To Name the Unnameable: The Satanic Verses

“Have ye thought upon Al-Lat and Al-‘Uzzá
and Manāt, the third, the other?
These are the exalted gharāniq [cranes], whose intercession is hoped for.”

The above verse is from a set of verses that were temporarily included in the Qur’an by the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The three goddesses mentioned—Al-Lat, Al-‘Uzzá, and Manāt, daughters of Allah—were from the pagan religion that existed within Mecca before the spread of Islam in the seventh century. The verses concede the existence, worship, and worthiness of those three particular deities. This acted as a seductive segue for the pagans to merge their beliefs into a new, monotheistic religion. Those who had fled Mecca earlier because of religious persecution due to the advent of Islam decided to return home after the persecution was rumored to be over. Eventually, Muhammad informed the people that those specific verses were of satanic origin, not coming from the angel Gabriel as Allah spoke to him, but deceptively whispered by Satan (or Shaitan). Thus, the persecution of those worshiping ostensibly false gods began again.

Seeing the irony and paradox of this historical issue, British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie was inspired to create a work of art titled The Satanic Verses. When Rushdie was working on this masterpiece, which mentally tormented him, he didn’t know if he was writing one book or multiple books. “I thought of the novel as a huge monster I was wrestling with,” Rushdie told Vanity Fair. “I was often worried that I would not be able to get on top of the beast and pin it to the ground. [When it was done,] I was utterly exhausted. One holds so much of a novel in one’s head during the years of work that when it’s done and the thing in your head evaporates it’s a little like having your brain removed. I felt lobotomized.”

The complexity manifests itself not only in the prose but also the narrative, which is interlaced with three dream-like sub-narratives in different places and times. The main story features the two protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, Indian emigrants living in Britain, who fall out of the sky at the beginning of the novel. Farishta is a Bollywood superstar known for portraying Hindu deities on film, while Chamcha has attempted to do away with his Indian identity and is fitfully employed as a voiceover artist in England, where the complexion of his skin is unable to betray his real identity. The novel follows them as they attempt to repair their lives after Farishta transforms into an angel and Chamcha into a devil. 

The first sub-plot describes Muhammad’s life in seventh century Mecca as he gathers a following and begins to spread the word of Allah, revolving around the incident of the satanic verses. It also follows the poet Baal, who eventually goes into hiding within a brothel, where he assumes the identity of one of Muhammad’s wives. 

An Indian peasant girl is the protagonist of the second sub-plot. She, like Muhammad, seems to be receiving revelations from the Archangel Gabriel (which is actually Farishta developing schizophrenia). Her revelations dictate that she must lead the entire village on a foot pilgrimage to Mecca where they will reach and subsequently walk over the Arabian Sea. 

The third and final sub-plot features a character called the Imam, reminiscent of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was the supreme leader of Iran for ten years beginning in 1979. The character is sitting in exile, just as Khomeini was in exile for fifteen years due to his opposition to the preceding Shah. Through similar revelation from Farishta, the Imam goes to fight the goddess Al-Lat in order to gain control of Desh.

Overall, the tale of The Satanic Verses overlaps, collapses in on itself. It all seems to fit in a ghostly, multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, exploring not only religion but racism, government tyranny, love, hope, death, fear, and finding one’s self in the world, or becoming one’s self, whether it’s in the East or West or both. Farishta and Chamcha rain back down to earth, which is populated by others who are equally as ambitious and broken and looking to be fixed. Metaphorically speaking, this is what the satanic verses are: the verses that stick in our head and we don’t know their origin, the voices and urges within us that compel us to act, which could be from, as it were, Satan, the angel that fell, or from Allah, the god who rules with an iron fist. Farishta is perplexed by this: “All around him, he thinks as he half-dreams, half-wakes, are people hearing voices, being seduced by words. But not his; never his original material. —Then whose? Who is whispering in their ears, enabling them to move mountains, halt clocks, diagnose disease?” But, really, it is us. The Human Condition. Socrates called it the ‘inner daemon,’ the conscience. Plus all those who implicitly or explicitly influence us.

The stories are anything but disparate; they meld together to form a microcosm of allegory, and they are weeping and dripping with magic—the magic that Rushdie is known for, grounded by realism, of course, which borrows from the master: Gabriel García Márquez. “I knew García Márquez’s colonels and generals,” explained Rushdie in an essay for the New York Times, “or at least their Indian and Pakistani counterparts; his bishops were my mullahs; his market streets were my bazaars. His world was mine, translated into Spanish. It’s little wonder I fell in love with it—not for its magic (although, as a writer reared on the fabulous ‘wonder tales’ of the East, that was appealing too) but for its realism.” The Satanic Verses is a combination of the magical and the real, the historic and the fictitious; Rushdie’s imagination augments reality, making metaphors and allegories into tangible truths.

When it was published in 1988, it was considered blasphemy by the Muslim community and was met with violent reaction. The genesis of this reaction comes from the Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued a fatwa (Islamic ruling) calling on the death of Salman Rushdie and all involved in the publication of the novel. Those unable to deal out the punishment were instructed to inform someone who could. Rushdie was put on constant police protection. He wrote about his eight years in hiding in his third-person memoir Joseph Anton, titled after his alias at the time (a combination of two of his favorite writers: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov). By the end of the affair the Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death, the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was seriously injured in a stabbing, and the Norway publisher William Nygaard was shot three times but survived, among other incidents. For nearly thirty years the book has been and continues to be banned on religious grounds in twenty-one countries, including India, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries. Those who would most benefit from reading the book have not been able to; such is the goal with the suppression of ideas. The late journalist Christopher Hitchens considered the reaction to the book as the beginning of a culture war, or, to be exact, a war against culture. Not too long ago, South African author and psychologist Zainub Priya Dala was brutally beaten after she expressed admiration for Rushdie’s work at a literary festival in Durban, according to the Guardian. She was then forced into a psychiatric clinic under the guise of mental illness, but was eventually released after the international literary and human rights organization PEN started a campaign on her behalf. As Hitchens put it, “Two decades on, Salman himself is thriving mightily and living again like a free man. But the culture that sustains him, and that he helps sustain, has twisted itself into a posture of prior restraint and self-censorship in which the grim, mad edict of a dead theocrat still exerts its chilling force.”

Some have said that only esoteric Islamist theologians can discern what was so ‘blasphemous’ and ‘offensive’ in the novel. That doesn’t seem to be the case. The novel is full of religious commentary and irony and other explorations of religion, which is one of its many themes. The Muhammad-based character in the novel is called Mahound, which is a derogatory version of Muhammad’s name. But the novel intelligently explains the use of the name: “To turn insults into strengths, whigs, tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn.”

But if one is offended, what does that mean? Well, other than a propensity to whine, someone who is constantly offended is having his or her beliefs challenged. In general, the book challenges its readers to think, like any book worth its page-count. Only someone who is mentally unstable would react with violence to a piece of art or literature, which is all the more disconcerting considering that a novel doesn’t have to be opened to begin with (and probably never was in the case of those foaming at the mouth for Rushdie’s death). Allow me to sum up the viewpoint of someone who is violently offended, as demonstrated by a Muslim character in the novel: “I hate admitting that my enemies have a point. Damn sight better to kill the bastards, I’ve always thought. Neatest bloody solution.” One should appreciate the irony of the very last remark. This is the mindset of the Medina Muslims, a term coined by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her book Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. These are not the billions of peaceful Muslims who follow Muhammad’s teachings when he was in Mecca, but the millions of violent Muslims that follow or condone the methods of Muhammad after he was exiled to Medina, where his strategy went from door-to-door preaching to the summation of convert or die, or, if you are a Christian or Jew, demotion to second class citizen status, where one is required to pay a tax called jizyah. Medina Muslims include Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose violent strategy of conversion is supported by verse 9:29 of the Qur’an: “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given scripture—[fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humiliated.”

The Satanic Verses is a symbolic representation in the real world of the ironic and artful and erudite, as opposed to the literal and barbarous and close-minded. Not everyone can see that, and the character Mahound demonstrates that inability when he says, as if the novel is joining the conversation it started, “Writers and whores. I see no difference here.” With everything that has occurred in the news for the past couple of years or even decades, The Satanic Verses could not be more important and relevant today. As the novel explains, “A poet’s work [is] to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”

George Salis is the award-winning author of Sea Above, Sun Below (forthcoming from River Boat Books, 2019). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineThe Sunlight Press, Unreal Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s