Last week I finished reading The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie. The book is Rushdie’s fourth novel, and largely deals with the issues of isolation and integration among Indian-born immigrants in England. However, the book also includes two sections that depict the prophet Muhammad. Some considered Rushdie’s depiction of Muhammad blasphemous, and as a result, in 1989 the Supreme Leader of Iran issued a death sentence against him. If you pick up this book hoping to learn more about this controversy, you’re bound to be disappointed. But you should pick it up anyway, because this is an amazing — albeit daunting — read.
The novel follows the lives of two Bollywood actors, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, after they miraculously survive the hijacking and bombing of a flight from India to England. Upon floating safely to land, Gibreel becomes convinced he is the archangel Gabriel, and Saladin is turned from a throughly English citizen to a half-devil. Their stories are suffused with elements of magical realism, including several dreams in which Gibreel reveals God’s will to Muhammad and a woman clothed only in butterflies, as well as the strange transformation for which Saladin is arrested (for illegal immigration), beaten, and passes goat pellets. Throughout the novel, Gibreel hopes to reclaim his lost fame and lover, while Saladin hopes to return to a former self and fully-integrated member of English society. As a whole, their stories are terribly interesting, but the book is written in such a convoluted style that the action is sometimes hard to follow.
And to make matters even more complex, the novel is interspersed with several dreams by Gibreel. The most controversial of these are two that deal with the life of Muhammad and his revelation of the satanic verses:
According to tradition, this proclamation helped Mohammad win converts to his new religion, but contradicted his fundamental stance that there are no gods but god. Muhammad returned to Gabriel who admonished him to retract the verses, and he did, claiming the words came not from Gabriel but the devil. But the truth as revealed by Rushdie is that it was Gibreel both times. Gibreel is an archangel without a trumpet, someone that doesn’t know up from down much less God’s true will from the random blabberings in his head. In a second dream, the scribe who recorded Muhammad’s revelations admitted that he slightly altered some of the verses to see if Muhammad would notice. The prophet didn’t, and so the scribe lost his faith. (Also there’s the story of twelve prostitutes that dress up like Muhammad’s wives.) Although these dreams are interesting and well-written, they’re really not the focus of the book as a whole. For me, the most interesting elements of The Satanic Verses are the things that we can all relate to or sympathize with: the struggle of immigrants to fit in to their adopted home, the tension between traditionalism and modernism, the role of religion in our lives. But these controversial dream sequences are captivating.
There is nothing wrong with considering and even questioning the origins of belief. Novels like Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses force us to do so in a way that makes many believers uncomfortable. But, on the other hand, religion can have a huge impact on society and its laws as a whole — for the better and for the worse. Just consider the terrorism of religious extremists, or the history of persecution towards women in many of the world’s most popular religions. Because of their far-reaching consequences, religious beliefs are subjects that should be considered critically, by both believers and non-believers alike. More books like The Satanic Verses would go along way towards expanding that conversation.