Naipaul was a prolific writer with 30 books to his credit. His important works include A House for Mr Biswas (1961), An Area of Darkness (1964), The Loss of El Dorado (1969), In a Free State (1971), India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), A Bend in the River (1978), Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981), The Enigma of Arrival (1987), India: A Million Mutinies (1990) and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (1998). His books were well received and reviewed in prestigious literary journals. His book In a Free State won the Booker Prize in 1971. He was knighted in 1990 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001. He died in London on 11 August 2018.
Naipaul’s personal life was one of unfulfillment and discontent. He met Patricia Hale, an Englishwoman, at Oxford University in 1952 and married her in 1955. He admitted to visiting brothels while he was married to her. He told his biographer Patrick French, “When I was young, I was a great frequenter of prostitutes.” In 1972 Naipaul met a married Anglo-Argentine woman Margaret Murray in Buenos Aires and started an affair with her, which lasted for nearly 24 years. She left her husband and two children to be his mistress. He travelled with her to Congo, India, Argentina, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries to collect materials for his travel books. Naipaul told Patricia about the affair only a year later. She was devastated by his dalliance and his frequent visits to prostitutes, which had then been splashed by the media. Naipaul was accused of inflicting “chronic physical abuse” on Patricia but she tolerated his infidelity because she loved him and continued to cook and wash for him. In 1989 Patricia was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recovered with treatment but four years later the disease recurred, which was made worse by Naipaul’s affair. She passed away in 1996. Naipaul told Patrick French, “It could be said that I killed her. It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.” Later, Naipaul’s sister Savi regarded his subsequent claim that Patricia stoically accepted her situation as “absolute rubbish, such profound vanity.” A year before Patricia’s death, Naipaul had abruptly terminated his affair with Margaret. She, like Patricia, was also subjected to sado-masochistic abuse by Naipaul. Naipaul told his biographer that on one occasion he beat her so severely that his hand hurt, while her face was too damaged for her to appear in public. Later Margaret wrote a letter to the New York Review of Books, “Vidia says I didn’t mind the abuse. I certainly did mind.”
While Patricia was dying of cancer, Naipaul proposed to Nadira Khanum Alvi, a Pakistani woman and married her shortly thereafter. Naipaul told Nadira that he should never have married Patricia, but added that she was a great support to his work, that he was sexually deprived, but Margaret had changed all that, and that he had come to the end of the road with Margaret but had carried on because it was convenient. Nadira said Naipaul was very angry with Patricia, he felt angry that she was dying and angry that she was not dying fast enough because he wanted to carry on with his life.
Naipaul was an extremely conceited, vain and insensitive person with an acerbic temperament and had an abrasive way of treating people. He did not take kindly to criticism. He dismissed such literary giants as James Joyce and E. M. Forster as being of no consequence. When Naipaul visited the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, he stayed with his friend Ashoke Chatterjee, the institute’s director. Chatterjee’s friendship with Naipaul came to an abrupt end when he told him that his book India: A Wounded Civilization could be classified as fiction.
In 2002 Naipaul snubbed and shouted at Nayantara Sehgal, an eminent Indian writer, shortly after she opened a panel discussion on issues of colonialism at a literary festival in Delhi. “My life is short. I can’t listen to banalities,” he thundered contemptuously.
There is no denying the fact that Naipaul was one of the greatest contemporary writers in the English language. His elegant and crisp prose style, his keen observation and his exceptional ability to unravel the complex linkages between human life and social, political and economic processes were truly remarkable. In many of his works, Naipaul sought to interweave geographical, social and cultural contexts and focus on the location of different kinds of people in these contexts, with their emotions, identifications and predicaments. He was one of the first literary writers to address cultural dislocation and rootlessness caused by migrations and rapid, unsettling social and technological changes in a transcontinental perspective. He was one of the few literary writers who focussed on the issues and challenges that confronted former colonial states in the Sixties and Seventies, including the legacy of colonialism and slavery, revolutions, nationalist movements, transnational migrations and diasporas, the destruction of indigenous cultures and the uprooting of people in traditional societies, shifting identities, ethnic and political conflicts, the changing role of religion, societal fragmentation and the agony and ecstasy of modernity, and their consequences for individuals.
One can scarcely fail to notice an undercurrent of discontent, disenchantment, contradictions, ambivalence and a deep cynicism in Naipaul’s writings. He wrote in A Bend in the River, probably his best book, “The world is what it is, men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” In his speech after he was awarded the Nobel Prize, he praised “England, my home, and India, the home of my ancestors.” He did not mention Trinidad, where he was born and grew up and which left a deep imprint on his mind and personality. In The Loss of El Dorado, which deals with the formation of Trinidad and its multi-ethnic capital, Naipaul describes Port of Spain “as the synthesis of the worlds and cultures that made me.” In another place, he wrote about Trinidad, “I was born there, yes, I thought it was a great mistake.”
A Native Voice of Colonialism
Colonialism was premised on the assumption of the inherent superiority of the white races over all other races of mankind, the supremacy of Western values, intellectual traditions and social and political institutions, the inferiority and backwardness of non-White people and their cultures, and what is known as the White man’s burden. Western colonisers believed that non-White people were incapable of getting rid of their ignorance, superstition and backwardness and that the White people have a moral obligation to carry the torch of enlightenment and progress to the dark corners of Asia and Africa. The belief in the supremacy of Western civilisation is a conspicuous and pervasive feature of much of Western intellectual tradition and cultural consciousness.
By and large, Western attitudes towards other cultures and civilizations are at best condescending and at worst scornful. Francis Bacon (d. 1621), a well-known English scientist, philosopher and statesman, claimed that paper, the magnetic compass, gunpowder and printing were the key inventions that separated the modern (Western) world from the traditional world. He did not know, or did not care to know, that each of these institutions had originated in China. The Austrian sociologist Norbert Elias maintained that the ‘civilizing process’ began in Europe. He failed to recognize that this process occurred in other parts of the world and in much earlier times. The German historian and archaeologist Johann Winckelmann (d. 1768) held that the ‘true ideal of beauty’ could be seen only in the Greek aesthetic and artistic tradition. He considered Chinese art as inferior and decadent. Ironically, Chinese art exerted considerable influence on European art and decoration in the 18th century. The Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (d. 1835) considered the Chinese language inferior to European languages. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (d. 1803) was contemptuous of Chinese national character. Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay (d. 1859), a British politician and statesman, divided the world into civilized nations, with Britain representing the zenith of civilization, and barbarians, who comprised the non-Western peoples. He haughtily declared that “a single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole literature of India and Arabia.” Some of the towering figures in 19th century Europe, such as Alexis de Tocqueville (d. 1859), August Comte (d. 1859), who is considered the father of sociology, and John Stuart Mill (d. 1873), viewed the Chinese as inferior.
One of the policies of colonial rulers was to create a breed of the native elite through a systematic exposure to the Western system of education and thereby to Western ideas, beliefs and social and political institutions. The native elite were expected to imbibe Western ideas and values, to identify themselves with Western civilisation and to consider it as the zenith of enlightenment and progress, and to disparage their own languages and cultural traditions. They were also expected to act as mediators or middlemen between the colonial masters and the colonised subjects. The colonial ideology had a far-reaching and enduring impact on the educated native elite in the Third World countries as well as on those who were transported from their homeland to other colonial locations. The colonial system of education played a key role in the structuring of colonial consciousness among the educated native elite.
Naipaul belongs to this breed. He considered the West as the epitome of rationality, enlightenment, scientific and technological advancement, modernity and progress. He glibly and uncritically spoke about Western civilisation as “Our Universal Civilisation.” Naipaul has been accused of harbouring and articulating racist sentiments about Africans and in fact about all non-Whites. He said that Africans have no future and that the need to be kicked. He peddled the demeaning myths and stereotypes floated by the colonisers about Africans, Indians, Caribbeans and Muslims. Much like the colonisers, Naipaul seems to suggest that the natives themselves are the cause of their problems. He loathed and denounced the Third World and held its people responsible for their ignorance and backwardness Edward Said has perceptibly observed that Naipaul’s was a disenchanted voice that arose in an in between colonial situation. He disparaged the attempts made by the ex-colonised people to take control of their destiny and to shape their own future in accordance with their cherished values and traditions. Naipaul, Said points out, was not at all interested in the Third World. Hs intended audiences were the metropolitan intellectuals in Western countries. Said has rightly remarked that Naipaul denounces his own people not because they are victims of imperialism but because they seem to have an innate flaw, which is that they are not Whites. Said condemns Naipaul’s “Uncle Tomism.” Though Naipaul‘s ancestry was Indian and his physical appearance was unmistakably Indian or South Asian, he liked to think of himself as a Western man and held that the only true and worthy values are those of the West. Naipaul never cared to explore and address the economic, political, social, cultural and psychological damage inflicted upon the Third World by colonialism. Naipaul’s travel writings, which he considered as far more important than his fiction, are not only suffused with misrepresentation and sweeping and facile generalisations about non-Western societies but also reflect a deplorable ignorance about the massive researches into Muslim societies and Latin American, Indian and Caribbean history that have been carried out in recent years by historians, sociologists and political scientist. These researchers bring out the pervasive, enduring and largely sinister legacy of colonialism in the Third World as well as the courage and determination of the ex-colonised people to shake off the colonial legacy and to fashion their own destiny.
Western Colonialism and the Third World
Colonialism generally refers to a period of history from the late 15th to the mid-20th century, when almost the whole of Africa, Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, Central Asia, all of North and South America and Australia were conquered and occupied by the European colonial powers, including the Spanish, Portuguese, British, Dutch, French and Italian colonial empires. A significant impetus to colonialism came from the voyages and expeditions carried out during the Age of Discovery. Vasco da Gama’s arrival on the Malabar coast in 1498 heralded the discovery of a new sea route to India. The Dutch colonized Indonesia in the 16th century and the British colonized India, North America, Australia and New Zealand between the 17th and 18th centuries. The colonization of Africa began in the 1880s and by the end of the 19th century virtually the entire continent was under the control of the European colonial powers. During the period of New Imperialism, between the 1880s and 1914, European colonizers added some 9,000,000 square miles -- nearly one-fifth of the earth’s landmass -- to their overseas possessions. The process of colonization was greatly facilitated by the technological and military superiority and practical skills of the colonial rulers, including expertise in cartography, navigation, shipbuilding, mining and agriculture.
European colonial governments introduced a range of features in the colonized territories, including railways and roads, a monetized economy and a new financial system, technology for harnessing natural resources, communication networks, bureaucracy and courts. These innovations were aimed at serving the economic, political and strategic interests of the colonial powers and the smooth administration of colonized territories. On the whole, the impact of colonialism on Muslim societies was profound and calamitous.
Colonialism had a whole set of adverse, harmful and insidious consequences for the colonized peoples, including the massive plunder and exploitation of natural and human resources, the ruthless massacre of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people, the impoverishment of indigenous industries and crafts, enslavement and the introduction of diseases against which the indigenous people had little or no immunity. Nineteenth-century Europe, which was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, needed vast quantities of raw materials, especially those which were not available on the continent, for its burgeoning industries and rising trade. The colonized territories were looked upon as extremely valuable sources for abundant and cheap raw materials, as strategic trade routes and as a huge and lucrative market for the sale of European goods and commodities. The scramble for Africa in the 19th century was propelled by the easy availability of valuable raw materials and mineral and other resources such as copper, cotton, palm oil, cocoa, tea, tin and diamonds, and the potential acquisition of military and naval bases for strategic purposes.
The colonizers often set up plantations and farms in which cheap labour from the colonies was employed and in which control as well as profits remained in their hands. In many cases, large tracts of land were taken over by force or deceit. In Algeria, French colonizers and settlers appropriated a vast portion of land. In Indonesia, the Dutch colonial rulers set up an agricultural system aimed at the large-scale production of spices, coffee and exotic fruits and vegetables for the consumption of European markets. The cultivation of exotic, export-oriented produce at the expense of food grain impoverished the local peasantry who became dependent on the colonial government for employment. Traditional industries and crafts were systematically impoverished and destroyed. The map of dozens of countries in Africa, Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia was systematically drawn and redrawn by the European colonial powers. In most of the 50 independent nation-states in Africa, the political boundaries were arbitrarily drawn at the instance of the colonial rulers. Many of these national borders divided groups of people and ethnic communities that had lived together for centuries. This added to the ethnic and cultural diversity of the continent and fueled inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts.
Colonial conquest and the ideology of colonialism were justified in terms of white supremacy and the self-styled moral obligation of European civilization to carry the torch of enlightenment and culture to the dark races of mankind. The common belief in Europe in the colonial era was that only the civilized Christian Europeans could be regarded as truly human, and all other men were rated as sub-human animals, monsters or the product of a separate creation. The structure of the colonial state was suffused with racism, which was reflected in the sharp distinction drawn by the colonial rulers between the white ruling class and the non-white subjects. In the aftermath of the Spanish and Portuguese colonial conquests in the 15th and 16th centuries, the indigenous people were treated in the most inhuman, barbaric manner. From the time of the arrival of the French colonizers in Algeria in 1830, the violent imposition of colonial rule over the country was justified in terms of a “civilizing mission” -- the introduction of republican, secular, universal values in a society assumed to be steeped in superstition and cultural backwardness. On July 9, 2015 Pope Francis offered an apology in Santa Cruz, Bolivia for the complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in the oppression of Latin America during the colonial era. He said that many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God.
A central theme that runs through Naipaul’s travel writings is that Islam is a religion of rigid dogmas, that it is inimical to rational thinking and that it is the antithesis of modernity and progress. According to him, Islam’s flaw lies at “its origins – the flaw that ran through Islamic history: to the political issues it raised it offered no political or practical solutions. It offered only the faith. This political Islam was rage, anarchy.” Naipaul talks about “Islam’s parasitism” and endorses Samuel P. Huntington’s controversial thesis of the clash of civilizations, which argues that Islam has ever been in a confrontational relationship with the West. Despite his false claim of objectivity, Naipaul’s deep-seated prejudice and his virulent dislike of Islam and Muslims is all too evident in his travel writings.
Naipaul posits a binary or dichotomy between Islam and the West. The West, according to him, is the epitome of knowledge, rationality, science and technology and functioning institutions. Islam, on the other hand, is portrayed as retarded and backward. In Among the Believers, Naipaul portrays Muslim societies as static, rigid, uncreative, authoritarian and hostile to the West. He refers to Muslims as “wogs.” Naipaul’s sweeping generalisations about Islam and Muslims are not based on any serious research but on snapshots of his superficial observations as a traveller and on casual encounters and conversations, through interpreters, with some Muslims. Naipaul knew only English and Spanish and Trinidadian creole and had to entirely rely on interpreters to gather information.
In Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, Naipaul argues that Islam cuts the converted people off from their traditions, leaving them neither here nor there. The converted people, according to him, lost their own past but gained little from their new religion except more confusion and more unhappiness. Islam, he says, has had a calamitous impact on converted people.
Naipaul’s argument that people who converted to Islam are inauthentic because they are disembedded from their traditions rests on a convoluted logic and a fallacious assumption. The argument suggests, by implication, that people who converted to Christianity during the past two millennia, including Jews, Europeans, Latin Americans and Philipinos, are inauthentic.
Naipaul’s generalised conflation between conversion and inauthenticity can be faulted on at least four counts. First, Naipaul considers traditions as hallowed and sacrosanct, ignoring the fact that traditions are often a Janus-faced phenomenon and that they are a mixed bag of the good and the bad. Age-old traditions undoubtedly provide a sense of identity and belonging and act as an anchorage in the face of life’s inevitable uncertainties and anxieties. They are, at the same time, a breeding ground for blind dogmas, irrational superstations, fanaticism and exclusion. All social practices, including slavery, female infanticide, female genital mutilations, caste-based inequalities, racial discrimination, anti-Semitism and untouchability are rooted in cultural traditions. They cannot be justified in the name of tradition. Second, historically, Naipaul’s argument makes no sense. It was not just Indians, Malaysians and Indonesians who converted to Islam but also pagan Arabs. Pagan Arabs treated their women like chattel and many of them had no qualms about burying their own daughters alive. All that was a part of pagan Arab traditions. When the Arabs converted to Islam, of their own volition, they gave up these and other abhorrent practices which were sanctified by tradition.
Third, in most cases, conversions to Islam did not lead to a complete abandonment of traditional, pre-reconversion customs, dietary habits, dress, language and regional or local identities. Among Muslim communities around the world, historically and at present, one can scarcely fail to notice a harmonious synthesis of regional customs, rituals and shared identities -- what Ernest Gellner calls “little traditions” -- and the overarching Islamic tradition. This was conspicuously reflected in the emergence of a shared, syncretic cultural tradition --what the eminent Spanish historian Americo Castro aptly characterised as “Convivencia” --in medieval Spain. It was also prominently reflected in the flowering of a composite cultural, multicommunitarian tradition in mediaeval India.
In recent years, thousands of Latinos in the US have been drawn to Islam because they found a striking convergence and harmony between some of the Latino traditions and Islamic values and principles, including simplicity, communitarian unity and solidarity, family cohesion, supportive networks, an emphasis on spiritual and moral values and respect for the rights of the poor. They are impressed by the Islamic ideals of equality and brotherhood and the Islamic belief that there is a direct and personal relationship between God and man, unhampered by any mediating clergy. Female Latino converts find a refreshing and reassuring sense of dignity and security in the fold of Islam and are impressed by the recognition of gender equality in Islamic tradition.
Fourth, Naipaul fails to take cognizance of the fact that, by and large, conversions take place as a result of people’s agency, their own free will. A prejudiced outsider like Naipaul has no moral right to question their choice or to cast aspersions on the authenticity of their action. Here, Naipaul’s pretence of liberalism gives way to prejudice and deliberate misrepresentation.
Edward Said has described Naipaul’s obsession with Islam as an “intellectual catastrophe.” He adds that Naipaul’s obsession with Islam cost him somehow to stop thinking, to become instead a kind of mental suicide compelled to repeat the same formula over and over. Naipaul wrote his travel books not for readers in the Third World but for those in the West, who have an insatiable appetite for an ‘expose’ of Islam. It is little surprise, then, that his travel books earned him and his publishers a lot of money and made him into a celebrity. When the Nobel Prize committee announced Naipaul’s name for the 2001 literature prize, it disclaimed any political considerations in the choice of the author. But, as Edward Said has pointed out, this is not the whole truth. It is significant to note that Naipaul was chosen for the Nobel Prize immediately in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US.
Islam and the Making of Western Civilization
In a rare moment of intellectual honesty, Naipaul acknowledged the deb that the West owes to Islam. In an interview to Outlook magazine, he said: “The two great revealed religions, Islam and Christianity, have altered the world forever, and we all, whatever our faith, walk in their light. Over and above their theology, these religions gave the world social ideas—brotherhood, charity, the feeling of man for man—which we now all take for granted. They are the basis of our political ideas and our ideas of morality. Those ideas didn’t exist before, not in the classical world, not in Hinduism or Buddhism.”
The wide-ranging and enduring contribution of Islamic civilization to the West, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy, architecture, language and arts, has been amply documented and widely acknowledged by Western historians. The eminent British historian J. M. Roberts describes Western civilization’s debt to Islam in the following words: “…..to no other civilization did Europe owe so much in the Middle Ages as to Islam” (The Penguin History of Europe, 1997, p. 181).
A significant feature of the contribution of Islamic civilization to the West in particular and to the onward march of humanity in general is its role as an intermediary and interlocutor between different cultures and traditions and as a synthesiser, catalyst and disseminator. When Muslims came in contact with the legacy of the ancients, including Greek science and philosophy, Indian mathematics and medicine, Egyptian and Roman technology and Persian literary sensibility and political wisdom, they critically sifted it, imbibed its spirit and added to it their own reflections, researches and innovations and raised the level of knowledge in wide-ranging fields to unprecedented heights. Furthermore, they did not keep the fruits of their labour to themselves but made them available to large parts of the world.
It has widely been recognised that one of the most important contributions of Muslims to Western civilization was the transmission of the scientific and philosophical legacy of the ancient world to medieval Europe. A movement for the globalisation of science, medicine and philosophy was set in motion in the Islamic world in the eighth century. This movement was marked by extensive translations of scientific, medical and philosophical works from ancient Rome, India, Persia and Egypt, a creative synthesis of the researches of Muslim scholars and scientists and those of the ancients, the establishment of scientific institutions, the employment of Arabic as the lingua franca of scientific communication, and the creation of a multiethnic, multi-religious community of scientists and scholars. Roger Bacon (d. 1293) acknowledged that almost all of Aristotle’s works were available only in Arabic translations and that without Arabic, Greek knowledge would have never reached Europe. The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has remarked that “as leaders of innovative thought in that period in history, Muslim intellectuals were among the most committed globalisers of science and mathematics.”
In Western historiography, the Renaissance is represented as a critical moment or turning point in European history that heralded the birth of modern science, the advent of modernity, the flowering of modern art and architecture and the beginnings of capitalism. Western historians generally maintain that there was a significant continuity between ancient Greece and the Renaissance, that no major advances in science or medicine took place between the decline of the Greek civilization and the Renaissance, and that the Renaissance marked a unique, unmatched period in the history of science.
Several eminent Western historians, historians of science and social scientists have taken exception to this Eurocentric view of the Renaissance. Arnold J. Toynbee, in his classic work A Study of History (1954), argued that there were many such renaissances in other parts of the world, especially in China. Joseph Needham, in his monumental study Science and Civilization in China (1954), showed that the achievements of Chinese civilization in science, medicine, mathematics, technology and art were often superior to those of Western Europe until about 1600. The eminent mathematician, biologist and historian of science Jacob Bronowski has stated that the Renaissance was originally conceived not in Italy but in Muslim Spain in the 12th century.
A distinguished British anthropologist and historian Jack Goody, in his thought-provoking books The Theft of History (2006) and Renaissances: The One or the Many? (2010), argues that all literate societies, especially China, India and the Islamic world, experienced a renaissance at some point in their history, that there were many or multiple renaissances in human history, and that the efflorescence of science, medicine and art during the Renaissance was not unique to Europe. Goody points out that what is important about the European Renaissance is the intercultural transfer of knowledge and the confluence and hybridization of ideas, science and technology, which reconnected Europe to the Orient – through Andalusia, Sicily, Venice, Genoa and the Levant trade.
The most reasoned and cogent refutation of the Eurocentric view that the history of science should begin with the ancient Greeks and then the Renaissance has been provided by the eminent Turkish-German historian of science Fuat Sezgin. Sezgin, who is now Emeritus Professor at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, established the Institut fur Geschichte der Arabish-Islamischen Wissenschaften (Institute for the History of Arab-Islamic Sciences) at Goethe University in 1982. In his magnificent work Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums (1967-2000, in 13 volumes), Sezgin presents an amazingly comprehensive and well-documented survey of the monumental and wide-ranging contributions made by Muslim scientists to various branches of science and technology.
Sezgin has convincingly argued that the history of science and medicine can be traced, several centuries before the European Renaissance, to China, India and the Islamic world, that Muslim scientists were forerunners of the European Renaissance, and that the development of science, medicine and technology in Renaissance Europe owed a great deal to the seminal and path-breaking researches, discoveries and inventions of Muslim scientists.
A number of European scientists and intellectuals, who played a key role in the scientific and cultural transformation of Europe and thereby paved the way for the Renaissance, were conversant with the Arabic language and Islamic sciences and some of them had received their education in the institutions of higher learning in Islamic lands. Gerard of Cremona (d. 1187) translated more than 70 Arabic books into Latin. His translation of Avicenna’s Canon was used as a textbook in several European universities from the 12th to the 18th centuries and was printed more than 35 times in Europe. Daniel de Morlay traveled to Cordoba to learn mathematics and astronomy and, on his return, became a lecturer at Oxford. Frederick II, who played a catalytic role in the flowering of the Renaissance, was a patron of Islamic science and arts. He established colleges, on the model of institutions in Islamic lands, in Naples, Messina and Padua.
From the 12th to the 17th century, the teaching and practice of medicine in Europe was heavily influenced by the works of Al-Razi or Rhazes (d. 925), Al-Zahrawi or Abulcasis (d. 1013) and Ibn Sina or Avicenna (d. 1037). One of the numerous printed editions of al-Zahrawi’s magnum opus al-Tasrif was published in Oxford in 1778. Almost all European writers on medicine and surgery from the 12th to the 18th century extensively quoted from al-Tasrif, which remained a standard textbook in surgery in all leading European universities until the 18th century. Many of the founding fathers of modern science and medicine, including Gabriel Fallopius (d. 1562), William Harvey (d. 1657) and Andreas Vesalius (d. 1564), drew upon the works of Al-Razi, Al-Zahrawi and Ibn Sina. Vesalius’s Latin text of anatomical tables contained a large number of Arabic terms.
The astrolabe, a well-known astronomical instrument of the Middle Ages used for making precise astronomical and navigational measurements, was originally invented by the Greeks but perfected by Muslim scientists and astronomers. It reached Europe via Andalusia and continued to be used for nautical observations in the West until the 17th century. Chaucer (d. 1400), the first great English poet of the Middle Ages, drew on the works of Muslim astronomers in his famous work Treatise on the Astrolabe.
Muslims acted as global carriers of ideas, innovations, technology and culture. They learned the technology of papermaking from the Chinese, who had invented paper around the second century AD, in the eighth century, added significant innovations to it and disseminated it across large parts of Europe and Asia. The first paper factory in Europe was established in the Spanish city of Jativa in 1150, whence the technology of papermaking passed into Italy and subsequently into other parts of Europe. Before the 13th century paper was brought to European cities from Andalusia, Sicily and Morocco. Interestingly, the earliest European document written on paper is a deed of Sicily’s King Roger II, inscribed in Arabic and Greek. One of the oldest known paper documents in the West is the Missal of Silos, written in 1151 and is now preserved at the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos in Burgos, Spain. The paper on which the document was written came from Islamic Spain.
A distinctive feature of modernity is what some scholars have described as time-space compression, or the shrinking of distances and the shortening of time, made possible by unprecedented developments in science and technology. It may be pointed out that this particular feature of modernity was made possible by a series of explorations, discoveries and scientific and technological inventions and innovations made in earlier times and in different parts of the world. Muslim astronomers, scientists, mathematicians, cartographers, navigators and seafarers in the medieval period made an outstanding contribution to the processes that led to the shrinking of distances and the reduction of time. In the 10th century, Al-Biruni calculated the dimensions of the spherical earth with remarkable accuracy and calculated, with amazing precision, the circumference of the earth. Maps prepared during the medieval period greatly contributed to the knowledge about the expanse and boundaries of the earth and the location of continents and oceans. Fuat Sezgin has shown that Muslim cartographers combined the navigators’ knowledge with studies of astronomy and mathematics to compile maps of astonishing precision.
Muslim navigators and seafarers in the Golden Age of Islamic Science (from the 8th to the 16th centuries) undertook long sea voyages eastwards and explorations deep into Africa. By the 9th century, Arab maritime traders had reached as far as Canton in China. The sea voyages undertaken by Muslim navigators gave them a more complete view of geography than that of ancient Greeks and Romans. Portuguese and Spanish navigators drew on the knowledge and information provided by Muslim cartographers in Spain. Marco Polo, Johannes Kepler and the cartographer Nicolas Sanson were influenced by Arab geography and cartography. Down to the 15th century, scientific activity in Europe was heavily indebted to the discoveries and researches of Muslim scientists, astronomers, mathematicians and cartographers. Prince Henry of Portugal established, under Muslim and Jewish teachers, a splendid nautical academy at Cape St Vincent, which facilitated the voyages of Vasco da Gama and the subsequent expansion of Europe to the farthest reaches of the earth. Shihab al-Din ibn al-Majid, who was an experienced sailor and navigator, was in Africa when Vasco da Gama arrived there. He secured the services of Ibn al-Majid as an escort and guide, who led him directly to Calicut in 1498. Muslim navigators and explorers from West Africa and the Iberian Peninsula travelled across the Atlantic Ocean and the Americas between the 9th and 14th century, long before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
The conceptualization, measurement and determination of time underwent a qualitative transformation with the invention of the clock. Anthony Giddens argues that the clock – a ‘time-space ordering device’ -- which permits the complex coordination of activities over time and space, epitomizes the modern era. It may be pointed out that some of the earliest clocks were made by Muslim engineers. In the 8th century the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid presented Emperor Charlemagne with a water clock. The first mercury powered automata clock was invented by Ibn Khalaf al-Muradi in the 11th century. In the 13th century, a Kurdish engineer, Al-Jazari, made numerous clocks, including water clocks and an elephant clock. A mechanical weight-driven astronomical clock was invented by the Ottoman engineer Taqi al-Din in the 16th century. He also made an observational clock for the Istanbul Observatory with three dials, which showed the hours, minutes and seconds.
In her ground-breaking work The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage (1987), Maria Rosa Menocal drew attention to the undercurrents of racism and chauvinism in European literary and cultural history. She pointed out that ethnocentric bias for centuries has prevented mainstream European scholars from recognizing the large influence of Arabic, Islamic and Andalusian cultures on the development of European medieval literature. She persuasively argued that scientific, cultural and literary advances in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire were in large measure due to the contribution of Muslim scientists, translators and intellectuals to the preservation and dissemination of the Greco-Roman heritage. She emphasized that Arabic influences in medieval Europe were not confined to literature but encompassed music, science, philosophy, architecture and the arts.
As early as the 11th century, ceramic bowls and decorative objects made from rock crystal in Islamic lands began to arrive in Italy and other European countries. They were often set into the facades of newly built churches. In Pisa, for example, hundreds of these ceramic artefacts—locally known as bacini—were used as decorative pieces in churches built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Ceramic objects brought from Islamic lands were also used as liturgical vessels and reliquaries.
Fine glassware, inlaid metalwork, fabrics, carpets and decorative objects manufactured in Islamic lands became highly popular in Europe during the Middle Ages. Brass incense burners made in Damascus were considered the epitome of luxury in Italy and other European countries. The golden lusterware produced in Islamic Malaga were highly prized in Italy, Holland and England. Muslim craftsmen developed a distinctive style of glass decoration, which was used on bottles, beakers, vases and other objects. Syrian glassware was highly popular in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries and were widely used in cathedrals, churches and abbeys.
Muslim craftsmen developed the technique of inlaying intricate designs in bronze, brass, wood, ivory, gold and silver. The technique of inlaying designs in metal objects, which came to be known as damascening (derived from Damascus) in Europe, was imitated by European artists and craftsmen. In the 15th century, many European artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, were influenced by arabesque designs and pattern-work developed in the Islamic world.
During the Middle Ages, luxurious fabrics and carpets were imported from Islamic lands to Europe on an extensive scale. The names of fine fabrics in English and other European languages betray their Islamic origins. Thus, a fine fabric known as damask in many European languages derived its nomenclature from Damascus, where it was manufactured on a large scale. A fabric known as fustian was imported from the city of Fustat in Egypt. Muslin, a fine silk fabric, was imported by Italian merchants from Mosul in Iraq. This fabric was used in the canopy suspended over the altar in many churches in medieval Europe. Fabrics manufactured in the Moorish city of Granada came to be known as grenadine in European shops. A delicate fabric known as taftah in Persia, where it was manufactured, was much in demand in Europe where it came to be known as taffeta. The fabrics of Baghdad were known as baudekin while those of Ghaza in Egypt came to be known as gauzes in Europe. In the 12th century, the Attabiya quarter of Baghdad was famous for the manufacture of a special silk fabric known as attabi silk. It was highly popular in France and Italy where it was known as tabis or tabby.
A variety of fabrics made by Muslim weavers and craftsmen, including moirés, crepes, chiffons, chamlets, karsies and radzimiris, were imported to Europe and were highly appreciated for their fine quality, vibrant colours, exquisite designs and intricate patterns. From the 12th to the 16th century, silk fabrics from Egypt, Andalusia, Persia and Turkey were used as vestments for the Christian Mass in Europe. They were also used as wrappings for holy relics in cathedral and church treasuries in France, Italy, Belgium and Holland. In medieval Europe, textiles with Arabic inscriptions—which are frequently encountered in early Renaissance paintings—were regarded as honorific objects. The robe of the Virgin Mary, for example, or the haloes of saints are shown to bear Arabic inscriptions. Some of the finest Mamluk textiles, which have been preserved in cathedral treasuries in many European countries, were used for the shrouds of European monarchs and for ecclesiastical vestments.
Carpets made in Egypt, Ottoman Turkey and Persia were in great demand in Europe. Some of the exquisite wool carpets from the Islamic world have survived in European churches and palaces. In the latter part of the 19th century, William Morris, the most influential figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe, drew considerable inspiration from the designs and motifs of oriental carpets and textiles.
Another area which bears the imprint of the creative genius of Muslim artists was music. Moorish Spain’s contribution to music was profound and far-reaching. Stringed musical instruments, which are characteristic of Arabic music, reached Europe during the Middle Ages, The names of several musical instruments in English and other European languages, including guitar, lute, rebec, tambourine and naker, have been derived from Arabic.
Arabic language and literature left a profound influence on European languages and literary sensibilities. Petrus Alfonsi, a Jewish convert to Christianity who was a product of Andalusia’s composite culture in the 12th century, introduced a form of writing that was influenced by Arabic and which had a deep and enduring impact on European fiction. Prominent European writers such as Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio were inspired by Alfonsi’s style. The transformation of many European languages from folk dialects into written languages owes much to the influence of Alfonsi.
King Alfonso X of Castile was a great connoisseur and patron of Arabic language and literature and Islamic sciences. At his instance, a number of Arabic works were translated into Castilian. He ordered the Latin and French translations of a previously existing Castilian text dealing with the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven, which subsequently came to be known as ‘The Book of the Ladder.’ This version became highly popular and found its way into several European languages, including Latin, Italian and French. Asin Palacios has shown that Dante’s Divina Comedia was influenced by this Islamic legend. Antoine Galland’s French translation of the Arabian Nights in the early part of the 18th century had a profound influence on Western literary imagination. It influenced Germany’s greatest writer Goethe as well as English poets such as Byron and Wordsworth.
Demonising Islam and Muslims in India
Naipaul described Indian Muslims as slaves to an imported religion. His Islamophobic sentiments are also reflected in his views about Islam and Muslims in India. He said in one of his interviews that the worst calamity in India’s history was the advent and presence of Islam, which disfigured the country’s history. Naipaul disparaged the architectural monuments of the Muslim period. He spoke of Mughal architecture, for example, as “entirely foreign, a carryover from the architecture of Isfahan.” In An Area of Darkness, he wrote that the architectural monuments of the Muslim period speak “only of waste and failure and of “personal blunder, and a country with an infinite capacity for being planted.” He described the Taj Mahal as a symbol of oppression and said, “The Taj is so wasteful, so decadent and in the end so cruel that it is painful to be there for very long. This is an extravagance that speaks of the blood of the people.” In India: A Wounded Civilization, he portrayed medieval Indian history as one of defeat and devastation inflicted on Hindu kingdoms by Muslim invaders.
Naipaul’s negative understanding and portrayal of India’s Muslim heritage mirrors colonial historiography. British colonial historians described the Muslim rule in India as a long and brutal saga of plunder, pillage and destruction. Colonial historians described Vijayanagara as a “Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan conquests.”
A number of distinguished historians, both Indian and Western, have pointed out that it is myopic to view medieval India wholly through the prism of invasion and conflict between Hindu and Muslim rulers. They emphasize that medieval India witnessed a remarkable efflorescence of a composite, syncretic cultural tradition that drew from Hindu, Muslim, Jain and Buddhist cultures. This hybrid cultural tradition was particularly reflected in architecture, arts and crafts, music, language and literature, diplomatic relations and in the patronage of Hindu and Jain temples by Muslim rulers. The Taj Mahal, contrary to Naipaul’s distorted and entirely erroneous view, is not a replica of Persian or Central Asian architecture but a synthesis of Central Asian, Turkish, Rajput, Jain and Buddhist architectural styles. The architecture of the tomb of Ibrahim Adil Shah II in Bijapur similarly reflects a synthesis of Central Asian and regional Hindu architectural styles and motifs.
Naipaul has lamented the destruction of the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagara by Muslim invaders. As a matter of fact, in the mediaeval period, Bijapur provided a shining example of a hybrid cultural tradition which drew upon both Muslim and Hindu cultures. A distinguished American Sanskritist Phillip B. Wagoner wrote an essay entitled “Sultan among Hindu Kings” in The Journal of Asian Studies in 1996, in which he pointed out that in the 16th century the ruling elite and the nobility in Vijayanagar was heavily influenced by Muslim culture that emanated from Muslim sultanates during the medieval period. This influence included the official public attire of the king, administration, revenue system, methods of warfare and architecture. George Michelle and William Dalrymple have pointed out that the gorgeous 15th-century Lotus Mahal is almost entirely Islamic in style. There was much borrowing and a process of hybridisation in the Vijayanagar kingdom and in the Muslim sultanates of Bijapur during the mediaeval period. Ibrahim Adil Shah II, the ruler of Bijapur, gave up the traditional royal practice of wearing jewels and adopted the Hindu rudraksha. In his poems, he sang praises of the Prophet Muhammad and the Sufi saint Gesudaraz as well as the Hindu goddess Saraswati. Ibrahim admired the aesthetics of both Muslim and Hindu cultures and drew upon them in ample measure.
Endorsement of Hindutva Politics
In an interview to the Times of India in 1993, Naipaul defended the destruction of the Babri Masjid as an act of historical balancing. He told a small gathering of people at the BJP office in New Delhi in 2004 that Ayodhya was a kind of passion and any passion is to be encouraged because passionless leads to creativity. Naipaul overlooked the horrifying anti-Muslim pogrom that followed the destruction of the mosque. Naipaul had once said that he was not political, that to have a political view is to be programmed. However, when he came to India shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize in 2001, he visited the BJP‘s office in New Delhi and endorsed the party’s ideology. More importantly, he also said that he was quite happy being appropriated by the BJP. Commenting on Naipaul’s defence of the destruction of Babri Masjid, Salman Rushdie said that Naipaul behaved like a fellow traveller of fascism and that he disgraced the Nobel prize.
Literature is not just about literary imagination and sensibility, the magic of words, a nuanced portrayal of characters and the depiction of the complexity of human relationships and emotions, and the craft of writing. It shapes the readers’ perception and interpretation of the world around him/her. Moreover, literature is closely intertwined with the social role of the writer and his/her moral and social responsibility. While Naipaul’s literary prowess and his formidable accomplishments are beyond dispute, his non-fiction work is utterly insensitive and disgraceful. It perpetuates, reinforces and legitimises the myths and stereotypes about certain people and communities that are rooted in prejudice, hatred and exclusion.