On February 14th, 1989, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwā calling for Salman Rushdie‘s death, after conservative Muslims accused him of blasphemy and mocking their faith.
This is how I learned about Salman Rushdie. Only later I read about his literary awards, and only in the last years I was able to read some of his books, this being the third, after Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Midnight’s Children.
As many of Rushdie’s books, The Satanic Verses mixes, in a highly satirical way, the magical realism with contemporary events and characters. The two main protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, are both Indian actors of Muslim origins, living in London. They both are magically saved when the airplane they are traveling explodes over the English Channel, and, in a miraculous transformation, Gibreel Farishta takes on the personality of the archangel Jibrail/Gabriel, who, in the Muslim tradition, is considered to have revealed the Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him, of course!), while Saladin Chamcha takes the opposite path, displaying the look of a devil.
Embedded in the frame narrative are several half-magic dream vision narratives, linked together by religious motifs. Offensive to conservative Muslims was the episode when Mahound, the businessman from Jahilia, turned into a Messenger, while proclaiming his revelations, with limited success (“… The people do not take us seriously. Never more than fifty in the audience when I speak, and half of those are tourists”) is offered a deal by the local leaders, to ask for Allah’s approval of Lat, Uzza and Manat, three female deities, in exchange for protection. Mahound climbs the mountain to ask Gibreel, has some kind of vision (“Being God’s postman is no fun… But: God isn’t in this picture. God knows whose postman I’ve been…“) and returns to proclaim the three deities are… accepted. Much later, after he successfully pacified all local tribes under the faith of Islam, (and, to be correct, with a deal of help from his sward), Mahound denounces this revelation as induced by Shaitan.
Other interesting characters are Baal, the poet that hides in a brothel where the prostitutes assume the names of Mahound wives, Salman, the prophet’s official scribe that doubts the authenticity of the Messenger, claiming that he altered portions of the revelations as they were dictated to him, Ayesha, a peasant girl that is continuously accompanied, even covered, by butterflies, and who also claims to be receiving revelations from Gibraeel, and the Imam, .
Another very strong and awful image is related to the Imam, a fanatic expatriate religious leader, who is “fighting by proxy as usual”, leading young people to martyrdom:
The people are walking up the slope towards the guns; seventy at a time, they come into range; the guns babble, and they die, and then the next seventy climb over the bodies of the dead, the guns giggle once again, and the hill of the dead grows higher. Those behind it commence, in their turn, to climb. In the dark doorways of the city there are mothers with covered heads, pushing their beloved sons into the parade, go, be a martyr, do the needful, die. ‘You see how they love me,’ says the disembodied voice. ‘No tyranny on earth can withstand the power of this slow, walking love.’
However, it should be noted that the parts with controversial religious issues occupy only a limited space in the book, (too little according to my taste), the rest being generally not about Islam, “but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay“ as Rushdie himself confirmed.
All in all, an interesting reading, although, for non-English native speakers, not an easy one in original.
[June 16, 2013 edit]
It didn’t happen to me in the last (many) years, but I was so impressed by this book, that I decided to read it again, with even more attention. And I liked it even more than the first time.
In addition to the usual analyse of the text, it also made me think of the old theological dilemma of how to differentiate between a true and a false messenger, and raised the question of what is the messenger expected to do for his revelations to be distinguished from… schizophrenia, for example. Gibreel Farishta survived falling from an airplane disintegrating at 10.000m, levitated away from a stage in front of thousand of spectators, and still his moments of revelations were perceived as mental illness, even by his family.
The Satanic Verses is certainly a book that you won’t forget easily. For the busy person, probably reading only the chapters II (Mahound) and VI (Return to Jaihilia) would give a good introduction to Salman Rushdie’s literary style and would also highlight his point of view towards the extremist religious beliefs, that brought him not only so much pain in his private life, but, we have to admit it, quite an international fame.