The scourge of superstition has returned to the Islamic world. David Dabydeen wonders if his mood has improved: Beyond Belief by V S Naipaul Little, Brown, pounds 20
`A writer's earliest imaginative work, even when unachieved or artificial-seeming, can hold, sometimes in coded ways, the impulses and emotions that will always rule him." V S Naipaul's comment in his latest travelogue, Beyond Belief, is directed at the plays of Syed Alwi, the Malaysian playwright. But it is a neat and apt summary of his own writings over 40 years. Early novels such as The Mystic Masseur and Miguel Street initiated the themes that were to occupy him in the next 20-odd books, whether travelogue, fiction or autobiography: the mimicry of the colonised, the disorder of newly independent states, the reign of dunces, tyrants, romantics and poseurs; the embrace of the irrational and the fundamentalist; the absence of scientific achievement.

When, in Miguel Street, the comically named schoolmaster Mr Titus Hoyt fails in his effort to teach the classics to Trinidadian children, his failure exposes a more general intellectual incompetence in society. When one character tinkers with his car's engine, unable to fix it, Naipaul is revisualising the scene in Conrad's Heart of Darkness where Western machinery rots in the bush. Such technology, the product of developed cultures, is beyond the comprehension of the primitive mind, and therefore cannot be used meaningfully.

The exposure of failure and incompetence has been the obsessive motive of Naipaul's writings. His work is truly monumental in its lifetime's dedication to a particular body of concerns. Such single-mindedness must not, however, be confused with monotony. For the progression of books has been marked by subtle changes in sensibility, as Naipaul's vision has altered and deepened.

The early comedies, such as A House for Mr Biswas, give way to the darker, more despairing and almost world-weary narratives of Guerrillas and A Bend in the River. Essays on murderers such as Mobutu and Michael X are utterly terrifying in their depiction of human rot.

Black critics accused Naipaul of racial bias, but his savage satires on the human condition extended to Latin-Americans, Indians, Pakistanis, Indonesians, Iranians and Malay peoples. As to whites, there are few novels so revealing of the spiritual decay of England as his Mr Stone and the Knights Companion.

Nor has Naipaul exempted himself, arrogantly, from his representation of human failings. The autobiographical interruptions in the fictional narrative of The Enigma of Arrival reveal a painfully lonely and displaced person, subject to nervous breakdown. Inner chaos and outer chaos merge in that novel.

His recent travelogues, set in India and black America, have been brighter and more forgiving in tone, struggling to recognise the small efforts ordinary people make to give some measure of dignity to their lives. Beyond Belief is hopeful of the human future, even as it recognises the persistence of folly - folly, in this case, being a narrow-minded and bloody-minded version of Islam.

Naipaul revisits the countries that were the subjects of his Among The Unbelievers (1981), searching for signs of meaningful change. He is constantly appalled by the example of lives stunted or stubbed out by religion. Often, these are women's lives.

In Iran, the Revolutionary Guards still man the roadblocks, looking out not for terrorists but for women whose hair is not completely covered. Not much has changed since the days of Ayatollah Khomeini: women are still banned from a host of social and public activities, including singing.

Old Ayotallahs may have died or have been pushed aside. (Naipaul paints a memorable portrait of Ayatollah Khalkhalli, the famous Hanging Judge who relished the relationship between religion and blood-letting, but who is now a piteous creature, fearful for his own life.) Yet dozens of Islamic rules remain to stifle and imprison the human spirit. Female plight is painfully evident in Naipaul's description of a Pakistani market-area teeming with women and girls kidnapped, tortured and enslaved in brothels: the inevitable consequence of Islamic attitudes to women, Naipaul suggests.

His anger is real as he writes of "the veiling and effective imprisoning of women, and giving men tomcatting rights over four women at a time, to use and discard at will". He tells the astonishing story of the late Nawab of the Bahawalpur and his 400 women, most of whom had slept only once with him. Having lost their virginity, they were deemed useless by other men. "Some of these women developed a kind of hysteria; some became lesbians." When the Nawab died, 600 dildos and piles of dirty magazines were discovered in his palace.

Battery-operated dildos and feudal tyranny: the juxtaposition of the modern (underpinned by science) and the traditional (underpinned by Islamic practices) is Naipaul's overarching theme. He tells the story of the Indonesian engineer whose project is to build an aeroplane, using native talent, to rival Western technology.

It is a commendable effort, except that the engineer is a man of Koranic rules, driven by a desire to make devout Muslims of the population. "Development, but with minds somehow tethered," Naipaul comments. Somehow we know that the aeroplane will not take off. Four days before its inaugural flight, its generator shaft breaks down. It eventually flies for an hour, at 10,000 feet.

The stories - and there are hundreds of them - yield a familiar Naipaulian despair at human behaviour. The problems of Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran and Malaysia stem from the imposition of Islam on traditionally non-Islamic places. Such imposition, in Naipaul's view, is a form of ruthless imperialism: "The cruelty of Islamic Fundamentalism is that it allows only to one people - the Arabs, the original people of the Prophet - a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages and earth reverences. Converted peoples have to strip themselves of their past; of converted peoples nothing is required but the purest faith, Islam, submission."

The hopefulness in Naipaul's narrative lies in his accounts of individuals who resist such cleansing processes, and seek out the resources of pre- Islamic faiths (often a mixture of Animism, Hinduism and Jarvanism) in manifold ways. One such, the Indonesian scholar Dewi Anwar, believes passionately in the sacredness of place: a sacredness rooted in an awareness of the spirits of earth and of the animal kingdom. The ancient spirit world of nature has been denied by modern Islam, and by the financiers of Indonesia's skyscrapers: hence the possibility of the country's ecological and economic collapse.

That Naipaul gives space to the expressions of ideas about the sacred is surprising to begin with. That he shows genuine sympathy for them is completely unexpected. The originality of this travelogue lies not so much in its descriptions of societies gripped by fundamentalist beliefs as by the autobiographical glimpses it offers to the reader.

In a peculiar way, Beyond Belief is a journey towards self-discovery. Its key passages deal not with turmoils in Indonesia, Iran or Pakistan but within Naipaul himself. Hence the sudden confession, which comes halfway through the book, of his Trinidadian past, and the real reason for his abandonment of the island: the absence of the sacred there, and the eradication of its pre-Columbian worship. Such a celebration of the sacred reveals Naipaul in a new light, even if his portrayal of Islamic societies is still predictably dark.