‘Nobody would have the balls today to write The Satanic Verses, let alone publish it,’ the writer Hanif Kureishi told a journalist in 2009. Salman Rushdie’s notorious novel, like Kureishi’s figure of speech, is indeed looking like a relic of a bygone time. When it was published 31 years ago, the global furore was unprecedented. There were protests, book-burnings and riots. Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini called on Muslims to kill Rushdie, a bounty was placed on his head, and there were murders, attempted and successful, of supporters, publishers and translators. The author spent years in hiding.
Three decades later, the novel remains in print, widely available, and the author walks about a largely free man. But if the skirmish over The Satanic Verses was won, a larger battle might have been lost. Who now would dare to write a provocative fiction exploring the origins of Islam? The social and political aspects of the Rushdie affair obscured one of the key ideas at stake: can someone from a Muslim background take material from the life of the prophet Muhammad to compose an innovative, irreverent and resolutely godless work of fiction?
Subsequent experience suggests not. The cases of the caricatures in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 and the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo at various times between 2006 and 2015 will make anyone, Muslim or not, think twice about representing the prophet Muhammad in anything but a conventionally reverent manner, for fear of giving offence or of grievous bodily harm, or both. The Danish and French cartoons, however, were treading on terrain already fertilised by The Satanic Verses. They were deliberately testing the limits of free speech and self-censorship. Other cases, such as Innocence of Muslims, a short film posted to YouTube in 2012, were more clearly anti-Muslim provocations where it is difficult to discern any genuine concern for free speech. The Rushdie affair was the first in a series of conflicts over the portrayal of the prophet Muhammad. In hindsight, though, it looks more like the end of an era than a beginning.
The fact that The Satanic Verses is such a lengthy and challenging novel is the first hint that one should distinguish between the Rushdie affair and the book itself. People can routinely describe the novel as, to cite a couple of academics in the West today, a ‘portrayal of Islam as a deceitful, ignorant, and sexually deviant religion’, containing ‘abusive language and insults directed at the prophet Muhammad and his wives’. Such a reading stems from the affair, which has subsumed the novel itself. The social and political circumstances were outpacing literature, and those circumstances are even more pronounced today. The increasing prominence of radical Islam, or Islam as a political force, is obviously one factor. The other factor, especially in the West, is the increasing emphasis on culture and ethnicity, religion included, as a means of self-definition. Rushdie had intended, he said at the time, ‘to write about religion and revelation from the point of view of a secular person’, but the idea of what constituted ‘religion’ was itself changing.
The Satanic Verses is a sprawling, surreal epic of immigrant experience, set in London and Bombay (as it was called at the time). It follows two Indian men, the only survivors of a flight blown up by Sikh terrorists over the English Channel, who miraculously survive the fall and land on the beach below. One of them, an actor famed for playing gods from the Hindu pantheon, finds a halo has appeared over his head. The other, who has lived in England for years trying to distance himself from his Indian roots, develops horns on his head, a devilish tail and appalling halitosis.
Intertwined are three subplots in the form of dreams experienced by the increasingly unhinged Indian actor. Each of these subplots deals in some way with Islam, and each is based on recent events or historical accounts. The Imam is a Khomeini figure plotting and carrying out a revolution. Part IV, ‘Ayesha’, features a young girl who claims to be receiving divine messages instructing her and her followers to walk to Mecca through the Arabian Sea, claiming that the waters will part for them. The section that gets all the attention, though, is ‘Mahound’, a satirical rewriting of the career of Muhammad. The book’s title refers to an infamous story from the early days of Islam, and also to the strong possibility that the entire novel is narrated by the Devil.
The Satanic Verses repeatedly shows us the point of view of a person asked to believe in something he doubts
In his dreams, the actor, Gibreel Farishta (the angel Gabriel) finds himself the unwilling conduit of messages to a prophet named Mahound, in a surreal city obviously based on Mecca:
Mahound’s eyes open wide, he’s seeing some kind of vision, staring at it, oh, that’s right, Gibreel remembers, me. He’s seeing me. My lips moving, being moved by. What, whom? Don’t know, can’t say. Nevertheless, here they are, coming out of my mouth, up my throat, past my teeth: the Words.
Being God’s postman is no fun, yaar.
Butbutbut: God isn’t in this picture.
God knows whose postman I’ve been.
The themes of these subplots are, like those of the novel as a whole, ambiguous and impossible to summarise. One constant, however, is the question of belief, or more accurately, the shades of doubt between belief and disbelief. Rushdie’s is a modern, individualist perspective, and The Satanic Verses repeatedly shows us the point of view of a person asked to believe in something he doubts, like certain of Mahound’s associates and the husband of one of the most zealous devotees of Ayesha the seer. This is not a perspective with much precedent in Islamic literatures.
For Rushdie, the essentials of religion are fairly simple. He is not concerned with scriptural hermeneutics or jurisprudential subtleties. Religion is not even a matter of ethics. It is a matter of whether you believe in God or not, and if you don’t, which he doesn’t, what to do about this fellow Muhammad?
Studying history as an undergraduate at Cambridge, Rushdie was fascinated by how much information we have about the origins of Islam. Compared with any other prophet or founder of a religion, we know a good deal about the life of the Muslim prophet (what we don’t know is equally vast, and the tradition might not be quite as reliable as many suppose but, on the whole, the point stands). So how does one read the story of the messenger of God, when one doesn’t believe in God? This question was foremost on Rushdie’s mind. As he told a TV interviewer in 1989:
When Muhammad returned to Mecca in power, he was very, very tolerant. And I think, if I remember correctly, only five or six people were executed after the retaking of Mecca. And of those five or six people, two were writers, and two were actresses who had performed in satirical texts. Now there you have an image that I thought was worth exploring: at the very beginning of Islam you find a conflict between the sacred text and the profane text, between revealed literature and imagined literature. For a writer, that conflict is fascinating and interesting to explore. So that’s what I was doing, exploring.
Rushdie’s details are not entirely accurate, but the sources do record that Muhammad held a particular grudge against those who had satirised him, and requested or hinted at the need for their execution. The image is a powerful one, all the more so for a writer of fiction, and this opposition between prophetic word and poetic word would find its way into The Satanic Verses.
It was not just a matter of the origins of Islam. Such images were made more powerful at the time by the unexpected return of religion. Up to the 1980s, it seemed that secularism was on the rise everywhere, and the Islamic world was no exception. But then things began to change. Islam and Islamic movements were suddenly more prominent. There were kidnappings and suicide attacks in Lebanon. Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, was assassinated by the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. The mujahideen rose to prominence in Afghanistan. The Islamist regime of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq took power in Pakistan. And, above all, there was the Iranian Revolution. It might be difficult now to recall how the grim visage of Khomeini symbolised for many (and not just Westerners) a new and frankly frightening religious force in the world. Religion was supposed to be on the way out – but here it was. Rushdie shared this incomprehension.
These gaps and contradictions in the Quran are the areas that Rushdie chose to investigate
In exploring the life of Muhammad, Rushdie poked and prodded the Islamic tradition in its most sensitive regions. Early Islamic sources contain a number of elements that are at odds with the conventional, ‘orthodox’ or popular versions of Islamic origins. For example, there are a number of instances where Muhammad appears to be all too human in his apparent desires and actions, such as an occasional vindictiveness or his numerous marriages. Muslim tradition tends to downplay these elements or rationalise them as part of his larger, divinely inspired plan. Anti-Muslim polemicists, however, have long seized on such accounts as evidence of Muhammad’s malignity, and mention of human weakness or personal idiosyncrasies tends to be taken as a provocation. Rushdie’s satire is provocative, certainly, but it is not part of that tradition.
Islam is premised on the authenticity and integrity of the Quran, but there are some indications in early Arabic accounts that the collection of the Holy Scripture was not as complete and accurate as convention would have us believe. It is important not to exaggerate these elements, though: Muslim scholars have been aware of them for centuries, and Islam has flourished quite well nonetheless. If the conventional narrative has a few holes, any skeptical alternatives have many more. Even so, these gaps and contradictions are present, and who is to say that one should not consider them and what they might mean? These are the areas that Rushdie chose to investigate.
The Satanic Verses contains, for example, a heavily fictionalised story of Ibn Abi Sarh, who worked as Muhammad’s scribe, copying down the revelation as the messenger recited it. Several sources tell us that Ibn Abi Sarh, when taking dictation, continued to write after Muhammad had ceased to speak, completing phrases with words he thought appropriate. When his additions went unnoticed, he was shaken. How could these be the words of God? They were his own! He left and fled to the prophet’s enemies. When the Muslims had conquered Mecca and Islam was triumphant, Muhammad demanded that Ibn Abi Sarh, among other apostates, be killed. He was eventually persuaded to grant clemency to his former scribe, but later expressed his regret that his companions hadn’t simply cut off his head.
In Rushdie’s novel, the Ibn Abi Sarh character has gone into hiding from the prophet whose verses he altered. ‘Why are you sure he will kill you?’ he is asked. ‘It’s his Word against mine,’ he answers.
Even more sensitive is the story of the satanic verses. In the earliest days of Muhammad’s prophetic mission, he was despairing of winning any more converts to his cause. Opposition was fierce. His message of one unique god was not welcome in a community that had long worshipped a variety of deities. Then, he received a revelation that seemed to resolve his problem: in addition to the one god, Allah, one could pray to three other minor gods, all female. Some of his enemies prostrated themselves alongside Muhammad: it seemed as though a compromise had been reached between his strict monotheism and the multiple deities of the Meccans.
There are different versions of what happened next. Either the angel Gabriel appeared and told Muhammad that Satan tampered with the words, or he realised himself that he had recited something not right, something that sacrificed his most fundamental principle. Subsequent divine revelation announced that, while Satan might interfere with a prophet’s recitation, God will intervene to remove the offending part. The ‘satanic’ words, those affirming the existence of the three female deities, were then excluded from the revelation, and strict monotheism was reconfirmed. The polytheists of Mecca resumed their hostility, but Muhammad had compromised nothing.
Today, virtually all Muslims consider the episode of the satanic verses to be a fabrication. It is inconceivable, they say, that Satan’s words could have found their way into the revelation. It is inconceivable that the messenger of God, the prophet who serves as a guide for all believers, could have committed such an error. The story was surely a falsehood concocted by the enemies of Islam. In the 1960s, an Egyptian scholar went so far as to propose that all mention of the incident be excised from future editions of historical texts.
But the problem is that many historical texts do contain the anecdote, in around 50 slightly varying versions. Moreover, as the book Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam (2017) by Shahab Ahmed convincingly shows, the first generations of Muslims did not question the incident. Only gradually, with the development of certain doctrines regarding the sinlessness of prophets, did the story become impossible to accept. Even Ibn Taymiyyah, the 14th-century firebrand and intellectual forefather of Salafism, accepted the veracity of the satanic verses story.
In his book, Ahmed proposed that the story served particular functions in different contexts for the very first generations of believers: it might have originated to explain certain obscure Quranic verses; it might have been an uplifting narrative of triumph over adversity, of succumbing to temptation at a moment of despair, and then returning to the straight path. In other words, it is possible for believers to find meaning in a non-orthodox interpretation of the anecdote. Likewise, it is possible for a nonbeliever such as Rushdie to find something valuable in the life of the prophet, even when God is out of the picture. The Muhammadan revelation becomes a matter of human history and behaviour, a story of belief and credulity, of power and knowledge, one that has echoes throughout human experience.
None of this is to say that The Satanic Verses does not offend. It clearly does. For those who make it that far into the novel, the scenes in which the prostitutes adopt the names and personae of Mahound’s wives are guaranteed to send the faithful into fits. Neither the novel nor its author makes any suggestion that this is meant as a comment on the prophet’s wives, real or fictional, and to claim otherwise, as many have, is simply incorrect. At the same time, one can hardly claim surprise that people are offended.
Anti-Muslim sentiment (and politics) has reached levels where any criticism of Islam is suspect
One might argue that whatever his criticisms, Rushdie should have been more respectful. But this is a dangerous path, one that misjudges what is at stake. Is it not the case that many great works of Western literature, from François Rabelais to Voltaire, James Joyce to Philip Roth, offended a good number of religious groups and authorities? This was the argument of Sadik Jalal al-Azm, a Syrian philosophy professor who was arrested in 1970 on blasphemy charges stemming from his book Critique of Religious Thought (1969), in which he condemned religiosity in the Arab world, and blamed it for many social and political ills. He wrote various pieces in defence of The Satanic Verses and its author, including ‘The Importance of Being Earnest About Salman Rushdie’ (1989), an extended comparison with Rabelais and Joyce, noting the difference between the canonical status granted to Western authors who challenged religious authority or orthodoxy and the, at best tepid, support for Rushdie:
Perhaps the deep-seated and silent assumption in the West remains that Muslims are simply not worthy of serious dissidents, do not deserve them, and are ultimately incapable of producing them; for, in the final analysis, it is the theocracy of the Ayatollahs that becomes them. No wonder, then, if a Muslim’s exercise in satirical courage and laughter should pass mostly unsung for what it is … Did not Rabelais, Voltaire and Joyce know what they were doing? Is not Rushdie breaking new ground in Muslim cultural and historical consciousness? If so, then, are not adverse reactions to be expected? Or are Muslim societies and cultures supposed to remain where they have always been?
Some might protest at the assumption of Muslim backwardness in need of secularisation, but al-Azm argues that there is a long list of Muslim writers who have faced various trials for their expression of independent or secular thought. Rushdie, he says, is part of this lineage. It is certainly true that anti-Muslim sentiment (and politics) has reached levels where any criticism of Islam is suspect for its motives, but one wonders about the fate of this intellectual tradition of secular dissent. In the current climate, the fate of a highbrow novel might not be the most pressing issue, but it does seem that those who value literature should at least be aware of what is at stake.
Should we, in any case, assume that everyone of Muslim background takes offence? No. In 1989, a Pakistani reader wrote to The Observer newspaper in London:
Salman Rushdie speaks for me in The Satanic Verses, and mine is a voice that has not yet found expression in newspaper columns … Someone who does not live in an Islamic society cannot imagine the sanctions, both self-imposed and external, that militate against expressing religious disbelief … Then, along comes Rushdie and speaks for us. Tells the world that we exist – that we are not simply a fabrication of some Jewish conspiracy.
Al-Azm, too, noted that the controversial sections of The Satanic Verses spoke to him personally, that he too had wondered what kind of a man was Muhammad:
Was he a world-historic figure or an instrument of Divine Will and Plan? Was he a pious God-fearing figure of traditional legends or a shrewd and calculating long-distance trader and merchant? Was he a servant of the Spirit and its higher ideals (having read some Hegel) or a philanderer and womaniser? After some exposure to Freud I did ask myself questions about the psychoanalytic significance of his earlier marriage to a woman fit to be his mother and his later infatuation with girls fit to be his daughters.
Rushdie was not the first person from a Muslim background to have doubts about religion. However, he will probably be the last for some time to express them so explicitly in literary form, for it is indeed unlikely that anyone would publish The Satanic Verses today. It’s not likely it would even be written today, and this is not solely due to sensitivities regarding Muhammad. The nascent political Islam of the 1980s is even more present, but vastly transformed. Three decades ago, it was symbolised by the disapproving gaze of Khomeini, satirised to great effect by Rushdie. But the Iranian leader’s face was replaced in the popular imagination by the oddly blank countenance of Usama bin Laden, who in turn has been displaced, more frighteningly, by legions of anonymous and brainwashed ISIS volunteers.
The prevalence of Islamist movements throughout the world, whatever one thinks about them, was unimaginable when The Satanic Verses was written. A 21st-century novel that takes Islam as one of its subjects would treat matters differently. The questions of belief and history that Rushdie tackled in his book have not gone away, but they might seem less urgent. We are more concerned at present with what people do, rather than whether they believe in God and his prophet or not. It must seem clear to all but the most vulgar polemicists (and perhaps the most fanatical militants) that the essential tenets of Islam cannot explain everything we see today.
Rushdie’s satirical look at religion comes across quite differently when Islam is conceived of as an identity
For many of Rushdie’s time, place and class, religion was something to be avoided. It represented anti-intellectual backwardness and the cruel oppression of women, minorities and artists; it encouraged hypocrisy and frowned at laughter; it promulgated what an Arab literary critic called a ‘pre-Copernican’ worldview. Rushdie’s conception of what constitutes religion is perhaps not so distinct from 18th-century Enlightenment critique.
However, the timing was not good. The assertion of an Islamic identity was on the rise among Muslim communities in the 1980s, in Britain and elsewhere. This self-conscious assertion of Islam as an integral or central element of one’s culture was relatively new, at least on a large scale, and it does not always mesh seamlessly with the conventional view of religion as a set of doctrines and rituals. Rushdie’s satirical look at religion comes across quite differently when Islam is conceived of as an identity. What began as a critique of ideas is taken as an insult to a group, and often a marginalised group, at that.
The increasing prevalence of Islam as identity is hard to overstate: recall that Rushdie was well-known as a man of the antiracist, anticolonial Left. Most of his defenders at the time came from his fellow travellers on the Left. Today’s Leftists tend to a different stance on the issue of representing Muhammad (with an analogous reversal on the Right).
Rushdie’s satire has nothing to do with the crude criticism of Islam that has become widespread and that Rushdie himself (somewhat understandably) has engaged in, which posits a fundamental incompatibility with modernity or the need for an Islamic ‘reformation’. It is instead the kind of critique that only a novel can provide. It points to the cracks and weaknesses in the certainties of the tradition; it tells us that commands and prohibitions can reveal more than their issuers intend, that Muhammad’s power and status might have changed his behaviour, that the Quran as we know it might not in fact be the direct word of God, that if the scripture says that the prophet’s wives should remain behind a curtain, some imaginations will run wild about what is going on in there – that to talk of belief implies the existence of doubt and nonbelief. It is these aspects of The Satanic Verses that have been eclipsed by the Rushdie affair and its aftermath, but it is these that will persist well after the current social and political landscape has changed.