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Classic book review: Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey

A vivid, opinionated journey through the world of Islam.

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[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This book review originally ran on Oct. 13, 1981.] V. S. Naipaul has made clear elsewhere that he sees various reasons for the dependency of some nations on others.

In Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey he focuses on the role of religion, as he sees it, in affecting the creative and intellectual resources needed by nations to develop on their own.

Roaming far from his native Trinidad and adopted Britain, he uses his novelist skills for reportorial purposes on a recent journey through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. On the way he repeatedly finds a reason for backwardness in the very devotion to Islam which brings buoyancy or serenity to so many he meets.

"Among the Believers" exemplifies the Naipaul conviction that it is no favor to a country to withhold negative views of it. Yet the delicate mockery that flavors his writing also reminds a reader that the view is affected by the eye of the beholder.

A more sympathetic, less secular eye might see the same problems with greater appreciation of Muslim ideals in proportion to lapses from them. This is not to say that Naipaul does not warm to people, revise this estimates of them, or try enlighten those he feels are wrong.

And he keeps noting his personal reactions, in effect warning you that you're in the presence of an individual with an individual's point of view.

The result is a vivid senes of traveling through a world in transition, with pungent vicissitudes of daily life artfully played off the deeper perceptions Naipaul conveys.

He weaves references to literature, history, and the press into encounters with a range of official and unofficial voices. To note but one example, he becomes the reluctant straight man for an unexpectedly jocular Ayatollah Khalkhali, Iran's notorious hanging judge.

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