V.S. Naipul and Islam

By Mottale, Morris | Caribbean Quarterly, September 2010 | Go to article overview

V.S. Naipul and Islam


Mottale, Morris, Caribbean Quarterly


Quite often observers of the Islamic world have been writers who have not necessarily developed a methodology from the social sciences, but all the same their observations and viewpoints have had some impact on those who followed their writings.

V. S. Naipaul has been a keen observer of his own society and his own cultural background has been a starting point for his observations on non- Western societies. By his own admission, he admits that when he first started, in 1979, to write about the Islamic world he knew almost nothing about Islam (See Prologue - Beyond Belief).

Among the Believers, NaipauFs introduction to travels through Islam, is a solid starting point to analyze his perspectives on the religion that Muhammad ostensibly founded.

I do believe however that he should not be read out of context, but rather his work on Islam should be linked to his novels and travel descriptions, underlining his central point about the relationship between the developing world and the West. It would be interest to compare these views if he had ever traveled to Japan, South Korea, or the hustle and bustle of China today, where the process of modernization has not encountered the hostility that seems to characterize those other areas, such as the Islamic world, Africa, Caribbean, and Latin America.

In Naipaul, political Islam is rage, anarchy, destruction, mayhem. It is also implicitly and sometimes explicitly stated that Islam is anti-modern, or that at least that the believers don't care for the premises of the liberal, democratic world. The current AI-Qaeda organized violence in the Arab and Islamic worlds from North Africa to South East Asia adds an element of confirmation to the insights of Naipaul. Should his observations be classified along a social-scientific lines, they should be seen through the prism of the psychological and a social reactions to the accelerated process of modernization and cultural interaction of the areas that he describes with the Euro -American world. Their many cultural manifestations broadcast today in a globalized world through instant communications from satellite television to the internet add fuel to the rage and resentment born out of the ideological mystifications of Islamic fundamentalist and Third- World intellectuals in "explaining and interpreting the West" and its ostensible domination and exploitation of the non- Western world.

Echoes of this standpoint can be gleaned through the ideological and political pronouncement of the Iranian President, Ahmadinejad, and the clerical establishment that controls him, in justifying the breaches of the nuclear proliferation treaty and the denials of the Holocaust.

Naipaul's views of Islam as he wrote that book, should be seen within or through the lenses of the Islamic revolution that exploded in Iran in February of 1979 and whose reverberations are seen today in the clash between Shiites and Sunnis in the Near East and where the American war in Iraq has become the starting point for the Iranian- Shiite expansion into the Gulf. The daily spectacle of sectarian mayhem shows Naipaul's keen observation of the dynamic elements in Islam during Khomeini's revolution and destruction of the old monarchical system in Iran.

The current episodes of fundamentalism in the Sunni Islamic world should be traced back to that revolutionary phenomenon that spurred the rise of Sunni fundamentalism and the Wahhabi counter-reaction to Shiite encroachments in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the Sunni world.

Naipaul is arguably one of the keenest observers of Islam without being an Islamic specialist and his observations in his second book on the Islamic World, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, are remarkable. He writes in his prologue,

"Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscious or private belief, it makes imperial demands. …

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