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Islam and non-Arab countries



The Islamic World may divided into the Arab and non-Arab states , which have very different backgrounds. From Moscow, Cameron Sawyer advises: "Read V.S. Naipaul's Beyond Belief for a fascinating treatment of Islam and Jihadism in Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia -- all non-Arab, converted peoples with ambiguous and interesting relationships to Islam". Here are extracts from a review in the India Star Review of Books:

"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 millennium 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".

Ronald Hilton - 2/12/02


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