Salman Rushdie wrote the following in January after a public burning of copies of The Satanic Verses took place in Bradford, West Yorkshire, which has a Muslim population of 50,000. The burning was carried out by a group of Muslims led by the city’s senior imam, or religious leader. The book was also burned in Oldham, in Greater Manchester. Large demonstrations by Muslims against the book have since taken place in London. In New York the offices of Viking Penguin, the publisher of Satanic Verses, have received seven bomb threats from people who object to the book.
Muhammad ibn Abdallah, one of the great geniuses of world history, a successful businessman, victorious general, and sophisticated statesman as well as prophet, insisted throughout his life on his simple humanity. There are no contemporary portraits of him because he feared that, if any were made, people would worship the portraits. He was only the messenger; it was the message that should be revered.
As to the revelation itself, it caused Muhammad considerable anguish. Sometimes he heard voices; sometimes he saw visions; sometimes, he said, the words were found in his inmost heart, and at such times their production caused him acute physical pain. When the revelations began he feared for his sanity and only after reassurances from his wife and friends did he accept that he was the recipient of the divine gift of the Word.
The religion which Muhammad established differs from Christianity in several important respects: the Prophet is not granted divine status, but the text is. It’s worth pointing out, too, that Islam requires neither a collective act of worship nor an intercessionary caste of priests. The faithful communicate directly with their God.
Nowadays, however, a powerful tribe of clerics has taken over Islam. These are the contemporary Thought Police. They have turned Muhammad into a perfect being, his life into a perfect life, his revelation into the unambiguous, clear event it originally was not. Powerful taboos have been erected. One may not discuss Muhammad as if he were human, with human virtues and weaknesses. One may not discuss the growth of Islam as a historical phenomenon, as an ideology born out of its time. These are the taboos against which The Satanic Verses has transgressed (these and one other; I also tried to write about the place of women in Islamic society, and in the Koran). It is for this breach of taboo that the novel is being anathematized, fulminated against, and set alight.
Dr. Aadam Aziz, the patriarch in my novel Midnight’s Children, loses his faith and is left with “a hole inside him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber.” I, too, possess the same God-shaped hole. Unable to accept the unarguable absolutes of religion, I have tried to fill up the hole with literature. The art of the novel is a thing I cherish as dearly as the book-burners of Bradford value their brand of militant Islam. Literature is where I go to explore…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.