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Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey Kindle Edition
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The Qu'ran forbids the charging of interest on loans: how then to institute a banking system in a society governed by Islamic law? Naipul meets with an official grappling with this very problem when he visits Pakistan, and the problem is simultaneously bemoaned by one group and kicked down the road by another, to a future where people are "True Muslims" and such problems solve themselves.
Naipul meets many people who are struggling to assimilate a very complex world into the very simple one revealed in a book. Their ultimate success or failure is left open ended, but Naipul is obviously pessimistic about their chances.
I enjoyed reading this book for the insights it gave into the thinking of the people powering the Islamic revolutions and counter-revolutions in the Middle East. In some cases they slot with depressing ease into the cynical stereotypes I had of "faithful ignorant" types, and in others they have a complex understanding of the forces at work in their society. The reality of their situation makes them feel powerless to help themselves while their faith lets them feel optimistic about the future.
I am giving this book four stars instead of five because in some places it was boring, but these places were rare and brief.
I feel cheated. Grrrrrr.
Before commenting further, let it be said that I do not consider this a scientific or systematic survey of Islam itself, and the number of people Mr. Naipaul spoke with obviously cannot represent a statistically relevant population. Also, in a seven month journey, we cannot know how many people he talked to that he ultimately chose not to write about, or why. That being said, it should be considered an admirable effort. I myself found the book very interesting, quite readable, and thought provoking, and think it is good material upon which to start one’s personal journey into a better understanding of Islam and the way its adherents view the modern world.
Mr. Naipaul has a disconcertingly direct way of speaking that will sometimes strike a reader as rude or arrogant. Based on my reading of other East Indian literature and my personal interactions with people from that culture, I recognized this as nothing more than a communication style specific to the culture, and was able to avoid giving it more weight than it deserves. A person from the American southeast might feel the same way when visiting upper New England.
After making those allowances, it can be said that Mr. Naipaul definitely challenges critically what he hears, and puts some very hard questions to some of his interviewees. Some of them may not have thought about some of those things until he first asked them. By his tone, the reader may not always find Mr. Naipaul a sympathetic judge. The end result is that he has more effectively captured Islam’s contradictions vis-à-vis the modern world than he has the essence of Islam itself. He also speaks often of a certain “rage” which seems to be to be born of the inability to resolve these contradictions.
This book was written in the early 1980s but I believe much of it is still relevant today.
In Pakistan, Mr. Naipaul considers the contradictions inherent in the fact that Pakistan is largely a remittance economy that sends its labor force out of the country to earn a living. These emigrants, to gain entry to those other countries, “appeal to the ideals of the alien civilizations whose virtues they reject at home.” This is a recurrent theme. He takes not of the desire of a reporter to both remain Islamic while exploiting the tolerance and openness of the other civilization. “I felt…that Islam had achieved community and a kind of beauty, had given people a feeling of completeness—if only the world outside could be shut out, and men could be made to forget what they knew.” And further: “The West…is emotionally rejected. It undermines; it threatens, but at the same time it is needed, for its machines, goods, medicines, warplanes, remittances, hospitals…All the rejection of the West is contained within the assumption that there will always exist out there a living, creative civilization, oddly neutral, open to all to appeal to…[having this attitude] is to be parasitic.” Finally, Mr. Naipaul is told about a fundamentalist who died in Boston, having gone there to look for health, entrusting himself (as Mr. Naipaul expresses it) to the skill and science of the civilization he had tried to shield his followers from., to reap where he had not wanted his people to sow. These comments capture the essence of the modern contradiction.
There is an interesting detour into a meeting with an Ahmadi. Ahmadi Muslims are rejected by the rest of Islam as heretics, and as such, may suggest themselves as an Islamic counterpart of Mormons (who many Christians reject as non-Christian, although they themselves would not say so).
In Malaysia, the tension between the Malays and the Chinese has Islam superimposed upon it. There is an acknowledged recognition of the fact that modern Malaysia is a construct of British and Chinese labor, and that this has more or less shut out the native Malay, leaving him lost. “Now they have a weapon, Islam. It is their way of getting even with the world. It serves their grief, their feeling of inadequacy, their social rage and racial hate.” The contradiction is well-embodied in Shafi, “a professional man, an organizer—[who] had been made by the world he rejected; that was the world that has released his intelligence." A girl he meets takes exception to the presence of the Chinese, telling him that the Malays could be good business people if they didn’t have the Chinese. The girl’s family had come from Indonesia 40 years before, but “she could consider herself a Malaysian. After a hundred years and more, the Chinese--who had made her country, were still immigrants."
In Indonesia, Islam does not seem to fit tradition so well. The new Muslim cause is known as “the Malaysian disease” by some, including one man whose daughter has converted. Again the difficulty of functioning in the modern world becomes evident. One interesting comment was about people “some of [whom] have been abroad, but...many people whose bodies had been abroad but whose minds have stayed in the country...They can't function outside Indonesia." The great civilization of Indonesia’s past is Hindu, and many of its buildings are Hindu. One man observes with scorn that the Indonesian embassy in Canberra (Australia) is a Hindu building. When Naipaul points out that Borobudur and Prambanam (places in Indonesia with a Hindu heritage) are great Indonesian monuments, the man claims that “Borobudur is something for the international community to look after.” Naipaul observes that “the international community, the universal civilization: providers of tape recorders and psychological games and higher degrees in electrical engineering; and now, also, guardians of Indonesian art and civilization.” And later: "History like a divine ledger, guarded, like so many things, by the other civilization."
Late in this section he concludes that "Islam sanctified rage--rage about the faith, political rage: one could be like the other. And more than once on this journey I had met sensitive men who were ready to contemplate great convulsions.” One man he met in Sulawesi in Indonesia was full of this rage. He did not like the kind of people that had gotten ahead in the developing economy, and at one point, saying that he wanted to pull down the state that had enabled him to rise, had said "We have to kill a lot of people. We have to kill one or two million of these Javanese."
Back in Pakistan again, he reflects on a journalist he had met on his first trip through, finding himself irritated by the journalist’s implicit assumption that “…while Pakistan and the faith remained what they were, special and apart--the outside world was there to be exploited…"
All in all, this book is not the last word on Islam by any means, and should not even be considered religious text. For that, one should read many of the other books whose clear purpose is to explain the religion. The goal of this book, I believe, is to allow the reader to get inside the minds and thinking of a few people trying to embrace this as the “total way of life” that the ideal Islam intends. I gave it four stars because I felt it met this goal, and because it was interesting and very readable. I judged Mr. Naipaul an excellent writer based on many prior fiction works of his that I have read, but this is the first of his books I have read that is non-fiction.
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