1Early in The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie asks: “How does newness come into the world? […] Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made?” (8) Though the answers to these questions are pursued throughout the novel, one kind of answer is already posed by the question: newness is the product of “fusions, translations, conjoinings.” Similarly, we might apply this question to the creation of texts: How do new texts come into the world? And the answer is the same: from “fusions, translations, conjoinings.” Rushdie, ever the champion of such mixing or hybridity, clearly bases his aesthetic approach on textual mixing. The Satanic Verses, for example, features a startling cast of characters with hybrid identities in a narrative that is a startling fusion of genres including satire, magic realism, postmodern metafiction, and religious allegory. In contrast, its principle intertext, The Koran, is often treated as absolute and pure, a characteristic of sacred texts that Rushdie finds questionable and even dangerous: they allow no dialogue, no questioning, and therefore are rigid with regards to human development and history. One of the major things Rushdie was trying to do in The Satanic Verses was offer a challenge to that static purity of the sacred text.
- 1 He is also, like Barnes especially, casting doubt on the reliability of commonly accepted historic (...)
- 2 Daniel Pipes explains: “To doubt this is to deny the validity of Muhammad’s mission and to imply t (...)
2At the outset of the novel, Gibreel Farishta, one of the novel’s two main characters, has lost his faith. He is forced in a series of tormenting dreams to play the role of his namesake, the archangel Gabriel/Gibreel. As the angel, he interacts while dreaming with Muhammad (here called Mahound) in the desert at the time of the founding of Islam. It is the content of this dream that most inflamed many Muslims’ religious sensitivities. In the parts of the novel that deal with this dream, Rushdie, as his contemporaries Jeanette Winterson and Julian Barnes have done with the Old Testament story of Noah and the ark, is casting doubt on religious texts by treating them not as sacred and authoritative but as akin to fictional literature.1 Therein lies the problem, for orthodox Muslims consider the Koran to be the direct and inviolable “Word of God,”2 whereas the Old and New Testaments are not generally treated as such.
- 3 This scenario and the title phrase which describe it comes from an early story of questionable aut (...)
3Though much of the controversy around The Satanic Verses focused on the novel’s desacralizing portrait of Muhammad, the central focus of Rushdie’s manipulation and criticism is the text of the Koran itself. The eponymous issue of the “Satanic verses” arises when Abu Simbel, the crafty leader of the magical desert city Jahilia (Mecca), recognizes that Mahound and his one God represent the future. He tempts Mahound to accept just three of the city’s three hundred and sixty idol gods as “worthy of worship.” (105) The prophet consults Gibreel and returns, citing a set of verses from the Koran called “The Star” into which is inserted the declaration that Lat, Uzza, and Manat—the three most popular pagan idol gods—are “the exalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed.” (114) In other words, God would appear to be allowing the worship of idols, which is one of the fundamental prohibitions of Islam. But in response to news that Abu Simbel may betray his pledge of loyalty to Allah, Mahound consults Gibreel again and returns with a disavowal of the previous verses as the product of Satan,3 and replaces them with a citation from the text of the Koran itself: “Shall He have daughters and you sons? […] That would be a fine division! These are but names you have dreamed of…Allah vests no authority in them.” (124)
4Gibreel, however, informs us that both the first revelation and its repudiation came from him, and in each case the words were somehow forced from him by Mahound. Reflecting on the process by which the “Satanic verses” were first revealed and then repealed, he explains: “[Mahound] did his old trick, forcing my mouth open and making the voice […] pour out of 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.” (123) The suggestion, then, is that the revelation of the Koran was not so much a recitation or citation of the Word of God—implying that Mahound was acting merely as the mouthpiece—but that Mahound was the origin of the text. The way in which all of this is dramatized is complex, but a sense emerges and begins to grow that Mahound’s “citations” were conveniently fabricated to suit whatever personal purpose he had at any given time. The disavowed “Satanic verses,” for example, helped him to convert the Jahilians to his new religion. Both the mytho-historical tale of the “Satanic verses” and Rushdie’s dramatic recreation of it conflate imaginative with “revealed” genres of literature, calling into question the putative “purity” and revelatory sanctity of the Koran.
5A second major challenge to the purity of the Koran occurs when Mahound’s scribe, Salman the Persian, begins to doubt the authenticity of Mahound’s recitations. Fleeing persecution in the desert city of Jahilia after the incident of “the Satanic verses,” the prophet and his followers go into the desert where Mahound, Salman recounts,
became obsessed by law. […] 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 […] told the faithful how much to eat, how deeply they should sleep, and which sexual positions had received divine sanction. (363-4)
6The strictures Rushdie mocks are not verbatim from the Koran, although the Koran does at times seem highly concerned with the minutia of the mundane: there are, for example, long and detailed passages about how a man’s inheritance should be divided, who a man may and may not have sex with, the legalities of marriage and divorce, etc. Some of the other strictures Rushdie mentions come from the documented accounts (called hadith) of Muhammad and his followers’ lives, and different Muslim sects follow different hadith (Asad 293). So Rushdie is invoking and conflating a variety of religious and legal texts for convenience, but the general goal of his irreverent mockery is to express skepticism about religious texts and their ideological underpinnings. The hadith are still reflective of rules-obsessed sacred texts. Rushdie suggests that religious texts are in large part early law books which dictate restrictions on human behavior that do not—cannot except through deliberate re-writing—change with changing social values.
7One of the most troublesome areas in this regard is religious, or more specifically in this instance Muslim, positions on women. The Koran validates the idea of men’s superiority over women and their right to abuse them:
Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. (Dawood, Koran 64)
- 4 Some critics have argued that Rushdie’s characterizations of women involve patriarchal and/or sexi (...)
8In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie suggests that such strictures were a matter of Mahound’s personal sexism: Salman tells the satirical poet Baal that when the women of Yathrib (the desert oasis Mahound has fled to) begin to express their autonomy, “bang, out comes the rule book, the angel starts pouring out rules about what women mustn’t do, he starts forcing them back into the docile attitudes the Prophet prefers, docile or maternal, walking three steps behind or sitting at home being wise and waxing their chins.” (SV 367) Part of Rushdie’s challenge to the sacredness of the Koran, then, is a protest against its restrictive and abusive ideologies regarding women—ideologies which have been and still are a major problem in some societies because the separation of women is crucial to the fundamentalist ideal of cultural purity.4
- 5 Like the instance of the “Satanic verses,” this event has an historical basis: Malise Ruthven expl (...)
9A challenge to the ideology of purity and absolutism enters the narrative in the form of textual subversion. Salman observes to Baal that Mahound started to lay down the law and then consult Gibreel to have it “confirmed.” In the hope of disproving his suspicions, Salman takes to interjecting his own modifications into the recitation to see if Mahound will notice. Even more directly than the Satanic verses incident, this act changes the genre of the text by interjecting artifice into putatively pure Divine revelation: “there I was, actually writing the Book, or re-writing anyway, polluting the word of God with my own profane language.” (367) When Mahound fails to notice this “pollution,” Salman is forced to conclude that the recitation—the Koran—is fabricated rather than God-given.5 From an Islamic point of view this is blasphemous, but from a secular point of view it is both a playful and serious desacralization of a religious text. This desacralizing does not defeat religious points of view; rather, Rushdie is suggesting that all faith is subject to doubt, even requires doubt. In an interview, Rushdie elaborates, proposing that doubt is an inescapable facet of postmodern society: “Doubt is the central condition of a human being in the 20th century. […] We cannot any longer have a fixed certain view of anything.” (Appignanesi 24)
- 6 At one point, for example, Rushdie indirectly refers to Abraham as a “bastard” for leaving his son (...)
10Eventually Mahound does notice what Salman has done and confronts him: “Your blasphemy, Salman, can’t be forgiven. Did you think I wouldn’t work it out? To set your words against the Words of God.” (374) Through the postmodern strategy of re-imagining, parodying, and subverting the recitation of the Koran, it is exactly this that Rushdie has attempted in The Satanic Verses. And while there is a great deal of material in these parts of the novel that is straight-forwardly irreverent (even “blasphemous” according to some sensibilities), entirely apart from the arguments about freedom of expression which dominated the Rushdie controversy, it should require no apology.6 The book offers all the “justification” or “defense” it needs; within its pages is the resounding manifesto for the social function of art: “A poet’s work,” says the satirical poet Baal, is to “name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.” (97) Though many may not find this notion comforting, this has been in many societies a presumed role for literature, and it is particularly foregrounded in Rushdie’s fiction. And this, of course, is why Baal, whose job it is to “point at frauds,” must be killed while Salman, who polluted the sacred text of the Koran, can be forgiven. The poet offers the more potent challenge to authority, an idea that I don’t think is exaggerated when we look at the effect that The Satanic Verses had in the world.
11Rushdie suggests that it is necessary always to have voices of challenge. Just before his execution, Baal says: “Whores and writers, Mahound. We are the people you can’t forgive,” and Mahound replies: “Writers and whores. I see no difference here.” (392) Mahound equates writers with whores because they are both profane to him: whores for obvious reasons, and writers because the mere act of writing words challenges the authority of the “Words of God” as written/revealed in the Koran. In fact, by having Mahound equate writers with whores, Rushdie is again invoking the text of the Koran itself, which explicitly condemns imaginative writers: “Poets are followed by erring men. Behold how aimlessly they rove in every valley, preaching what they never practise.” (Dawood 264) Writing, as Fadia Faqir asserts, “is considered by strict Muslims as an act of subversion.” (Appignanesi 226) At the very founding of Islam, then, Rushdie states in an interview, there was a “conflict between the sacred text and the profane text, between revealed literature and imagined literature” (Appignanesi 23), a conflict manifested by the fact that when Muhammad returned to Mecca he executed only five or six people, four of whom were writers or satirical actresses. In The Satanic Verses Rushdie replays this historical act, having Mahound execute Baal for representing a profane alternative to Islamic ideals. Sadly, it is the same intolerance of imaginative literature (because of its challenge to revealed literature) that contributed to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence on Rushdie.
- 7 Daniel Pipes discusses a number of similar objections to the book (110-3) and comments that “many (...)
12A frequent assumption was that Rushdie was attempting to revise Muslim history. Syed Ali Ashraf, for example, assumes that Rushdie has taken the myth of the Satanic verses and treated it as true: “He has intentionally and deliberately distorted the history of the Blessed Prophet and his Companions.” (Appignanesi 19) Similarly, an article in the London Sunday Times reported that “The grand Sheikh of Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the 1,000-year-old seat of Islamic theology, said […] the book […] contained ‘lies and figments of the imagination’ about Islam, which were ‘passed off as facts’.” (Appignanesi 27) Rushdie’s detractors received the novel as blasphemous propaganda and were noticeably unwilling to accept what he has called the “fictionality of fiction” (Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands 393).7
13Defending his novel, Rushdie draws attention to issues of genre to which I have already made reference:
I genuinely believed that my overt use of fabulation would make it clear to any reader that I was not attempting to falsify history, but to allow a fiction to take off from history. […] Fiction uses facts as a starting-place and then spirals away to explore its real concerns, which are only tangentially historical. Not to see this, to treat fiction as if it were fact, is to make a serious mistake of categories. The case of The Satanic Verses may be one of the biggest category mistakes in literary history. (Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands 408-409)
14While it is perhaps overstating things to suggest that the true concerns of fiction are only “tangentially” historical (a position I doubt Rushdie would really stand behind), he is correct to point out that some basic distinction between fiction and fact must be maintained. To do otherwise would be to submit to the dangerously radical philosophy that all versions of history are equally valid.
15Rushdie introduces the conflict between fact and fiction in the novel when Gibreel’s dreams become the raw material for a new series of “theological” genre movies. Billy Battuta, one of the film’s producers, describes the first of them, a film that will “recount the story of the encounter between a prophet and an archangel”: “‘It is a film […] about how newness enters the world.’—But would it not be seen as blasphemous […] ‘Certainly not. […] Fiction is fiction; facts are facts’.” (SV 272) While there is some truth to this—it is important not to mistake fiction for fact—it is also important not to accept “fact” without skepticism. Battuta’s remarks seem ironic given that the whole spirit of The Satanic Verses (and of Rushdie’s other works) belies the over-simplistic division between fact and fiction or reality and fantasy. Gibreel, for example, can not work out for himself what is real and what is the product of his own delusional mind. Even as readers with all of the clues that Rushdie gives us, it isn’t really possible for us to work out exactly what is to be read as literal truth and what as metaphorical truth. Here again the issue of genre, and in particular the genre of magic realism, is crucial to how one understands the text.
16Rushdie’s use of magic realism, which includes such fantastical tropes as Gibreel’s transformation into the Archangel Gabriel, collapses the categories of literal and metaphorical truth. This is one of the reasons why arguments over the book’s alleged blasphemy are so vexed: on the one hand, its defenders have wanted to read it as a novel which fictionally dramatizes the conflict between faith and doubt; on the other hand, those attacking it see it as a challenge to the literalness of Islamic history and revered historical/theological figures. It is both of these things, but it does not seek to suggest that its own vision of Islamic history supplant the “official” history, just as in Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children he doesn’t intend for us to literally believe Saleem Sinai’s version of Indian history. Rather, it is suggesting that no historical or religious text should be automatically accepted as purely “factual.” The point here is that fact and fiction are inextricable in all genres of representation whether they are recognized as religious, historical, literary, or other.
17What Rushdie is ultimately arguing for, then, is a different aesthetics of reception for religious texts. To the faithful, religious texts belong to the genres of law book, cautionary tale, and factual historical record. But the secular reader can turn to religious texts like they turn to other literary texts: not for admonitions, rules, and maxims but for, among other things, insights into human nature. By putting the Koran, literally and metaphorically, on the same “shelf” as other texts, Rushdie encourages readers to approach such texts from a literary/critical perspective so that they’re less likely to accept them at face value and be manipulated by those who claim the right of interpretation. This, of course, has implications for all sacred texts, not just the Koran.
18Even when it was understood that The Satanic Verses wasn’t trying to substitute its narrative for the Koran’s, it met with a pervasive prejudice against fantasy in writing. Peter Mullen, a Christian reverend sympathetic to the Muslims outraged by the novel, implies that only the strictest realism can be counted as “good writing”: “The further the art work departs from the real world, the more conjectural and abstract it becomes, the worse it is. […] Good writing, like the Old Testament, eschews contrivance and gives us the world as it is.” (Cohn-Sherbok 31) While Mullen’s assumption that the Old Testament harbors no “contrivance” is ludicrous, the same assumption about the Koran is nearly universal among believing Muslims. One of the troubling facets of religious orthodoxy is that it insists, as Mullen does, that the world can be described in the most literal terms. The Satanic Verses, along with other postmodern, fantastic, or magic realist works, suggests otherwise. As Bhikhu Parekh observes, magic realism has become popular specifically because for many it is the most sensible genre for depicting “a reality that continually overtakes the imagination and refuses to conform to conventional canons of rationality or even intelligibility.” (Cohn-Sherbok 73) It is the heightened awareness—evident in so much postmodern art—that reality is more complex than it seems that has made magic realism such a popular genre: its conventions speak directly to that contemporary loss of the sense of reality as mundane.
19In the sense that magic realism is often a response to that which is inexplicable in everyday reality, then, the genre provides a similar social function to that of religious texts. By doing so, and by suggesting that miraculous events can happen without divine will, it implies a challenge to religious texts. The distinguishing conventions of magic realism—supernatural or miraculous events, apparitions, wish-fulfilling fantasies—can be seen in different kinds of literary texts and in religious texts as well, suggesting that religious and literary texts have generic similarities. Religious texts, like classic fantasy stories, are characterized by miraculous events: the flood, the parting of the Red Sea, guiding pillars of fire and smoke, manna from Heaven, the immaculate conception, resurrection, etc. Much of the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses, then, has to do with the fact that Rushdie depicts the Koran as a human contrivance. For Rushdie, its sanctity as scripture is culturally attributed and the divine origin of the revelations is dubious. Despite the fact that it is a text with great cultural and historical significance, Rushdie plays with the narrative of the Koran as if it were a literary or fictional intertext such as A Thousand and One Nights (a text which he alludes to throughout his work).
20In February of 1994, the fifth anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the French television network Arté devoted an entire evening of programming to discussing the fatwa and The Satanic Verses with Rushdie. During the interview, Rushdie spoke strongly in favor of the notion that religious texts must be treated as other kinds of texts—that they not have the kind of privileged status that forbids questioning. “There should be no separate rules for religious texts,” he said. “They should have to face the competition of other texts on their own.” With this statement, Rushdie pinpointed the basis of the problems which were a response to the publication of his novel. Scripture is generally granted a privileged status in societies, and for some they are unassailable, unquestionable, absolute. Nevertheless, such texts are always being mediated by those who have been privileged as their interpreters.
21Although Rushdie’s play with the Koran in the Mahound parts of the novel expresses a harsh skepticism about Islam, the novel is not aimed at invalidating Islamic faith. Instead, Rushdie wants to desacralize the Koran—at least in the sense of it as a God-given, unquestionable text—and open it and Islam as a whole to questioning. This idea of questioning scripture, as Carlos Fuentes notes in an article defending Rushdie, is inimical to the whole idea of sacred texts: “a sacred text is, by definition, a completed and exclusive text. You can add nothing to it. It does not converse with anyone.” (Appignanesi 241) Strictly speaking, this is not true of all sacred texts or of everyone’s approach to such texts: sacred texts are always being questioned, interpreted, and mediated. But it is true that for fundamentalists sacred texts are absolute, inflexible, and unchallengeable. Further, since the Koran more or less encompasses Islam, Rushdie’s manipulation of the text is perceived by believing Muslims as a challenge to their faith. Fuentes notes that “For the Ayatollahs reality is dogmatically defined once and for all in a sacred text.” (Appignanesi 241) The idea of questioning such texts is inherently blasphemous to Muslims and that is what made the conflict virtually impossible to resolve on a religious level. Syed Shahabuddin, an Indian MP who was one of the earliest figures to denounce The Satanic Verses, asserts that the novel “serves to define what has gone wrong with the Western civilization—it has lost all sense of distinction between the sacred and the profane.” (Appignanesi 38) But it is not the distinction between the sacred and the profane that poses a problem as much as the categories themselves: declaring certain kinds of writing sacred and others profane discourages meaningful interaction with both kinds—the sacred is beyond questioning while the profane is not worthy of serious attention. Through its own intertextual practices with The Koran, The Satanic Verses dissolves these categories to encourage questioning of and dialogue with religious texts.