Rage vs. Beauty: Reading Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’, pt.III

Why all of the fuss? What caused such offence? Why did the Ayatollah declare a fatwa? This final part of the essay treats Rushdie’s depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, who features in Gibreel’s elaborate and blasphemous dreams.

Kenan Malik’s book usefully points out that The Satanic Verses began life as two separate novels, one treating the immigrants’ story in London, the other the origins of a faith rather like that of Islam, and then were bound together. Perhaps had Rushdie released two smaller volumes, the latter, containing the most incendiary passages of the novel, would have been more widely read than it is now. As it stands, it is over five-hundred pages long, and those of us who have read it are sometimes asked: what is the novel actually about?

The narrative chord connecting the two novels is, in fact, very thin; the stronger chords are thematic. Gibreel Farishta, as we have seen, loses his Islamic faith (‘bacon rashers hung out of the sides of his mouth’), as well as his sanity. He has elaborate dreams that form parts II, IV, VI and VIII of the nine-part novel. In these dreams, he is both ‘spectator’ and ‘camera’, watching Mahound, the founder of the sixth-century religion ‘Submission,’ and later the visionary Ayesha, leading her people on a pilgrimage to the Arabian Sea; but he is also the archangel who reveals to them scripture and instructions from the divine. What Mahound shares with Ayesha, and what they both share with Gibreel and Saladin, are their sense of disorientation being far from home, exiled, while resisting or succumbing to the temptations and compromises offered to the immigrant, the pilgrim, the founder, when venturing into an alien civilisation.

Of these delirious dreams, the ones about Mahound are far more interesting, and far more radical in their implications. We are first introduced to Mahound when he and his companions are struggling to convert the people of Jahilia (Arabic for ‘Ignorance,’ the state in which Arabs lived before Islam) to Submission. Mahound’s rival in the town, the Grandee, whose paganism holds sway over the population, offers Mahound a compromise. ‘He asks for Allah’s approval of Lat, Uzza and Manat,’ Mahound tells his companions. ‘In return, he gives his guarantee that we will be tolerated, even officially recognised; as a mark of which, I am to be elected to the council of Jahilia. That’s the offer’.

In order to make such a compromise and acknowledge these three pagan gods, Mahound must first ask Allah’s approval, and asks his Archangel to deliver the message (Gibreel: ‘Who asks the bloody audience of a “theological” to solve the bloody plot?’). Salman the Persian, the prophet’s scribe for these revelations, asks Mahound if he is worried that his request will be denied. Fear not: the revelations, says Mahound, are already in his heart, and Gibreel knows this, for a revelation is an ‘asking’ rather than a ‘listening’. An asking, that is, for confirmation of what he has already decided on: compromise.

Dismissed by many Islamic scholars as having never existed in the first place, the revelations, which were supposedly accepted by the Prophet Muhammed and then later excised from scripture, are known as the Satanic Verses. Rushdie’s Mahound, coming to realise that his compromise may ultimately spell doom for Submission, alters the revelations, and declares them the work of ‘Shaitan’. As well as investing Mahound with the human qualities of error, regret, and redemption, Rushdie strongly implies – as he does again later, when the scribe tests Mahound’s authenticity by altering the scriptures as he is dictates them – that the Qur’an is, after all, a man-made text.

It seems to us now astounding that an author would write such a novel, and Rushdie has been right to say that it would not be published in our time. But Rushdie is not yet finished. In the second dream in which Mahound features, he is newly triumphant, advancing on the town at which he once failed to conquer. He discovers Salman the Persian’s betrayal, but instead of sentencing him to death asks where he can find the poet Baal: a pagan satirist who has enjoyed mocking his monotheistic enemy for far too long.

The novel then moves into more dangerous territory. Where has he been hiding? In a brothel named ‘The Curtain’—an Anglicised name for the Muslim veil. Who has been protecting him? Whores – and they have named themselves after the Prophet’s wives in order to tease Baal. ‘He’s so annoyed about them,’ says one whore to her client, ‘that he gets excited just by mentioning their names.’ When Mahound finally arrests him, Baal accepts his fate:

‘Baal said, “I’ve finished. Do what you want.”

‘So he was sentenced to be beheaded, within the hour, and as soldiers manhandled him out of the tent towards the killing ground, he shouted over his shoulder: “Whores and writers, Mahound. We are the people you can’t forgive.”

‘Mahound replied, Writers and whores. I see no difference here.”’

***

In this confrontation between Prophet and satirist, the novel is painfully prescient about its own fate. At the same time, the accusation of blasphemy made by Muslims has been on false grounds. The depiction of Mahound is within the prism of a madman’s dream; the whores, while naming themselves after his wives, were disreputable to begin with; and Mahound – the most offensive term for the Prophet – is named thus in order to reclaim the original sting of the word from bigots who should use it as a weapon. Although depicted as compromised, human, and to some degree a charlatan, Mahound is also merciful, honourable, and victorious. Moreover, Rushdie identifies the ruthlessness with which he absolves himself of his error as crucial in what makes ‘Submission’ so radical and appealing to believers. Such purity is echoed down through the ages, as when Gibreel watches Ayesha, the young mystic, leading her people to the Arabian Sea: ‘What kind of idea are you? [asks a disillusioned pilgrim] And she, in turn, had offered him an old answer. I was tempted, but am renewed; am uncompromising; absolute; pure’. Of course, Ayesha leads her people to the sea, but there is no parting: everybody drowns. Mahound, nonetheless, is depicted as strong, dignified and, in his dying moments, holy; he is, we think, worthy to be mourned in passing. Saladin, in the present, recalls the Prophet’s struggle in life as he watches his own father dying: ‘An orphaned life, like Muhammad’s, like everyone else’s’.

Like everyone else’s. I have argued that the blasphemy in this novel is not to be found in the usual places. Instead, Rushdie does something far more interesting in representing Muhammad as a fictional character. This will prove to be his most daring feat as an author: to give Mahound inwardness:

‘Mahound’s anguish is awful. He asks: is it possible that they are angels? Lat, Manat, Uzza… can I call them angelic? Gibreel, have you got sisters? Are these the daughters of God? And he castigates himself, O my vanity, I am an arrogant man, is this weakness, is it just a dream of power? Must I betray myself for a seat on the council? Is it sensible and wise or is it hollow and self-loving? I don’t even know if the Grandee is sincere. Does even he know? Perhaps not even he. I am weak and he’s strong, the offer gives him many ways of ruining me. But I, too, have much to gain. The souls of the city, of the world, surely they are worth three angels? Is Allah so unbending that he will not embrace three more to save the human race? – I don’t know anything. – Should God be proud or humble, majestic or simple, yielding or un-? What kind of idea is he? What kind am I?

It has been said that the decline of Christendom in the West came with the rise of what we call ‘literature’. For studying literature and studying scripture came to be one and the same thing: Hamlet and Christ, Don Quixote and God are all equally fictional, and we may study all together their motives, their inconsistencies, their individual fates. This approach, taken to its logical conclusion, marks the end of the authority of God, who is now usurped by the author, his creator. The critic William Empson identified Milton’s true heresy, in his book Milton’s God, when he suggested that by representing God in his epic poem Milton puts him on trial.

This, then, is also Rushdie’s heresy: by investing Muhammed with conflicting thoughts, doubts and temptations, he puts him on trial. Rushdie, in his bulging, bursting, over-spilling novels (James Wood called them ‘Five-Year-Plans’) so rarely endows his characters with this level of inwardness, allows us to overhear Muhammed’s anguish and struggle; the anguish and struggle of the founder of Islam, who must not and cannot be depicted. Yet by adding a body to the voice, a human being to the stern abstractions of the holy texts, the novel may one day claim to have played a role in Islam’s probable, surely inevitable, reformation.

***

I quote again one of the final passages of the novel, when Saladin is mourning his father’s death:

‘[Saladin] stood at the window of his childhood and looked out at the Arabian Sea. The moon was almost full; moonlight, stretching from the rocks of Scandal Point out to the far horizon, created the illusion of a silver pathway, like a parting in the water’s shining hair, like a road to miraculous lands’.

To the attentive reader, the imagery here points back to Ayesha, whose fanatical delusions led her people to drown in the Arabian Sea, which failed to part for them as she had promised. Saladin seems to share in this illusion for a moment, but then, ‘He shook his head; could no longer believe in fairy-tales. Childhood was over, and the view from this window was no more than an old and sentimental echo. To the devil with it! Let the bulldozers come. If the old refused to die, the new could not be born’.

The Satanic Verses is far more confident than we can allow ourselves to be, thirty years on, that people will be able to live without such myths and dismiss them from their minds as easily as Saladin. Ideas are not crushed with bulldozers, but erode slowly over time, subject to the changing winds, when grains of sand are blown in the faces of those ancient monuments, chipping away at their ancient terror. And yet – and yet – in this great novel, worthy of our celebration now that the fatwa has long been called off, we can see the beginning of that inevitability.

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