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The Long Reach of the Satanic Verses

Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin/Wikimedia Commons

A carved relief from Hatra, Iraq, that may represent the pre-Islamic goddesses Manat, Allat, and al-Uzza, circa 1–300 CE

Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin/Wikimedia Commons

A carved relief from Hatra, Iraq, that may represent the pre-Islamic goddesses Manat, Allat, and al-Uzza, circa 1–300 CE

The Satanic Verses was published more than thirty years ago, but the attack in August on Salman Rushdie, the novel’s author, is a grim reminder that the scandal surrounding it remains alive. Although Ayatollah Khomeini’s notorious 1989 fatwa, which ordered the murder of Rushdie for blasphemy, has never been rescinded, no special measures seem to have been taken in advance of Rushdie’s public lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, where he was stabbed repeatedly on stage. Despite life-threatening injuries, Rushdie is said to be on the road to recovery. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry denied any links with the attacker but said that “we do not consider anyone other than [Rushdie] himself and his supporters worthy of…reproach and condemnation.”

The title of Rushdie’s book refers to an episode in the life of the Prophet Muhammad, recorded by his early biographers, in which Satan is said to have interpolated verses into the Quran, which most devout Muslims consider to be the unmediated word of God. The verses, extolling three female deities worshipped by the pagans of Mecca, do not appear in the canonized Quran—but that they could have been uttered by the Prophet at all casts doubt on the divinity of the text. In the novel, the Prophet Mahound, in the fictional city of Jahilia, calls on the faithful to take account of three pagan goddesses who “are the exalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed.” While Rushdie plays with the names, readers familiar with the Prophet’s biography would be left with no doubt that Jahilia, the term used by Muslims for the time of ignorance before the coming of Islam, is Mecca, and Mahound, a spelling adopted by medieval Christians, represents Muhammad himself.

The Satanic verses are only a small part of a playful, transgressive novel that explores the psychological impact of migration and the conflicting cultural forces to which migrants are exposed. Drawing on a wealth of literary references, from Melville to García Márquez and T. S. Eliot, Rushdie dramatizes the complexity of Indo-British Muslim identity, mixing fact with fiction and history with myth. An important section satirizes the codes of behavior—the Islamic sharia—that govern the daily lives of observant Muslims:

Amid the palm-trees of the oasis Gibreel appeared to the Prophet and found himself spouting rules, rules, rules, until the faithful could scarcely bear the prospect of any more revelation…rules about every damn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one’s behind. It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left unregulated, free. The revelation—the recitation—told the faithful how much to eat, how deeply they should sleep, and which sexual positions had received divine sanction, so that they learned that sodomy and the missionary position were approved of by the archangel, whereas the forbidden postures included all those in which the female was on top.

To certain devout Muslims, Rushdie appears to question not only the integrity of the Quran but also Muhammad’s sexuality and the chastity of his wives. The poet-satirist Baal, with “the sharpest tongue and keenest wit,” shares obvious features with Rushdie. He is the anti-prophet, devotee of the goddess Allat, who constantly challenges Mahound. “A poet’s work,” he says in a well-known passage, “is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep. And if rivers of blood flow from the cuts his verse inflict, then they will nourish him.”

The book’s defenders have argued that it uses modernist literary conventions not to attack the Prophet or Islam but to criticize how the religion has been misused and distorted. But as the anthropologist Pnina Werbner writes, the novel’s symbolic complexity “renders its positive message inaccessible not only to Muslim readers but also to English readers.” What Werbner sees as Rushdie’s attempt to “reclaim Islam as an ‘ethical religion’” freed from the constraints of ritual purity became in reality a source of “radical miscommunication” that incensed Muslims in the UK and South Asia.

At least sixty people may have been killed in the agitation that followed the book’s publication in 1988. They include the novel’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi; nineteen people in India and Pakistan; two in Belgium; and thirty-seven in Sivas, Turkey, in an arson attack by Islamists on the hotel where the book’s Turkish translator, the novelist Aziz Nesin, and other writers were meeting (Nesin escaped). In India, where Rushdie was an established celebrity, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi banned imports of the book two weeks after its British publication—a decision repeated in more than forty Muslim-majority countries, as well as Kenya, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand, and Venezuela.

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Rushdie’s own fate, too, seems to have been prefigured in the novel. After Baal is discovered in a brothel, reminiscent of Jean Genet’s Le Balcon, where sex workers take the names of Muhammad’s wives, Mahound issues a fatwa ordering his beheading. On February 16, 1989, nearly five months after the book’s publication, Rushdie and his then wife Marianne Wiggins were obliged to go underground for their own protection when Khomeini called on “all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, whenever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult what Muslims hold sacred.”

A fatwa is an opinion in answer to a question put to a legal authority. Khomeini issued the ruling in his capacity as a mujtahid—a qualified interpreter of Islamic law—but it should only have concerned Shiites who recognized the Ayatollah’s spiritual authority, and even then they would have been free to consult another such authority’s verdict. The fatwa was instead a naked political act: by enjoining “all zealous Muslims” to execute Rushdie, Khomeini was attempting to assert his religious authority and extend his political power beyond the limits of Shia Iran.

Immediately after the pronouncement, the Fifth of June Foundation, one of the many Islamic charitable trusts established after the revolution in 1979, offered a reward of 20 million tumans to any Iranian who would “punish the mercenary for his arrogance,” over the years increasing that bounty to its current worth of $3.3 million. Indeed this was one reason given for the judge’s refusal to grant bail to the twenty-four-year-old man who attacked Rushdie, Hadi Matar, a Lebanese-American born in California. Matar’s mother told The Daily Mail that he had become radicalized after visiting his father in southern Lebanon. When The New York Post asked Matar if he had read The Satanic Verses, he admitted he had only read “a couple of pages.” His knowledge of the writer came mainly from videos he had watched on YouTube. “I saw a lot of lectures,” he said. “I don’t like people who are disingenuous like that.”  

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In the decades following the fatwa, Shahab Ahmed, a Pakistani-American scholar of Islam, conducted painstaking research to unpack the myths behind the controversy. Fluent in many languages, Ahmed had lived in Singapore, Pakistan, England, Malaysia, and Egypt before attending graduate school at Princeton and teaching at Harvard. His fascination with Islamic formation and the rage over Rushdie’s novel led him to the earliest Islamic sources, manuscript fragments and written materials housed in libraries around the world.

Ahmed found that in Islam’s first two centuries, from around 600 to 800 CE, the story of the Satanic verses was nearly universally accepted by Muslim scholars. It was only during the period from around 800 to 1100 that literature rejecting the incident appeared with regularity, eventually becoming the dominant position, with scholars accusing those who accepted the story of “unbelief tantamount to heresy.” In 2017 he published these findings in Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam.

In examining the sources, Ahmed made a vital distinction between the biographical materials known as sirah—epic narratives drawn from oral accounts and manuscript fragments that crystallize in Muhammad’s canonized biographies—and the later corpus of the sunna, the Prophet’s reported custom and rulings embedded in sharia, which required him to be a sinless and infallible figure. The sunna is built on materials known as hadith, reports or “traditions” that establish norms of Islamic religious practice based on chains of transmission whereby the Prophet’s every utterance or action was supposed to be provided with a provenance by reliable authorities.

Western scholars have long been skeptical about the authenticity of the hadith, which tended to “grow backwards” as norms established in later times were traced back to Muhammad and his contemporaries. Ahmed showed that the different literary genres—the sirah biographies and what eventually became the sunna or “custom” attributed to the Prophet—were adopted by rival groups of scholars using different methods. Had the hadith-folk, as the latter specialists of law and ritual came to be known, applied their exacting method to the Prophet’s biography, Ahmed noted, “there would be virtually no narrative history of the life of the Prophet in existence.”

Ahmed wrote that the sirah, charting Muhammad’s “story of peril, suffering, fortitude, persistence, faith, courage, and triumph,” provided the early Islamic community “with a repertoire of heroic and dramatic motifs” through which its new identity coalesced. In any epic, “drama arises where there is the possibility of things going wrong, of defeat, of failure, when events must be outwitted and setbacks overcome.”

After reviewing some fifty of the earliest accounts, Ahmed concluded that the Satanic verses episode had been accepted by the early Muslim community as a historical event born of expediency. The narratives differed on many details, but the general thrust was clear. At a time when Muhammad and his companions were facing persecution in Mecca from the leaders of the Quraysh—the tribe to which he belonged—he hoped that the persecution could be mitigated by divine revelation, and it was this desire (as one of the accounts puts it) that “enabled Satan to cast upon his tongue verses in praise of the goddesses” that would appease his enemies. Ahmed summarizes:

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Satan manages to induce the Prophet to make the one concession that his tribe wants of him: acknowledgement of their gods.…By this concession to falsehood the fate and salvation of the community who, by God’s guidance, will come to rule…hang precariously in the balance. Everything—this world and the next—stands to be lost. But God does not allow this to pass and sends guidance to the Prophet, who, in turn, possesses not only the honesty to accept his error but also the courage to face the harsh consequence of recanting it.

After Muhammad recants, the persecution facing the infant Muslim community intensifies. The rest of the story is well-known. The Prophet and his companions immigrate to Medina in 622 CE, the first year of the Muslim calendar, where they fight the battles with the Quraysh that bring the Muslims eventual victory.   

According to Ahmed the episode of the Satanic verses, which forms an essential part of this epic embedded in the early sirah narratives, was subsequently suppressed because it conflicted with later attempts by the hadith collectors to construct norms of religious practice requiring the Prophet to be sinless. Ahmed, who died of leukemia in 2015 at forty-eight, did not live to complete the second and third volumes of his book, which aimed to demonstrate how the hadith-folk came to trace forms of ritual and behavioral orthodoxy back to the immaculate Prophet (although much of the work in deconstructing hadith materials has already been done by modern scholars). His published volume, however, both lays the groundwork for reassessing Muhammad as a historical figure free from the encrustations of piety and points toward a desacralized, ethical vision of Islam. It also helps us recognize Rushdie’s insight into the tension between the historical Prophet, a hero who united Arabia after overcoming tribal divisions sanctified by paganism, and the sinless figure dictating “rules, rules, rules” who came to be seen in later centuries as the irrefutable source of divine law.

Despite the obvious differences between a satirical novel born of a fertile imagination and a meticulous work of scholarship, there is common ground in their exploration of, in Ahmed’s words, a “history of the criteria by which truth is constituted.” While the novel may continue to rile conservative or orthodox believers, Ahmed’s brilliant research should help defuse the literary landmine Rushdie planted in 1988, showing how far the rules instituted by morality police in countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia have strayed from Islam’s original spirit.

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