‘Little things at first. If Mahound recited a verse in which God was described as all-hearing, all-knowing, I would write, all-knowing, all-wise. Here’s the point: Mahound did not notice the alterations. . .’ (SV 367)
For over two years I have been trying to explain that The Satanic Verses was never intended as an insult; that the story of Gibreel is a parable of how a man can be destroyed by the loss of faith; that the dreams in which all the so-called “insults” occur are portraits of his disintegration, and explicitly referred to in the novel as punishments and retributions; and that the dream figures who torment him with their assaults on religion are representative of this process of initiation, and notrepresentative of the point of view of the author. (Salman Rushdie, The Times, 28/12/90, qtd. in La’Porte, 91).
In responding to the phenomenon of charged indignation and widespread, at times violent, reaction in Muslim communities against The Satanic Verses, one may ask: Is there no room for humor and wit in Islam? Isn't there a tradition of satire of some sort? While these questions acknowledge the customary unfamiliarity with Islamic traditions and cultures, the implied undermining of their formulation may strike a lyrical resonance in certain quarters. For indeed the questions themselves sparkle with wit and irony, the gift often (wrongly) attributed to the Enlightenment to which the modern world, in its marriage of science and humanism, and ironically its postmodernist sequel are so heavily indebted, and from which the Muslim world is seen to have been singularly exempt. But then we must understand that scoffing at and ridiculing religion is as old as the scriptures themselves, if indeed it does not predate them. More generally, irony and humor, even corrosive critique may be used to expose the hypocrisy of sanctimonious priests or the corruption that may have seeped into religious institutions, dogmas, or rituals. But a systematic, persistent strategy of insult, innuendo and invective directed against a particular religion and its apostle (or founder) may be a particular legacy of Europe, and many critics and scholars, notably Edward Said and his intellectual inheritors, have explored this theme at some length. Such methods and ad hominem attacks may be more appropriate to the vitriol of the marketplace incendiary, the rabble-rousing demagogue, than to the economies and excesses of literary discourse. In course of time, however, this typecasting has been inevitably internalized though the expression of it may have taken on more sophisticated modes and forms.
This essay examines the peculiar complexity and ambiguity that provide the enabling motivations for the text of The Satanic Verses. It foregrounds the vexed relationship between author, storyteller, and morphing-character1 and the shifting categories of targeted/implied readers in an effort to identify the nexus of causes that produces the narrator's nervous, serio-comedic debunking of a system of beliefs on the one hand, and the discomfort, indeed the horror of a particular class of readers, Muslims in general, in their encounter with the resultant text and its signifying field. It also investigates familiar, easy assumptions in certain Western constituencies about lack of critical self-examination and absence of satiric modes of creative expression in matters pertaining to faith among Muslims and interrogates, in the process, the limits of satiric license and excess.
Although it is important to inquire why many Muslims are unable to see The Satanic Verses only as a work of fiction, it is equally, if not more pertinent to ask why Salman Rushdie found it necessary to rely so heavily on a narratorial strategy of thinly veiled aspersion. For though the narrative offers the appearance and architecture of a heteroglossic text, it is founded on a rather constricted and trite monoglossic discourse, one that repeats medieval Christian arguments against Islam and its messenger and confounds the distinction between satire and abuse, irony and invective. There is a certain stridency of tone that alerts the reader to this discrepancy, and it is reserved for special segments of the book, predictably those that relate to, rather transparently, the Islamic tradition. Being unmindful of the difference, then, suggests questions that are still more fundamental to this discussion: Who is the book addressing? Who is it written for? Is it cultural difference that causes one group of readers to see the work as comedy and satire and another to view it as ridicule and derision? It is also well worth considering in this context whether the author intentionally confused these categories, in which case, the nature of representation itself presents serious problems. As one commentator opines, “You protest the falsity of the accusation ‘He must have known.’ No one could have foreseen all that would happen, but I incline to think that, if you really did not grasp the offence you would give to believing Muslims, you were not qualified to write upon the subject you chose” (Michael Dummet, qtd. in La’Porte, 76).
The heterogeneity of reader expectation, not only in reference to the same text, but also in terms of approaches to different genres of writing is a matter of considerable importance to our study. Readers do not embark upon the reading of a book of poems in the same way as they do a novel, or a book of history. Each genre has its distinct discourse, though it is not uncommon for discrete discourses to overlap somewhat. Making use of everyday facts to construct works of fiction and imagination is a commonplace feature of the artistic process. A considerable license is claimed and exercised by the writer/artist in this process, though this license may be abbreviated a bit in works of historical fiction. The issue may become prickly when dealing with religio-historical fictionalizing. La’Porte makes some sound observations in this regard:
…Rushdie, in depicting what he regards as historical events, in a fictional work, is more able to distort the truth. The prophet is presented as a cheat and charlatan, the religion is presented as a ridiculous compendium of rules suited to the promiscuous and business-minded prophet. The trouble with this is that the genre of The Satanic Verses is fiction and as fiction it endorses a number of derogatory stereotypes about Islam which unlike a factual work provides no arena in which these negative depictions can be fought against. Furthermore, a reader of fiction would approach the novel uncritically unlike the reader of a critical study for example. (116)
Barring some infelicities of expression, La’Porte is making a valid point. To many, unaware of the actual history and background of Islam, Rushdie’s book will offer a rather skewed picture, and though the readers of novels are not entirely uncritical in their approach, it is quite likely, indeed, for the general readership, highly probable, that questions of aesthetics and character dynamics within the novel may marginalize discussions about the accuracy or otherwise of the portrayal.
It has been widely believed that hostile Muslim reaction to TheSatanic Verses is based upon only those passages in the novel that relate to Islam and the life of its prophet, Mohammad. In fact, Daniel Pipes, in The Rushdie Affair:The Novel, theAyatollah, And the West, a book riddled with inaccuracies and transparently hostile to Muslims and the messenger of Islam, notes: "Only by reading isolated quotes in…a literal and humorless manner can the book's effect be gauged. Indeed, to understand its impact fully, The Satanic Verses ideally should be read excerpted, out of context, and preferably in translation—for that is how most of its critics became acquainted with it" (54). This suggests in sub-text that if the book were read as a whole it would not appear as offensive to its critics. Pipes proceeds to state this in explicit terms:
Is The Satanic Verses blasphemous? To use Rushdie's favorite locution, it is and it is not. While the book contains many elements of high sacrilege, the author is usually careful to place them in frames--dreams, ambiguous wordings, and the like—which masks his intent. In other cases, he carefully avoids specific mention of historical names such as Muhammad, Qur'an or Islam. The sum of the novel, then, is far less sacrilegious than its parts. (68; my emphasis)
Margaret Atwood also notes this point about the separation of author and character and disjunction between dream and reality in her letter of support to Salman Rushdie. How could a Muslim, she asks, be "seriously [disturbed by a]… passage…meant to be part of a dream, taking place in the head of a character who is a reprobate"? (39). But the Irish writer Dermot Bolger sees this as quite within the realm of possibility even as he affirms Rushdie's right to freedom of expression: "…for me," he writes, "nothing which is outside the range of human experience can be outside the scope of the writer to explore. The Satanic Verses is a work of blasphemy and many people have a right to be offended by its contents" (72). A writer, on the other hand, has a right to blaspheme, says Bolger, when more pressing claims are at stake, "when any religion is hijacked in the name of love, when any religious leader invokes the name of God to send barefoot children walking through minefields, no more than when any Western leader calls God's blessing down on genocide, a far greater blasphemy takes place; a blasphemy which calls out to be redeemed by smashing those very icons which have been invoked" (72). Yet he also slyly remarks, "Few of those who have read [The Satanic Verses] can have understood what it was about, few of those who would understand it will have deemed it fit to read," and goes on to admit, "[t]he argument is no longer about the book's merits or faults or about literature; the contents of the book have been lost in a war between times and exploding and receding cultures" (71, 72).
The last part of the statement describes a situation that is as unfortunate as it is true. It has become impossible to discuss the book without in some way being affected by, or addressing, the controversy that surrounds it. Yet, major critical voices are ranged on both sides of the divide. While the fatwa was not generally supported even in the Muslim countries, it has assumed iconic significance for the West, for whom it signifies all its worst suspicions and fears about Islam and Islamic societies. In a crude, ironic kind of way, it has been seen as a validation of Rushdie's portrayal of Mohammad and his times in the novel. Discerning critics, a number of them teaching in universities in America, Canada, or England, though quick to point out Rushdie's right to say and publish what he wishes to or believes, draw attention to the astigmatism that afflicts general western perception of the situation. A thousand-year tradition of demonizing Islam appears still to be at work though occasional, resolute efforts have been made to break free of it. Yet, because of this long, entrenched tradition, the worst that can be said about Islam is readily accepted. Anti-Islamic views, slander, and vilification directed against muslims, the prophet of Islam, and their way of life fall on fertile ground, though, once again (until 9/11 at least), because of the increasingly multicultural environment in Europe and the United States, this too was slowly changing.
Bolger appears to be taking the high moral ground of mutual accommodation and differential adjustments of rights and obligations as opposed to Pipes who privileges blatant satire, but both to varying extents agree that blasphemy and sacrilege are not absent from the book. The former, in fact, concedes to readers who may be so affected “the right to be offended by its contents.” His point about the “smashing [of] icons which have been invoked” to perpetrate acts of brutality and genocide is persuasive as well, though it may help to keep in mind that there are not many religions or political ideologies that have not been adduced to serve this end. But here too one would be advised to proceed with caution and choose one’s targets carefully. Considering the current political climate, it would be rather reckless for Muslims in the United States to challenge regimes of capitalist libertarianism and ideologues of universalistic democracy for the widespread misery and destruction that has been (and continues to be) caused in their name. Yet attacks on Islam and detrimental comparisons with Christianity and western ways of living are a commonplace feature of Anglo-American cultural and political discourse. Nor are the academic circles exempt from this. It is a practice that has generated an environment of deep-seated suspicion and distrust between communities and cultures that have learned much from each other, have a lot in common, but have been taught to see each other in terms of irreconcilable differences and diametrical opposition. Malise Ruthven provides a classic example of this rampant affliction:
The focus for the outrage [against The Satanic Verses] . . . is less the raising of doubt than the lampooning of the Prophet. Many Christians, of course, have been similarly offended by the appearance of Christ in profane situations—notably in the recent row over Martin Scorcese’s film of Kazantkazis’s novel The Last Temptation, where Jesus fantasizes about sexual relations with Mary Magdalene. To note the parallels, however, is also to become aware of the differences. If Imitatio Muhammadi, as Armand Abel has astutely observed, is an imitation of the Prophet’s activity, Imitatio Christii is rather the imitation of Christ’s suffering. . . Christianity thrives on persecution . . . The Christian response to insult is to try to gain the moral and psychological advantage, to ‘turn the other cheek.’
But historians and critics like Malise Ruthven and Daniel Pipes carry too much of the baggage from the past to be cognizant of their own inability to see the muslim position in the first place, and too contented with their own process of reasoning to notice the faulty assumptions behind it or appreciate an alternate point of view. It is this complacency that leads Pipes to charge that those who protest the book are "intellectually deficient" and read it "in a literal, and very unliterary manner" (53). Such an indictment mirrors the initial objections of certain academic constituencies to post-colonial, black, or feminist readings of time-honored classics like The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe, and Jane Eyre, among others. Yet, Pipes admits, "blasphemy…fits into a long tradition of criticism from within [Islamic societies]; and Rushdie's work was far from being the most critical of that tradition" (83). He cannot understand the furor in the Islamic world when "plenty of other books have been published that matched or even exceeded Rushdie's impiety toward Islam—without rousing anything like the controversy his did" (77).
Pipes’ inability to come to terms with what he perceives as a contradiction in the Islamic world’s reaction to Rushdie’s book raises the crucial question of reader competence. It would have helped had he elaborated a bit on his statement about the “long tradition” of internal criticism in Muslim societies. His failure to do so obliges the reader to interrogate the nature and extent of his familiarity with such a “tradition” and vitiates the process of his reasoning. For though it is important to recognize that the Islamic world too has its legacy of religious satire, philosophic and popular questioning of dogmas, rituals, and even the basic elements of Islamic belief, not to forget, disputations about and challenges to received versions of the Divine, one must not terminate one’s observations here but reflect also on the nature of texts that exemplify these practices. Four broad categories may be identified: (1) Secular narrative traditions of the nature of Alif Laila wa Laila (A Thousand Nights and One Night), folktales, dastans (i.e., long oral or written romances), and common everyday conversation, including the retailing of disparaging religious jokes on social occasions; (2) poetic compositions of Sufis like Rumi, Rabia Basri, Qurrat-ul-Ain Tahira, Omar Khayyam, Madholal Husein, and Bulleh Shah, and Bhakti (devotional) poets, Baba Farid Ganjshakar, Kabir, Nanak, and others; (3) poetry in the secular literary tradition represented in the Indian sub-continent by Mir, Ghalib, Daagh, the early Iqbal, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and feminist poets Fehmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed, to name a few; and (4) Religious disquisitions and disputations; foundational documents of heterodox religious sects, for example, doctrines of the Shaykhi School of Shi’ism, the “Bayan” of the Babis, writings of Mirza Husain Ali Nuri establishing the Baha’i faith, all three originating in 19th century Iran, and the works of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the Ahmadiya denomination in India in the last decade of the same century. Of these, the last listed development excited the greatest ire of the South Asian Muslim population, and this was so, in large part, it may be noted, because the new sect was perceived to be inspired by the imperial British rulers of India. However irreverent or sacrilegious though these works or practices often are, ad hominem attacks on the messenger of Islam were scrupulously avoided, as much as a matter of decorum appropriate to the nature and level of discourse as for the genuine admiration for and attachment to one who is regarded, even among most heterodox circles, as the embodiment of the highest excellence.
Private conversation remains the one exception to this practice. In such social exchange, occasionally, the critique and satire of both the religion and its messenger are far less restrained. These moments, however, are intimate and privileged cultural experiences, and a society may view their public display as a violation of a shared cultural code. It is not so much as what gets displayed as who displays it and for what purpose. For a culture that reveres mystics like Mansoor Al-Hallaj, who was beheaded for blasphemy when, on being asked, “What is the Truth?”, he uttered the words, “Un-al haq!” (I am the Truth) makes instinctively an important distinction between those who stand up for their convictions and those who are perceived to play merely the role of an informer or reporter for an outside audience. On the other hand, behind this reverence for an Al-Hallaj and other Sufis, like Sarmad and Shah Hussein, is the recognition that they flout rituals and formulas of faith, putting their lives at risk in doing so, only because they have attained a true and personal apprehension of the spirit of the Divine.
The problem indeed may then lie in the politics of identity, who Rushdie is and who he is seen to represent, as much as in the modalities of creative expression, the form he employs to set his critique of Islam in motion. After all, this is a mere novel, we are repeatedly told, a work of fiction. Why should it be confused with reality or history? Why should it be seen as threatening those two different categories of experience? The difficulty, however, is that if it is humorless and unimaginative not to be able to differentiate between fiction and reality, a condition, by the way, from which a number of artists and writers may suffer, or to see the former as a threat to the latter, which too is not an uncommon perception, and not without reason, for who can pretend that language usage and character portrayal are innocent of social and political consequences, it is equally simplistic to assume that these categories are entirely distinct, that they do not in many ways impinge upon, determine, or shape each other. Salman Rushdie, unlike a number of his supporters, is well aware of this, and, in an essay written for The Observer, London, he expresses his faith in the art of the novel in no uncertain terms:
The art of the novel is a thing I cherish as dearly as the book burners of Bradford value their brand of militant Islam. Literature is where I go to explore the highest and the lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope to find not absolute truth but truth of the tale, of the imagination, and of the heart. So the battle over The Satanic Verses is a clash of faiths, in a way. Or, more precisely, it's a clash of languages. As my fictional character 'Salman' says of my fictional prophet 'Mahound,' 'It's his Word against mine. (Critical Fictions 95)
The distinction he makes needs to be registered here. His art of the novel is juxtaposed against not the Qur'an but against book burners of militant Islam. The differentiation is clever and apt, but he complicates the issue by drawing the further comparison from his book in which one "fictional character" proffers his word against another fictional character, the "fictional prophet 'Mahound.'" So yes, he does and does not bring the original messenger and his message under attack, but no alert reader after reading this passage would remain unaware of the undermining intent. After all, the name of the “fictional prophet” has a history behind it which is not quite innocent, as Rushdie himself acknowledges in his novel:
Here he is neither Mahomet nor MoeHammered; has adopted, instead, the demon-tag the farangis hang around his neck. To turn insults into strengths, whigs, tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn; likewise, our mountain-climbing, prophet-motivated solitary is to be the medieval baby-frightener, the Devil’s synonym: Mahound. (93)
Emphasizing the “fictionality” of a character with a historically charged borrowed name only underscores the connection with the actual historical person thus obliquely referenced. At the same time, the unnamed but clearly referenced Mohammad is narratorially tagged with the name Mahound, “to turn insults into strengths,” the narrator says with a mixture of mockery and ironic undercutting.
These are devices that novelists, lawyers, critics, teachers, and politicians all use. But the attempt to pretend that the connections and insinuations are not there is an affront to the intelligence of the readers—not in using these devices, but, having done so, in denying that it ever was done, feigning that it was not. What is acknowledged and not acknowledged simultaneously in the Observer passage quoted above is that the Qur'an too is a literary text. By referring to it as “his Word,” Rushdie accepts it as a linguistic construct, which therefore should, like other such texts, require interpretation of its linguistic and literary codes, but he relegates it to a dubious evidentiary status by forcing it in a confrontational relationship with another’s witness. Further, its slant conjoining with the "book burners' brand of militant Islam," robs it of authority and undermines its ethical and literary credentials as a legitimate, polyphonic, and open-ended (i.e., heteroglossic—notice the phrase "clash of languages") work. Thus it is less than inferior, limiting, a work that retails in absolutes, whereas the surface heteroglossia of The Satanic Verses presents itself as precisely the opposite of a reductive and closed text.
Admittedly, there are segments of the Muslim population that reject the hybrid and poetic character of the Qur’an, but Islamic scholars of many highly-regarded exegetical traditions accept and discuss this aspect of the Qur’anic text at great length in their writings. Fischer and Abedi provide an illuminating insight into some of these traditions in their important anthropological study of modern Iran within the context of Islamic dialogics. They note “that although the Qur’an inveighs against poets and spinners of idle tales (lahw al-hadīth) which distract one from the path of God, and this arguably might be opposed to all novels and other fictional genres, the Qur’an and the hadīth literature, are themselves full of richly didactic stories: the Qur’an calls itself the best of all stories (12:3), the most truthful of stories (3:64),” (412). Fischer and Abedi also make a crucial observation about the significance of orality in Islamic tradition:
…the Qur’an is profoundly enigmatic on more than just mythic or dogmatic grounds. Though it is a text generative of a scholastic tradition, the Qur’an insists on its own orality and musicality, and warns against writing: it is a qur’an (oral recitation), not merely a mus-haf (written text). Memorization/preservation (hifz is the word for both) are obligatory for each Muslim community…and may not be left to pen and ink. Muslims pride themselves that their “book” resides not on paper but in their chests. (97-98)
This challenges the widely held opinion that the written word is privileged over the oral and thus is more “authoritative.” In an interesting ironic reversal, the view highlights not just the alleged “authority” of the written word but also, consequently, its limitations in terms of dialogic and interpretive possibilities. The written word is thus seen as rigid and, ultimately, barren; it needs to be continually resurrected by fertilizing it with oral intervention. Significantly, this line of argument points up the instability and unreliability of the written word which post-modernist thinkers and deconstructionists have repeatedly demonstrated. For Fischer and Abedi, emphasis on the oral over the textual renders the Qur’an “a premier ‘text’ of poetic enigma, a text that can speak to all the mysteries of contemporary (postmodern) literary criticism…” (xxi). As a consequence, they argue, “Islamic culture can be an intellectual interlocutor in the modern world scene, as it was in the days when it gave form to the nascent modern ‘Western civilization’” (xxi).
But why cannot Rushdie see the Qur’an on its own terms, or to use his words, as another attempt to enshrine what he calls "the truth of the tale"? Accommodation of alterity in the particularized instance appears to be missing in this exceedingly flexible artist. He comes across as expediently selective in assuming his postures of cultivated, though sensibly curtailed, liberalism and conditioned, localized revulsion. Behind the heterogeneous voices of the narrative lie the age-old biases, stereotypical perceptions, and familiar vilifications of a thousand years of monoglossic pronouncements on Islam. Other possibilities are shut out. Yet, Rushdie did not need to go outside the European, or, even more specifically, the British critical tradition to resurrect some of these interpretive options. As an instance of the latter, in terms of the Keatsian aesthetics, founded on "the holiness of the heart's affections" and the assumption that "[w]hat the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth" (Keats 1274), the Qur'an may be seen as a paradigm for the miracle of "negative capability." The "messenger" being just that, a medium through which language and ideas are conveyed, and nothing more. It is not the province of this essay to expand on the direction sketched here, but I suggest it as another one of numerous unexplored possibilities open to a mind not trammeled by received notions of pure and spurious, original and copy, the genuine and fake. Within the very categories formulated by Salman Rushdie in the passage from The Satanic Verses quoted above, alternative readings cannot be eliminated. After all, it is one person's “word” against another's. But Rushdie is addressing a divided audience, its separate assumptions exploited to privilege one over the other. The process may be likened to playing the race card from the point of view of the dominant group to an audience of its peers. The Satanic Verses after all was written for a Western publisher with a mainly Western market in view, a market in which Muslims formed a very small, largely unorganized, and embattled group. Western condescension and approval were thus indispensable to the success of this enterprise, however one looks at it. As several observers have pointed out, a similar attack on Christianity or Judaism would not have been as benevolently tolerated.
No less unsatisfactory, as a justifying argument, is the strategy of setting up of one "faith" against another. If the battle over The Satanic Verses is seen as a clash of faiths, the formulation destabilizes both positions. Rushdie's commitment to the art of the novel becomes as fanatical as the book burners' faith in their brand of militant Islam. Recalling Bolger’s reasoning, quoted above, there may be more significant matters in life than religion or novel writing when one is so willing to use either in order to sow seeds of division, hatred, or violence among human beings. In The SatanicVerses, the poet Baal, pressed into service by the Grandee Abu Simbel against Mahound, says: “A poet's work . . . is to name the unnamable, to point frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep” (97). The narrator adds, "And if rivers of blood flow from the cuts his verses inflict, then they will nourish him." These words ironically evoke Enoch Powell’s controversial speech of April 20, 1968,2 (and the implication of poets and politicians cannot be lost on the readers), but they are prophetic in view of the post-publication history of The SatanicVerses. Though no “rivers of blood” have flowed, the book has claimed a number of lives, and Rushdie has reaped his rewards of fame, close cousin to notoriety, and fortune. In economic terms, it is no more than is to be expected from the dynamics of supply and demand. He has, however, also been forced to spend ten years of his life in hiding, a rather heavy price for writing a book unpalatable to some of his readers. But, then, he is not the only one to suffer for his writing.
At this stage, it may be remarked that the refracted portrayal of Mohammad in the novel, whether as the fictional Mahound or as Gibreel Farishta, is not wholly irreproachable, and that, however much we know that the author and the characters are not to be confused with one another, authorial implication in the unfolding events of the narrative is not entirely absent. Although, as Margaret Atwood suggests, the events relating to Mahound may be but a dream of the "reprobate Gibreel Farishta," they are still dreams about Mahound, and the stories generated to form the novel are not related, or compiled, by Gibreel Farishta. They follow a certain historically conditioned, culture-specific, course and are not recounted generally from Gibreel’s point of view. The narrative "I" is used very early in the novel, and it is clear from the start that the tale is told, mostly in the third person, by a narrator who has chosen to work with limited omniscience and could have assumed complete omniscience had he chosen to do so. Near the end of the first chapter he says: "I know the truth, obviously. I watched the whole thing. As to omnipresence and -potence I'mmaking no claims at present, but I can manage this much, I hope" (10; my emphasis). Then again, early in the Mahound chapter he blurts out: "I know; deviltalk. Shaitan interrupting Gibreel. Me? (93), the narrator casting himself here in the role of both Shaitan (a trickster and a devil in the context) and Gibreel Farishta. It is as if the whole tale were scrambled by this intrusive presence, both author and fictional narrator, who, in turn, could be either the agent of confusion or the subject whose discourse is discomposed by the intrusions. He becomes thus both the persecutor and the persecuted. But the "Me?" at the end also complicates the narratorial identity by conflating both author and fictional narrator with the protean Gibreel in the process of tale telling. Not only does this present a con-fusion and interplay of identities, but the interpenetration also seeks to claim, simultaneously, absolute power to direct the tale.
It is this author/narrator morphing-character who consciously provides, as manager of the performance, correspondences between Gibreel Farishta and Mohammad, and in so doing develops another (for Muslims, rather transparent) strategy for launching an attack on him. Gibreel, like Mohammad, has a miraculous experience at age forty. In a sequence that parallels the first revealed verses of the Qur'an, and also, with the same ironic inflection, the Fall of Man, he is commanded to do the impossible as he and Saladin hurtle downwards after a terrorist woman has blown up their airplane in the clouds. "'Fly,' Chamcha shrieked at Gibreel. 'Start flying now'" (8). The command is repeated a little later as Gibreel continues to fall through the air: "'Fly…Sing'" (9). And strangely enough Gibreel does so. A couple of pages later the narrator reflects, that given Gibreel's past and his "miraculous" victory over the "Phantom Bug," the external and internal change that had been effected by this incident was quite the thing to be expected: "So maybe someone should have been able to forecast, only nobody did, that when he [Gibreel] was up and about again, he would sotospeak succeed where the germs had failed and walk out of his old life forever within a week of his fortieth birthday, vanishing, poof!, like a trick into thin air" (11). Only after suggesting these refracted connections with Mohammad is Gibreel's past life revealed, and he is shown to be "a philanderer of the worst type" who is "also learned in the arts of dissimulation, because," it is noted, "a man who plays gods must be above reproach" (25). On the one hand, the last part of this statement alludes to Gibreel’s film roles in which he acts out the parts of various gods from the Hindu pantheon. On the other, the extension of these remarks to, and the insinuation against Mohammad cannot be missed by a Muslim reader. Though Mohammad repeatedly declared that he was no more than a messenger of God, there is an insidious suggestion here that in claiming to receive revelations from the Divine Being he was actually arrogating to himself the power and position of God (“playing god”).
As if this were not enough, a few pages later, Gibreel Farishta is shown to be suffering from a fear of sleep because of a recurring and sequential dream, brought about after he “ate the unclean pigs,” in which “he was always present, not as himself but as his namesake,” that is, the archangel Gibreel. His friend, Saladin, finds his “revelations pathetic, anticlimactic, what was so strange if his dreams characterized him as the angel, dreams do every damn thing, did it really display more than a banal kind of egomania? But Gibreel was sweating from fear…” (83; my emphasis). Here too, it is the occasion of Mohammad’s first revelation that is being fictionalized and defining features from that event, which every Muslim knows from childhood, are decontextualized and thereby subjected to mockery and derision.
As several sources attest, it was Mohammad’s habit since his youth to seclude himself occasionally in a cave on the mountain rock of Hira just outside Mecca. Here he is said to have reflected on the inequities and iniquities of Meccan society. One night, in the fortieth year of his life, near the end of the month of Ramadhan, he lay “self-absorbed” in the cave when he heard a voice calling out to him, “Recite.” Twice the voice commanded, and Mohammad was unable to respond. At the third command, he asked, “What shall I recite?,” and the first Qur’anic verse was revealed. It is said that when this occurred Mohammad broke into a sweat. He repeated the verse after the voice, which turned out to be that of the Angel Gabriel. As one source recounts, “A great trembling came upon him, and he hastened home to his wife, and said, ‘O Khadija! What has happened to me?’ He lay down, and she watched by him” (Ali 17-18; Lings 42-43). In some accounts he is said to have suffered from paroxysms. His initial reaction is to doubt the experience because he fears he might have become “possessed.”
This brings us back to the difficulty of reader reception. The novel is indeed a work of double-consciousness, but it also addresses two different audiences in contrasting ways, playing upon the experienced familiarity with the subject of one and the acquired predilections of the other. In so programming his text, Salman Rushdie slights both audiences, but it is the Muslims who are forced into the awkward position of defending themselves and their beliefs against the same old charges of more than a millennium of conscious, self-righteous calumny and obloquy. Already besieged by gathering antagonism from the West, which is still learning to see them in ways that do not assume in them a negation of all its cultural, political, and religious values, customarily painted and projected as ignorant, backward, immoral, intolerant, and extremist (the wild progeny of the savage, disinherited Ishmael), Muslims are now obliged to defend themselves from a similar assault by one from their own ranks. What is more, the "insider" uses the same epistemology of calculated interfacing that served so well the purposes of the traditional Orientalist for so long. Thus, fragments of accurate information, decontextualized, are superimposed on undermining misrepresentation and deliberate misreading of motive and circumstance. Or, misrepresented facts are interfaced with far more damaging, and damning, fictions. For most readers in the West, there would be no way of separating one from the other. For Muslims, the person of their Prophet, the paradigm of goodness and integrity, is suddenly fictionalized into a depraved and monstrous figure who squeezes the original out of the novel’s real and imaginary space. "Poof!" as Salman Rushdie would say. "Vanished!"
Are Muslims the aggrieved party here or the persecutors? Was Rushdie cannily exploiting a situation and subjecting already embattled Muslim immigrants to a kind of political intimidation to further his own interests? Perhaps, he counted on the Islamophobia of the West and its anxieties about Muslim immigrant communities to keep the Muslims in check even as they smarted under what they perceived as an attack on their faith and a mockery of their religious beliefs. Or do the problems of the world really arise from the fact that Mohammad was a fraud and Muslims stubbornly refuse to see this? However we formulate these questions, they require an honest engagement from the readers, as the novel itself demands an honest confrontation of themselves from its readers.
As a text that appears to undercut a lot more than it affirms, what insights does The Satanic Verses offer? That, no matter what happens, East and West can never meet? Witness the break-up of Gibreel Farishta and Alleluia Cone, and of Saladin Chamcha and Pamela Lovelace. That Islam is a pack of lies and Mohammad was an imposter, a profligate, and a seducer? That Abraham was a "bastard" for abandoning Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness? That the English are cold and brutal toward all immigrants? That Indians are querulous, envious of each other, and shallow? That they all desperately wish to become like their former colonial masters and hate their own country? That those who don't (if they don't) are crazy like Gibreel Farishta? That Mohammad's general amnesty after his victory without battle over Mecca was a sham, a roguish, designing act calculated to obtain personal power and gain, but that Gibreel Farishta's deliverance of Saladin from the flames was an act of selfless virtue enough to offset any dissipation of mind, body, and spirit to which he may have been subject? That despite the redemptive power of Gibreel's one act of compassion, it is not enough to prevent him from a rather sordid suicide in the end? That only the most envious, bitter, and nastiest characters survive with some hope for the future? Witness Saladin Chamcha, for instance, who goes back to India and finally claims his full name to become Saladin Chamchawala, i.e., from being a spooney himself, he becomes one who has "spoons" or spooneys of his own. And so the respective fates of Baal, Salman the Persian, Abu Simbel and Hind, Mirza Saeed, Zeeny Vakil, and others. It could be said that for Salman Rushdie's acidic sensibility, there is nothing truly positive or worthwhile in the world of this novel. His narrative works like a massive, churning vortex of negation. If this is a novel about the processes of change and how newness enters into the world, as has sometimes been claimed, it has perhaps one of the bleakest views on this that one can find.
Despite all this, Rushdie writes of his faith in the "art of the novel" which he professes to "cherish as dearly as the book burners of Bradford value their brand of militant Islam." It seems that what he affirms in writing the book is not so much his right to express himself and explore his version of the truth as to preach what he believes by emphasizing his ability, and right, to insult and offend those he does not agree with? In other words, he too is trading in absolutes though that may not appear readily on the surface. On the other hand, as Michael Hanne has noted, Rushdie "is uncomfortably but irremediably both inside and outside Islam--and that is, in large part, what his book is about!" (Hanne 224). This statement may be extended to include Rushdie's sub-continental origins as well to which he is obliged to remain a stranger and a familiar at the same time. So is it too farfetched to say that Rushdie's anger and ridicule are directed as much against himself as against others, or that he mocks, condemns, and jeers at others because he cannot stand himself for what he is: a subject of a former colony, with pretensions like Saladin Chamcha, straining to gain acceptance in the world of his erstwhile masters, and like Saladin tolerated, even in his fame, only under certain limited and severely limiting conditions. Only if he abstains from criticizing the “holy cows” of Western civilization, and publicly abhors that part of himself that relates to his physical origin and the place where he comes from will his country of adoption open its arms to him.
Bhikhu Parekh provides an illuminating quotation in this regard from a member of the Asian community, a "graduate working in a textile mill” in England:
They are all stooges of the whites. They talk a lot about struggle, but when have they been beaten up, lost their jobs or suffered a reduction in their salary? They think highly of themselves and hate us. It seems they are even ashamed of us. (Parekh 87)
Though Parekh goes on to say that such "criticisms were highly exaggerated and bitter," he warns, "the Asian intellectuals can only ignore them at their peril." True, but the "Asian intellectual" turns away from such comments in disdain only because they are true, literally, and at a deeper, subjective level. What the "graduate working in a textile mill" fails to note or state is the self-hatred of the intellectuals he targets in his comments. Product of multiple cultures, uncomfortable with the dichotomies that tear him apart, post-colonial Salman Rushdie suffers from a sense of displacement that he has not yet resolved by embracing his much flaunted eclecticism but uses it, paradoxically, to deny it and/or denigrate it in others. No wonder Bolger makes that equivocal comment about The Satanic Verses, "…few of those who would understand it will have deemed it fit to read."
1 The term “morphing” is adapted for use here from Thaddeus Beier’s description of it as “the combination of generalized image warping with a cross-dissolve between image elements.” As Beier explains, “The term is derived from ‘image metamorphosis’ and should not be confused with morphological image processing operators which detect image features. Morphing is an image processing technique typically used as an animation tool for the metamorphosis from one image to another. The idea is to specify a warp that distorts the first image into the second. Its inverse will distort the second image into the first. As the metamorphosis proceeds, the first image is gradually distorted and is faded out, while the second image starts out totally distorted toward the first and is faded in. Thus, the early images in the sequence are much like the first source image. The middle image of the sequence is the average of the first source image distorted halfway toward the second one and the second source image distorted halfway back toward the first one. The last images in the sequence are similar to the second source image.…For morphs between faces, the middle image often looks strikingly life-like, like a real person, but clearly it is neither the person in the first nor second source images.” This is helpful in understanding some of the metamorphic changes and cross-pollinated cultural and social transformations that characters like Gibreel Farishta, Mahound, Saladin Chamcha, and Salman Farsi, among others, go through in The Satanic Verses during the course of its complex polyphonic narratorial unfolding.
2 Powell’s actual words were slightly different. He declared, “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’” Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is as much located in the context of immigrant-phobia in Britain as in the dream worlds of Jahilia, Khomeini’s Iran, and Bombay, even as the inflections of this phobia embrace the world of Mahound too in its embrace. Yet the connotations of the allusion remain ambiguous, intentionally so, it appears, as much else in the novel.
Ali, Syed Ameer. The Spirit of Islam. Lahore: Sana Publications. 1981.
Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins U Press. 1993.