The Satanic verses

The Satanic Verses: Chapter Two

"You have not converted a man because you have silenced him." -John Morley[1]

Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses[2] (1988) caused immense controversy when it was published. An analysis of both the novel and texts written on the subject of the 'affair' demonstrate how the perceived cultural assimilation of East and West has been destabilised since the book's publication; furthermore, as a result of the controversy authors have since feared writing about Islam. The novel is a paradigm for the most dangerous approach to censorship. Many people took to the streets to protest against the novel, the focus here will be the protests of Bradford, but it is crucial to note that protests took place in many other locations worldwide. The public remonstrations had the effect of alarming authors, thus from this 'cause', the 'effect' of an impingement on authors' creativity was generated. The protests brought into question the concept of free-speech given that it now seemed to be unworkable when it was applied to the subject of religion.

To say that some authors have self-censored since 1988 is an obvious conclusion to attain; the unbalanced reaction to a work of fiction has inevitably led people to fear writing anything that might be deemed critical to a religious community. The furore surrounding the novel has had the dire effect of compelling authors to self-censor; this is a piteous loss since the subject of Islam is immeasurable and there is much material in the Koran, and in Muslim culture, that generates debate and opinions that should be heard.

John Stuart Mill composed On Liberty in 1859; however, in spite of the text's maturity, there is much to be learnt from his hypothesis on free speech. Mill advocated the freedom of all expression, whether it was favourable or not:

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."[3]

Rushdie wrote a novel that was considered blasphemous and insulting. Nevertheless the decision, of the British courts, to allow his contentions to be heard was not erroneous since it is important that arguments both for and against an idea are heard. Voltaire said: 'I wholly disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it'[4], much can also be learnt from this succinct statement; even if what is said is offensive to you it is important that it is considered since only in this way can freedom of ideas flourish and only in this way can we be said to live in a truly democratic society.

If the Muslim people had won their battle and silenced Rushdie, they would have prevented the public from generating their own opinions. Conversely, if freedom of expression is permitted those that are offended are given the opportunity to produce a counter-argument. In this way, an equal consideration of a subject gives others the greatest probability of ascertaining their own correct position. Mill said: If the opinion is right, (the people who hold an opposite belief) are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth,'[5] history is beleaguered with examples of human-error: people used to believe the world was flat. If we had relentlessly denied others to express counter-arguments, then we would have been denied the opportunity to progress as a race; this would be the worst outcome of censorship.

The Satanic Verses was published by Penguin Books and almost immediately a public debate was instigated. It is important to note that it was not just the Muslim people who found the novel's contents offensive; Malise Ruthven, the author of A Satanic Affair, attended a seminar about the novel. He noted how a British woman stood up and declared:

"the rot had begun with Lady Chatterley... and what was needed was a return to the decent Christian values the Muslims were the only ones brave enough to stand up for...'[6]

In this way, it is important not to make the sweeping generalisation that only Muslim people found critical discussion of what were deemed religious 'truths' unfavourable. 'There were mass rallies of protest both attacking and defending the book'[7], many intellectuals attacked the censors and urged them not to remove their most basic right to free speech. These intellectuals were fearless; nevertheless in recent years further retaliations from the Muslim community, such as those that threatened the cartoonists of Jyllands-Posten, have led authors and academics to self-censor. Broder observed that 'Western writers would now rather take cover than defend basic rights'[8]; this hardly seems surprising, it is not worth putting your own life, or the lives of those that aid you, in danger by disseminating objectionable ideas. The origins of this most important debate are rooted in The Satanic Verses, Andrew Anthony concurs: 'the repercussions were profound - and are still being felt'[9]. The book produced debates about cultural cohesion and religion as an indisputable theme to write about.

Religious offence, as a separate entity from the all-encompassing notion of free speech, has become a dominant issue in recent times. Ursula Owen wrote an article in 2009 that posed the important questions: 'is offence the new censorship and have we internalised the fatwa?'[10] These are essential questions to ask: should we treat insult to religion in a different way to insult to any minority? If we allow any form of censorship then, as Warburton observes, we are in danger of 'taking a step down a slippery slope that will almost inevitably end in totalitarianism.'[11] Rushdie tackled subjects that are held in high esteem by the people of the Muslim community; however, he did not incite violence or cause public disruption, he certainly did not advocate execution, in this way the reaction to the book was more damaging to the Muslim community and British/Muslim public relations than anything Rushdie wrote. Pipes observed that the publisher's 'snickered... a society claiming to promote tolerance was requesting censorship'[12]; accordingly their claims at being tolerant and permissive were seen as a false piety by many.

The Ayatollah Khomeini, "the revolutionary ruler of Iran, took prompt and drastic action on February 14, 1989, he called upon "all zealous Muslims quickly to execute" not just Salman Rushdie as the author of The Satanic Verses but "all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content."[13] The Muslim people observed their leader's edict and made clear their intent to eradicate the book from the public arena and make those responsible for circulating blasphemous ideas pay. As a result, Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding for a decade. He was obliged to seek protection and it was somewhat ironic that 'the author who burlesqued the police with hilarious acuity came to depend on them for safety'[14]. Even after the Ayatollah Khomeini died and Rushdie had stated his regret at offending the community, Khomeini's successor - the Ayatollah Khamenei - refused to withdraw the decree and 'was adamant the 'divine ruling' was irrevocable'[15]. Khamenei's choice to sustain the fatwa means that Rushdie's life will never be uninhibited again; he paid a hefty price for circulating his ideas but others' suffered worse fates. The Japanese translator of the book 'was killed'[16] and many more people were injured or fatally wounded.

In 1988 the Muslim community took to the streets of Bradford and vocalised their abhorrence by carrying banners that were inauspicious and which incited violence. 'Penguin will pay for its crims [sic]', 'Kill the bastard', and 'Jihad on agnostics', were amongst many other proclamations. The affronted group took the decision to 'purchase a copy of the novel... take it to the public square of Bradford...attach it to a stake and set it on fire.'[17]With the act of book-burning they produced a feeling of widespread public disquiet: they were viewed as a people who would revert to the most solecistical forms of expression, modes that seemed incongruent in contemporary liberal society. These actions affirmed in the minds of many the notion that the 'defenders of the Islamic tradition'[18] were not 'a tolerant people'[19] as they claimed; rather they appeared to be a group belonging to 'a triumphalist faith of uncompromising masculine supremacy.'[20] Ergo, public relations between Muslim and British peoples became fraught as a result of 'the shocking demonstration of intolerance towards written ideas expressed in the form of fiction.'[21] This had the result of making people discuss freedom of speech in a polarised way; this was an issue that mattered and needed to be addressed immediately.

Ruthven asked the question: 'How could a mere author...fill the streets... with thousands of demonstrators, many of whom would have gladly hanged him on the spot?'[22] Indeed, it does seem to be an unbalanced reaction; this was merely a work of fiction that did not purport to relate facts to its readers.

One cannot dismiss the fact that many of the objectors never read the book in its entirety; this is often the case with censorship and thwarts the censors' efforts since a full reading is necessary to conjecture an argument in support or condemnation of a novel. When Ruthven questioned a protestor at the Bradford demonstration he admitted to not reading the whole novel: ''I've read some extracts. It's filthy language used. Lavatorial language.'[23] Indeed the extracts that the man read may have appeared to be indecent, but when any extract is removed from its context it unavoidably loses some or all of its meaning. Ruthven discussed this idea when he spoke to another Muslim gentleman. Anwar unequivocally argued against the notion:

"I can't see what context could possibly justify such language...I'm saying certain words have a certain plain meaning...to try to talk about them in terms of context or in a literary manner just doesn't appeal to me. I just don't accept it.'[24]

Anwar argued it was inconsequential to say that context mattered; the Muslim people found the extracts deeply offensive regardless. Nevertheless had they read the book in its entirety they may have come to a different conclusion; if no different conclusion was reached they may have been able to make their argument in a more coherent manner rather than reverting to threats and violence. Pipes stated that most Muslims never read the novel in its entirety, nor did many of them, he said, 'even bother to read the extracts'[25]. How then was it possible for an educated counter-argument to be produced?

The book's title and the portion of the novel that directly interrogates the satanic verses is the most obvious and well-known source of contention. Ruthven questions whether this aspect alone can be seen as the reason for the fatwa: 'Was it Rushdie's error to have resurrected those 'dead' words, converting his clever literary fireworks into lethal missiles?'[26] The 'dead' words are cited in the second chapter of the novel entitled 'Mahound'.

Mahound recites the Angel Gibreel's revelation:

'Have you thought upon Lat and Uzza, and Manat, the third, the other? - After the first verse, Hind gets to her feet; the Grandee of Jahlia is already stranding very straight. And Mahound, with silenced eyes, recites: 'They are the exalted birds and their intercession is desired indeed' (114).

When Mahound deviates from monotheism; he later changes his assertion and claims that his revelation had been interpolated by the Devil. This issue is important; Pipes makes an important observation. This being that the two abrogated passages were not known to Muslims given that they had not read the text in its entirety, instead they understood the title The Satanic Verses to refer to the entire Koran, so much so that the novel may as well have been entitled: 'The Qu'ran was written by Satan'[27] In this way we learn that Rushdie's error was his naming, a subject which will be returned to imminently. To concentrate on the matter in hand: the suggestions made by Rushdie were deemed very insulting, even though they occurred in a dream-sequence and referred to just two passages. Dr. Zaki Badawi likened the challenge to the Koran as being: 'worse to Muslims than if he had raped one's daughter... like a knife being dug into you - or being raped yourself.'[28] The reasoning is simple; by contesting the Koran Rushdie sullied the Muslim's most treasured beliefs, furthermore as Anwar added when speaking to Ruthven '(m)ost people in the West haven't read the (Koran). This is their first impression of his character. It's a great loss to people who haven't yet discovered our scripture.'[29] The Satanic Verses, Ruthven argued 'does not pretend to be truth,'[30] so it is reasonable to deduce that readers would not consider the fiction to convey any fact; nevertheless Anwar claimed that any suggestion that 'even one verse could have been inspired by the devil undermines all the rest.'[31] This was a source of great anguish for the Muslim people.

The Union of Muslim Organisations decided to get The Satanic Verses legally banned in Britain and Rushdie criminally prosecuted, both on the charge of blasphemy.' Thankfully their requests for both were denied since 'British laws of blasphemy apply only to Christianity, and even then they are hardly ever applied.'[32]

The novel tells the story of Mahound, Salman the scribe (who with intent shares the name of the author) and Baal the poet. A further contentious aspect begins by reuniting Salman and Baal; Salman is aggrieved and begins to tell Baal about his qualms with the Prophet. In his garrulous monologue, Salman testifies to the inaccuracy of the Koran. Despite Rushdie's decision to posit the negation: 'And Gibreel dreamed this:' (363), the Muslim people nevertheless found the utterances that followed defamatory. In the passage that follows, Salman describes his role as the scribe, he tells how he came to disbelieve the revelations that Mahound dictated because he observed that since Mahound was a businessman it was 'excessively convenient' (364) that the 'rules about every damn thing'... (363) were related in a business-like manner. Furthermore, he observed how 'useful and well timed the angel's revelations tended to be... the angel would turn up with an answer and he always supported Mahound. (364). In this way, Rushdie begins to elicit his intent, this being to make his readers' question the absolute faith Muslim readers place in Mahound's (Mohammed's) revelations. "Rushdie's novel suggests that Muhammad compromised the monotheistic word of God (Allah) in order to win over the polytheistic center of Jahilia/Mecca. Worse yet, the novel suggests that revelatory verses were misquoted and that Muhammad did not notice the difference."[33] This was a great insult since: 'The one thing Muslims can be one hundred percent certain of is that the (Koran) has been preserved in its perfection.'[34] When The Satanic Verses makes its allegations against the truth of the text, it is considered to convey blasphemy of the most insidious form. The satanic verses episode, though elaborated on by Rushdie, is founded in historic fact: 'in one instance Mohammed did in fact attempt a compromise between monotheism and pagan idolatry in order to reach an understanding with his people'[35], as in Rushdie's text, the motive of the Prophet is not honourable but is executed in order to gain favour with his people - the people on whom he depends, since their adherence to his faith makes it successful.

Since Salman Rushdie chose to endow his name upon a character in the text, it is reasonable to surmise he did so purposefully. D. J Zucker is of the opinion that Rushdie 'clearly ... intended the reader to connect those figures'[36]. Names become an important aspect of the text if we assume Zucker's view: if Rushdie chose each name with intent then it is not difficult to see why the Muslim people found the novel offensive. The name of Mahound is significant: the Muslim people, not unreasonably, deduced that this fictional prophet was intended to bear a resemblance to their own Prophet: Mohammed. The name given to Rushdie's 'invented' Prophet is significant, Mahound is audibly/visually similar and the name bears many derogatory connotations. It is reasonable to deduce that Rushdie meaningfully chose this name, he is, after all, an educated man; the Oxford English Dictionary provides us with the etymology of the name, although the meanings are now obsolete, it is reasonable to surmise that Rushdie was aware that the name bore the connotations: 'monster, hideous creature, the Devil (or) a false god.'[37]

As the chapter continues, Rushdie's plot becomes more depraved. This element of the text sordidly imagines that prostitutes impersonated the Prophet's wives, and relates how Baal came to marry them all; in this way, the poet begins to impersonate the Prophet Mahound. Rushdie tells how Baal, the poet, hides in a brothel called The Curtain. When one of the twelve prostitutes relates how a client likes her resemblance to Mahound's child-bride Ayesha, Baal suggests she impersonates her. In turn, all the other prostitutes take on the persona of one of Mahound's wives:

"When the news got around Jahlia that the whores of The Curtain had each assumed the identity of one of Mahound's wives, the clandestine excitement of the city's males was intense'. (381)

The Curtain becomes very popular; the narrator comments how 'The fifteen-year-old whore 'Ayesha' was most popular'. (381) When the prostitute acts out a client's fantasy by telling him 'about her deflowering at the age of twelve...he pays double the normal fee' (380).

Another insulting aspect of the novel, interestingly, is based on an 'actual episode. The premise of the Ayesha-expedition is seemingly to interrogate the issue of stoic adherence and counter that with wavering faith; in this way the presentation of the Ayesha-expedition presents a twofold argument that neither condemns nor celebrates either religious position. The 'actual episode took place in 1983 at Hawkes Bay in Karachi: thirty-eight people entered the sea in the expectation that a path would open enabling to walk, via Basra, to the Shi'a holy city of Kerbala in Iraq.'[38] This expedition was instigated by Naseem Fatima, a young girl, 'who gained converts who were convinced that the revelations she received were genuine.'[39] These thirty-eight people embarked on the voyage and 'most of those that walked into the sea survived: of the eighteen who were drowned, including Naseem Fatima, ten were women, fifteen of them her relatives.'[40] It seems ludicrous to people who do not place such unwavering faith in a holy doctrine, or who would question the validity of a child's revelations, but when journalists arrived at the scene they observed that: 'the survivors were in high spirits: none showed regret or remorse.'[41] This sort of unwavering devotion, even when confronted with the loss of many, is unfathomable to those who do not observe their faith with such unfaltering conviction.

In The Satanic Verses, Ayesha, a young girl who is clothed in a fantastic gown made of butterflies begins a similar expedition and invites people to walk with her to the Arabian Sea and walk to Mecca. Ayesha gains many followers and compels the people to join her by stating: 'Better a martyr than a coward' (489).

Once Ayesha had entered the water the villagers began to run. Those that could not leapt upon the backs of those that could. Holding their babies, the mothers of Titlipur rushed into the sea; into the waves.' (502)

It is a brutal event to behold; Rushdie's choice to describe the 'babies' who were helplessly made to enter the sea is unfathomable to unreligious people; the act seems brutal and callous. As the episode continues, the narrator explains how'(n)one of them reappeared... It is against human nature... (he explains) simply to walk forwards meekly until the sea swallows you up.' (504). These people had fought human nature in an effort to be closer to God. Interestingly, the people who bore witness to the event swore that the sea had, indeed, parted; 'Sri Srinivas swore by the goddess Lakshmi that he had seen the parting of the Arabian Sea' (504). This episode, when taken out of the context of the novel overall, would not necessarily be viewed as offensive since Rushdie neither confirms nor denies the waters parting. Furthermore, in response to the real-life event, the Muslim's responses were divergent and 'largely determined by sectarian affiliation. The Sunnis generally dismissed the episode as insanity or suicide (whilst the) Shi'a saw it as a commendable sacrifice that deserved to be rewarded.'[42] Rushdie ends the episode with the police force: (who) are 'considering the feasibility of charging the survivors with attempted illegal emigration' (504). In this way, Rushdie questions religion in terms both doubt and stoic adherence; this is certainly not overtly offensive.

Overall, though, the novel is undeniably provocative; Rushdie's assertion that it was not 'anti-religious' seems ludicrous when the evidence is explored in parallel to the Koran. In spite of the antagonistic plot though, the novel does not pose any real or present danger; the censors lost their battle and the book is readily available, no negative consequences, such as droves of Muslims' dismissing their faith, happened as a direct result of the words written. The reaction, however, did incite real and present danger: this was the problem, if the Muslim people had expressed their displeasure in a civilised manner, most Western people would have empathised with their plight and condemned Rushdie. Instead, they chose to read the book and see how mere words could have warranted lives being lost; most, therefore, saw the Muslims in an unfavourable light and Rushdie was granted a position, in the minds of Western readers, of a literary martyr. Since, although the book was insulting, it did not pretend to be the truth. The argument made by Voltaire: 'I despise what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it', illustrates how a more conducive counter-argument could have been forged. Rushdie's novel did not contain hate speech; he was not inciting people to kill Muslims, but the Muslim people did incite violence and the fatwa placed on Rushdie effectively gave any Muslim the right to kill him.

  1. Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, (Viborg: Vintage, 1998) [All further references to the text will be taken from this edition, page numbers will be given in the main body.]
  2. Hamburger, Joseph, John Stuart Mill on Liberty & Control, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999. p 16)
  3. Walter Lippmann, The Indispensable Opposition,
  4. < http://www.usconstitution.net/onliberty.html >
  5. Malise Ruthven, A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Rage of Islam, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990), pp. 132
  6. Nigel Warburton, Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: OUP, 2009) p.18
  7. Henryk M. Broder, 'The West is Choked by Fear' in Spiegel Online < http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,669888,00.html> Created: 4 January 2010, Accessed: 12 January 2010
  8. Andrew Anthony, How Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses has shaped our society < http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jan/11/salman-rushdie-satanic-verses > Created: Sunday 11 January 2009
  9. [10] Ursula Owen, Fighting for free speech Created: 15 September 2009 Accessed: 11 January 2010 < http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2009/sep/15/free-word-speech-expression-censorship>
  10. Free Speech: An Introduction, pp.14
  11. Daniel Pipes, How dare you defame Islam? P.1
  12. A Satanic Affair, pp. 12
  13. BBC [Author unknown], On This Day: 1990 Iranian leader upholds Rushdie fatwa < http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/december/26/newsid_2542000/2542873.stm >
  14. How dare you defame Islam, p.1-2
  15. How you defame islam, p.1
  16. Simona Sawhney, Satanic Choices: Poetry and Prophecy in Rushdie's Novel, P.257
  17. A Satanic Affair, p.29
  18. Free Speech: An Introduction, p.18
  19. A Satanic Affair , p.9 [Emphasis my own]
  20. A Satanic Affair ,P.2
  21. A Satanic Affair ,Pp. 138
  22. Daniel Pipes, The Rushdie Affair, p.20
  23. A Satanic Affair, p. 148
  24. Daniel Pipes, The Rushdie Affair, p.117
  25. A Satanic Affair, p.29
  26. A Satanic Affair, p.139
  27. A Satanic Affair, p.139
  28. A Satanic Affair, p.140
  29. Pipes, p.21
  30. A Satanic Affair, p.141
  31. Satanic Choices, p.261-2
  32. Roth, Rushdie and Religious Rage,
  33. Oxford English Dictionary, Mahound, < http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/00299742?single=1&query_type=word&queryword=mahound&first=1&max_to_show=10> paraphrased from entry. Revised: September 2009, Accessed January 12 2010.
  34. A Satanic Affair, p.45
  35. A Satanic Affair, p.45
  36. A Satanic Affair, p.46
  37. A Satanic Affair, p.46
  38. A Satanic Affair, p.46

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