HomeArchivesThe Satanic Verses Plot That Got Muslim World's Goat

The Satanic Verses Plot That Got Muslim World’s Goat

The Satanic Verses was the fourth novel by British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie. First published in September 1988, the book was inspired by the life of the Islamic prophet Mohammed. As with his previous books, Rushdie used magical realism and relied on contemporary events and people to create his characters. The title refers to the Satanic Verses, a group of Quranic verses that refer to three pagan Meccan goddesses: Allāt, Al-Uzza, and Manāt. The part of the story that deals with the "satanic verses" was based on accounts from the historians al-Waqidi and al-Tabari.

Thanks to the Rajiv Gandhi government of the time, India got the dubious distinction of being the first country to ban The Satanic Verses, the book by Salman Rushdie towards which Rafiq Zakaria, father of journalist Fareed Zakaria, drew the attention of the then Government of India. By banning the book, the Congress government drew the attention of the whole world towards the piece of literature. The fatwa for his head and a reward of $ 3 million for the terrorist act were then announced by the supreme Shi'ah leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

While Salman Rushdie has been facing the threat to his life since 1988, a fanatic called Hadi Matar from Lebanon attacked him onstage on 12 August at an event in New York state. Rushdie, the author whose writing led to death threats from the then-supreme Shi'ah leader in the 1980s, was attacked this morning as he was about to give a lecture in western New York.

But what exact thing about the book irked Muslims, Shi'ahs and Sunnis alike, across the world? While terrorism can never be justified, the Islamic world tends to do exactly that by using their 'grievance' as excuses for attacks on the rest of humanity. A study of the plot of The Satanic Verses will help understand what got their goat.

The writing style in The Satanic Verses

The Satanic Verses has a frame narrative that employs surrealism, interspersed with several subplots that are narrated as dream sequences that the protagonists experience. Like in many other stories by Rushdie, the frame narrative involves Indian expatriates in contemporary England. Lead characters Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha are both Indian Muslims in the vocation of film acting. Farishta is a Bollywood superstar who has made a name essaying characters of Hindu deities. Chamcha is an emigrant who defies his Indian identity and works as a voiceover artiste in England.

At the beginning of the novel, both Farishta and Chamcha are hostages in a hijacked flight between India and Britain. The plane explodes over the English Channel, but the two magically survive. The accident, however, miraculously transforms Farishta into archangel Gabriel and Chamcha into a devil. Police arrest Chamcha, after which he undergoes an ordeal of abuse in the custody as a suspected illegal immigrant. Farishta's transformation is somewhat realistic, though. He betrays symptoms of schizophrenia.

Both Farishta and Chamcha struggle for redemption. Farishta chases his lost love and finds it in the English mountaineer Allie Cone, but their relationship is marred by his mental illness. At the other end, having miraculously regained his human shape, Chamcha wants to exact revenge on Farishta for having deserted him after their common fall from the hijacked plane. He bears a never-ending grouse against Farishta and ends up destroying his relationship with Allie. At another point of crisis, Farishta realises what Chamcha has done but forgives him and even saves his life.

Both return to India. Farishta chucks Allie off a highrise in another outbreak of envy and then commits suicide. But Chamcha remains in India, having received not only forgiveness from Farishta but also reconciliation with his estranged father and his own Indian identity.

What about the book infuriated the Islamic world

The storyline has a semi-magical dream sequences, ascribed to the mind of Farishta.

A vision is a fictionalised narration of the life of Muhammad (called "Mahound" or "the Messenger" in the novel) in Jahilia (jahil is the Arabic for "uneducated"). At the core of this subplot is the episode of the so-called satanic verses, where the prophet first proclaims Allah has ordered him in a revelation to adopt three of the old polytheistic deities but subsequently renounces this as a mischief of the Devil that was masquerading as God. There are also two opponents of the "Messenger": Hind, a heathen priestess, and Baal, a sceptic and satirical poet. When the prophet returns to Mecca in triumph, Baal goes into hiding in a brothel situated in a shady part of the holy city, where prostitutes assume the identities of the prophet's wives. Further, a companion of the prophet claims that he has subtly altered portions of the Qur'an as they were dictated to him because he doubted the authenticity of the Messenger!

The second sequence tells the story of Ayesha — which happens to be the name of the third wife of Islam's prophet, who married him when she was barely 6 years old — who is an Indian peasant girl. She claims to be receiving revelations from archangel Gibreel as a prophet is expected to! She entices fellow villagers to embark on a pilgrimage on foot to Mecca, claiming that they will be able to walk across the Arabian Sea. The pilgrimage ends in a catastrophic climax, as the believers all walk into the water and disappear, amid disturbingly conflicting testimonies from observers about whether they drowned as could be normally explained or were in fact miraculously able to cross the sea.

A third dream sequence introduces the character of a fanatic expatriate religious leader, the Imam, in a late-20th-century backdrop (this evidently caricatures Khomeini).

Clearly, The Satanic Verses is a spoof on several icons of Muslim belief, which followers of the religion could not shrug off.

The binding nature of a fatwa

A fatwa is a solicited opinion of an Islamic seminary, a mufti or the supreme Shi'ah leader. When a believer approaches one of these institutions — the Ayatollah is not merely an individual but an institution for the Shi'ahs — it answers a specific query based on its interpretation of the Qur'an, one or more hadiths and/or the Shari'ah. The Qur'an is what Muslims believe to be the word of Allah (Arabic for God) delivered to mankind via the angel Gabriel via Mohammed, Islam's prophet. The Ahadith or hadiths are a compilation of actions and statements of Mohammed, as recorded by his companions. The Shari'ah is Islamic law.

Whether a Muslim is religiously bound to obey a fatwa depends on the denomination of Islam he or she belongs to. Broadly, it is not binding on a Sunni, but even a Sunni may be compelled to follow a fatwa if he sought it from a mufti whom he is affiliated with. For the Shi'ahs, a fatwa by the Ayatollah cannot be ignored; the order has to be executed.

Hadi Matar is a Shi'ah.

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Surajit Dasgupta
Surajit Dasguptahttps://swadharma.in
Surajit Dasgupta began his career as a banker with Citibank and then switched to journalism. He has worked with The Statesman, The Pioneer, Swarajya, Hindusthan Samachar, MyNation, etc and established his own media houses Sirf News and Swadharma. His professional career began in 1993. He is a mathematician by training and has acute interest in science and technology, linguistics and history. He is also a Sangeet Visharad.

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