Onward Muslim Soldiers

Malise Ruthven

  • Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey by V.S. Naipaul
    Deutsch, 399 pp, £7.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 233 97416 4
  • Muslim Society by Ernest Gellner
    Cambridge, 267 pp, £18.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 521 22160 9

Fourteen centuries ago the Prophet Muhammad united the tribes of Arabia under the banner of Islam and reconquered for the One True God the Holy City of Mecca which had long been a centre of pilgrimage. Within a generation his successors – the caliphs – were in control of territory stretching from the Atlantic to the Indus valley. This was not just an astonishing feat of world conquest, comparable to the feats of Alexander and the Caesars: it had religious and social implications as far-reaching as the death of Christ and the Bolshevik Revolution. While Christianity merely revitalised the ancient Roman Empire, providing it with a new legitimacy which enabled it to overcome the crises posed by nationalism and barbarian invasion, Islam created a brand new polity – in effect, the world’s first ideological state.

The Muslim world today is heir to what was at once a religious and a political aspiration. The state created by Muhammad barely survived its founder. Within four decades, it had become a monarchy ruled by the very Meccan aristocrats who had been the bitterest opponents of Muhammad’s reforms. Further dynastic changes and something approaching a social revolution only delayed the inevitable collapse. No government at that time and in that region could have held together such a vast expanse of territory. Power passed into the hands of regional governors, royal bodyguards or usurping dynasties. But the failure of Islam at the political level was compensated by its success in creating a normative social system. The lawyers and divines of the eighth and ninth centuries developed, out of the Quran and the Prophet’s Sunna (his alleged sayings and actions as originally recorded in oral tradition), a coherent system of laws governing community, family and religious life. The theocratic utopia remained an aspiration. The reality has been accurately described as a ‘divine nomocracy’. Freed from its political shackles, Islam extended itself more or less autonomously. It was brought to the remoter regions of Africa and the Far East not, on the whole, by soldiers, but by wandering scholars, merchants and holy men.

Despite its failures in the political field, Islam has never renounced its political aspirations. To do so would mean abandoning one of the pillars of the Islamic way of life: the Prophet’s Sunna. Imitatio Christi means renouncing worldly ambition and seeking salvation by deeds of private virtue. Imitatio Muhammadi must sooner or later mean taking up arms against those forces which seem to threaten the survival of Dar ul Islam, from within or from without. The Quran is full of allusions to Muhammad’s battles, to the heroism of those who took part and the cowardice of those who held back. The mujahiddin are those who struggle in God’s cause. The munafiqin are those who try to opt out, or, worse, collaborate secretly with the enemies of Islam. Both words have become part of the modern political vocabulary. The Iranian Mujahiddin (leftist supporters of Bani Sadr currently waging war upon the Ayatollahs) are described as munafiqin in the official government media.

It is a part of this fragmented and turbulent world of political Islam that V.S. Naipaul sets out to investigate in his latest book. His travels take him to Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia – countries with distinctive Islamic traditions, all of them influenced by, but not contained within, the Arab culture in which Islam made its first appearance. This is the major weakness of this otherwise brilliant book.

Islam sits more lightly on the shoulders of the Arab than of the non-Arab peoples. The Quran, with its seductive rhythms and elliptical shifting images, its pervasive life-affirming message, its promise of reward to the just and punishment to the wicked, is universally accessible only to Arabs. The Cairo taxi-driver who plays the Quran on cassettes in his cab and plasters the interior with coloured stickers containing the name of God may be pious – but not strenuously so. Islam is part of his lifestyle, but not the key to his identity. Islam and Arabism merge imperceptibly into one another. Although the two may conflict at the intellectual and political level (for example, within the ranks of the Palestinian national movement at the moment), the cultural homogeneity of Arab-Muslim society renders the conflict less intractable than it would appear at first sight. Among non-Arabs Islam is more inclined to crystallise into regimented forms and fixed images. In the popular religion of Shiite Iran, the cult of the martyred Hussein replaces that of the Book, access to which is effectively limited to members of the religious establishment. In Pakistan, the emphasis is both legalistic and utopian: hence the obsession with barbarous punishments and the constant search for the vague and amorphous ideal of a modern Islamic state. Muslim activists in the Far East become even more desperate in the search for a distinctive Muslim identity, since in these parts Islam has been superimposed on the more ancient Hindu-Buddhist culture, and feels itself constantly threatened by it. As Naipaul observes, passion for the faith increases with distance from Arabia.

Without a part of the Arab heartland to counterbalance the Islam of the periphery, Naipaul’s book inevitably creates a somewhat distorted impression. Moreover, despite his striking aperçus, his quiet sympathy for individuals and his intelligent grasp of political and social realities, he is not entirely at ease with the Muslim world and its culture. He does not appear to be widely read in its literature, even in translation. At times he maintains a fastidious detachment, a suspiciousness tinged with arrogance. He seems to lack the sense of concern, the desire to come to terms with a complex reality, which made India, A Wounded Civilisation so impressive.

As a person ‘without religious faith’ and with a Hindu family background, it is perhaps not surprising that Naipaul should have some difficulty in approaching Islam. His interest was inspired by the events in Iran, as viewed on a TV screen in Connecticut. His only previous knowledge was of the small diaspora community in his native Trinidad, viewed, necessarily with some suspicion, across the communal divide. In Iran he is understandably nervous about his origins. He tells Ayatollah Shirazi that he is a Christian – only to regret the lie, knowing it must cloud that man’s response to his questions. Though he decides never again to complicate matters like this, the sense of unease remains with him for much of the journey. The gentle and cultivated humanist is always in danger of exposure as a Hindu polytheist.

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