V. S. NAIPAUL is one of a handful of master writers alive. He is a novelist of boundless ingenuity, an interviewer who oses his questions with exquisite simplicity, a traveler who never seems to quit observing. He will describe a chauffeur as intricately as an industrialist--or the care that a young Dutch woman in Indonesia gives to her caged birds, in between attending to the needs of her political-prisoner lover.

Over all, his theme has been the death of the world; and for his unrelieved pessimism, his exile's temperament, his Tory politics and frequent asperity, as well as the splendor of his gifts, Naipaul reminds some critics of Vladimir Nabokov. Because Nabokov's subjects were located in America and Europe, however, whereas Naipaul writes of the disintegration and ennui of the Third World, the distinction is usually made that Nabokov was a brilliant caricaturist but Naipaul is absolutely and faithfully a realist. In the climate of xenophobia which has pervaded American intellectual life lately, his rise to a fitting acclaim has been much swifter than Nabokov's was, or than would have been the case if he didn't appear to serve so many purposes extraneous to his own.

In his new book, a naked, contentious bias against Islam animates his travels "among the believers," which unfortunately may only win him additional disingenuous praise. Naipaul, who was born a Hindu Indian in colonial Trinidad--where he says the cocoa crop was considered more important than the quality of people's lives--does not long for the colonial era, and he is free of Nabokov's snobberies. He is also more tender in his sympathy for individual human beings. Nor does he envision an old and honored plateau in history from which the world's slide to corrupt disrepair began. Still, in his journeys he purveys the impression that there is no place left on earth where he could live except for London, and romanticizes life and civilization there to the extent of seldom noticing the disillusioned British trippers who positively stipple the far-flung continents he visits and are escaping what they perceive to be the ennui and disintegration of Great Britain.

No Hitler and no looming contemporary holocaust blots the Western or "universal" civilization that, with the passion of a convert, Naipaul espouses. Such partisan rage, such a baiting, jeering tone mars some of his "interrogations" of committed Muslims (as a young believer in Jakarta describes their conversations; another calls them a chess game) that it's clear that Naipaul was spoiling for a fight before he came. Where Hinduism blends with Islam as a "composite" religion, he does soften, but, not being a believer in God in any guise--the very sight of people praying seems to pain and offend him--perhaps he would have quite sensibly disqualified himself from an investigation of the present surge of aggressive fundamentalist Christianity, for example.

Muslims can do no right. If they adhere to 7th-century revelation, it is "medieval" Islam as fierce "stupefaction," "a remittance economy," "unnecessary fasts," "men who would be nothing more than the rules" and who wear modest desert garb merely as an "aggression." Yet if they link their religious conviction that wealth should be shared, not hoarded, to modern socialism, and that God's land should be left clean and beautiful, to environmentalism, he ridicules them for being influenced by alien philosophies. Most writers have a few subjects that for reasons of prejudice they ought to avoid; and if Naipaul has tripped himself up by trying to examine Islam fairly and intelligently from a Hindu-cum-atheist of also antipathy, it is a minor misstep in a lustrous career. But for us who urgently need a wider understanding of the world abroad, instead of a further withdrawing into Fortress America, it's too bad so acute a witness has served us inadequately.

A number of newspaper reporters have filed more interesting accounts than Naipaul's chapters on revolutionary Iran. He made the briefest possible visit to the holy city of Qom, for instance, and solely in order to speak to the Hanging Ayatollah, Khalkhalli. Although in his history of Trinidad, published 12 years ago, he devoted enormous, furious stretches of the text to describing the tortures inflicted by a renegade governor, circa 1800, he is utterly unconcerned here with the prison practices of the Shah. In Pakistan and Malaysia, too, where there is less reason to come into the country loaded for bear, he seeks mainly to confront Islam in extremist form. Only Islam is a force for conquest; only Islam has impracticable ideals that have not been implemented since the time of the Founder. Visiting a fundamentalist Indonesian school, he mocks the administrators for washing their own clothes instead of having the servants do it, and for not possessing teaching equipment such as a copying machine--but then for possessing a copying machine, after it turns out that they do.

A young Malaysian named Mohammed complains that a traditional background and Christian-secular education left him confused.

"In what way were you confused?" asks Naipaul. "My background is more complicated than yours, but I am not confused." Yet, surely, what but "confusion" is the source of Naipaul's visceral animosity-- rising like a shark's fin in the narrative--to most Muslims his own age, as well as of his perennial exasperation in all cities with "the rustic with urban vanities," who must remind him of himself in Trinidad. In 1962, when he first set foot on the great subcontinent where he hoped to find his roots, he was so deeply perturbed by the moil of street life in Karachi that he tells us he cut short his explorations after only two hours to take refuge in the depths of his ship. Now, the asthma, bronchitis and insomnia that plague him in exotic places appear to serve as a weapon with which he threatens interlocutors--delays and arguments bring them on.

Even in nonfiction, however, confusion, irascibility and despair are not sins in themselves. In the majesty of Naipaul's fiction, they combine with his capacity for tenderness and with his glittering insights into novels of surpassing power. Here, also, he falls into affectionate dialogues with the guides he hires--Masood, Idrees, Behzad, Ahmed, Shafi, Prasojo and others. As always, he is of course a marvel at evoking scenes--the "immense petty diligence" of rice fields seen from the air; a waterlogged desert in Pakistan; Jakarta pushcarts that the peddlers beat on with a bamboo stave in rhythms that tell what foods are inside. Noticing a porter's mincing gait, he tries carrying a load of pottery balanced on either end of a limber pole: "The strain was less on the shoulders than on the calves, which jarred with every weighted step."

He makes the points that the Spanish conquistadors drew impetus from the Arab horsemen who had conquered Spain; that Muslim university students who fail at school are more likely to withdraw to the mosque, "the more violently to leap forward"; that super-breeds of rice grown in two crops a year disrupt a village culture adapted by many centuries to one. A Catholic Indonesian peasant woman is pictured beautifully: "Her face was serene and open; she held her head up, with a slight backward tilt; her bones were fine, her eyes bright, though depressed in their sockets, and her lips were perfectly shaped."

But Islam is far more complex and appealing than Naipaul is prepared to admit. Indeed, for all the length and intermittent richness of his book, he has scarcely explored his topic. And in America the newest brand of anti-Semitism is anti-Arab o rather than anti-Jewish, having been abetted by many of the same intellectuals who angrily fought against the earlier variety. A sort of politico-holy-war mentality has been set up, whereby what is sometimes described as "Judeo-Christian civilization" confronts Islamic fanatacism. Naipaul is no racist, and his bias originates from a Hindu, not a "Judeo-Christian," grounding. But sadly this book can only contribute to the general misunderstanding.