IndiaStar Review of Books
Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples
by V.S. Naipaul
N.Y.:Random House, 1998
408 pages $27.95
Reviewed by C.J.S.Wallia
Naipaul's new book, the ironically titled Beyond Belief, is dedicated to his Muslim wife, the well-known Pakistani journalist Nadira Alvi.
Subtitled "Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples," Beyond Belief follows up on his acclaimed 1981 publication, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey. Both books feature extensive interviews in Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia. Many of the interviewees in the two books are the same, contributing continuity and deeper insights into Islamic fundamentalism.
In the prologue, Naipaul notes that as a "manager of narratives," he has written "a book about people... not a book of opinion." Indeed, in this engrossing book, memorable people there are aplenty and Naipaul successfully deploys his formidable narrative skills in delineating the principal interviewees and their family backgrounds. However, his claim that it's "not a book of opinion" is not accurate.
Naipaul's thesis in Beyond Belief is: "There probably has been no imperialism like that of Islam and the Arabs....Islam seeks as an article of the faith to erase the past; the believers in the end honor Arabia alone, they have nothing to return to." In the Indian context, Naipaul views Islam as far more disruptive than the British rule.
The section on Pakistan subtitled "Dropping Off the Map" begins with a vignette in Iran: A busload of Parsi pilgrims from India, descendants of Iranians who had fled Iran to escape forcible Islamic conversion a millennia ago, travel to the ruins of Cyrus's palace, a seat of world power a millennia before Islam. They stand before a pillar with a cuneiform inscription at the top -- "I am Cyrus, son of Cambyses, and this is my palace." The Parsi pilgrims read the words and wail for some time before returning to their bus.
Unlike Iran, in India there never was a complete Islamic conquest. Although the Muslims ruled much of North India from 1200 A.D. to 1700 A.D, in the eighteenth century, the Mahrattas and the Sikhs destroyed Muslim power, and created their own empires -- before the advent of the British. The British rule in Bengal lasted almost two centuries and in the Punjab a little less than a century. The British introduced the "New Learning of Europe," to which the Hindus were much more receptive than the Muslims, resulting in the "intellectual distance between the two communities. This distance has grown with independence... Muslim insecurity led to the call for the creation of Pakistan. It went at the same time with an idea of old glory, of the invaders sweeping down the northwest and looting the temples of Hindustan and imposing faith in the infidel. The fantasy still lives: and for the Muslim converts of the subcontinent it is the start of their neurosis, because in this fantasy the convert forgets who or what he is and becomes the violator."
Similar analyses have recently been published by several writers, most notably Anwar Shaikh, Ibn Warraq, S.R. Goel, and Koenraad Elst. However, Naipaul makes no reference to these or other scholars. Instead, his approach is to encourage his interviewees to express themselves at length. For example, Naipaul quotes Salman, a Pakistani journalist:
"We have nearly all, subcontinental Muslims, invented Arab ancestors for ourselves. Most of us are sayeds, descendants of Mohammed through his daughter Fatima and cousin and son-in-law Ali. There are others--like my family--who have invented a man called Salim al-Rai. And yet others who have invented a man called Qutub Shah. Everybody has got an ancestor who came from Arabia or Central Asia. I am convinced my ancestors would have been medium to low-caste Hindus, and despite their conversion they would not have been in the mainstream of Muslims.
If you read Ibn Battuta and earlier travelers you can sense the condescending attitude of the Arab travelers to the converts. They would give the Arab name of someone, and then say, 'But he's an Indian.' This invention of Arab ancestry soon became complete. It had been adopted by all families. If you hear people talking you would believe that this great and wonderful land was nothing but wild jungle, that no human beings lived here. All of this was magnified at the time of partition, this sense of not belonging to the land, but belonging to the religion. Only one people in Pakistan have reverence for their land, and that's the Sindhis."
Naipaul's choice to exclude references to publications that focus on similar topics weakens his book. He could have cited, for example, the widely discussed books of Anwar Shaikh, which brought a fatwa on the author's head. Anwar Shaikh, a U.K.-based philosopher of Pakistani origin, wrote in Islam: The Arab National Movement (U.K., The Principality Publishers, 1995. ISBN: 0- 9513349-4-8): "Islam has caused more damage to the national dignity and honour of non-Arab Moslems than any other calamity that may have affected them, yet they believe that this faith is the ambassador of equality and human love. This is a fiction which has been presented as a fact with an unparalleled skill. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad divided humanity into two sections, the Arabs and the non-Arabs. According to this categorisation, the Arabs are the rulers and the non-Arabs are to be ruled through the yoke of Arab cultural imperialism: Islam is the means to realise this dream because its fundamentals raise superiority of Arabia sky-high, inflicting a corresponding inferiority on the national dignity of its non-Arab followers. From the Arabian point of view, this scheme looks marvellous, magnificent and mystifying . . . yet under its psychological impact the non-Arab Muslims rejoice in self-debasement, hoping to be rewarded by the Prophet with the luxuries of paradise. The Islamic love of mankind is a myth of even greater proportions. Hatred of non-Moslems is the pivot of Islamic existence. It not only declares all dissidents as the denizens of hell but also seeks to ignite a permanent fire of tension between Moslems and non-Moslems; it is far more lethal than Karl Marx's idea of social conflict which he hatched to keep his theory alive."
Or take Salman's statement to Naipaul (quoted above) about inventing Arab ancestory--"most of us are 'sayeds,' [also written as Said] descendants of Mohammed through his daughter Fatima and cousin and son-in-law Ali." Naipaul could have cited the well-known disavowal of the great Punjabi Sufi poet Bullhe Shah (1680 - 1758):
"Jehra sannu Sayed akhay dozakh milan sajaiyan/
Jehra sannu Arai akhay bahishta pinga payaia."
[Those who call me "Sayed" will be punished in hell/Those who call me "Arai" will enjoy heaven. ("Arai" refers to the low-caste of Bullhe Shah's Sufi mentor, Shah Inayat Qadiri. Bullhe Shah preferred this low caste- affiliation to the "Sayed" pretensions of his family and of many other converts.)]. A number of books on Bullhe Shah's writings are available in Pakistani and Indian libraries.
On the other hand, it's evident that Naipaul's focus on people does make his book more engaging. Here's another segment from Salman's narrative:
" Two or three years later -- Salman's father's business going down all the time -- there was another incident, this time at the end of Ramadan. Id is the great festival at the end of Ramadan, and the Id prayers are always in a congregation. Salman's father had taken the car to go to the mosque he always went to, and Salman and his brother were going on foot to look for a mosque in the neighborhood. Salman said to his brother, 'What a waste of time.'
The brother said, 'Especially when you don't even believe in it.'
Salman said, 'What? You too?'
The brother said, 'Our elder sister doesn't believe either. Don't you know?'
Salman had a high regard for his brother's intellect. The worry he had felt about losing his faith dropped away. He didn't feel he was letting down the people who had died in the riots in Jalandhar in 1947.
All three of the children of the family had lost religion. But, as his business had gone down, Salman's father had grown more devout and more intolerant. One of the festivals the family had celebrated when Salman was a child was the Basant, or Spring Festival. Now Salman's father banned it as un-Islamic, something from the Hindu pagan past. There were great quarrels with his daughter when she came from Karachi, where she lived. She was not as quiet as Salman and his brother. She spoke her mind, and the arguments could become quite heated."
Among the people whose stories are told in similar novelistic detail are Rana, a lawyer whose family's background is feudal; Shahbaz, a U.K.-raised Marxist, who spent ten years as a guerrilla in Baluchistan; Mushtaq, a teacher of English literature in Karachi, a city torn by factions fighting murderous gun-battles daily.
Commenting on the origin of the idea of Pakistan by the poet Mohammed Iqbal in a speech to the Muslim League in 1930, Naipaul writes:
"Iqbal came from a recently converted Hindu family; and perhaps only someone who felt himself a new convert could have spoken as he did...Iqbal said in an involved way that Muslims can live only with other Muslims."
Iqbal's background is detailed in Ram Nath Kak's Autumn Leaves (New Delhi: Vitasta, 1995, ISBN: 81-86588-01-9): "His grandfather, Sahaj Ram Sapru, a revenue collector, [allegedly] embezzled funds and when discovered, the Afghan governor, Azim Khan, gave him the choice of death or conversion to Islam. Sahaj Ram chose life, and assuming new names, he and his family moved to Sialkot in the Punjab. Later, Iqbal never acknowledged his native Kashmiri and Indian tradition that his grandfather had been forced to renounce. Perhaps this reveals that terror wins.
The victims wish to be like their tormentors."
Naipaul concludes his opinion of Iqbal: "Poets should not lead their people to hell.... in its short life, Iqbal's religious state, still half serf, still profoundly uneducated, mangling history in its schoolbooks as well, undoing the polity it was meant to serve."
Naipaul's chapters on Iran and Indonesia are as detailed as the chapters on Pakistan. The Malaysian section is briefer but just as revealing.
In spite of Naipaul's odd choice to exclude all citations from other publications, Beyond Belief emerges as a first-rate humanistic study of the contemporary world of Islamic converts.