Classic book review: Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey

A vivid, opinionated journey through the world of Islam.

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[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This book review originally ran on Oct. 13, 1981.] V. S. Naipaul has made clear elsewhere that he sees various reasons for the dependency of some nations on others.

In Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey he focuses on the role of religion, as he sees it, in affecting the creative and intellectual resources needed by nations to develop on their own.

Roaming far from his native Trinidad and adopted Britain, he uses his novelist skills for reportorial purposes on a recent journey through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. On the way he repeatedly finds a reason for backwardness in the very devotion to Islam which brings buoyancy or serenity to so many he meets.

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"Among the Believers" exemplifies the Naipaul conviction that it is no favor to a country to withhold negative views of it. Yet the delicate mockery that flavors his writing also reminds a reader that the view is affected by the eye of the beholder.

A more sympathetic, less secular eye might see the same problems with greater appreciation of Muslim ideals in proportion to lapses from them. This is not to say that Naipaul does not warm to people, revise this estimates of them, or try enlighten those he feels are wrong.

And he keeps noting his personal reactions, in effect warning you that you're in the presence of an individual with an individual's point of view.

The result is a vivid senes of traveling through a world in transition, with pungent vicissitudes of daily life artfully played off the deeper perceptions Naipaul conveys.

He weaves references to literature, history, and the press into encounters with a range of official and unofficial voices. To note but one example, he becomes the reluctant straight man for an unexpectedly jocular Ayatollah Khalkhali, Iran's notorious hanging judge.

For all that Naipaul finds to appreciate, he keeps coming back to variations on the theme that many Muslims would reject – and indeed did reject early in Iran's revolution, for example, when they took pains to deny any assumptions that radical adherence to ancient Islam meant denial of the modern world of democracy and invention.

To Naipaul the new Islam raises political issues without providing political solutions, thus encouraging anarchy.

To him the new "believers" do renounce what they regard as materialism, while remaining reliant on it, and thus disclose a central flaw. It is the expectation that the technology they need, the education they need, will continue to come from someone else; namely, the "spiritually barren" alien lands where creative energy has not been stifled or abandoned.

To a teacher in Malaysia, for instance, the West is open to criticism based on the very academic learning it has given him, while Islam – which has not given him this learning – is exempt from criticism. Looking toward an afterlife, such believers risk locking their countries into inferiority by leaving to others the responsibility for the here and now.

One exception is an educated Indonesian, more a "statistical Muslim" than a believer, who grieves to see his daughter's lively intellect dulled when she marries a born-again Muslim.

Then she shows signs of thinking for herself again, noting that her husband shirks his university studies for the easier tasks of ritual. The father seems almost like an American parent rejoicing to find a child released from the programming of some doctrine on the march.

Of course, many people in many lands have proved that cultivating the things of the spirit need not be incompatible with developing the things of this world. Could it be that Naipaul is a little like that Indonesian father?

At least one hopes he is not simply condescending to those believers he considers benighted, or warning the West about them, but supposing that a bit of nudging might get them to snap out of it – and make the best of both worlds.

Roderick Nordell is a former Monitor book editor.

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