Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s views on Islam have come into sharp focus after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001. In the context of the September 11 (Black Tuesday) attacks and the subsequent bombing of Afghanistan by America, his much-quoted and debated views on Islam and the Islamic world have gained immediate significance. However, his views on Islam have been very much in the circulation (in the media) ever since he wrote Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (1998). In this essay, I am not denying Sir Vidia what is his rightful due: the Nobel belonged to Naipaul as much as he belonged to the Nobel. There is no doubt about that. Naipaul is one of the greatest living writers in English today. In this essay, I intend to analyze Sir Naipaul’s famous remarks on Islam.
Naipaul claims that Islam asks its followers to abandon their past histories, culture, and identities. His quotes on Islam, among others, have appeared in different magazines after he won the grand prize, and here I quote him from different sources. Naipaul has been quoted to be saying, “Islam has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say ‘my ancestral culture does not exist, it does not matter’….”
Elsewhere, Naipaul is known to have said, “Islam is in its origin an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands. His sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own: he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his.”
Reading such views on Islam, two basic questions arise in my mind. What’s new about these Naipaulian claims? Before Naipaul, there have been many commentators who have expressed their unfavorable views on Islam. And secondly, are his accusations true for Islam only?
It seems Naipaul has been making sweeping generalizations apropos his views on Islam. He is used to doing that (As we know, he has also “arisen much controversy because of his politically incorrect views of the ‘half-made societies’”). One may well ask how can one say something like this about Sir Vidia. For this, and, before we go into analyzing the merits of his views, we must know how Naipaul formulates his opinions. I think knowing that is important as the act (of forming an opinion) is the result of a process (of accumulating details, of gathering information from various sources). No one takes the credit from Naipaul that he is a meticulous observer (his self-admitted role as a writer "to look and to look again, to re-look and rethink."); however, he has his own ways of making observations, which may not be agreeable to everybody. Let’s see an example.
Charudatta Deshpande who used to work with The Indian Post had the chance to spend a week in close contact with Naipaul in Bombay when he came to collect material for his book, India: A Million Mutinies, in the 80s. He writes in Gentleman (May 1989) recollecting the experience (after Naipaul has spent three hours interviewing Namdeo Dhasal):
After the interview, Naipaul thanked both Namdeo and Mallika profusely.
“On our way back to the hotel, I was surprised to hear him comment: “Very superficial people, without depth. Don’t you think so?
“I don’t agree with you. We met only thrice and that too, formally. I don’t want to refute your observation but I feel because of the language and cultural differences, they may not have expressed themselves fully in the interview.
“I don’t think so. I don’t think they had much more to offer than what they have already given us,” said Naipaul.
Clearly, Naipaul is not known to entertain views other than his own. From the above quoted interaction, one could imagine the personal liberties taken by Sir Vidia while formulating his opinions about people and culture. I find his style dangerous and unbalanced. [Excuse me for digressing here: I have similar feelings about his views on E. M. Forster. How does it matter if Forster was a homosexual? If a writer’s moral uprightness is so central to his standards of judgment, then why is Naipaul so oblivious to his own shortcomings? Paul Theroux has a lot to say about him on this score.]
Naipaul posits that Islam asks the converts to deny their ancestral culture. How can it happen? To any educated Muslim, there is no doubt about the historical veracity that he has studied in the textbooks. In that sense, say for an Indian Muslim, Asoka and Budhha and Shivaji and Babar are part of his heritage. If you ask an educated Indian Muslim, he would not be dismissive about his heritage. He would find, as I found out, his heritage—Islamic or un-Islamic—rather ennobling—a source of mixed baggage to learn from, to make this life worth living.
Naipaul says, “Islam is in its origin an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands.” It is true that Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, was revealed in Arab. The seed of this faith, like any other faith, traveled to different parts of the world from that epicentre. However, it is a misnomer to label it as an Arab religion. This term gives the impression that it (Islam) was meant only for the Arabs. A Priori, it may also imply that those non-Arabs who converted to this faith were somehow illegitimate or inferior in doing so. However, it was Islam, which preached the message that no one—Arab, non-Arab, white, black, tall, short—is superior or inferior to any one else, except in terms of piety. Naipaul’s second assertion is historically unsound. The fact is, even the first generation Muslims who became Muslims on the call of prophet Mohammad were converts—converts from their pagan faiths. Not even the prophet was a born Muslim. After he got enlightenment, only then did he become the messenger of God. Taking the logic further, can we ask if we can call the Europeans converted Christians or the American Jews as converts?
Naipaul says, “a convert’s worldview alters.” Really? I don’t think so. If I’m a convert, how does it affect my worldview for it is as good or as bad as any of my non-convert (read Hindu!!) fellow Indian? Therefore, I fail to understand how my worldview is going to be affected by the fact that I am a convert or not. However, my logic says that one’s education (plus the quality of education) can definitely affect one’s worldview. Then what is Naipaul hinting here? Is he identifying Islam as a faith with an automatic and in-built ignorance (towards the outside world) that it infuses in is followers?
Naipaul says that his (a convert’s) holy places are in Arab lands.
True (and what’s wrong with that?). But also sacred are the local neighborhood mosques, the dargahs, and the famous mausoleums of the innumerable saints. For example, for the Indian Muslims, the dargah of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz is so sacred. Similarly, if one can ask Naipaul what’s wrong if the Jews and the Christians have their holy places in the Arab land?
Naipaul says that his (a convert’s) sacred language is Arabic.
True. But what’s wrong with that? It does not take away, for example, the convert’s love for one’s mother tongue (Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, etc.)! Now for decades in India and Pakistan, we have been reading the Holy Quran in Urdu and English to understand its meaning. Mustafa Kemal Pasha allowed prayers be said in Turkish instead of Arabic. Things change and people adapt things to their convenience. (Must I add here that the Jewish language is sacred to the Jews and I see no problems with that? Does Naipaul need to be reminded that once the Bible was supposed to be sacrosanct in Greek only? Has he forgotten what commotion it created when it was first translated into German?)
Naipaul says, “Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands.”
True. But also true is that fact that this is the case with almost all the religions. The only thing or distinction about Islam is that it is the most recent religion, and hence the most strident. It came to the world through Prophet Mohammad only some 1400 years ago, and hence it is the Islamic countries/societies in the world, which are experiencing tumultuous conditions of historical change. Some of the Islamic countries are as new as 30 years (Bangladesh). Societies take time to settle down peacefully with their past in the face of a changed present.
Naipaul asks why this tumult only in the Islamic societies? It is because of Islam’s historical recency that we come across tumultuous situations in the Islamic societies.
Let’s go a little deeper.
The fact is very simple. Any new idea or religion, which enters a society, seeks rejection of the old. Rather, the acceptance of this new idea is based on the premise that the old is not reasonable any more, and hence it’s abandonment, and the embracing of the new faith. What’s discarded in the process is what had become old, trite, and useless—a part of the process of cultural/ideological evolution. What is left behind is what is historically moribund. History is witness to this process. For instance, when Christianity came to Europe, did it not replace the pagan faiths in the continent? People accepted Christianity because they found it more acceptable than what they previously believed in. So, what was wrong with Christianity? Similarly when the Aryans came to India with a new faith and lifestyle, did they not change or affect the cultural and ideological space of those who had been living here. That is the process of historical evolution. It is irrational to think that this will not happen in societies.
We all know that the communal divide that we see in India is the construct of the British colonials. First they captured power in different Indian states with the help of Muslims. After the 1857 revolt, they lost their trust in their Muslim collaborators. Then they thought of promoting the Hindus as their new allies. This is how the policy of divide and rule started in India. We all know this. The British sowed the seeds of this “Hindu Muslim divide” canard not only to strengthen their hold on India but also to justify their imperialistic policies to their own people. Let me quote from a conversation between two working class British citizens, Tom and Jim, in London from Sajjad Zaheer’s novel London Ki Ek Raat (1938) [Like Naipaul, Zaheer studied in England]. The setting is a pub where both of them are having drinks:
“Tom!” Jim said slowly. “If we leave India what’ll happen to that country? We read in the newspapers that there the Hindus and Muslims are the followers of two different religions and they always fight with each other. They are each other’s sworn enemies. If we don’t maintain peace in India and get out of that country, there is the danger of a bloody civil strife there.”
This dialogue clearly shows how the British systematically developed and disseminated this “Hind-Muslim divide” lie that the common man in England believed it to be an original characteristic of India (and not a British construct of power which it actually was).
If we look into Naipaul’s writings, we find that he first dug up his Hindu past. Then he declared that the Muslim invaders were responsible for destroying all that was good and great in India. I admire Naipaul’s sincerity of exploration and investigation, but where he fails, which he himself does not realize, is his falling into the trap of political history as Hindu history and Muslim history. This was how the colonial historiographers had started to give a communal interpretation to history. The fact is history is not about the religions of the historical cast. It is about the victors (stronger people or ideas) and the vanquished (weaker people or ideas). Seen from this viewpoint, one finds Naipaul a victim of the colonial mindset. No wonder he studied in England, and he still wears a hat.
Today Islam is the only religion, which is as big as the Christian faith. It is the only challenger to Christianity. What the West fears is the takeover of Christianity by Islam. In the Western world, the number of Non-Muslims converting to Islam is hopping. The West was smug when it converted people in the poor countries in Asia and Africa. Now it is alarmed when the East is taking away their own people (Americans, Europeans) into their folds.
What the British construct of “divide and rule” did to India in the colonial times, Samuel Huntington has done it to the world in the post cold war scenario. (More examples: The Nazis vs. the Non-Aryans; the Communists vs. the people with a God!). After September the 11th the Huntington era (The West vs. Islam) has begun. And in such times, perhaps no author is more relevant than Naipaul, and perhaps that’s why he has been bestowed with the Nobel Prize.
Summing up, I’d like to sign off with the comments from my friend, Yousuf Saeed, a Delhi-based filmmaker and journalist, who had the following to share on this subject. It is an Indian Muslim’s complaint to the legend we know as V. S. Naipaul:
“Naipaul claims that people who accepted Islam wrote off their pre-Islamic past. This must be true for countries like Egypt, Turkey, Tunis, Malaysia, and Iran, which Naipaul traveled in, and wrote about. But unfortunately, the country he forgot to travel to is his own India. He grossly underestimates the past and present of Muslims in India, which has the world’s second largest Muslim population, and would, in many ways, present an antithesis to his theories. Notwithstanding the current trends of the ‘Wahabization’ of Islam here, a large number of Indian Muslims, especially in small towns and villages, still carry a lot of their pre-Islamic cultural past. To begin with, one could simply visit either the local dargah (mausoleum) of a Muslim saint, or the observance of Muharram by typical Shia communities, and see for oneself the traditions, rituals, and iconography that has been carried over from the Hindu past. It is possible (and there are historical evidences of it) that similar multicultural scenarios may have existed in other Muslim countries prior to the recent trend of purification of Islam. And one needs to investigate this issue entirely before coming up with such generalization.”