By Edward Said
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 today.
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 colonialism.”
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 repetitious.
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.
This article is reproduced from Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 6 – 12 August 1998 Issue No. 389.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Travel: Cities, Places, People’, edited by Nishi Pulugurtha, academic, Kolkata, India.