V.S. Naipaul and Islam

V.S. Naipaul and Islam

Written by

PROF U. MUHAMMAD IQBAL

Published on

Vidiadhar Seepersad Naipaul is gifted, like other creative artists, with a fresh and original observation and communicative skill clear and daring. Still the pull of upbringing and immediate surroundings is too overwhelming for any individual to make an unerring assessment of either the self within or the spectacle without. In a long interview given to Tarun J. Tejpal and published in the Outlook, V.S. Naipaul (VSN) is prevailed upon to talk about Islam, on which he has written two books, Among the Believers and Beyond Belief, separated by a long span of 17 years.
1. “Islam is in its origins essentially an Arab religion.” VSN makes this remark, overlooking the fact that for every movement there must be a place of origin, and it must be conceded that he gives a broad perspective. To be precise Islam could have been described as of Makkan origin. He ignores the fact that Islam had several points of origin and renewal. God sent to every nation His Messengers with the message that they should worship and serve Him only and no one else and that they should live in such a way that they should come out successful on the Day of Judgment. According to one version, the renewing prophets may number 124,000. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are some of them. If VSN has Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him) in his mind, he is not wide of the mark, but again he overlooks the elements of pre-Muhammadan origin in the composition and the practice of Islam. He is unaware that in Lebanon, Christian Arabs outnumber the native Muslim Arabs. There are many Arabs in other countries who reject Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him). Just because Islam was renewed in the Arabian Peninsula, it does not follow that Islam should be equated and identified with Arabism. Islam is in perennial tune with undoctored human nature and has irresistible potential to win human hearts the world over. Its renewal in Arabia does not regionalise Islam.
2. “People who are not Arabs, and who become Muslims are regarded by Arabs as converts.”
VSN makes this observation but the purpose is not clear. Perhaps, he intends to tell non-Arab Muslims that their Islam is either suspect or inferior in the eyes of the Muslim (?) Arabs. He might have come across such Arabs who might have aired such a view before him. In these days of ethnic cleansing, such prejudices may be strong, widespread, and enjoying a new lease of life and VSN may be justified in giving publicity to such an attitude. What he overlooks is that Arabs, holding such an attitude, turn a deaf ear to the Prophet’s pronouncement that “No Arab is superior to a non-Arab.” The right to determine who is superior rests exclusively with Allah. St. Francis of Assisi says, “A man’s worth is what he is in the sight of God and no more.” Moreover, the Arabs who accepted Islam in the first instance were converts too. What justification the present-day Arabs have to claim that they are converts no longer is equally relevant and applicable to the present-day non-Arab Muslims.
3. “When a person from outside the Arab world becomes a Muslim he is required by the faith to reject all his past. In a curious way then, it is quite opposed to the modern ideas of, shall we say, heritage, modern ideas of history and enquiry. The past has to be rejected and the convert’s eyes fixed on Makkah, that is all that concerns him. The ruins of the holy places of Makkah are his holy places; there are no holy places outside.”
These remarks seem to give an impression that, in the considered view of VSN, non- Arabs should keep aloof from Islam because conversion to Islam results in the rejection of one’s past, one’s heritage, one’s history and this rejection is a tragedy of indescribable magnitude. VSN seems to be in the company of some political stalwarts in our country, India, who accuse Muslims of extra-territorial loyalty and who frown upon them for going to Makkah on a pilgrimage. If these stalwarts are of the opinion that there are no holy places outside India, they are totally justified and there is nothing exceptionable in their attitude!
Islam calls upon its followers to believe in Allah, the one and only Lord of the worlds, to follow the teachings enshrined in the Qur’an, a book of guidance for the whole humanity, and to accept Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bless and greet him) as the role model par excellence. It is not clear how these demands of Islam entail the total rejection of the past.
Islam gives a set of values in whose light several aspects of one’s past can be evaluated. What militates against the criterion of Islam will have to be rejected and what does not militate against it need not be rejected.
Allama Iqbal wrote a poem in praise of Sri Rama. Is this a rejection of the past? Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt asserted, “We are the children of the Pharaohs.” This is not a rejection of the past. If there was a protest against this statement, it was because of the pejorative connotation that the word ‘Pharaoh’ had accumulated down the ages and associated with the story of Moses. It should be noted that the Pharaohs were supposed to have Arab ancestry. The first President of independent Indonesia was called ‘Sukarno’ and this name was derived from a character in the Mahabharata. Is this also an example of the rejection of one’s past, heritage, and history? Personally speaking, I am fascinated by Prahlada of the Hindu mythology.
If Makkah is given central importance among the regions of the world, it is because of the fact that the first place of worship dedicated to the Lord of the worlds was built there. Even in times prior to Prophet Muhammad (May Allah bless and greet him), the city of Makkah enjoyed unique centrality. Why should Muslims be condemned for perpetuating an attitude of reverence towards Makkah?
VSN talks of the ‘ruins’ of the holy places of Makkah. Where are those ruins? Makkah is not a Pompeii or a Humpi; it is a flourishing city, holding its own against the ravages of time. It was a slip of his tongue to use the word ‘ruins’. However, the slip is revealing. It may be his deep-rooted desire to see Makkah in ruins. It is Allah who will decide how long Makkah should survive.
VSN is less than just when he says, “There are no holy places outside.” He forgets that, during the larger part of the Prophet’s dispensation, it was Jerusalem that the early converts faced while praying. Allah says in the Qur’an about Jerusalem “whose precincts We did bless”. (17:1) Isn’t Jerusalem outside Makkah?
VSN is not aware, perhaps, of the Prophet’s declaration that the whole earth is a mosque. Does this declaration mean that there are no holy places outside Makkah?
A mind nourished by a geo-political concept of a nation-state may not observe anything splendid or sacred outside his country. The Qur’an stimulates cosmic consciousness and encourages its followers to have an integrated vision of the earth as a whole.
To describe reverence for Makkah as a “profound kind of colonialism” is in fact a rejection of the past, of history and of heritage. Reverence for Makkah is a reverence for the role that Makkah had played in integrating the whole of the Arabian Peninsula through the heritage site of the Ka’ba, and for the historical role of Prophet Abraham, and it is a reverence for the role that Makkah is at present playing in integrating the world through the seminal message of Islam. VSN is guilty of the very act that he accuses Muslims of perpetrating, the guilt of rejecting the past, history, and heritage.
4. “What I suppose is peculiar to Islam is this rejection of History, one’s own history; this insistence on the sacred language being Arabic; in Malaysia now you have this group of fanatics who would like Arabic to become the language of Malaysia, it is a small group but they represent the way the converts can move.”
Repeatedly, VSN emphasizes that non-Arab Muslims disown their history.( There is a vociferous demand in India that Muslims should have affinity towards the religious icons of the Hindu mythology even though the Indian Muslims are proud of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa and the great mathematicians and astronomers of India.) What he means is that they prefer Makkah to their own country, and Arabic to their own mother-tongue. This is an example of ‘fanaticism’. Isn’t it strange that a broader and inclusive outlook accommodating other languages and countries than one’s own should be branded ‘fanaticism’? Perhaps, in his view Mustafa Kemal Pasha, Ataturk of Turkey, is a convert with whom he will have no quarrel!
VSN can look at the whole issue from a different angle. A person who sees greatness in other parts of the world should be appreciated for his cosmopolitan outlook and not condemned as unpatriotic. If Sir William Jones loved India, should he be faulted? If a Malay loves Makkah, why should he be faulted? To say that one can have reverence for Kasi or Prayag or Lourdes but one should have no reverence for Makkah seems to be a case of peculiar anti-Semiticism!
One community can exert its utmost for the revival and spread of Sanskrit. It is justified because it is its own language. Another community can stake its all to retrieve Hebrew from oblivion. It is also justified because it is its language, and a part of its history and tradition. Why should the Malays espouse the cause of Arabic? It is not justified because they are colonized by Islam even though the force of arms has not been used.
If the people of South Asia love English, should they be faulted? If a few Malays love Arabic, why should contempt be reserved for them?
It may be the wish of the Muslims that Arabic should be the international lingua franca, replacing English. The authenticity of this wish should not be dismissed as a surrender to religious colonialism.
VSN ignores the belief of the Muslims that the Qur’an is not the only Book revealed by Allah. Other Prophets also were privileged to receive God’s revelations in their respective mother-tongues. If Arabic is entitled to reverence as a medium of divine revelation, other media are entitled to similar reverence too. This is a Muslim attitude. How is it perverse? Arabic as a living spoken language has an advantage lost by many other media of divine revelation.
5. “They wished to reject the antiquated systems some of which were Hindu customs like marriage customs, so the requirements are really quite awesome, also tyrannical.”
VSN is unhappy that the people of Malaysia rejected some Hindu customs of marriage and they did so because Islam required it of them.
Islam is not against local customs which do not violate the Islamic ethos.
Conversion to Islam does entail a new approach to social institutions like marriage and VSN should not become sentimental over the renunciation of certain customs.
6. “Islam is not a religion of private conscience; it is not just a matter of meditation, it’s a religion of declaration, a religion of rules, of strict adherence to the Prophet who is considered Final.”
Religions are of different kinds. Hinduism is one kind of religion; Islam is another kind. Is it right to demand that all religions should be like Hinduism?
VSN says that Islam is radically different from Hinduism wherein meditation is important. He is right when he says that Islam is full of social ideas. His quarrel with Islam in this passage is based on three counts. The first thing is that the distinction between right and wrong is not a matter of private conscience but a matter of religion and society. The second thing is that the Pillars of Islam are strengthened by every possible means. The third thing is that the Prophet (May Allah bless and greet him) is considered a model par excellence and the final arbiter.
If religion has a social dimension, then the standpoint of Islam is justified. Islam is a divinely approved scheme of welfare for the humanity at large and this scheme works through the promotion of what is good and the eradication of what is evil in the individual sphere as well as the collective sphere of human existence and Muslims are an organized volunteer force cutting across all barriers and permeated with a sense of dedication to Allah.
If this global volunteer force is inspired by the shining example of the Prophet (May Allah bless and greet him), the inspiration is valid and natural. On the strong evidence of the Qur’an, Muslims believe that he is the last Prophet. If John the Baptist or Jesus Christ can be described as the last Jewish Prophet, why can’t Prophet Muhammad be described as the last Prophet? If the last avatar claims to be the last avatar, his claim will not be assailed. Similarly, the Prophet’s claim and the Muslim belief that he is the final Prophet need not be called into question.
7.“This is where we get into all kinds of troubles immediately with fundamentalists, who believe that what was said by the Prophet or supposed to be said by him remains hard and fast for all time, regardless of the change.”
This extract gives VSN’s definition of ‘fundamentalists’. They are the defenders of Islam who are ever on the lookout to nip the evil of disinformation campaign against Islam in the bud. They are the people who put complete trust in the Prophet’s observations and ignore the fact that the compulsions of history clamour for a change and not for a rigid adherence to rules and regulations enunciated in a particular place and at a particular stage in human history.
A certain balance is required between rigidity and flexibility. If a community has a sense of identity and destiny, it can ill-afford to be severed from its doctrinaire base and cultural moorings and it is here that a certain element of rigidity is required and this element is provided by the Qur’an and Sunnah. The world is in a state of constant flux and there occur changes beyond human expectation and control. New challenges, new situations, new technological advances call for a certain flexibility and it is provided by Islam through qiyas and ijtihad. VSN ignores this in-built device of Islam to keep abreast of the evolutionary changes of institutional dimensions.
The Prophet’s word is final in matters religious and scriptural and in the sphere of eternal verities wherein radical changes neither occur nor are anticipated. In matters other than these, in matters such as agriculture, our beloved Prophet (May Allah bless and greet him) has granted freedom to his followers to adhere to conventions or to learn by trial and error.
As the Prophet (May Allah bless and greet him) is the last Prophet, he will remain relevant to the world and humanity for all times to come and no other Prophet will supersede him and no other scripture will be revealed after the Qur’an.
8. “We need to look at the position of women.”
VSN may have purdah, polygamy, denial of education and equality before law, laws of inheritance, etc. in mind. He may subscribe to the views advocated by certain people in India on the question of the Muslim Personal Law. The enlightened sections among Muslims are seized of the need to give a better deal to Muslim women. In the light of the Qur’an and Sunnah, better prospects for Muslim women can be ensured. Three Muslim women have had the privilege of becoming Prime Ministers in the Muslim world. It is a matter of satisfaction that the freedom to wear a scarf, which was long denied, has been recently restored to the university-going women students in Turkey.
9. “The brutal restatement of the faith, I think, is isolating the Islamic world more and more, and growth and intellectual life can only come if the mind opens up. As it is, all the answers are being given, there is no room for further discussion.”
What exactly has led VSN to refer to ‘the brutal restatement of the faith’? Does he refer to the Islamic Revolution of Iran? Does he refer to Sudan, Turkey, or Algeria where people’s faith in Islam showed strong signs of revival? He talks about the ‘isolation’ of the Islamic world. This isolation may be partly due to certain acts of extremism resorted to by a few frustrated and brutally suppressed elements among the Muslims who drew inspiration from sources other than Islam.(The recent Deoband Declaration passed by the top-ranking Indian scholars of Islam has made it absolutely clear that Islam disowns all forms of terrorism.) This isolation may be partly due to international conspiracies aimed at destabilizing the Muslim countries and driving a wedge between them and keeping them tied to the apron strings of the West. The treatment given to the Palestinians and the Muslims of the Balkans cannot be blamed on Islam.
He says, “All the answers are being given”. He is irritated and is not convinced by the answers. He says, “There is no room for further discussion.” What discussion remains with a person who wants the reconstruction of Islam to make it a religion of meditation and to divest Islam of its social and political ethos. Like Pauline Christianity, he wants, perhaps, a Naipauline Islam!
In a dialogue initiated by him a stage comes when it has to be folded up, and we have to wait until God’s judgment is pronounced. “So turn away from them and wait: they are waiting too.” (The Qur’an, 32:30)
10. “Clearly, the idea of tolerance, the other faith has to become part of a revivified Islam.”
Islam is a proselytising religion and its mission to convert others is a demonstration of intolerance, according to people like VSN. An attempt to convert smacks of neurosis, a mental aberration! Some people are of opinion that caste and religion are synonymous and predetermined by fate and that it is futile to renounce one’s ancestral religion as it is to dare to cast off one’s caste.
Islam favours conversion through persuasion and not through coercion and allurements. From this world’s point of view, conversion in one sense is but a recruitment drive for new members to execute the divinely ordained task of enjoining what is right and what is wrong and upholding belief in Allah. It is a drive for success and survival against contending and clashing ideologies and cultures.
From the point of view of the Hereafter, conversion is to underscore Islam’s stake in the saving of souls from the horrors of hell. Elizabeth Goudge says, “Conversion is rather an ugly word for the stretching out of God’s hand to take a soul to himself.” Islam calls upon its followers to become messengers of goodwill for the betterment of humanity and dedicate themselves to ensure that the whole humanity experiences happiness and security in this world and the next.
Islam is aware that its truth and relevance will become prominent only when there are other belief-systems. However, it is not Islam’s version of tolerance to keep truth on a par with half-truth.