Fiction, Faith and the Fatwa on the Question of the ‘Satanic Verses’

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salman rushdie
Salman Rushdie is the winner of Booker Prize and several other honours.

After the American-born, 24-year-old Hadi Matar of Lebanese origin stabbed and fatally wounded the 77-year-old celebrated author Salman Rushdie, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the present Iranian leader, is reported to have remarked that the fatwa (a religious edict) against Rushdie was ‘fired like a bullet that won’t rest until it hits its target.’ The fatwa against Rushdie was ‘fired’ on 14 February 1989 by the then Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the publication of Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, which allegedly offended the religious sentiments of Muslims worldwide because of its blasphemous and offensive content insulting prophet Muhammed, the Quran, and Islam. Though Khomeini had not read the novel, he considered it blasphemous and offensive, and in the fatwa, he called for the assassination of the author as well as his publishers on charges of blasphemy. Khamenei asked Muslims to point out Rushdie to those who could kill him if they could not kill him by themselves.    

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After 33 years of the declaration of the fatwa, Matar made a desperate but thwarted attempt to take the fatwa to its intended logical conclusion by murdering Rushdie. The author was onstage in New York to discuss the United States as a haven for exiled writers and other artists when Matar ran onto the stage and stabbed him repeatedly and wounded him fatally. Matar is a sympathizer of the Iranian government, a supporter of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (the military branch entrusted with protecting Iran’s Islamic political system), and a follower of Islam. He had neither any personal enmity nor any conflict or rivalry with Rushdie. He cared little for Rushdie’s contribution to literature and his credentials. Though born a decade after the declaration of the fatwa against Rushdie, he was a supporter of the fatwa for he too was supposedly offended by the blasphemous content of the novel which, in all likelihood, he has not read. I presume so because, The Satanic Verses, is a difficult book to read and not many will have the patience and commitment to read it. If he has not read the novel and yet is offended by its content, he has decided to be offended based on other people’s opinions of the novel. If he did read it and it offended him, obviously, he took a lot of trouble to get offended. He could have left the presumably blasphemous and offending literature aside and moved on. Instead he chose to stab the septuagenarian author.  

I read The Satanic Verses twenty-two years ago and was bewildered by Rushdie’s courage in burlesquing matters of Islamic faith and tradition. I got hold of a copy of the novel (banned in India) in 2000 from a Londoner travelling to India. Since I wanted a copy of the novel for myself that I could read at leisure and at my own pace, I photocopied the entire novel and sat down to read it– a laborious job, in fact, more laborious than reading Midnights’ Children. As the baffling narrative of the novel kept progressing, I would reread sections of the novel to keep myself abreast of the sequence and logic of the narrative, which would be rather confusing sometimes. By the time I reached the last page, my photocopied version of the novel was filled with my notes, comments, and observations on the narrative. This precious copy remained with me for seventeen years until a colony of termites found The Satanic Verses both nutritious and tasty and feasted on it— perhaps nature’s way of depriving me of what I unlawfully owned with the secret joy and pride of a transgressor. After reading the novel, I came to conclude that the novel had the potential to offend the religious sentiments of readers who believe in the Quran as the revealed word of God, in the sanctity of the origin of Islam, in the holiness of Prophet Muhammed and in Islamic monotheism, and look for their validation in the novel. However, fiction is not the place where one looks for the validation of the matters of one’s faith; nor is fiction under any obligation to provide religious validation to the faithful. From among the many matters of Islamic faith and tradition that Rushdie reimagines, fabulates, burlesques and satirises in the novel, let me examine the most controversial one — the question of the ‘satanic verses.’  

Demonstration against Rushdie in Hague 1989
Demonstration against Rushdie in Hague, 1989.

Every religious tradition attributes some sort of divine origin to its scriptures. Islam holds that the Quran is the eternal ‘word of God,’ that exists in heaven. For the sake of the faithful, the Archangel Gabriel revealed it to Prophet Muhammad (the mediator of God’s revelation) over twenty-three years; and Muhammed dictated it to his scribe Salman who wrote it down, giving it an earthly physical form. Therefore, as per the Islamic faith and tradition, everything that is in the Quran is nothing but the word of God. There is no scope for anything fictitious or apocryphal in the Quran for it says, “No falsehood can approach it from before or behind it. It is sent down by One full of wisdom worthy of all praise” (41:42). There is no possibility for any human or non-human agency to corrupt the word of God for the Quran says, “We have, without doubt sent down the message and we will assuredly Guard it (from corruption)” (15: 9). 

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Originating from the Greek word, ‘apokryptein,’ meaning, ‘to hide away,’ the word, ‘apocrypha,’ refers to works outside the officially accepted canon of scriptures, and hence, hidden or withdrawn from general use owing to their esoteric content. The knowledge that the apocryphal narratives impart is considered too profound for the uninitiated, and hence, dangerous. Over the centuries, however, the term, ‘apocrypha,’ came to be applied to writings that are hidden away or withdrawn from general use owing largely to their questionable authenticity and alleged falsity, and not because of the esotericism of their content. Today, the term has come to refer to works that are considered to be inauthentic, questionable, false, or heretical.  

Though born a decade after the declaration of the fatwa against Rushdie, he was a supporter of the fatwa for he too was supposedly offended by the blasphemous content of the novel which, in all likelihood, he has not read. I presume so because, The Satanic Verses, is a difficult book to read and not many will have the patience and commitment to read it. If he has not read the novel and yet is offended by its content, he has decided to be offended based on other people’s opinions of the novel.

The name of Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, refers to the supposed controversial verses which, as per the apocryphal tradition, are believed to have been prompted to Muhammed by Satan, and which the prophet is believed to have dictated to his scribe Salman as the revealed word of God, but were later recanted. These questionable controversial verses that came to be known as ‘satanic verses,’ authorized intercessory prayers to al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat — three Meccan female deities. These deities are the daughters of Hubul, the lord of the Arabian city of Mecca (the birthplace of Muhammad) and the Kaaba (the House of God). Each of them had her own shrine around Mecca. 

The pre-Islamic polytheistic Arabs worshipped Hubul, also referred to as Allah (the god), along with other gods. Hubul being one among the Arabian gods, the term, ‘Allah,’ in all possibility might have been used as a title rather than a name. Therefore, Hubul might not have been referred to or understood as Allah, the only God, as understood today. As Montell Jackson notes in his book, Islam Revealed: The Hidden Truth, “Hubul (Allah) along with 360 others were being worshipped before and during the days of Muhammad. It looks like Muhammad declared Allah (using the title) to be the only God to be worshipped from then on. With Muhammed using the title Allah, the true name Hubul would be lost.” The apocryphal tradition holds that in his revelatory utterance in the Quran 53:19-22 Muhammed originally stated that al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat are divine intermediaries to whom the faithful can offer intercessory prayers. 

For truly did he see, of the Signs of his Lord, the Greatest! Have ye seen Lat. and Uzza, And another, the third (goddess), Manat?  

These are the exalted cranes (intermediaries) Whose intercession is to be hoped for.

What! for you the male sex, and for Him, the female? Behold, such would be indeed a division most unfair!

The verses, “These are the exalted cranes (intermediaries) whose intercession is to be hoped for,” authorizing intercessory prayers to the pagan deities, are believed to have been uttered by Muhammed under the influence of Satan. Therefore, these verses came to be referred to as the ‘satanic verses’ and were believed to have been retracted by the Prophet later. The Quran does not contain these verses. From a sociological and historical perspective, one may argue that the practical necessity of the time may have given rise to the supposedly ‘satanic verses’ if they happened. Most Muslims worldwide regard the apocryphal narrative regarding the controversial ‘satanic verses’ as an insult to and as an attack against the Islamic faith which is outright monotheistic. 

After having reimagined this controversial apocryphal narrative on the ‘satanic verses’ with prodigious talent and ingenuity, Rushdie fictionalized, fabulates, and re-narrates it in his novel, employing the literary devices of satire and burlesque, without addressing the question of whether it actually happened. In Rushdie’s re-narration, Mahound (a synonym for the devil), whom the narrator refers to as “the medieval baby-frightener,” receives the supposed divine revelation from Gibreel Farishta (a Bollywood actor who dreams that he is Archangel Gabriel). In Rushdie’s novel, the entire content of the supposed divine revelation, including the ‘satanic verses,’ emerges from and through the tormenting and recurring reveries and dream sequences of Gibreel. In other words, Rushdie’s book is a work of fiction, and it makes no truth claim to anything.

While Prophet Muhammed became an advocate of strict monotheism, the polytheistic Quraysh tribe to which he belonged continued worshipping, al-Lat, al-Uzza, Manat and other deities. Resolving the prevailing tension and conflict between monotheistic and polytheistic religious outlooks was not easy. Muhammad’s supposed affirmation of the three female deities as divine intermediaries might have been a possible strategy that he contemplated (at a moment of weakness, in other words, at a moment of ‘demonic temptation’ so to say) to reconcile with the polytheistic pagan leaders around him. According to the apocryphal tradition, Satan is believed to have capitalized on Muhammed’s contemplation and persuaded him to insert these ‘satanic verses’ into the text of the divine revelation to lead the faithful astray. 

Soon after this supposed disgraceful event, Archangel Gabriel is believed to have informed the Prophet that the verses authorizing the intercession of the pagan deities were not revealed to him by Allah. The Quranic verses 22:52-53 seem to say so, perhaps in support of this narrative: “Never did We send an apostle or a Prophet before thee, but, when he framed a desire, Satan threw some (vanity) into his desire: but God will cancel anything (vain) that Satan throws in and God will confirm (and establish) His signs for God is full of knowledge and wisdom. That He may make the suggestions thrown in by Satan, but a trial for those in whose hearts is a disease and who are hardened of heart: verily the wrong-doers are in a schism far (from the Truth). 

Resolving the prevailing tension and conflict between monotheistic and polytheistic religious outlooks was not easy. Muhammad’s supposed affirmation of the three female deities as divine intermediaries might have been a possible strategy that he contemplated (at a moment of weakness, in other words, at a moment of ‘demonic temptation’ so to say) to reconcile with the polytheistic pagan leaders around him.

The novel explores also the pragmatic aspect of the retraction of the ‘satanic verses.’ It argues that with the adoption of the pagan goddesses into the Islamic faith, the followers of Islam began to increase in number. Even Karim Abu Simbel (the head of the ruling council of Jahilia, the centre of polytheism) and his wife, Hind, embraced the Islamic faith. However, later, as Mahound fears that Simbel might abandon Islam, in consultation with the Archangel, he declares that the first revelation regarding the pagan deities was the work of the devil. He says, “‘It was the Devil … ‘The last time, it was Shaitan.’” An expedient Muhammed retracted the ‘satanic verses.’  

In the novel, the content of the divine revelation turns out to be the promptings of Mahound’s mind itself for he says, “Often when Gibreel comes, it’s as if he knows what’s in my heart. It feels to me, most times, as if he comes from within my heart: from within my deepest places, from my soul.” As Mahound, with the attitude of a street-smart businessman, approaches an uneasy Gibreel, the latter says to himself, “I can’t make a sound I’d seem such a goddamn fool.” Using foul language, he goes on to say, “Mahound comes to me for revelation asking me to choose between monotheist and henotheist alternatives, and I’m just some idiot actor having a bhaenchud nightmare, what the fuck do I know, yaar, what to tell you, help. Help” 

The Satanic Verses
The Satanic Verses is banned in India and several other countries.

Gibreel produces his hallucinatory revelation as he engages in a homosexual embrace with Mahound which is referred to as a kind of “wrestling match” between both of them. Talking about the utter confusion as to who among them is the actual dreamer of the revelation, the narrator says, “But when he has rested he enters a different sort of sleep, a sort of not-sleep, the condition that he calls his listening, and he feels a dragging pain in the gut, like something trying to be born, and now Gibreel, who has been hovering-above-looking-down, feels a confusion, who am I, in these moments it begins to seem that the archangel is actually inside the Prophet, I am the dragging in the gut, I am the angel being extruded from the sleeper’s navel, I emerge, Gibreel Farista, while my other self, Mahound, lies listening, entranced, I am bound to him, navel to navel, by the shining cord of light, not possible to say which of us is dreaming the other. We flow in both directions along the umbilical cord.”  

Talking about the conflicting revelations regarding the worship of the three local deities, Gibreel says sarcastically, “it was me both times, baba, me, me first and second also me. From my mouth, both the statement and the repudiation, verses and converses, universes and reverses, the whole thing, and we all know how my mouth got worked.” Gibreel’s statement depicts the divine revelation not only as questionable but also ridiculous. 

As Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland argue in The Rushdie File, the novel tries to explore what Rushdie calls the “conflict between the sacred text and the profane text, between revealed literature and imagined literature” that Islam encountered right from its birth. In doing so, did Rushdie stretch his freedom of expression too far? Can matters of faith be burlesqued and satirized, and if they can be, how far can one go before one goes too far? Questions such as these are topics for healthy discussions and debates in the background of sensitive and even provocative narratives like that of Rushdie’s. Instead of encouraging and fostering such intellectual engagements, it is unfortunate that some aggressive sections of society are baying for the blood of those who confront our conformist mindset with alternative narratives on vital issues alongside our conventional narratives on the same.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views and positions of thespace.ink management. 

Images courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

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