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Review of V.S. Naipaul's

Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples


By Ram Swarup


In the Land of Converts: An Islamic Journey

Khomeini's Islamic Revolution in 1979 inspired Naipaul to undertake an "Islamic Journey" and visit Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, The result was an important book, Among the Believers (1981) on an important subject. He found the issues involved important enough and he revisited those parts and has now come out with another very thoughtful work, Beyond Belief.* The two books go together.

The second journey confirmed the observations and conclusions of the first. Though Khomeini's Islamic revolution failed, Islamic fundamentalism of which it was a projection continues to be an important ideology and to exercise a great political influence.

Though the two books involved some rough travel, they are not travel books; they are serious studies of an important ideology and area. They combine history, social criticism raised by larger reflections which place the author, already a celebrated literary figure in the English world, among major social thinkers of the age. In the new narratives, the author has created a new literary form which gives more scope for his reflective talents.

Thinking aloud, the author observes that the overthrow of the old religions--religions linked to the earth and animals and the deities of a particular place or tribe--by the revealed religions is one of the haunting themes of history. In the two narratives, he occupies himself with this subject though he does not discuss it as such and directly, and limits himself to its Islamic expression in some important Muslim countries. He says that one main feature of these religions is that they take out sacredness from the land and environment of the converts. He remembers his own place of birth in Trinidad which knew no sacred places. Probably the aboriginal people knew them but they had been destroyed and instead of them there were in the plantation colony, "people like us whose sacred places were in other continents," to put it in the language of Naipaul. Enlarging on the observation, he adds that perhaps it is the absence of the sense of sacredness that is the curse of the New World. And perhaps it is this sense of sacredness that we of the New World travel to the Old to rediscover.

Later on, he met the same phenomenon in Goa where the Portuguese, representatives of another revealed religion, Christianity, had had time to do their work. Haters of idolatry, haters of all that was not of the true faith, levellers of Hindu temples and establishers of the Inquisition and the burning of the heretics, they created there "something of a New-World emptiness, like the Spanish in Mexico." But as one stepped out of Goa, one stepped into the sacred land again. It wasn't political history that made it so. Religious myths touched every part of the land outside colonial Goa. Story within story, fable within fable: that was what people saw and felt in their bones. Those were the myths, about gods and the heroes of the epics, that gave antiquity and wonder to the earth people lived on" (India: A Million Mutinies). In destroying the sense of sacredness, Islamic fundamentalism is true to its type. But it does allow to one peoples, and only one peoples, the original peoples of the Prophet, their sacred places, pilgrimage and earth reverences; and these sacred Arab places have to be the sacred places of all the converted peoples.

Closely connected with this is another phenomenon. The converts have also to strip themselves of their past. Nothing is required of them but the purest faith, Islam, submission. Islam, Naipaul adds, "is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism."

Naipaul finds Islamic fundamentalism at work wherever he goes: in Iran, in Pakistan, in Indonesia, in Malaysia. It has its stages and intensities, but there is one minimum requirement: that the converts learn to lose regard for the land of their birth, reject their pagan neighbours and regard them along with women of inferior breed; that they hold their pre-Islamic past and ancestors in contempt. The one unalterable principle is tabligh: that they give up their old identity in every thing, in their beliefs, customs, names, dress. But as one advances in piety, others things are added. There is demand for the enforcement of the sharia, introduction of Muslim penal laws like amputation of limbs, public lashing and stoning; introduction of Muslim rules of marriage and divorce, introduction of obligatory fasts and prayers. All this is often irksome to the believers and in the modern world sometimes also not always practical. This often invites opposition. Hence the need for the fundamentalists to capture state power and enforce Islamic laws, the need for whipping vans to see that men observe rules and regulations of prayer and fasting.

Wherever Naipaul goes, he finds two features very prominent. One is that the converts are trying to erase their past; the second is that though they were once victims of an aggression, they are now all for the aggressor, for the Arabs. Whether in Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, their fundamental rage is against the past, against history, and all this accompanied with the "impossible dream of the true faith growing out of a spiritual vacancy."

In Iran, he finds that things have gone pretty far, in fact too far. Its pre-Islamic past is irrecoverable. It has lost all memory of its past and ancestors and is ashamed of them. It was once a great power that had challenged Greece and Rome. But it was defeated by the Arabs in AD 637, practically as soon as Islam began. It never made up for that defeat again. Naipaul says that in Iran "people's consciousness began with the coming of Islam, began with that defeat. It gave a special edge to the faith in Iran, and a special passion to the people." He adds that "to be an Iranian was to have a special faith, a special version of the Arab faith."

One would have thought that this much of Islam should satisfy the Iranians and they should regard themselves as sufficiently Islamic. But not so. Khomeini's call for Islamic revolution had a wide appeal. Naipaul visits Pakistan and finds the same forces at work there too. Unlike Iran, Pakistan still retains important fragments of the past in its dress, customs, ceremonies, festivals and social organization. But it means no relaxation, no relief for the people. It only means that there is much more to do for fundamentalists, much more to deny and repudiate and change.

Similarly Naipaul finds that in Pakistan though most people are converts, to them their ancient "land is of no religious or historical importance; its relics are of no account; only the sands of Arabia are sacred." Their concept of history has completely altered and that alteration has inevitably diminished the intellectual life of the country. All the history of the ancient land has ceased to matter; in the school history books, the history of Pakistan has become only an aspect of the history of Islam. The Muslim invaders, and especially the Arabs, have become the heroes of the Pakistan story. Naipaul regards as "a dreadful mangling of history", a "convert's view" of history. He says that history in Pakistan "has become a kind of neurosis. Too much has to be ignored or angled; there is too much fantasy."

Salman, one of his interviewees, talks of this neurosis. He says: "Islam doesn't show on my face. We have nearly all, subcontinental Muslims, invented Arab ancestors for ourselves. Most of us are Sayeds... if you read Ibn Batuta and early travellers you can sense the condescending attitude of the Arab travellers to the converts."

"The invention of Arab ancestry soon became complete. It has been adopted by all families. If you hear people talking you would believe that his great and wonderful land was nothing but wild jungle, that no human beings lived here."

Naipaul meets the same phenomenon in Indonesia, almost at the limit of the Islamic world. The country was until recently a cultural and religious part of Greater India and Islam came late on the scene. As a result, the country is rich in the monuments of the pagan past but nothing outside or before the faith was to be acknowledged, not even a great Hindu-Buddhist monument like Borobudur, one of the wonders of world. While their objection to these relics is Islamic, some fundamentalists have learnt to clothe it in more acceptable, socialistic terms. One of them said that the money that was spent on Borobudur could be used to feed "hungry Muslims." One important criticism of the Government by the fundamentalists was that the Indonesian embassy in Canberra looked like a Hindu building.

The same wind blows in Malaysia. In the new climate, to be a Malaysian is to be a Muslim. Others, the Chinese Taoists, Buddhists and Hindus suffer many disabilities.

Islam is accompanied by Arabization. Previously Islam marched with the Arab armies, but now Arab influence marches with Islam in all matters, big and small. For example, in Iran, when a boy of fourteen, come under the influence of Islamic fundamentalism, he discarded his old Persian name Farhad, and gave himself a new Arabic name Maisson, one of the early follower of the prophet. In Malaysia, a young boy, son of a Chinese Taoist-Buddhist Bomoh, was converted by a Pathan girl he met. She asked him to read the Quran which he did in order to have some thing to talk to her about. Under her attraction, he became a Muslim and gave himself an Arabic name, Rashid, and changed his dietary habits. Later on, the girl and the Quran receded, but the name stuck.

"Islam as Arab Nationalism"--this idea was recently projected by Anwar Shaikh, from Pakistan but now settled in Great Britain. More recently it was mentioned by Ibn Warraq in his Why I am not a Muslim. The idea is true with certain qualifications. In point of fact, the Arabs were Islam's first victims. Under its sway, they lost not only their gods but also their history and ancestors. In their place they were burdened with an artificial history and ancestry. The Arabs first opposed Islam, but they were overwhelmed by the new Islamic forces. Very soon, they also found it economically and politically attractive. They adopted it wholesale.

Beyond Belief has a second title, Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples. Though the author does not discuss the problem how Muslims came to be Muslims, he takes it for granted that we all know. Dr. K.S. Lal does it for us as far as the Indian Muslims are concerned in his Indian Muslims: Who are They?

The "convert" is more than a descriptive name. In the hands of Naipaul, it has become an important concept. Though on one side it stands for aggression, on the side of victims, it stands for self-alienation, for estrangement from one's own people--a more important component of the concept. The converts have a special psychology. They became converts under great pressure; but subsequently they solve the problem by pretending that their conversion was voluntary. Their forefathers were defeated and humiliated; but they overcome this feeling by identifying themselves with the victors and the aggressors. Even after conversion the pressure continues; they try to prove they are more loyal than the king himself; they become ardent champions and standard-bearers of Islam. In Iran, they think the Arabs are not sufficiently Muslim, and it is Iran's manifest destiny to keep Islam's flag aloft.

Close to the "converts" is the phenomenon of "secularists" we meet in India. Though they are not converts in the accepted sense of the term, they are close to them in their sympathy and antipathy. There is quite a tribe of them--historians, columnists, politicians. The marxist historians of JNU are close to Muslim Aligarh School. Their marxist and secularist hatred for "communal" Hindus has something of the passion and fervour of Muslim converts.

Beyond Belief discusses Islamic fundamentalism, not Islam's fundamentals which is the real source of the trouble. Islamic fundamentalism could not be that cruel if Islam's fundamentals were benign, less narrow and had more sympathy. Thus the failure is deeper. It is a doctrinal failure, the source of other failures. What could you do with a system of beliefs which denies divinity and even goodness in all fraternities (ummah) other than its own? What could you do with ideas like jihad, daru'l-Islam and daru'l-harb if they are part of the basic doctrines? Naipaul also omits to discuss Christian fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism's elder sister who has been upon the scene over a longer period. Its face has been quite as ugly and its record pretty as bad in all places including Europe. In the two Americas, conversions were also accompanied with large-scale genocide.

We hope that Naipaul would undertake another journey among Indigenous Americans-Indians, the neighbours of his early days, and write another book on this theme. There he would meet the phenomenon of "conversion" in its full nakedness, and meet converts who have forgotten their past completely and have no pride left in it. When Huxley visited Guatemala in 1930 or so, he saw a ballet in which "Indians celebrate the defeat and enslavement of their own people at the hands of Alvarado... and have chosen to exalt the heroism, not of their own people, but of men who reduced them to peonage." Self-alienation has gone deep.

Cultural and religious degradation of these people followed their political and economic subjugation. Now their struggle for independence, or whatever they have in its name, must follow a spiritual and cultural revival. Men of good will and vision could help this revival. By writing the proposed book, Naipaul would pay his debt to his old neighbours. The book would also be a Hindu contribution to the cause of the cultural and political revival of indigenous Americas.

A New Struggle
In his concept of "converts", Naipaul has raised another very important question though he does not discuss it. Would the converts come into their own? Would they rediscover their roots both in their past as well as in their psyche? Would they be reconciled to their forefathers? Or are they doomed to continued enmity and historical self-amnesia?

The last two thousand years were years of revelatory religions. But the new era would see another struggle, the struggle of converts trying to rediscover their past and to regain ideological self-respect. It is going to be an important struggle, the struggle of the new era, struggle in Europe, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Asia, in the two Americas. The struggle is already on. Though it does not have a name yet, it is the opposite of Christian or Islamic fundamentalism. It is for a natural religion, the word nature in the sense in which Greek philosophers used it, that with which a man is born, sahaja, that which is most essential and innermost in man--his atma.

The work has already begun at least on the external plane. In most European countries, there is now a conscious effort to rediscover their pagan roots. Goprun Dimmbla Hangantysdottir, an Icelandic thinker, writer in her Odsmal of an "ancient heathen civilization of the North which was suppressed, banned and distorted for centuries by threat-imposed Christianity and imported culture from the South."

"Beyond Belief" is not going to make its author popular with the current intellectual establishment in India. Here the acceptable thing is to admire Islam. To describe Muslims as "invaders" is a heresy. According to the current stereotype, they were not invaders, but "liberators" from religious superstitions and social injustice. Naipaul hurts this stereotype.

(5th July, 1998)

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