LIKE INDOCHINA in the two preceding decades, the Islamic nations rimming the Persian Gulf will be the major testing ground of American power and judgement abroad in the 1980s. The choices American policy makers face in matching our energy needs with the oil riches and turbulent religious politics of the Moslem Middle East will also help shape the kind of society we want, or at least are prepared to tolerate, here at home.

Oil and Islam were two certified room-emptiers as recently as Richard Nixon's second inaugural, and much of the journalism and scholarship generally available in this country, still reflects that. The writing and study have been often narrow, almost always arid, revealing the lack of understanding that has existed for a millennium between the Christian West and the prophet Mohammed's Orient.

But the most important barrier to communication has not been the West's limited attention span. Beautifully but loosely wrapped in the Koran and Arabic, Islamic culture has tended to be self-contained and opague, a shield against outsiders. The religion and culture, advanced on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, offer little if any place for a meeting ground. Encapsulation has been the first line of defense.

All of this is changing now. Oil and Islam spin out of the region and into our living rooms nightly via Chancellor and Cronkite. Seizing Saudi oil fields or smacking the ayatollah have replaced bombing Hanoi as the moral and intellectual touchstone of our cocktail parties and church suppers. The whiff of jihad (Islamic holy war in the air there is matched by the faint echo of the Crusades heard here.

Moreover, the defensive, inward-looking society that Islam became in the last half-century is breaking open in some important ways under the pressures of modernization. The gargantuan oil revenues rushing into the region are forcing political and social choices on governments ill-equipped to make them. Slowly -- far too slowly for our needs -- our journalism and literature are beginning to reach for the broad, sweeping observation and analysis that we lacked when we stumbled into Vietnam.

In very different ways, two studies by journalists (available in early February) and a lavish history of Islamic art offer strong evidence that the United States faces a radically different intellectual problem than it did in Vietnam, where we had to try to learn so much with time running against us. In dealing with the turmoil now sweeping the Middle East, our first challenge is to unlearn much that we think we know about Islam, to move beyond the myths and stereotypes that have triggered quick and often clouded judgements about the 750 million Moslems who inhabit the globe.

G. H. Jansen's slender volume, Militant Islam (complete with cover photo of a rifleman perched on a mosque), is a tantalizing initial kprobe into modern Islamic politics. Jansen, the India-born Levant correspondent of The Economist magazine, begins as if he intends a quick but full portrait of a global religion, one that he argues is unique for its totality and present vitality. He produces instead a series of intellectual snapshots that quickly flip past.

Jansen's sketch of Islam differs sharply with Western conceptions of the religion. He argues that the 10-century decision to slam shut "the gates of ijtihad (independent judgement)" to believers, thus confining Islamic belief to the Koran and a few other texts, left the religion sparse in doctrine yet supremely flexible and pragmatic in form, able to be adopted easily in Africa, Asia and elsewhere in the Third World.

Secondly, he argues that the religion is only now entering its "vigorous early middle age." Islam, he writes, "is just under 1400 years old, Christianity is getting on for 2000, and Buddhism was born 2600 years ago." On his time-line, Islam stands now at the point Christianity had reached "a century away from the climactic summation of Aquinas, within half a century of the poetic summation of Dante and of the terrors and ecstasies of the Black Death." The impulse for the Reformation was just beginning.

A challenging point, worth being weighed against the view that there is a general resurgence of funda- mentalism in religion as all of our lives become vastly more complicated and we seek certainties. Jansen, however, quickly walks away from his point, a pattern he repeats throughout the book. When he asserts that "Islam has become anti-American" because of U.S. support for Israel and that since 1955 American students of the Middle East have in turn become anti-Islamic, he offers no further explanation or exploration of the monumental consequences of such judgements.

Jansen does, however, give good detailed reporting on the Moslem brotherhoods of various nations and on the explosive content of their increasing political activity.

"Faute de mieux , militant Islam is on the threshold of political power in several Muslim countries," especially Indonesia and Egypt. In the latter he says Anwar Sadat violated a basic principle of Islam by promising "no politics in religion, no religion in politics" after making peace with Isreal. Underlining the totality of Islam as a legal and social system as well as a religion, Jansen asserts that "if the politics are secular then the country cannot be called truly Muslim."

Surprisingly, he described serious weaknesses in the totalitarian Islamic systems established in Pakistan by General Zia al Haq and in Iran by the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom Jansen describes as "a perfect example of the Peter Principle" -- a good opposition leader totally out of his depth in power.

Much the same assessment is made of Khomeini's predecessor, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, 446th and last of the Iranian shahs, in Fall of the Peacock Throne . William H. Forbis presents Pahlavi as an essentially good but ultimately weak man overtaken by the OPEC revenue monster he helped create.

The book reads as though it were originally assembled as an admiring portrait of the then-shah and hastily rewritten after the fall. It is overly personal, gossipy and written in movie-magazine prose. A rival of the shah is a "dashing officer -- always clad in splendid uniforms and a Robert Taylor smile." The Rudaki restaurant is "this creamy, glassy place [from which] one can view everthing that counts in Teheran." And "Empress Farah has starry eyes," Forbis recalls.

Although it includes some interesting, convenient pop history and sociology of Iran, Forbis' account is of the kind likely to increase rather than lessen misunderstandings between Orient and Occident. If the analysis that lies just beneath the book's surface had been correct, there would have been no revolution. It serves as an example of the kind of reporting and writing that helped get us into this mess in the first place.

The most successful book of this trio is Alexandre Papadopoulo's Islam and Muslim Art , a beautifully composed and diligently researched volume. It traces the impact of the totality of the religion on "the arts and artists of Islam" for whom esthetic ideals "were inextricably tied to religion, particularly to the special attitude toward the representation of living beings."

A professor at the Sorbonne, Papadopoulo maintains that there is in Moslem art "a single aesthetic that extended from Cordoba to Samarkand," never varying and remaining vital until the end of the 17th century, when it was opened to and ultimately destroyed by Western influence.

His style is too often bitchy when deflating academic competitors and precursors, but Papadopoulo argues persuasively that Islam's ban on reproducing images of Mohammed and scenes from his life ruled out the kind of cathedral art that instructed illiterate Christian masses in Europe. The hostility to imagery helped ensure that "Islam became very rapidly a civilization based on books." As the actual word of God, the Koran's vocabulary and syntax provided the summit of all expression.

"What really matters is not the what but the how" in much of Isamic life and particularly in art, Papadopoulo writes.

Islamic art became nonfigurative at its origin, foreshadowing Western abstract art by centuries. Its highest accomplishment came in book-related arts -- calligraphy and the illumination of manuscripts with miniature paintings. To a history of these Papadopoulo adds a study of Islamic architecture to counter the West's misperceptions about Moslem estetics.

"For the Moslem all natural law is forever dependent on God . . . God alone exists and God alone can create." Man does not create images.

Mohammed smashed the idols of Mecca immediately on taking the town. Later, partly to cut down on the excessive ornamentation of the caliphs and princes of the time, the ruling priests prohibited images that could cast shadows. This not only killed sculpture as an Islamic art but also had a dramatic effect on painting.

"By suppressing shadows, highlighting, and modeling, and all other such devices that would give the illusion of relief, the artists who created the Muslim aesthetic achieved a painting so flat that it could never be mistaken for a copy of reality." It could never be portraiture. Instead, miniatures "of pure colors laid on in juxtaposed areas and chosen because of internal necessities" flourished.

Papadopoulo attributes the decline and fall of the miniature to a decision that sought to break the unity of Islam. Akbar the Great, sovereign of Mogul India in the 16th century, decided as part of his effort to encourage a syncretic divine monetheism to lift the ban on representational art. Soon the Western style invaded and changed Islamic painting.

"One cannot put side by side on the same surface some areas treated in accord with Western aesthetics, others faithful to the Muslim precepts, some with mixed colors, light and shadow, chiaroscuro, and atmospheric effects and others in which the colors are pure, spread solidly over surfaces," the author writes sorrowfully. The Western approach became triumphant within a century.

The text and pictures of this book join in intriguing ways the deeper aspects of Jansen's political discussion. Islam is being asked to give up some of its totality, especially among the young, in the name of development. The holy men, believing that there is no such thing as giving up some totality and perhaps mindful of the dynamics that destroyed the miniature, are fighting back. Resurgent Islam is far more defensive than it appears in the cartoons and editorials that have Arab armies on the march again in jihad. What is actually happening is far more complex, and dangerous, than that.