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Book Review- Among The Believers- An Islamic Journey: By V S Naipaul

Faith is a dangerous thing. Faith serves its purpose when the life is in disarray and you have run out of option. It is of great import in the moments when the despair so deep that it is impossible for human soul to climb out of it.
Some times your best efforts are not good enough to rescue you from the morbid world you find yourself stuck in and events around you change irreversibly for the worse around you with such alacrity that even right response is unfathomable, let alone right resolution. At moments like that faith comes you, joins at your shoulder as wings and lifts you up from the squalid situation that life has thrown you in. It brings in hope, light and optimism in the moments of darkest desperation.
But it becomes a habit, a refuse. It takes effort to bear helplessness and requires industry to introduce a ray of hope in otherwise dark circumstances. Then this angel turns into a devil. This brave book, Among the Believers refers this corrosion of faith. The believers he refers to are the followers of Islam in Asia. He takes a fresh look at the events that formed the Muslim nations of Asia and puts with great lucidity what he finds in his journey which begins from Iran, right after the revolution which overthrew the Shah and placed on the pulpit, Ayatollah Khomeini. With exceptional balance of neutrality and great incisive insight he takes a psycho-philosophical look at the people who embraced Islam as a nationality and adopted citizenship of greater Islam, which transcends the national boundaries.
He is analyses and seeks with the neutrality of a student, but he does not hold himself back. Landing in Iran, he finds the society in rupture, post revolution. The recipe is perfect for gloom, but he finds faith holding the people back. The food is scarce, the riches are lost, but people still are satisfied that Islam has finally prevailed. It is not very uncommon for the people on the other side of the faith, to stand perplexed. It is even in India, a very baffling to find Muslims in Kashmir or elsewhere screaming at times to want to secede as independent nation, obviously a religious nation, and happily open to the possibility of joining in to the Muslim state of Pakistan. This, notwithstanding the dire state of Pakistan economy, standard of living and prospect of growth. Only thing which drives them is to come true to the faith and be among the believers. This is neither logical nor comprehensible.
It is also very similar to people coming out on the streets in full force at a mere hint of any danger to their religion. The same people who are willing to shed blood for the cause of religion, of theirs and others who they view as their opponent and in adverse position to their religious beliefs, are not ready to even do a march on the streets for getting better career for themselves and education and food for their families. They are contended to live in the ghettos in inhuman condition as long as the faith is served. This is confounding and insults human intellect. Naipaul refers to his lost guide in Iran, Behzad, lost between religion and communism and says, "Islam was a complicated religion. It wasn't philosophical or speculative. It was a revealed religion with a Prophet and a complete set of rules." Behzad's dilemma is even grave. He is floating between two faiths, Islam and communism, both demanding subservience of any intellectual examination, governed by set of rules which floats above the scrutiny of logic. But the very logic which Naipaul places claiming the religion to be complicated, turns out to be the very reason as to why Islam is simple. There is no room for doubt and sharpened logic to come to concurrence any of the demand religion places on you as a believer. This is a religion beyond reason and reproach, and thus easy to follow especially to those who are wary or ill-equipped to reason. It in fact is likely to thrive on them.
Naipaul moves around in freshly Islamized Iran, writhing under failing economy, still jubilant at the victory of the religion. Newly  liberated from the autocratic Shah, they find hope in religion. But religion has nothing to offer but to demand more of religion. The dream of happiness and prosperity in Quom is far and distant. He does not analyse and dissects from outside, Naipaul allows the people he meets to demonstrate the point. The dichotomy of west bashing comes alive when he refer a woman debating and blasting the west on television when he says," An American or non-Islamic education had given the woman with the chador her competence and authority...Now she appeared to be questioning the value of the kind of person she had become, she was denying some of her own gifts." He flays in air the unreal sense of freedom in Islamic state of Iran, when he mentions, "With true Islam, there was freedom"..and then qualifies it with.."(He meant)..the freedom to be Islamic and Shia, to be divinely ruled." One immediately notices the Hobson's choice presented to the citizens. The people, the poor, who chased a Utopia in which the meek shall inherit the wealth and prosperity, went ahead and support religion as a panacea to all that ailed the society hugely divided between the perished and the prosperous in Shah's time.

There lies the big mistake. Ideology can not substitute governance, even the religious ones. Naipaul says, people think that the ills of the society can be best addressed by Brotherhood, honesty, the will to work and proper recompense for labour. In a sense, one would feel they are right in thinking so. The problem happens when ideology is presented wrapped in all the four. Islam as an ideology is presented to the people wrapped in all these four principles. It seems so similar to how communism was window dressed. Ideologies are nothing but ideas based on logic. When it is wrapped with the basic human panacea, you restrict it from test of logic. It is like a poor marketing plan, where you offer something one needs but makes it mandatory to be sold with something which does not address clear need of the consumer. Thus communism was sold to people, and similarly Islam in Iran was handed over to people who stood behind its success as a polity. Naipaul here puts a simple question, "Why not for those four things? Why go beyond those four things?". Which is a valid question. The answer possibly is because the four things which every human being wants, has stood the test of human evolution and is beyond scrutiny. When an ideology is wrapped in these basic existential requirement it is no longer an ideology. It becomes an Idea, a divine idea, which is beyond the reproach or test of logic. The idea becomes supreme once it gains the power and other tenets which are used to get the buy-in of the masses are discarded.

Author's next stop is in Pakistan. He takes a very different view of the formation of Pakistan. It looks at the basic mistake in how the state based in religion was built. The decision was made to form Pakistan out of the areas of undivided India where Muslims were in majority. There was a mistake. Muslims were not facing insecurity in the areas where they were in majority, for obvious reasons, there was insecurity in areas where they were minority. Unfortunately the philosophy behind the formation of Pakistan left those most insecure in India. They were left with no choice but to move into the newly minted state, with the promise of Islam as the source of liberation. The existing inhabitants did not much like inflow, which they felt would eat into their resources. They were not insecure, they were safe and prosperous, and now they had to share their prosperity with people who were the cause of the creation of new Pakistan. It was not their cause and they had to pay for it. The new migrants moved in with high hopes but landed in to a society which was not that welcoming. They lost their roots and Islam was a substitute of those roots which they left behind. Religion was the only hope. The faith was so deeply etched in their hurt psyche, that they went into denial. They would not believe that it is poor governance which is holding back their prosperity and well being. They would not believe that they are failed by faith, which they tried to use as a substitute to good governance and polity. They would rather believe ,"Men were bad...They didn't live up to the faith. In Pakistan, says Naipaul, that was nearly always where you ended." He mentions how Pakistan came into being, built on hate when he says," They had double hate. They hated the foreigners and they hated Hindus. So the country of Pakistan was based on hate and nothing else."

The author then moves to Malaysia,  a nation breaking free of its Hindu-Buddhist past in search of Islam and arising as an Islamic nation with hatred for the Chinese. He looks at the psychological gap which the people who have written off their own history are left with. He writes about it stating, "He (The Malay) existed in limbo. He felt that as a Malay he had nothing." Malaysia is touched briefly (at least as compared to other countries of his visit in quest to understand the Islamic thought), as Naipaul quickly moves to Indonesia.

Indonesia is the most lucid and most poetic part of the book. The story of Indonesia begins with the near total annihilation of three hundred years of Dutch history. After Pakistan, this is a country which Naipaul touches most intimately. He meets Suryadi, and offers an interesting insight, very personal, when he writes about his daughter. The daughter felt in love with a born again Muslim, in whose love, she a graduate, sub-ordinates her intellect, much to the chagrin of her father. It feels so much like old world India, when Prasojo, the young guide of Naipaul mentions the difference between America and India and mentioned that ," People would in Indonesia be going to the house of a friend, going for no reason, only for the reason of friendship. The boy's mother- in Arizona- would say,'What do you want? Which, in Indonesia, was rude."

The play of words creates a portrait so vivid, when Naipaul travels in the countryside of Indonesia, as he goes around trying to understand the truth about pesantren. He mentions who Indonesia grew from a stage of almost non-religious living when he refers about the period after communism was overthrown and people of Prambanam decided "that they should declare themselves Hindus. The trouble was that they didn't know what they should do as Hindus." It calls for exceptional courage when he mentions the flaw in the construction of nations based on religion-"Islam appeared to raise political issues. But it had the flaw of its origins- the flaw that ran right through Islamic history: to the political issues it raised it offered no political or practical solution. It offered only faith." How this flawed thinking has impacted the discourse is pointed when he refers to a discussion, " Most of the Muslims are in the rural areas. Muslims, Muslims..laments Naipaul: He used the word where other people might have said Indonesian."

A very brave book, equally enjoyable and thought provoking. Not to be missed.

Rating: 4/5



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