My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie — often known as the “Godfather of Indian fiction” — incited such a global incident of anti-Islamism that the former Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini ordered a fatwā (an official death sentence) on Rushdie’s head on February 14, 1989. And in recent events, it has become apparent, that this novel still has some influence in world affairs today.
Lars Vilks, a 68-year-old Swedish artist, organized a meeting called “Art, Blasphemy and the Freedom of Expression” at a café in Copenhagen to mark the 26th anniversary of the fatwā issued against the novelist Rushdie.
On February 14th, 2015, approximately 200 bullets from a lone gunman tore through the Krudttoenden café and, later in the day, the same gunman opened fire on a synagogue. The twin attacks in Copenhagen killed two and injured several more civilians and police officers.
Even last year, after 25 years, Cleric Ahmad Khatami reinstated the fatwā against Rushdie and reminded Muslims across the world that the $3.3 million USD bounty on Rushdie’s head is still waiting to be claimed.
E.L. Doctorow, in Vanity Fair, once commented that the novel was “our first taste of the relationship between faith and violence.”
Without question The Satanic Verses, a Booker finalist once banned in India and South Africa, has made a dent in world affairs and continues to stir up controversies.
But what makes this book so controversial? What causes blood to boil and men to go out and commit acts of murder and terror? Why do Muslims become so enraged at the sound of the title and the story held inside the book’s pages?
It just so happened that I finished reading The Satanic Verses on February 9th, 2015 and can offer some brief insight into this book that just may end with Rushdie’s death. But who is to say for sure?
The book—to begin as a foundation for understanding the novel’s plot—contains three narratives, and I shall classify these as A, B, and C.
Narrative A is the story of Gibreel Farishta and Saladin “Salad” Chamcha, who could be the spitting image of Mr Salman Rushdie himself if one were to read too much into things. Gibreel is often portrayed as an angel while Chamcha is cast as a devil-satyr who at one point “had grown to a height of over eight feet, and from his nostrils there emerged smoke of two different colours, yellow from the left, and from the right, black… [and]…his bodily hair had grown thick and long, his tail…swishing angrily, his eyes…a pale but luminous red…[with a]…sizeable erection emerging from his loins” (p 291). By the end of the novel, however, as Gibreel and Chamcha have returned to their natural human-selves and Gibreel has murdered two people, the reader is allowed to question which character is actually an angel and which a devil.
Narrative B is the story of the Prophet Mahound, easily recognizable as the Prophet Mohammad and the story of how the Qur’an became inspired and how Islam disseminated as a religion. By the end of the book, in Narrative A’s final chapter called “A Wonderful Lamp”, we are told that Narrative B and Narrative C are actually failed movies performed by the actor Gibreel:
“Chamcha had heard that Gibreel Farishta had hit the comeback trail. His first film, The Parting of the Arabian Sea [Narrative C], had bombed badly; the special effects looked home-made, the girl in the central Ayesha role, a certain Pimple Billimoria, had been woefully inadequate, and Gibreel’s own portrayal of the archangel had stuck many critics as narcissistic and megalomaniac. The days when he could do no wrong were gone; his second feature, Mahound [Narrative B], had hit every imaginable religious reef, and sunk without trace” (p 513).
Narrative C is the story of Ayesha, a common girl who becomes touched by the angel Gibreel and becomes a spiritual leader to the village Titlipur. Eventually Ayesha, covered in butterflies, leads the faithful people of Titlipur on a pilgrimage to Mecca which ends with them descending into the sea, where they are never seen again.
The entire novel, composed in nine chapters, is structured thus:
(A) B, A, C – (A) B, A, C – (A).
Narrative B (the Prophet Mahound section), however, will be, I believe, the narrative which contains the most offensive material, as we will now briefly explore, for Muslims.
“Question: What is the opposite of faith?
“Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself a kind of belief.
“Doubt” (p 92).
So we begin our dive into Rushdie’s pseudo-pantheon of critical Islamic-storytelling as the Prophet Mahound becomes inspired on his 44th birthday to recite the holy verses which later become a religion:
“Not my voice I’d never know such words I’m no classy speaker never was never will be but this isn’t my voice it’s a Voice.
“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” (p 112).
From the above passage we can quickly see two things: (1) that Rushdie with the use of the word “picture” is referring to Gibreel Farishta and his making of the motion picture Mahound, as cited above on page 513; and, (2) that Rushdie has made it abundantly clear that the Prophet Mahound is the fictional representation of the Islamic Prophet Mohammad.
And Salman later enters into the picture:
“What finally finished Salman with Mahound,” writes Rushdie in the chapter “Return to Jahilia”, “the question of the women; and of the Satanic verses. Listen, I’m no gossip, Salman drunkenly confided, but after his wife’s death Mahound was no angel, you understand my meaning. But in Yathrib he almost met his match. Those women up there: they turned his beard half-white in a year. The point about our Prophet, my dear Baal, is that he didn’t like his women to answer back, he went for mothers and daughters, think of his first wife and then Ayesha: too old and too young, his two loves. He didn’t like to pick on someone his own size. But in Yathrib the women are different, you don’t know, here in Jahilia you’re used to ordering your females about but up there they won’t put up with it. When a man gets married he goes to live with his wife’s people! Imagine! Shocking, isn’t it?” (p 366);
and Salman, the character and not the author, goes on to reflect of how he sat at the holy Prophet’s feet writing down the holy verses only to change them to his own liking:
“At first Salman took this to be no more than a nostalgic reverie of the old days in Jahilia, but then it struck him that his point of view, in the dream, had been that of the archangel, and at that moment the memory of the incident of the Satanic verses came back to him as vividly as if the thing had happened the previous day. ‘Maybe I hadn’t dreamed of myself as Gibreel,’ Salman recounted. ‘Maybe I was Shaitan.’ The realization of this possibility gave him his diabolic idea. After that, when he sat at the Prophet’s feet, writing down rules rules rules, he began, surreptitiously, to change things…
“So there I was, actually writing the Book, or rewriting, anyway, polluting the word of God with my own profane language. But, good heavens, if my poor words could not be distinguished from the Revelation by God’s own Messenger, then what did that mean? What did that say about the quality of the divine poetry? Look, I swear, I was shaken to my soul…”
“So I went on with my devilment, changing verses, until one day I read my lines to him and saw him frown and shake his head as if to clear his mind, and then nod his approval slowly, but with a little doubt” (p 367-368).
As well as all Muslims might be “shaken to soul” if Salman, both character and author, are true to the possibility that the holy Recitation had been changed, altered, modified, adjusted, manipulated in any way, because that would most certainly mean that the entire Qur’an becomes suspect, as well as the entire religion of Islam—and that would create doubt.
But Rushdie has more to offend, if offend he has, especially with “The Curtain” and the twelve prostitutes who pretend to be the holy Prophet’s twelve wives in order to secure greater profits.
“The Curtain, Hijab, was the name of the most popular brothel in Jahilia, an enormous palazzo of date-palms in water-tinkling courtyards, surrounded by chambers that interlocked in bewildering mosaic patterns, permeated by labyrinthine corridors which had been deliberately decorated to look alike, each of them bearing the same calligraphic invocations to Love, each carpeted with identical rugs, each with a large stone urn positioned against a wall…
“The girls of The Curtain—it was only by convention that they were referred to as ‘girls’, as the eldest was a woman well into her fifties, while the youngest, at fifteen, was more experienced than many fifty-year-olds—had grown fond of this shambling Baal, and in point of fact they enjoyed having a eunuch-who-wasn’t, so that out of working hours they would tease him deliciously, flaunting their bodies before him, placing their breasts against his lips, twining their legs around his waist, kissing one another passionately just an inch away from his face, until the ashy writer was hopelessly aroused; whereupon they would laugh at his stiffness and mock him into blushing, quivering detumescence; or, very occasionally, and when he had given up all expectation of such a thing, they would depute one of their number to satisfy, free of charge, the lust they had awakened…
“When the news got around Jahilia that the whores of The Curtain had each assumed the identity of one of Mahound’s wives, the clandestine excitement of the city’s males was intense; yet, so afraid were they of discovery, both because they would surely lose their lives if Mahound or his lieutenant’s ever found out that they had been involved in such irreverences, and because of their desire that the new service at The Curtain be maintained, that the secret was kept from the authorities” (p 376, 379, 381).
It can’t be any clearer than that. Rushdie has established a brothel that hires prostitutes to enact sexual fantasies with men based on the roles of the holy Prophet’s wives, the youngest fifteen-year-old prostitute holding the position of Ayesha, the Prophet’s favorite and youngest wife. If that is not blasphemy, I do not know what is.
But for good measure we shall continue with this train of thought of Ayesha, prostitutes, the roles of women, and the holy verses recited from the Prophet Mahound, the Messenger, as found in The Satanic Verses by Rushdie:
“As the bottle emptied Salman began once again to talk, as Baal had known he would, about the source of all his ills, the Messenger and his message. He told Baal about a quarrel between Mahound and Ayesha, recounting the rumour as if it were incontrovertible fact. ‘That girl couldn’t stomach it that her husband wanted so many other women,’ he said. ‘He talked about necessity, political alliances and so on, but she wasn’t fooled. Who can blame her? Finally he went into it—what else?—one of his trances, and out he came with a message from the archangel. Gibreel had recited verses giving him full divine support. God’s own permission to fuck as many women as he liked. So there: what could poor Ayesha say against the verses of God? You know what she did say? This: ‘Your God certainly jumps to it when you need him to fix things up for you’” (p 386).
There we have it. If the Christian’s Holy Bible is the Word of God, then according to this above passage, the Qur’an as recited by an archangel, and not God directly, to the holy Prophet, then there must certainly be room for doubt in an educated man’s mind.
But Rushdie here is also calling out the audacity of the holy verses to be preferential to man’s sexual desires and perversions while neglecting the roles of women as equal counterparts in marriage and society. And we can see this clearly depicted when the women/prostitutes become empowered by enacting fantasies of the Prophet’s twelve wives to such a degree that the prostitutes forget their real names and ultimately lose their identities. Who are these women? and where do they belong? might be good questions to consider at some point throughout the novel.
As for now, let’s end our reflections on The Satanic Verses with Rushdie’s own meditation on life and happiness:
“Nothing is forever,” writes Rushdie in the final chapter, “Maybe unhappiness is the continuum through which a human life moves, and joy just a series of blips, of islands in the stream. Or if not unhappiness, then at least melancholy” (p 516-517).
For Rushdie’s sake, I hope life is filled with a bit more happiness and peace of mind, despite having a three million dollar price tag on his head.
Nothing is forever, true. But one hopes to be a bit more optimistic in a world fraught with pessimism and religious-backed terror-extremism.
Regardless, since that is neither here nor there, if you want to know more about why and how The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie is or could be offensive to Muslims, then I recommend picking up a copy and reading for yourself. After all, an educated person is an individual choosing to make up one’s own mind and letting others think whatever they want to think. Such is free will. Such is freedom. Such is maturity.
Keep reading and smiling…
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a been member of the Hemingway Society, Americans for the Arts, PEN America, Club Med, & the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a been Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America (2020); A Time to Forget in East Berlin (2022), and Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being (2023).
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
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American Novelist CG FEWSTON
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