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Is Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses more “Satanic” than Attempted Murder? Revisiting the Rushdie Affair

By Martin Accad

When the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, saw that his people were shunning him, he was aggrieved by their rejection of the message he brought them and he secretly wished that Allah, exalted is He, reveals something to him which would bring him and his people closer to each other, keen as he was to see them accept faith. One day, he sat in one of the congregations of Quraysh which attracted a huge number of its members, and he wished that Allah, exalted is He, does not reveal to him on that day anything that might repel them from him. Allah, exalted is He, revealed to him then Surah al-Najm… [Surah 53]. The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, recited it but when he reached (Have ye thought upon al-Lat and al-‘Uzza, and Manat, the third, the other) [53:19-20], the devil put on his tongue what he had secretly wished and hoped for and said: “These are the mighty cranes (gharaniq) and their intercession is hoped for.” When the Quraysh heard this, they were very pleased. (Emphasis mine)

These are NOT the opening lines of Salman Rushdie’s novel, Satanic Verses, that warranted him Ayatollah Khomeini’s death fatwa and led to an assassination attempt on his life last month. They are the words of Abu al-Hasan Ali al-Wahidi (d. 1075), the most respected and authoritative transmitter of the traditions that Muslim scholars refer to as asbab an-nuzul (the occasions of the revelation), as he attempts to explain the historical context of the revelation of Surat al-Hajj 22:52. The verse in question reads as follows:

Never did We send a messenger or a prophet before thee, but, when he framed a desire, Satan threw some (vanity) into his desire: but Allah will cancel anything (vain) that Satan throws in, and Allah will confirm (and establish) His Signs: for Allah is full of Knowledge and Wisdom. (Yusuf Ali’s translation, emphasis mine)

Surat al-Hajj 22:52 introduces into the Qur’an the possibility that God could sometimes “abrogate” (Arabic: yansakh, meaning: “change, correct, or replace”) a verse earlier revealed – or in this case erroneously recited – by his prophet. When the Qur’an’s early interpreters pondered on this intriguing and somewhat puzzling phenomenon instituted in the Qur’an, they came up with various explanations about how such a change in the revelation might have occurred. Among these is al-Wahidi’s suggestion that God might later replace the portion of a verse that Satan might have initially introduced maliciously into the revelation.

According to al-Wahidi, when Islam’s prophet first recited the revelation of Sura 53, Satan whispered to him the words that confirmed the role of three ancient Arabian goddesses as intercessors with God at the end of verse 20. This pleased Muhammad’s clan, the Quraysh, so much that he let it pass after it slipped from his tongue:

The Quraysh then dispersed, happy with what they heard. They said: “Muhammad has mentioned our idols with complimentary terms. We know that Allah gives life and takes it away, He creates and provides sustenance, but these idols of ours will intercede for us with Him. Now that Muhammad has associated them, we are all with him” (al-Wahidi’s Asbab an-Nuzul).

But according to this tradition, that same evening the angel Gabriel intervened, chastised Muhammad, and corrected (nasakha) the error, now revealing the “correct” version of the ensuing verses, with verse 23 reading:

These are nothing but names (i.e. al-Lat, al-‘Uzza, and Manat) which ye have devised,- ye and your fathers,- for which Allah has sent down no authority (whatever). They follow nothing but conjecture and what their own souls desire!- Even though there has already come to them Guidance from their Lord! (Yusuf Ali’s translation)

This reversal angered the Quraysh, who said: “Muhammad has regretted what he has mentioned regarding the status of our idols vis-à-vis Allah.” And, according to al-Wahidi, “they became even more antagonistic than before.”

What was so “satanic,” then, about Salman Rushdie’s 1988 fantasy novel Satanic Verses, if the notion itself was already well established in the literature of Islam since its inception? What was it, in Rushdie’s interpretation of that venerable tradition, that warranted the fury of the Muslim world and a death fatwa by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989? Primarily, no doubt, most have not read his novel and are just behaving as an agitated mass.

For those who read, they will find that Rushdie uses satire to address, through fantastical visions and – quite frankly – a deep irreverence for religions – all religions, the agonies and challenges faced by immigrants like himself in a post-colonial world. One of the half-magical visions of the novel narrates the story of a peasant girl who leads her community into a pilgrimage across the Arabian Sea. Though some have pointed out that this narrative is modeled on the 1983 Hawkes Bay Case of Pakistani villager Naseem Fatima, it also bears some resonance with the Mosaic Exodus across the Red Sea. The journey ends in the catastrophic drowning of her people, though some testimonies claimed that they miraculously made it across. The novel is disturbing for religious believers because it casts the miraculous somewhere between reality and mental illness.

Against the cynical comments I’ve read, following the assassination attempt on Rushdie’s life, by apologists of religions that describe the work as a “public stunt” by a novelist in search of fame, one must remember that already in 1981, Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children had won the Booker Prize. In 1983 he had been elected as fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Rushdie did not need this additional notoriety.

I struggle when reading Salman Rushdie, not just his infamous Satanic Verses but also his Fury (2001) and Shalimar the Clown (2005). His novels are generally irreverent, a revolt against authoritarianism, and post-colonial critiques of the nation-state. Rushdie dismantles social structures that pose as comforting points of reference for us. His writing is disturbing and – may I add – healthy for those with a tendency for religious and political triumphalism.

Religions should grow up! Otherwise, they are little more than political or socioeconomic ideologies. An immature religion has nothing to do with a God whom we claim to be the creative originator of our colorful universe. “Ungodly” does apply to Rushdie; but it does just as much – and even more – to the Christian bishop who bans a film for portraying Jesus as a womanizer or a rock band for mocking an icon of the Virgin Mary. It applies to a Hindu when they castigate a politician for mocking Krishna. Should it not also apply to a Muslim carrying out a 33-year-old fatwa in the attempt to take the life of a novelist? And all of this in the name of the Author of life!

Martin is an associate professor of Islamic Studies at ABTS and part of the faculty for the Master of Religion’s upcoming MENA Islam module.

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