The Satanic Verses
by Salman Rushdie
Viking, 547 pp., $19.95
Let us begin (although Salman Rushdie doesn’t) with the affair of the Satanic verses, revealed in the second part of his new novel, The Satanic Verses. This second part is entitled “Mahound,” a disrespectful name for Muhammad, found for example in Spenser to signify a heathen idol by whom wicked characters swear, and likewise, though perhaps also as a metrically convenient alternative to “Makomete,” in Chaucer. The Satanic Verses has been banned in India on the grounds that it is offensive to Muslims, but in fact nobody in it is treated with very much respect; gods, angels, demons, prophets, they are all of them all too human, and most of the time unable to distinguish between good and evil. If they can’t, how can we ordinary mortals be expected to?
The magical city of Jahilia is composed wholly of sand, together with its derivatives, glass and silicon, and the great enemy is consequently water. Mahound, “businessman-turned-prophet,” is engaged in founding one of the world’s greatest religions, in the face of the city’s swarming gods, all 360 of them. He and his three followers are clearly trouble-makers, if only because they are forever washing themselves with water. However, the Grandee of Jahilia, the head of the ruling council, offers Mahound a deal: if Mahound’s Allah will receive a mere three of the local gods into his monopantheon, then the new religion will be recognized and Mahound given a seat on the council. The gods in question can be given the rank of archangels, since there are already two of these: Gibreel, the Voice of Allah, and Shaitan, the latter described in the Koran as a disobedient jinni who refused to bow down before Adam. Or better, since the gods happen to be goddesses, they can be styled the Daughters of Allah.
Mahound’s followers protest that this cannot be, for the essence of their faith is that there is no god but Allah; but Mahound sees the arrangements as a useful maneuver, a small concession that will bring in large numbers of converts, and he climbs Cone Mountain to consult the archangel Gibreel, Angel of the Recitation. Seemingly Gibreel speaks, and Mahound returns to Jahilia and announces the verses given to him by the angel: “Have you thought upon Lat and Uzza, and Manat, the third, the other? They are the exalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed.”
The grandee’s name is Abu Simbel. Is he, one wonders, a historical or legendary figure? Or can it be that Rushdie, having invented him, has named him after the village in Egypt that was flooded when the Aswan High Dam was created in the 1960s and its temples removed to higher ground? For we hear that the sea and maritime developments are robbing sandbased Jahilia with its camel-train economy of the city’s old ascendancy. Questions of this kind raise their heads everywhere, and if the reader stops to puzzle out the answers he will never …