Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey

Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey



The Pequod Review:

Published in 1981, V.S. Naipaul's classic study of Islamic culture — drawn from his trips to Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia in the period immediately following the 1979 Iranian Revolution — explores how the spread of Islam impacted each country's artistic creativity, intellectual development, and ultimately political and economic development. There is something refreshing in the way that Naipaul doesn't equivocate in his critical judgments or pretend to respect cultural relativism:

Wouldn’t it have been better for Muslims to trust less to the saving faith and to sit down hard-headedly to work out institutions? Wasn’t that an essential part of the history of civilization, after all: the conversion of ethical ideals into institutions?


In the fundamentalist scheme the world constantly decays and has constantly to be re-created. The only function of intellect is to assist that re-creation. It reinterprets the texts; it re-establishes divine precedent. So history has to serve theology, law is separated from the idea of equity, and learning is separated from learning. The doctrine has its attractions. To a student from the University of Karachi, from perhaps a provincial or peasant background, the old faith comes more easily than any new-fangled academic discipline. So fundamentalism takes root in the universities, and to deny education can become the approved educated act. In the days of Muslim glory Islam opened itself to the learning of the world.  Now fundamentalism provides an intellectual thermostat, set low. It equalizes, comforts, shelters, and preserves.

In this way the faith pervades everything, and it is possible to understand what the fundamentalists mean when they say that Islam is a complete way of life.  But what is said about Islam is true, and perhaps truer, of other religions — like Hinduism or Buddhism or lesser tribal faiths — that at an early stage in their history were also complete cultures, self-contained and more or less isolated, with institutions, manners, and beliefs making a whole.

The Islamic fundamentalist wish is to work back to such a whole, for them a God-given whole, but with the tool of faith alone — belief, religious practices and rituals. It is like a wish — with intellect suppressed or limited, the historical sense falsified — to work back from the abstract to the concrete, and to set up the tribal walls again. It is to seek to re-create something like a tribal or a city-state that — except in theological fantasy — never was. The Koran is not the statute book of a settled golden age; it is the mystical or oracular record of an extended upheaval, widening out from the Prophet to his tribe in Arabia. Arabia was full of movement; Islam, with all its Jewish and Christian elements, was always mixed, eclectic, developing. Almost as soon as the Prophet made his community secure he sought to subdue his enemies. It was during a military march in the fifth year of the Muslim era that Aisha spent that night alone in the desert.

The West, or the universal civilization it leads, is emotionally rejected. It undermines; it threatens. But at the same time it is needed, for its machines, goods, medicines, warplanes, the remittances from the emigrants, the hospitals that might have a cure for calcium deficiency, the universities that will provide master's degrees in mass media. All the rejection of the West is contained within the assumption that there will always exist out there a living, creative civilization, oddly neutral, open to all to appeal to. Rejection, therefore, is not absolute rejection. It is also, for the community as a whole, a way of ceasing to strive intellectually. It is to be parasitic; parasitism is one of the unacknowledged traits of fundamentalism.


Failure only led back to the faith. The state had been founded as a homeland for Muslims. If the state failed, it wasn’t because the dream was flawed, or the faith flawed; it could only be because men had failed the faith. A purer and purer faith began to be called for. And in that quest for the Islamic absolute — the society of believers, where every action was instinct with worship — men lost sight of the political origins of their state.

Naipaul's book may at this point be dated in specific ways but it remains enlightening in general ways.