The Truth That Fictions Tell: In Defense of Blasphemous Literature
Editor’s note: This is the third article in a limited series. The first appeared in the August/September 2022 issue.
In the past two issues, we demonstrated how fiction has a unique, subversive ability to open minds and engender empathy for heterodox points of view, directly challenging privileged, orthodox narratives. Few works better demonstrate this than Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses.
Have you thought of al-Lat and al-‘Uzza
and Manat, the third, the other?
These are the exalted ones, whose intercession is hoped for.
These eponymous verses are found in a passage in the Qur’an, Surah 53:19–20, which refers to the three chief deities—all considered to be the daughters of Allah—that had been worshiped across the Arabian Peninsula. The canonical passage dismisses them as “mere names” with “no authority,” but early biographers hold that an original version had proclaimed them as “exalted ones, whose intercession is hoped for,” a concession to the goddesses’ wide popularity. This line (the third of the three verses shown above), later excised, was said to have been an interpolation, whispered to Muhammad by Satan, that the Prophet had been fooled into believing was divine revelation.
While early Islamic scholars accepted the apocryphal story as authentic, it would later be rejected as problematic, and modern Muslim scholars reject it for undermining the doctrine of Allah’s omnipotence and the Prophet’s moral infallibility. Whatever they may think of them, however, Muslims have never referred to these apocryphal verses as “Satanic”; that phrase is a coinage of Western academics. Upon the book’s publication, its title quickly drew outrage from the pious, who took the title as an attempt by Rushdie to assert that verses of the Qur’an were authored by the Devil.1
The controversy over the book, the fatwa, and Rushdie’s long ordeal have been treated at length elsewhere, including by the author himself.2 What interests us more is the book itself. What does Rushdie say with his book, and in what way do his alleged blasphemies play in saying it?
By and large, The Satanic Verses is about cultural and spiritual exile, a theme played out through a crisis of personal identity and alienation of its two protagonists. In the process, both men suffer a metamorphosis, told in Rushdie’s lyrical prose through a series of vivid, fantastical sequences.
The novel opens with the two protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, aboard a hijacked airliner. Both characters are actors of Indian Muslim background, like Rushdie himself; Farishta is a Bollywood superstar who plays Hindu deities in the popular mythological film genre, and Chamcha is a voiceover artist of frustrated ambition, an Anglophile, estranged from his father, who has moved to England and rejected his Indian identity. The plane explodes over the English Channel, but the two miraculously survive and are transformed as they fall together through the sky:
Out of thin air: a big bang, followed by falling stars. A universal beginning, a miniature echo of the birth of time … the jumbo jet Bostan, Flight AI-420, blew apart without any warning … While at Himalayan height a brief and premature sun burst into the powdery January air, a blip vanished from radar screens, and the thin air was full of bodies …
Below, cloud-covered, awaiting their entrance, the slow congealed currents of the English Sleeve, the appointed zone of their watery reincarnation.
In this “endless but also ending angelicdevilish fall,” the two men’s transmutation begins. Farishta comes to believe that he is the actual archangel Gabriel (the key figure in Islam who delivered the Qur’an to the Prophet) descending into a delusional dreamworld, while Chamcha mutates into a devil-like monstrosity.
As the two grapple with their transformation, Farishta reunites with a former English love, while Chamcha is arrested as an illegal immigrant. Embittered by Farishta’s forsaking him, Chamcha embarks, Othello-like, to avenge himself by stirring Farishta’s paranoia and jealousy. Both characters share autobiographical aspects of the author. Chamcha’s transformation in particular indicates, as Michiko Kakutani describes, not only the process of cultural metamorphosis—“names, addresses, hairdos”—but also the consequence of such, signifying the “horror with which he is now regarded by family and former neighbors in Bombay” who “look upon him as a traitor,” while his English acquaintances regard him as a “pushy arriviste, a foreigner who will never fit in.”3
Parallel stories are told in alternating dream and reality sequences, the names of the two characters tying them together. Within this frame, evoked by elements of “magical realism,” are three vision sequences ascribed to Farishta’s mind, all linked by themes of revelation, faith, and fanaticism. The second sequence tells the story of Ayesha, a peasant girl who claims to be receiving revelations from the Archangel Gabriel (“Gibreel,” in Arabic) that she and her followers will walk across the Arabian Sea to Mecca. The villagers follow her into the water and disappear; witnesses will not agree on whether they drowned or in fact miraculously crossed. The third sequence presents a looming, fanatic expatriate leader called the “Imam,” told from a distant omniscient narrator; a clear allusion to the Ayatollah Khomeini in exile.
It is Gibreel’s first sequence that has been most criticized as blasphemous. In something of a revelation-in-reverse in which the “angel” is invoking the believer, we are introduced to Mahound, a businessman-turned-prophet from the city of Jahiliyyah. “Mahound,” a derogatory rendition of the name Muhammad used by medieval Christian playwrights, is adopted in Gibreel’s manic vision as the “demon-tag,” an insult worn with pride precisely because it was given in scorn by foreigners. Jahiliah, which is at once Mecca and not-Mecca, is the Arabic word denoting the “Age of Ignorance” preceding Islam.
The central subplot is the episode of the “satanic verses.” Mahound’s adversaries are a pagan priestess, Hind, and a skeptical, satirical poet, Baal. Jahilia hosts the temples of Lat, Uzza, and Manat and is also the site of House of Black Stone, in which reside the idols of some 360 gods (including Allah). Anticipating the threat of Mahound’s Allah-only movement to his family’s lucrative pilgrimage revenues, the city Grandee—Hind’s husband—enlists Baal to slander Mahound and his disciples.
The scheme achieves its effect, and as the movement fails to win new converts, the Grandee offers Mahound a deal: reject all except the patron deities Lat, Uzza, and Manat, and Mahound’s new religion will be given official recognition. Weary of hostility and mockery, and discouraged with failure, Mahound considers accepting the proposition. After his disciples quarrel with him over it, Mahound climbs the mountain to seek guidance from Gibreel. When he descends, he brings with him the Satanic verses.
As Mahound recites this new revelation, the crowd roars its approval. On cue, the Grandee utters the formula “Allahu Akbar” and prostrates himself, immediately followed by Hind. The men and women of the crowd begin to kneel, “row by row, the movement rippling outwards from Hind and the Grandee as though they were pebbles thrown into a lake.” The bargain is fulfilled.
Whatever one may say of Rushdie’s blasphemies, he cannot be accused of malice. Though far from the idealized but ultimately inaccessible—and thus not, in any empathetic sense, “human”—paragon portrayed in holy writ, Rushdie’s Mahound is a sympathetic character precisely because he is a flawed man who staggers under the pressure to compromise. When it becomes clear that the Grandee will renege on their agreement, and Hind vows that there will never be peace between Allah and the Three, Mahound realizes his error. Filled with self-disgust, the Prophet abrogates the verses.
Here is where Austin Dacey’s symmetry thesis (discussed in our last article)—that a writer’s expression of truth is no less valid than a believer’s sanctities—is brought to bear. With his novel, Rushdie desacralizes the founding sanctities of Islam, rendering the Holy Qur’an as a manmade fiction and the sacred person of the Prophet as a fallible human being. These blasphemies are not an attack on Islam but an expression of truth as seen through secular eyes.
As Gibreel Farishta, suspended in his dream-delusion as the Archangel, muses:
What is the opposite of faith?
Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself a kind of belief.
Acknowledgement of doubt is a testament to truth; Rushdie’s moral imperative—the secular moral imperative—is the exposure of falsehood and self-delusion. Doubt as testimony, a moral good in opposition to the dictates of dogma.
When Mahound and his followers are forced to leave Jahilia, one of his disciples insists that the failed compromise, rather than betraying their faith, has actually enriched it. Bitterly, the Prophet responds, “Yes … It was a wonderful thing I did. Deeper truth. Bringing you the Devil. Yes, that sounds like me.”
There is a moment in The Satanic Verses when the Grandee reflects upon the contrast between himself—cynical, pragmatic—and men of ideas such as Mahound and Baal. “Here’s a great lie, thinks the Grandee of Jahilia drifting into sleep: the pen is mightier than the sword.”
The observation would prove all too prescient, for Rushdie as well as the author of our next novel.
1. For an excellent summary of the specific “indictments” against The Satanic Verses and counterarguments for each, see “Looking Back at Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses,” The Guardian, September 14, 2012. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/sep/14/looking-at-salman-rushdies-satanic-verses.
2. I recommend Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 2008). See also my article, “The Importance of Being Blasphemous: Literature, Self-Censorship, and the Legacy of The Satanic Verses,” Free Inquiry, Vol. 35 No. 6 (October/November 2015). Available online at https://secularhumanism.org/2015/09/cont-the-importance-of-being-blasphemous-literature-self-censorship-and-the/.
3. Kikutani, Michiko, “‘The Satanic Verses’: What Rushdie Wrote,” New York Times, February 23, 1989. Available online at https://www.nytimes.com/1989/02/23/books/the-satanic-verses-what-rushdie-wrote.html.
The Truth That Fictions Tell: In Defense of Blasphemous Literature Editor’s note: This is the third article in a limited series. The first appeared in the August/September 2022 issue. In the past two issues, we demonstrated how fiction has a unique, subversive ability to open minds and engender empathy for heterodox points of view, directly …