Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

What follows is tragedy. -- Or, at the least the echo of tragedy, the full-blooded original being unavailable to modern men and women, so it’s said. -- A burlesque for our degraded, imitative times, in which clowns re-enact what was first done by heroes and by kings. -- Well, then, so be it. -- The question that’s asked here remains as large as ever it was: which is, the nature of evil, how it’s born, why it grows, how it takes unilateral possession of a many-sided human soul. Or, let’s say: the enigma of Iago. It’s not unknown for literary-theatrical exegetes, defeated by the character, to ascribe his actions to ‘motiveless malignity.’ Evil is evil and will do evil, and that’s that; the serpent’s poison is his very definition. -- Well, such shruggings-off will not pass muster here.

This, to me, is the very crux of this challenging novel--and, in the view of the author, evidently, the religion of Islam. How did evil enter the world, and why does it do what it does? With regard to the novel, Rushdie’s characters play numerous roles in this grand morality play.

My Chamcha may be no Ancient of Venice, my Allie no smothered Desdemona, Farshita no match for the Moor, but they will, at least, be costumed in such explanations as my understanding will allow. -- And so, now, Gibreel waves in greeting; Chamcha approaches; the curtain rises on a darkening stage.

They are angels and devils--both figuratively and literally--transforming in the course of the fanciful narrative to take on both the appearance and the motivations of these mythical creatures.

But on the broader canvas of Islam, Rushdie’s question of evil becomes just that much more sublime. The book’s title, The Satanic Verses, is, in fact, a reference to the controversy itself. The verses are a handful of lines, supposedly written into the Qur’an by the Prophet himself, and then disavowed by the Prophet as the words of Satan, not the revelation of God. And Rushdie uses them in powerful ways to explore both the excesses and uncertainties implicit in claims of divine revelation. Essentially, the argument goes, if even the Prophet Muhammad couldn’t tell if it was God or the Devil whispering in his ear, what hope does any of us have?

In the novel and in real life, there are those who believe the story that Satan inserted these words into the Qur’an, and therefore reject them, and there of those who believe that it is Satan that wants you to believe that they don’t belong in the Qur’an, and therefore accept them. This lie, or more precisely the lack of certainty that it is or isn’t a lie, creates divisions within Islam, one sect warring against another, each convinced that they have the revealed truth and that the other is deceived.

And that circle, of course, feeds on itself, and it is taken to ugly extremes.

‘We will make a revolution,’ the Iman proclaims through him, ‘that is a revolt not only against a tyrant, but against history.’ For there is an enemy beyond Ayesha, and it is History herself. History is the blood-wine that must no longer be drunk. History the intoxicant, the creation and possession of the Devil, of the great Shaitan, the greatest of the lies--progress, science, rights--against which the Iman has set his face. History is a deviation from the Path, knowledge is a delusion, because the sum of knowledge was complete on the day Al-Lah finished his revelation to Mahound. ‘We will unmake the veil of history,’ Bilal declaims into the listening night, ‘and when it is unravelled, we will see Paradise standing there, in all its glory and light.’

When my revealed truth runs counter to the reality around me, then even reality must be a lie, because doubting my revealed truth is unthinkable. In the world the Satanic Verses have created, it is blasphemy, apostasy, and death. Rushdie does little to hide the import of his words by changing the names of some of the characters in Islam’s history.

But there’s an even subtler reality going on here.

This notion of separation of functions, light versus dark, evil versus good, may be straightforward enough in Islam -- O, children of Adam, let not the Devil seduce you, as he expelled your parents from the garden, pulling off from them their clothing that he might show them their shame -- but go back a bit and you see that it’s a pretty recent fabrication. Amos, eighth century B C asks: “Shall there be evil in a city and the Lord hath not done it?” Also Jahweh, quoted by Deutero-Isaiah two hundred years later, remarks: “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace and create evil; I the Lord do all these things.” It isn’t until the Book of Chronicles, merely fourth century B C, that the word shaitan is used to mean a being, and not only an attribute of God.

That’s right. Go back far enough in the original sources, and the entity of Satan disappears completely. All the evil in the world is a direct result of God’s divine power, not any agency working against his intentions. In that light, the controversy of the Satanic Verses also disappears, and it is only the influence of men that has changed the words of the Qur’an, just as they have changed countless copies and translations of the Bible to make that text align with the doctrinal demands of their own era.

And remarkably, throughout all this dark and deep material, we find Rushdie the author having fun with his material and with his audience. Speaking from time to time directly to the reader, his tone something like Ferris Bueller with a PhD in comparative religions.

I’m saying nothing. Don’t ask me to clear things up one way or the other; the time of revelations is long gone. The rules of Creation are pretty clear: you set things up, you make them thus and so, and then you let them roll. Where’s the pleasure if you’re always intervening to give hints, change the rules, fix the fights? Well, I’ve been pretty self-controlled up to this point and I don’t plan to spoil things now.

The author of the novel or the author of the universe. Rushdie undoubtedly knows that these intrusions work brilliantly in either case.

But, sadly, I believe this to be one of those books that is a hundred or so pages longer than it needs to be, with satisfaction coming ultimately not from the clashing climax of its professed narrative, but in the metaphorical infrastructure it quietly builds for that narrative.

One powerful digression of this type comes in the form of an extended parable--The Parting of the Arabian Sea--in which a prophetess (Ayehsa) leads her believing flock into the titular sea, objectively to their doom, but to their greater glory in the eyes of any believer that witnessed or heard about it. Mirza Saeed is a skeptic who joined his believing wife on this fateful pilgrimage, and his dilemma in confronting the facts of the events is in many ways the dilemma of our age.

Mizra Saeed awoke in a hospital ward to find a CID man by his bedside. The authorities were considering the feasibility of charging the survivors of the Ayesha expedition with attempted illegal emigration, and detectives had been instructed to get down their stories before they had a chance to confer.

This was the testimony of the Sarpanch of Titlipur, Muhammad Din: ‘Just when my strength had failed and I thought I would surely die there in the water, I saw it with my own eyes; I saw the sea divide, like hair being combed; and they were all there, far away, walking away from me. She was there also, my wife, Khadija, whom I loved.’

This is what Osman the bullock-boy told the detectives, who had been badly shaken by the Sarpanch’s deposition: ‘At first I was in great fear of drowning myself. Still I was searching searching, mainly for her, Ayesha, whom I knew from before her alteration. And just at the last, I saw it happen, the marvelous thing. The water opened, and I saw them go along the ocean-floor, among the dying fish.’

Sri Srinivas, too, swore by the goddess Lakshmi that he had seen the parting of the Arabian Sea; and by the time the detectives got to Mrs Qureishi, they were utterly unnerved, because they knew that it was impossible for the men to have cooked up the story together. Mishal’s mother, the wife of the great banker, told the same story in her own words. ‘Believe don’t believe,’ she finished emphatically, ‘but what my eyes have seen my tongue repeats.’

Goosepimply CID men attempted the third degree: ‘Listen, Sarpanch, don’t shit from your mouth. So many were there, nobody saw these things. Already the drowned bodies are floating to shore, swollen like balloons and stinking like hell. If you go on lying we will take you and stick your nose in the truth.'

‘You can show me whatever you want,’ Sarpanch Muhammad Din told interrogators. ‘But I still saw what I saw.’

‘And you?’ the CID men assembled, once he awoke, to ask Mirza Saeed Akhtar. ‘What did you see at the beach?’

‘How can you ask?’ he protested. ‘My wife has drowned. Don’t come hammering with your questions.’

When he found out that he was the only survivor of the Ayesha Haj not to have witnessed the parting of the waves -- Sri Srinivas was the one who told him what the others saw, adding mournfully: ‘It is our shame that we were not thought worthy to accompany. On us, Sethji, the waters closed, they slammed in our faces like the gates of Paradise’ -- Mizra Saeed broke down and wept for a week and a day, the dry sobs continuing to shake his body long after his tear ducts had run out of salt.

Belief--in the parting of the Arabian Sea, in whichever side of the Satanic Verses controversy suits your fancy, in the ear-plugging dogmas that dominate much of our public discourse--is, in the end, all that matters. And the unbeliever, the skeptic, the one who relies on the common facts of the world around them, is forever placed in a position of opposition and enmity. Because in today’s world, when so much of our objective reality is understood, the only refuge for dogma is in unwavering tests of faith and fidelity. Damn the bloated corpses washing up on the beach, I know what I saw! Stick with that blind certainty, the dogmatist will promise you, and you will be unconquerable.

Which is probably why I keep coming back to the passage I opened this post with--and its purposeful inclusion of the Bard’s immortal Iago. Rushdie certainly knows what any first-year English major learns in his Shakespeare class--that despite the countless theories and theses that it has spawned in the intervening centuries, the source of Iago’s evil is no more complicated than what Shakespeare himself said about it at the time he penned it. Iago is evil because Iago has to be evil. There is no story without it.

Is Rushdie saying the same is true of Islam? No wonder they put a fatwa on his head.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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