A Satanic Anniversary
THE DEFENDANT: The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie. 25 years ago today all hell broke loose over this book. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (holy decree) stating that God wanted anyone associated with publishing this book assassinated.
THE VERDICT: No less than 58 dead, 242 wounded, banned in 21 countries, 6 bombings, and millions of people all over the world told to murder for their faith. Mass book-burnings were held, many major book retailers took it off the shelves, and many stores that did agree to sell it kept it behind the counter. The United Kingdom and Iran broke diplomatic relations over the affair. Rushdie had to live in hiding for nearly a decade.
THE CHARGES: Blasphemy, and lots of it.
THE REVIEW: The Satanic Verses centers around two main characters. One is Saladin Chamcha, who was born in India but desperately wants to be perceived as a British native. The other is Gibreel Farishta, a Bollywood superstar whose entire career has focused on playing various deities in film adaptations of famous Hindu legends. These two men are both in the midst of mid-life crises when they board a plane going from Bombay to London. This plane is hijacked, and eventually explodes in midair. Saladin and Gibreel survive the fall through supernatural intervention that they do not understand at the time. Soon, they learn what happened to them: Gibreel has been conferred with aspects of an angel, and Saladin with a demon. They survived because Gibreel flapped his arms like angel wings. Shortly after the crash Saladin is unfairly arrested, and even though Gibreel had the ability to step forward and vouch for him, he does not.
Saladin soon grows a tail, horns, and hooves while Gibreel develops a source of light behind his head; strangers start confiding in him; and, most importantly, he has dreams from the point of view of the angel of revelation. From these dreams many other subplots develop, and they are where most of the “blasphemy” occurs. Gibreel’s dreams start affecting reality and he is diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia. Meanwhile, Saladin becomes obsessed with seeking revenge on Gibreel, and is callous enough to use his mental illness against him. Most of the plot revolving around these two characters focuses on whether they are deserving of the angelic or demonic titles given to them in their fall, and the reader ends up sympathizing with and passing judgment on them both at different times throughout their stories. I could go on and on about everything that happens with just these characters, but there is just too much else that is important in this book to cover. Suffice it to say, Gibreel and Saladin’s storylines are brilliant, complex, and wonderful, and I cannot think of anywhere else I have seen such well-developed characters. Go read it.
The rest of the book takes place in Gibreel’s dreams, which all focus on different times that the angel of revelation interacted with mankind. There is a catch, however. The angel does not deliver a message from God to mankind. Instead, the prophets end up possessing the angel and forcing it to give whatever message they want themselves. Most notably of these dream sequences, there are several episodes of the prophet Muhammad’s (called Mahound in this book) life that are retold in a very unflattering manner. It makes the claim that Mahound only supported monotheism for business reasons. His clan was the one that profited from the temple to Allah, and by shutting down all of the other temples in Mecca (called Jahilia) he would have a monopoly. The titular “Satanic Verses” refer to when Mahound makes a compromise with the other powerful elites in Jahilia and agrees to allow prayers to three specific goddesses in addition to Allah. However, he quickly realizes that this compromise completely negates the entire principle of monotheism and makes him a laughing stock, so he changes his mind, claiming that it was the devil impersonating the angel that gave him permission to include the goddesses.
The idea that the devil could have tainted some of the verses of the Qur’an is a very dangerous one. Rushdie (and the legend that this episode is based off of) claim that the only verses that were tainted were removed, but how terrible of a concept is it that Satan could infiltrate a divine message? If that idea were taken seriously all revelation-based religions throughout the world would face such dramatic upheaval that the body count listed above would seem trivial. Suggesting that Muhammad had motivations as unholy as the pursuit of wealth is also a very disturbing concept for Muslims. Even worse is that Rushdie included tidbits of truth in his narrative, such as Muhammad’s background as a businessman, that makes the rest seem more believable. Above all, though, is Rushdie had the nerve to tell the story of Muhammad’s life from the point of view of his enemies, and he gave these enemies understandable motives. To a culture that does not even allow Muhammad’s face to be depicted this is an unparalleled insult.
Later on there is an episode in which one of Mahound’s scribes, Salman, comes to lose faith in Mahound’s revelations. First, he notices that the angel always takes Mahound’s side in any argument, and is often very convenient with the timing of his revelations. As a test, Salman starts writing some of the revelations down inaccurately. When Mahound fails to notice, Salman’s heart breaks. He wanted Mahound to be legitimate, but, once he failed the test, there was no way to believe in him anymore. He runs away to a land untouched by Mahound’s new religion and presumably lives out the rest of his life in peace, albeit spiritually broken.
Again, Rushdie has suggested a way that the Qur’an could have been tainted, while also suggesting that the message wasn’t worth much even before it was tampered with. As far as I know, this particular episode is based purely off of the imaginings of Rushdie, and has no basis in legend or history. There is no reason to believe its veracity. That being said, like many historical fictions, it is a story that is just plausible enough that it could have happened when historians weren’t looking, and that makes it terrifying.
When Mahound conquers Jahilia, an old enemy of his, Baal, is trapped within the city walls. He hides inside a brothel, where he ends up living in secret for three years. During this time, the twelve whores realize how good it would be for business to each role-play one of Mahound’s wives. Sure enough, the citizens of Jahilia have been lusting over Mahound’s wives and leap at the chance to live out their fantasies. Meanwhile, the whores are fantasizing about domestic life, and ask Baal to take on the role of Mahound for them. All thirteen of them lose themselves in the roleplay, with the women eventually forgetting their real names. Prostitution is finally outlawed, the women are imprisoned, and the secret business strategy is discovered. They are all executed, and Baal reveals himself as their blasphemous husband to die along with them.
I do not feel that Rushdie’s intent in this book was ever to shock just for shock’s sake, but this is certainly the part that comes closest to it. Muhammad’s wives are venerated in Islam, as are modesty, chastity, propriety, etc. and this episode takes the idea of respect and throws it out the window. Rushdie also makes some rather questionable decisions with the names he uses for both characters and places. For Example, “Jahiliyyah” roughly means “being ignorant of God.” Using that word to refer to Islam’s most holy city is certainly not flattering. If anything in the book was done just for shock value these are the most likely candidates.
The other major dream sequence in the book follows a pilgrimage from an Indian village to the Arabian Sea. A businessman, Mirza, wakes on his fortieth birthday, reflecting on what a blessed life he has. This quickly changes when a local village girl, Ayesha, begins having visions from the angel of revelation, saying that their entire village must walk to the Arabian Sea, at which point Allah will part the waters and let them walk across and continue their pilgrimage to Mecca. Mirza is skeptical, but is forced to follow along because his wife has been diagnosed with cancer and either believes the pilgrimage will cure her or it is the best use of her little remaining time. Mirza follows the pilgrimage in his car, trying to convince his wife and others to defect from what he views as mass hysteria. Several miracles occur during the march, but several disturbing things as well, including the stoning of a baby because it was born out of wedlock. Finally, they reach the sea, walk into its depths, and drown. Mirza and a few other skeptics run in after their loved ones trying to save them, but there are no survivors. However, the skeptics all saw visions of the pilgrims walking along the bottom of the ocean, on their way to Mecca. Despite the presence of magical elements in the book, the reader knows that magic did not happen this time because we are told that their bodies washed ashore. The implication that their souls made it is kept intact. Mirza returns to the now deserted village and waits to die.
This plotline is not a very favorable portrayal of divine experiences. As with the tales surrounding Mahound, it is told from the point of view of a skeptical outsider, so it is the skeptical opinion that gets the most screen-time. Every time one of the elderly dies on their pilgrimage Mirza feels the loss, while the believers write them off as martyrs who have taken the short road to heaven. Ayesha eventually admits that the angel speaks to her through pop songs, and Mirza takes the reader with him in his delight at how ridiculous this is. Combined with the pilgrims all stoning a baby for the sins of its parents, and over 100 people calmly walking into the ocean to drown, it is just a very unsettling story to read. It definitely leaves the reader wary of anything holy.
THE DEFENSE: The experience of reading The Satanic Verses is a very complicated one. Much of the book takes place in dreams, and somehow Rushdie made the entire thing feel like a dream. Plotlines float in and out and merge with each other and then transition and it is all very convoluted and somewhat intimidating. Yet, I think I have placed my finger on the (or maybe “a”) common theme: nearly every single character, great or small, has to face what happens when the most important thing in their life turns sour. This thing can be love; lust; family; ambition; talent; and, yes, religion. This is all a tale about “what if the worst should happen,” and I think that is exactly what all of the blasphemous parts do; they force the reader to think about what if the worst things imaginable were revealed to be true about Islam. Rushdie is not suggesting that Muhammad was a fraud, Mecca is ignorant of God, or that the Qur’an is worthless, but he is telling a story of just how awful it would be if those things were true. Even the parts that seem wantonly offensive serve the purpose of bringing the reader deeper into the sense of horror and betrayal that characters such as Salman feel when their faith is shaken.
Reading this book is an involved, complicated, emotional experience. I am not a Muslim, so I cannot speak to the Muslim opinion with authority, but I respect Islam enough to believe that most Muslims could read this book without losing their faith. It might even make them grateful for how strong their religious history actually is. It might teach people that atheists and apostates are still deserving of sympathy. Maybe if more people knew that, the 58 people who died in the Rushdie Affair would still be with us. All in all, The Satanic Verses is an experience that is worth having, and if a political regime thinks their society would crumble in the face of that experience, then it is a very flimsy society indeed.
At least 58 people died so that you might have the chance to read this book. Is it really right to refuse the offer?