ali';362 'Pakistan: Dropping Off the Map';363 'Malaysian Postscript: Raising the Coconut Shell'.364 Naipaul detected a world 'full of ghosts' in Indonesia;365 a 'new nihilism' threatened Iran;366 a 'cultural desert' undermine Pakistan;367 there was conflict between Malays and Chinese in Malaysia. It seemed to Naipaul that, to be a real Malay, you had to embrace Islam.368 And, on this second visit to Indonesia, Mr Wahid (Gus Dur) makes but a scant impression on Mr Naipaul when they meet.369

Beyond Belief is an impressive, indeed brilliant, tour de force, like its predecessor. In the manner of a latter-day Ibn Battuta370 but without sharing the latter's Islamic faith, Naipaul made two major journeys through some of the heartlands of Islam, including its most populous region, Indonesia. Although he does not confess directly to such a feeling, an air of growing pessimism is communicated to the reader, and, in the light of such seminal events of the early twenty-first century as 9/11, an air of gentle apprehension about the futures of the lands which he visits seems to tinge the text. That said, Naipaul is an unfailingly courteous and punctilious observer of what he sees, with a genius's eye for the quirky as well as the profound. His two-volume account of his rihla into Islam has deservedly become recognised as a classic account of personal exploration as well as popular anthropology.

His 'public pronouncements on Islam' have not been universally free from criti-cism.371 He has been accused of proposing 'the broad idea of Islam as the worst kind of imperialism, which condemned Muslim societies to neurosis and nihilism'.372 Thus he is alleged, quite wrongly in my view, to 'provide much comfort to Islamophobes' and sometimes 'to blur the crucial distinction between Islam as an often harshly imposed ideology and as a private and diversely followed faith'.373 But his critic here acknowledges that 'his books on Muslim societies' do in fact maintain this distinction 'as they quickly outgrow their narrow theoretical frameworks, and become vivid, sympathetic portraits of individuals trying to accommodate themselves to an inhospitable world'.374

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