BEYOND BELIEF Islamic Excursions Among The Converted Peoples By V.S. Naipaul Random House. 408 pp. $27.95 In Among the Believers (1981) the British writer V.S. Naipaul offered us an account of his travels in 1979 through four Muslim countries in ferment: Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia. Sixteen years later, in 1995, Naipaul made a second "Islamic journey" to the same countries. They are all, he tells us, homes to "converted peoples," followers of an Arab religion, one that obliges them to bow their heads toward a foreign city, Mecca, when they pray. Beyond Belief, Naipaul's 23rd book, is focused on the theme of conversion. It reveals many of the qualities that have made him so impressive, so readable, and yet so contrarian a writer. Naipaul's nonfiction books are not quite travel books, though they are invariably about his own travels; they are not works of political scholarship, though they abound in political judgments. They are as much about himself -- his ideas, values, prejudices, his own sense of dislocation as an Indian born in "unhallowed" Trinidad and settled in England -- as they are about the countries he visits. They are also, above all, about people. In this travelogue, Naipaul the novelist is always seeking out characters, from the Pakistani guerrilla fighter with an upper-class British education and the Iranian filmmaker who had enlisted as teenage cannon-fodder in the Iran-Iraq War, to the Malaysian playwright in a half-finished house whose father's spiritual yearnings had led to madness, and the Indonesian poet in a Javanese village, his "precious world in dissolution," living "with the idea of decay." Naipaul makes it a point to meet many of the same characters he had encountered in 1979, though there are interesting omissions -- the young communist who had translated for him in Iran does not reappear, and Naipaul does not seem to have tried to reach him. But the new characters are as interesting as the old ones. Naipaul describes his method as that of a "discoverer of people, a finder-out of stories." In his recent works (most notably the curiously lumpy India: A Million Mutinies Now) he has tended to repeat verbatim long conversations with his interlocutors (not always getting them right, as some howlers in the India book testify), letting the stories go on when the reader is clamoring for interruption, context, analysis. But in Beyond Belief Naipaul injects himself a little more into the tales of the people he listens to and even sometimes interprets them for the reader. (When a man who has survived the horrors of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War says that it means "nothing," Naipaul adds: "He didn't mean that: it was his way of speaking of an almost inexpressible pain.") At one level the book is an inexhaustible compendium of personal stories, some recounted at length, some alluded to only in passing. The effect is richly detailed and deeply affecting. Beyond Belief is a more compassionate work than Naipaul's earlier works; whereas much of his nonfiction could be faulted for generalizing carelessly from small particulars, here he writes of individual needs, fears and motivations with great delicacy and precision, and his individual cases have depth and humanity, while combining to make a compelling larger picture. He says the stories themselves are the point of his book: "the reader should not look for conclusions'." But the stories do point to a conclusion, for Naipaul has an explicit theme. He avers that Islam is the "most uncompromising kind of imperialism" because it "seeks as an article of faith to erase the past; the believers in the end honor Arabia alone; they have nothing to return to." Islam requires "a dreadful mangling of history." He describes how pilgrims from Sumatra who traveled to Mecca in the 19th century returned "determined to erase local errors, all the customs and ceremonies and earth reverences that carried the taint of the religions that had gone on before" -- just like students from the colonies discovering the "right way of doing things" during their sojourn in the metropolis. Naipaul reminds us that "everyone not an Arab who is Muslim is a convert." Converted Muslims "develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can easily be set on the boil." Naipaul's own sense of displacement, so effectively chronicled in his earlier books, most notably The Enigma of Arrival, is at the heart of his view of the world: his scathing contempt for "half-formed civilizations," his rejection of the passionate certitudes of those who act out a "rage" against the world that has advanced beyond their comprehension. In this book, too, he spurns the "incompleteness" and "emptiness" of his native Trinidad, and dismisses people "without an idea of the future." This is a recurrent theme: In Among the Believers he had poured contempt on Islam's failure to keep up with "the spread of universal civilization," arguing that "it was the late 20th century -- and not the faith -- that could supply answers." If he seems slightly less dismissive here, some of his judgments are no different from those he has leveled at non-Islamic societies he has found similarly "half-formed," from India to Zaire. Conversions, Naipaul suggests, "occur when people have no idea of themselves, and have no means of understanding or retrieving their past." It is true that conversion obliges Muslims to repudiate many elements of their own pasts (though Javanese, for instance, still bear Hindu names rather than Arab ones). "For the new fundamentalists . . . the greatest war was to be made on their own past and everything that linked them to their own earth." But there have been other uncompromising imperialisms that were arguably no less unpleasant for having been based on different premises -- Nazism, for instance, or Spanish imperialism in what became Latin America. Naipaul overlooks the duality inherent in transplanted Islam; many Muslims who revere Mecca, and make the obligatory Haj pilgrimage as often as they can, also feel a profound connection to the holy places of their own countries. He has not altogether shed his penchant for the grand sweeping epigram: "Iran was to enter the twentieth century only with a capacity of pain and nihilism." In the process he tends to ignore the local political roots of Islamic fundamentalism. To converts, he says, "the faith was identity enough, and state enough." But to what degree are the "neuroses" he describes inherent in the faith of the neurotics, and to what degree in their specific political, economic or social circumstances? After all, an overwhelming majority of the world's Christians are also "converted peoples" -- how many of the author's generalized strictures about conversion would apply to them? Naipaul ignores non-Islamic parallels. When he writes movingly of the "untold pain" caused by "multiple Muslim marriages" and their spawning of "a society of half-orphans, in a chain of deprivation and rage," he seems oblivious of the Western societies in which sexual freedom and easy divorce have created more single-parent homes than are found in the Islamic world. Naipaul is excoriating about Pakistan, the state partitioned from India in 1947 "in a kind of religious ecstasy" as a homeland for India's Muslims. But again many of the stories he recounts of the rapaciousness of Pakistan's feudal landowners, of rape, killing and violent oppression, arguably have more to do with the social and political circumstances he is describing than with religion. If Islam is "a complete way of life," as Islamists claim, "in Iran now it was possible to see political Islam as a complete form of control." But what Naipaul says about political Islam could as easily be said about any system of belief that obliges believers to suspend their freedom of thought and that submits them to rigid rules of conviction and conduct. He has little regard for Islam's doctrinal complexities. Looking at Islamic books in the holy Iranian city of Qom, he wonders "whether they were intended to find readers, or whether they were issued as sacred objects . . . their publication or manufacture being somebody's act of piety." This sounds like animus rather than analysis. But it is at least partly redeemed by the writing. Naipaul's penetrating gaze has awed readers and interlocutors for years, and when it is allied to a pointed turn of phrase, the results are memorable: Malaysian girls in Muslim headdress "like little shoals of blanched big-headed tadpoles"; Iranian prayer crowds "so great that their footsteps roared like the sea, and dust could be seen to rise above them as they walked." Beyond Belief is very much a writer's book. Naipaul constantly reminds us of his working methods ("I made no notes"; "I went on in my groping way"). His method, though, involves too much repetition: We are told twice of Persian cheese imported from Denmark, and of an Iranian woman unmarried because so many men have been killed in the war, each time as if it was a new piece of information. But the past never quite disappears; it is transformed. Naipaul shows how the legend of a Hindu saint has been reinvented by Indonesian Muslims as an Islamic myth; in a revered Muslim shrine in Pakistan, he recognizes a Shiva linga. The pre-Islamic lives on in the Islamic. Perhaps, then the last word should go to Ayatollah Khalkhali, Tehran's notorious "hanging judge." Reality, he reminds us, "will always prevail." Reviewed by Shashi Tharoor, the author, most recently, of "India: From Midnight to the Millennium."