The Case For and Against The Satanic Verses:
Evaluating Diatribe and Dialectic as Art
June 2001, Kolkata, India. First published at www.chowk.com on December 23 2002. First appearance in print in The Statesman Festival Volume, October 2006.
(Author’s note, April 2007: this article is an example of how the Internet age has transformed meanings: before the Internet, to be published and to be printed referred to practically simultaneous events; but this article was published on the Internet almost four years before it came to be republished in print.)
by Subroto Roy
Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is a manifold document; in reading it more than a dozen years after publication, what is brought to mind is the relation between art and criticism described by Lawrence and advertised by Leavis: ”We judge a work of art by its effect on our sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else. All the critical twiddle-twaddle about style and form, all this pseudo-scientific classifying and analysing of books in an imitation-botanical fashion, is mere impertinence and mostly dull jargon. A critic must be able to feel the impact of a work of art in all its complexity and its force. To do so, he must be a man of force and complexity himself, which few critics are. A man with a paltry, impudent nature will never write anything but paltry, impudent criticism. And a man who is emotionally educated is rare as a phoenix…”
The sincere and vital emotions most obviously provoked by Rushdie’s book are nausea, anger and irritation. It appears at first sight an abusive, incoherent masquerade of a novel with little artistic value, a mere moneymaking vehicle for a preening, self-seeking author and his publisher. The decisions of the Republics of India and Pakistan to ban it for being gratuitously offensive to the religious sentiments of millions of people, or the finding against it of blasphemy by the Islamic authorities of Iran seem understandable.
Yet such an initial response may be followed by another very different set of sincere and vital emotions. Upon reflection and a second reading, it is possible to feel exhilaration, delight, even the calm of a Shia Muslim spiritual experience from the book. These may be accompanied by a conviction that Rushdie has produced a significant work of art even if he himself remains unaware of its nature. This kind of unusual and dichotomous critical experience needs to be explained. College professors around the world have been writing theoretical essays portraying Rushdie as a “magic realist” or some such oxymoron. The truth may be more prosaic: The Satanic Verses is nothing if it is not a second, perhaps definitive, autobiographical experiment in which Rushdie has attempted to reconcile himself with his own experiences, a task in which he has achieved at best partial success. It is as if he has tried to comprehend his own life as an English-speaking Indo-Pakistani Muslim in the Western world, and in that process the words of The Satanic Verses just came tumbling out. And there is little even a bitter enemy can say about one’s search for self-knowledge, especially on matters of religious belief.
The cover says The Satanic Verses is a novel; what may be called its superficial plot amounts to something a giggling adolescent might have written for an undergraduate essay. Here is its outline:
Once there were two young Muslim boys of Bombay, Najmuddin and Chamchawalla. N. is born poor and raised in the slums; from delivering tiffins he becomes a small-time and then a major screen idol of Hindi cinema, a kind of Muslim NTR/Bachan mixture. In his profligacy he has an affair with R. who later murders her young children and commits suicide because of her unrequited love for him; N. travels in an aeroplane to England which is blown up midair by Sikh hijackers at 30,000 ft; he falls unharmed to the ground, is found on the English coast by an old woman whose lover he becomes until her death; then he returns to a lovely Jewish girlfriend who seems to have no reason to want to be with him, he returns to India, murders the Jewish girlfriend and kills himself, all along being tormented by a notion he may have invited divine wrath for having wilfully eaten pork. In parallel, the other young Muslim boy, C. grows up in a privileged Bombay neighbourhood, is sexually molested by a dhoti-clad street-vendor, has peculiar and perverse parents and servants, is sent to a public school and University in England, ends up in London advertising, is on the same aeroplane which explodes in the sky, also falls unharmed to the ground and is found by the same old woman, but is taken in by British police and immigration authorities, and, most oddly, finds himself transmogrified gradually into a goat like being and then Satan himself, is forced by British police to eat his own goat-pellets, escapes to find refuge among a generous Bangladeshi family in London’s immigrant ghettos, is re-transformed into a human being again after his hatred becomes focussed on a single individual, his fellow Mumbaikari, Najmuddin. C attempts to avenge himself on N. for no particular reason except jealousy, yet N. saves his life and there is supposed to be a moral of good and evil there. C. also at some point acquires a splendid English wife who divorces him — again a woman whom we see no reason to want to be with a jerk like him (though we are not told he might have wanted her for the British passport). C. finally returns to Bombay, is reconciled with his dying father, meets up with an old girlfriend, and the book ends with these two being together.
This is not “magic realism”, it is palpably poor writing. If the superficial plot suffices to make The Satanic Verses a novel, then your or my singing in the shower suffices for us to be in grand opera.
Seen as an autobiographical experiment, however, the superficial plot begins, ever so slightly, to make sense as Rushdie appears himself as both Muslim boys whose lives are traced from Bombay to London and back. He is Najmuddin to the extent he torments himself throughout for having willfully violated Muslim practice
“his mouth full of unclean meat ”(p. 31);
in his relationship with at least one of Najmuddin’s three women, the Jewish girlfriend Allie; and perhaps more generally in his having
”managed to bury his greatest talent so deep that it might easily have been lost forever, his talent, that is, for loving genuinely, deeply and without holding back, the rare and delicate gift which he had never been able to employ” (p.26)
Rushdie is Chamchawalla more obviously in having grown up in a privileged Bombay neighbourhood, been sent to school and university in England, gotten married to and divorced from an English woman named Pamela. Both Najmuddin and Chamchawalla are left with their fathers after their mothers’ early deaths, and Rushdie is original and most authentic in describing these father-son relationships where he appears to draw deeply on his own emotional life. There is a short delightful scene of him teaching his own son to ride a bicycle. Then he makes rare records of the terrible conflicts possible between fathers and adult sons:
(N.) “would understand how much the older man had resented him, and how important it was for the father to defeat the son and regain, thereby, his usurped primacy in the affections of his dead wife”. (p. 19)
(C.) “wrote his father a letter full of cruelty and anger, whose violence was of the type that exists only between fathers and sons, and which differs from that between daughters and mothers in that there lurks behind it the possibility of actual, jaw-breaking fisticuffs. “(p.47)
The son returns to India to be tenderly reconciled with the emaciated dying old man from whom he has been estranged:
”Abba, I came back because I didn’t want there to be trouble between us anymore.
That doesn’t matter any more. It’s forgotten, whatever it was.”
Whatever it was. Death makes family feuds seem petty and inconsequential in retrospect. The old man is just happy to see the boy, his own life, once again. The son unexpectedly finds in himself love, devotion and respect for the old man whom he had long feared and despised:
”First one falls in love with one’s father all over again, and then one learns to look up to him, too…. He is teaching me how to die… He does not avert his eyes, but looks death right in the face…” (pp. 543 et. seq, italics original)
A child sees his parents initially as God-like beings said Sigmund Freud; an aspect of maturity arrives when the child begins to see them no longer as deities but as humans, warts and all. When Rushdie has applied himself to his own inner life and relationships with his father and his son, he delves into a vast pool of expressiveness, and, ever so briefly, discovers and establishes his artistry. His poignant reconciliation with a dying father is a small treasure.
Another episode worth notice in the superficial plot of The Satanic Verses has to do with the growth to maturity of the character of the young Bangladeshi-British adolescent, Mishal Sufyan, and her marriage to the white-fathered, Pakistani(?)-mothered Hanif Johnson. Their love signals fresh hope and new life in Britain’s grim immigrant neighbourhoods filled with fear and hatred. The race riots in England in 2001 could have been taken from a chapter of The Satanic Verses. Rushdie has been a self-conscious observer here as nice boys from Rugby School don’t normally go slumming even if they are wogs themselves, yet even so the Indian preppie from Rugby or Harvard must still reconcile the continuous threads which bind him to the people cleaning the lavatories at Heathrow or pumping gas or running motels in America.
In parallel with this superficial plot, The Satanic Verses contains a theological dialectic mostly on the origins, beliefs and practices of Islam, the faith in which Rushdie was born and raised. This is practically independent of the superficial plot, or at best the two have been clumsily pasted together. The link is once more Rushdie himself. While he appears as the main protagonists Najmuddin and Chamchawalla in the superficial plot, he makes a triple appearance in the theological treatise, at three different levels of Muslim doubt or faith.
At the greatest level of scepticism, Rushdie appears as the infidel poet and satirist Baal who gives his life to the cause of an absolute artistic and intellectual freedom, mocking Prophet Muhammad and The Quran, saying he recognizes no authority except his artistic Muse:
”A poet’s work (is to) name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep. “(p. 100)
Under the sword of his Muslim captors, Baal ends with “I’ve finished. Do what you want”; he is beheaded but dies a spiritually free unbroken man. Rushdie may have relied on Islamic legend here though his fellow Anglo-Pakistani, the social anthropologist Akbar Ahmed, has apologetically said that as a matter of historical fact: “The conquest of Makkah cost less than 30 lives…. The charge of those critics who accuse the Prophet of the (death) of a poet who wrote satirical verse… will not hold. An over-zealous Muslim infuriated by his verses set out to silence the poet.”
At a lesser level of scepticism or a greater level of Muslim belief, Rushdie appears in the theological dialectic as a fictional Salman Farsi, supposed to be the “calmest” (p. 107), and “most highly educated” (p. 377) of the Prophet’s intimate disciples. This character becomes in course of time a drunken apostate after starting to doubt the authenticity of The Quran as Divine Revelation, as well as the transcription of the Hadith. As a safety measure perhaps, Rushdie put in
”Where there is no belief, there is no blasphemy” (p. 393).
But in real life the authorities of contemporary Iran were not amused or impressed by legal niceties as to whether young Salman sitting in England had renounced Islam or his Pakistani passport for a British one. In 1989 they roundly pronounced The Satanic Verses to be blasphemous to Islam and sentenced Rushdie to death in absentia, causing as we know a significant recent incident of international law.
Ironically, Rushdie`s experience since might have been scripted by himself:
”Your blasphemy, Salman, can’t be forgiven.”
In response, Salman Farsi is
”unable to muster the smallest scrap of dignity, he blubbers whimpers pleads beats his breast abases himself” (p. 387)
and escapes death only by promising to denounce Baal, the idolatrous satirist. In real life Rushdie blubbered, whimpered, pleaded and abased himself to win a reprieve without avail. If the Iranian authorities have since reduced their hatred of him, it seems because they became bored and found him less consequential as time went by, not because of anything he said or did in repentance. In June 2001, Ayatollah Khatami, then President of Iran, said the blasphemy case was “closed”, and that Iran had always seen Rushdie`s book as part of a modern Western assault on Islam.
Yet one must be grateful the Iranian death sentence did not get carried out because there is evidence to reasonably conclude that, all things considered, Rushdie may well be innocent of blasphemous intent. Though he may be guilty of several literary crimes and misdemeanours, he may have been wrongly placed on Iran’s death row for a dozen years. The evidence suggests that what The Satanic Verses has attempted to be is a genuine Muslim dialectic between faith and doubt — albeit one not expressed in Arabic, Farsi or Urdu to attract serious Islamic scholars, but one done in English in the manner of a Hollywood screenplay designed to attract as much hard currency as possible for Rushdie and his publisher. Commercial English comedy as hermeneutics you might say: Monty Python meets Prophet Muhammad.
That Rushdie has lacked blasphemous intent is evident from his third appearance in the theological treatise, this time as the secular Indian Muslim, Mirza Saeed Akhtar, who loves and lusts after both his sick wife, Mishal, and her new friend, the epileptic orphan woman Ayesha. The two women are dogmatic Shia Muslims, who insist on leading a vast, pious pilgrimage from central India into the Arabian Sea in the belief their faith will miraculously make the waters part and allow them to walk to Mecca.
Rushdie does not identify them as Shia Muslims but the story is based on actual events in 1981-1983 in the Naseem Fatima “Hawkes Bay” case in Pakistan.
According to the sociologist Akbar Ahmed, Naseem Fatima, “a shy, pleasant looking girl with an innocent expression on her face, who had a history of fits,” after a series of miraculous religious experiences which were scorned by Sunni Muslims but were not inconsistent with Shia doctrine, led 38 people into the Arabian Sea at Karachi believing the waters would part and they would be transported miraculously to Shia holy sites in Karbala in Iraq.
“(The women and children locked) in five of the six trunks died. One of the trunks was shattered by the waves and its passengers survived. Those on foot also survived; they were thrown back onto the beach by the waves… The survivors were in high spirits — there was neither regret nor remorse among them. Only a divine calm, a deep ecstasy. The Karachi police in a display of bureaucratic zeal arrested the survivors. They were charged with attempting to leave the country without visas…. Rich Shias, impressed by the devotion of the survivors, paid for their journey by air for a week to and from Karbala. In Iraq, influential Shias, equally impressed, presented them with gifts, including rare copies of the Holy Quran.”
In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie has altered and transformed these facts into a rich allegorical dialectic between rationalism and scepticism on the one hand, and dogmatic faith and ecstatic religious experience on the other. The husband Mirza Saeed, representing Rushdie himself, condemns what he says is the foolishness of the faith-filled women, begs them, pleads with them to change their minds, and finally when they cannot be stopped, follows behind them in his Mercedes, collecting stragglers, hypocrites and apostates on the way. The intellectual and spiritual tension between the rationalist and believer is built up excellently. The reader is finally certain that Ayesha and the other pilgrims walk to their earthly deaths in the Arabian Sea, but is left uncertain whether the miracle may have in fact occurred even so, whether they have in fact walked into Paradise itself on the strength of their faith. It is a splendid, exhilarating and unexpected spiritual experience emerging from the book. Moreover, the Rushdie-character, though he survives the pilgrimage, tempers his scepticism by the end of his life, and eventually dies in fusion with the ghost of his love, the believer Ayesha, and, we are led to think, is finally absorbed with her into the Paradise described in The Quran.
Thus in the attempted theological treatise that is contained within The Satanic Verses,
(i) as Baal the disbelieving, mocking, satirist who gives his life for artistic freedom;
(ii) as Salman Farsi the Muslim believer who turns to apostasy; and
(iii) as Mirza Saeed Akhtar, the rationalist and sceptic who turns eventually towards Muslim faith and belief.
In making this triple appearance, Rushdie has tried to construct a genuine Muslim dialectic between scepticism and dogmatism; if the sceptical parts have outraged Muslim believers, some of his descriptions of Muslim belief and practice might do no less than add new sympathisers or converts to Islam among the heathen and infidels. It is a creative achievement for a modern English-speaking Muslim, perhaps unintentionally, to try to turn the tide of hostile opinion that exists against Islam in the English-speaking world, through a sympathetic rendering of aspects of Islam. E.g., a practice like halal, which seems cruel or at least pointless to the non-Muslim, is given new meaning by Rushdie, and made into a point of existential philosophy:
”(The Prophet)… required animals to be killed slowly, by bleeding, so that by experiencing their deaths to the full they might arrive at an understanding of the meaning of their lives, for it is only at the moment of death that living creatures understand that life has been real, and not a sort of dream. “(p. 376).
It is only at the moment of death that life may make its fullest sense. Such would be to look back at life from the point of death; T. S. Eliot in Burnt Norton seemed to speak of looking forward at life all the way to the point of death:
“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
…Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
Leavis drew attention to the religious meaning assigned to these lines by the critic D. W. Harding:
“For the man convinced of spiritual values, life is a coherent pattern in which the ending has its due place, and, because it is part of a pattern, itself leads into the beginning.”
The Satanic Verses is preoccupied with the possibility of such patterns of birth, death and rebirth, conflict and its resolution, tension and its relaxation. “To be born again … first you have to die” (p. 1) Rushdie was raised a Muslim exposed to the university of critical thought and dialogue; as such he owed himself a responsibility to examine Islam to determine whether he would render it his individual allegiance, not by fiat or blind faith but by the canons of reasonableness. In The Satanic Verses he has traversed a range of logical possibilities between disbelief, doubt and faith in Islam. On the strength of the Mirza Saeed Akhtar character in the book, he may have been truthful in declaring himself a genuine believing Muslim who was innocent of the charges of blasphemy against him. He needs to be absolved of the charges, and his conviction by the Iranians set aside, as in effect has been done by Iran’s President Ayatollah Khatami in June 2001. Here ends the case for The Satanic Verses.
The case against Rushdie however must continue.
He has produced a few ounces of artistic and philosophical gold but these are contained in mountains of muck, which remain to be disposed of. Rushdie shows himself emotionally alive and expressive as a son to his father and a father to his son, as well as a keen social observer of Britain and a thoughtful and philosophical Muslim believer; but at the same time he also reveals himself immature, dishonest and cowardly as a writer. These aspects are summarily revealed in Rushdie’s desire to be gratuitously abusive or offensive towards a wide range of chosen targets, from the memory of Prophet Muhammad to the innocuous Chinese. For example, for no discernible reason except to show that little Salman can say bad words and get away with it, a Mallory-like ghost on Mt. Everest is made to converse about “Goddamn Chinese” and “Little yellow buggers”. Then an implausible Sikh woman terrorist (named after the Delhi journalist Tavleen Singh though reminiscent more of Leila Khaled, the pioneer Palestinian hijacker) leads Khalistanis to hijack an Air India jumbo (numbered 420) and explode it mid-air.
In June 1985 an Air India jumbo did explode mid-air killing all 329 lives on board, and it took painstaking work by the Canadian police to arrest and prosecute (unsuccessfully) the major suspects who were Canadian Sikhs. The victims’ families whose tragedies are trivialised in The Satanic Verses join the list of people Rushdie has wished to pointlessly upset by his personal fantasy of two survivors falling unharmed from that aircraft. Then, Rushdie’s Khalistanis go about yelling
”those mother-f…..g Americans and sister-f…..g British”,
when in fact Khalistan seemed plausible mostly to North American and British Sikhs in Vancouver or California who (unlike perhaps Rushdie himself at the time he authored the book), tend not to be abusive of America or Britain in that kind of way. The cursing merely shows how our purportedly great British writer keeps despoiling the possibility of his own artistry.
Hindus and India come in for special abuse in Rushdie’s worldview. India is that rather amusing and grotesque country
”of hundreds of millions of believers…. in which, to this day, the human population outnumbers the divine by less than three to one,”
where a Muslim NTR/Bachan cinema star can become “the most acceptable, instantly recognisable, face of the Supreme” (p. 17). A Hindu character
”coming as she did from a polytheistic tradition”
”plainly… incapable” (p. 334)
of comprehending the scriptures of the Semitic faiths. Rushdie reveals himself incompetent here in his purported role of theologian, as he has failed to see that the secular outlook of Hinduism and its heterodox descendants like Buddhism does not imply belief in more than one god. Rushdie is not alone in this prejudice for the most venerable Oxford English Dictionary itself announces “Hinduism is the polytheistic religion of the Hindus”.
In fact, Indian traditions always have freely allowed questioning whether there is any God at all, let alone whether there is one God or many gods. I.e., there always has been space freely available within orthodox Hinduism and its heterodox offshoots for all manner of religious scepticism, including nihilism and pyrrhonism. This is highly problematic for a believing member of any of the Semitic faiths like Rushdie, or the author of the entry on Hinduism in the Oxford English Dictionary. Thus even Pope John Paul VI said Buddhism is not a religion in his sense of what a religion must be, namely, a doctrine entailing belief in God.
The Hindu, or at least the philosophical Hindu, is very troublesome to all others because he is somehow able to accommodate all of them within his own folds. “You want to worship the sun, the seas, the mountains, rivers, trees, snakes or stones as God Immanent?; that’s fine with me,” he says to the animist. “You think there is no God as such?; that’s cool”, he says to the Buddhist. “You’re telling me Jesus of Nazareth was God’s incarnated Son?; okay that’s great, I like that,” he says to the Christian. “You’re telling me the Holy Quran was revealed by Al-Lah to Prophet Muhammad near Makkah?; I’ll accept that,” he says to the Muslim. And so on. The Hindu’s all-inclusive catholicity can drive other believers up the wall, especially those closest to him like Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs who may most urgently want to differentiate themselves from Hindu practice.
Rushdie momentarily accepts the Hindu view when Najmuddin
”is often filled with resentment by the non-appearance, in his persecuting visions, of the One who is supposed to have the answers, He never turns up, the one who kept away when I was dying, when I needed needed (sic) him. The one it’s all about, Allah Ishvar God. Absent as ever while we writhe and suffer in his name” (p. 113)
Here Rushdie momentarily acknowledges his secular Indian childhood as well as his Christian schooling about Christ on the Cross. But mostly he has taken the easy path of branding the Hindu a rather silly polytheistic idolater or animist. There is a reminder of the destruction of religious idols by the new Muslims in pre-Islamic Mecca (Jahilia). Then there is a long development of the wickedness of the character of the chief idolater, the female Hind. The real Hind was a foe turned convert of Prophet Muhammad; Rushdie’s Hind converts, is forgiven by Prophet Muhammad, then secretly continues as an idolatrous witch who plots and causes the Prophet’s demise. Her name “Hind” is the Urdu/Persian name for India and the root of “Hindu”, so it is possible Rushdie’s years as a Pakistani have led him to absorb some of the views prevalent in that country about Hindus and Hindustan being implacable foes of Islam.
Then, Rushdie makes pornographic allusions to Ganesh and Hanuman, and a pointed reference to ”these Shiv Sena bastards in control” of contemporary Bombay. A Brahmin and an “Untouchable” (there can be no Harijans or Dalits in Rushdie’s British world) seem to convert to Islam only to retract, while pious Muslim pilgrims are attacked by the wicked VHP and RSS in scenes Rushdie might have lifted from Attenborough`s Gandhi. No mention here of East Pakistan, Yahya Khan, Tikka Khan or Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto — just “Bungleditch” for Bangladesh. In Rushdie`s view, the ominous forces of Hindu nationalism (the folks who gave him a visa to finally visit India in 2000) are to be kept at bay only by arm-in-arm socialism. It all amounts to a rather stale politically correct ideology fashionable in the 1970s, which crashed with the Berlin Wall one year after The Satanic Verses was published. Rushdie, a one-time child citizen of India, knows in his middle age next to nothing about modern Indian society or its political economy, yet apparently longs to prove his correct Limousine Socialism credentials to his Western publishers and clientele. He keeps putting his thumb in the pan.
He also has been cowardly. Living in Britain, he did not set out to write a modern diatribe against all religious traditions he had encountered which might have amounted to a nihilism or pyrrhonism worth examining. Jews and Christians are conspicuous by their absence from his target-list, allowing him to duck away from the savage criticism he would have received from within the Judeao-Christian countries where he has led his adult life. The Satanic Verses has been received with considerable applause there, and earned him a lot of money. The few characters identified as Jews in the book (Mimi, Cohen, his wife, and daughter) are all normal and sympathetically drawn (Cohen is even made a Holocaust survivor who survived Nazi “monsters” but now commits suicide). There is one identified Christian, who, consistent with Rushdie’s ideology of Limousine Socialism, is made a comical American creationist who bites off his own tongue in fear during the hijacking.
The Satanic Verses was banned in India and Pakistan after its publication; but had Rushdie attacked Jewish or mainstream Christian beliefs and characters with the same kind of parody he hurls at Muslim and Hindu beliefs and practices, he likely would not have been published at all in the West, drying up his dollar-income.
It was simply too risky for Salman Rushdie to be as offensive towards Jews and Christians in Britain or America as he has been to Muslims and Hindus in India or Pakistan. Much easier and more lucrative to write “Monty Python meets Prophet Muhammad” or some Peter-Sellers pidgin Indian English dialogue or dig up some dowry-deaths from reading the Indian newspapers. Goes down well with the people who matter. Fits in with their own post-Imperial pretensions about the state of the wogs today. Even better that the Chief Wog himself is saying so. That has been the principal point made by the Iranian authorities against Rushdie, as for example when Ayatollah Khattami said in June 2001 in “closing” the blasphemy case, that Iran always took The Satanic Verses to be a part of the Western assault on Islam.
Indeed Rushdie’s single worst and most pointless example of offensiveness has to do with his distortion of the memory of Prophet Muhammad himself.
Muhammad (572-632 AD) was without doubt one of the greatest men of history, as may be measured by his vast impact on human civilization. His greatness was marked by a magnificent humility; at his death, it was famously said: “If you are worshippers of Muhammad, know that he is dead. If you are worshippers of God, know that God is living and does not die”; indicating the total self-effacement of the man to his mission. Arabic is the language of Islam, but even in Rushdie’s chosen language of English there has been a vast literature over the centuries on Prophet Muhammad’s life and example. One of the best known is Carlyle’s fully sympathetic 1842 account , which made the message of the Prophet’s religious experience one of universal import well beyond Muslim ontological beliefs:
“The great Mystery of Existence… glared in upon (Muhammad), with its terrors, with its splendours; no hearsays could hide that unspeakable fact , “Here am I!”. Such sincerity… has in very truth something of divine. The word of such a man is a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart. Men do and must listen to that as nothing else; all else is wind in comparison.”
Carlyle quoted Goethe: “If this be Islam, do we not all live in Islam?” And Carlyle told the stories of how Muhammad could not abide by his own severe faith when he wept over the dead body of an early disciple: “You see a friend weeping over his friend”; and of how the young beautiful Ayesha once tried to get Muhammad to compare her favourably to his deceased wife and first disciple the widow Khadija, and how Muhammad had denied her:
”She believed in me when none else would believe. In the whole world I had but one friend and she was that!”
In face of such an enormous wealth of rich legendary material to select from to write about Prophet Muhammad, what does Salman Rushdie, purportedly a major British-educated 20th Century Muslim novelist, choose to do? He invents a pointless sequence of pornographic allusions and events to do with how a Mecca whorehouse increases its business! It makes highly offensive reading, not just to Muslim believers but to decency and the truth of Muhammad’s life; rather like the person who associated Christ on the Cross with a urinal and claimed artistic freedom for himself, outraging Christian opinion in the United States of America a few years ago. Why do it, one may ask? Where is the art in it? Where could the art in it possibly be? Why should it not be seen as merely base and revolting?
In putting together then, the case for and against The Satanic Verses, it may be seen how Rushdie’s artistry might have made him a great writer and also how his vast incorrigible faults have kept him permanently from becoming one. To draw a contrast, in The Brothers Karamasov one hundred years ago, Dostoevsky wrote perhaps the definitive internal critique of Christianity, of how Jesus Christ had made true Christian practice impossibly difficult, of how Christianity demanded too much of mankind, more than man’s nature could possibly achieve. Lawrence said of it:
“As always in Dostoevsky, the amazing perspicacity is mixed with ugly perversity. Nothing is pure. His wild love for Jesus is mixed with perverse and poisonous hate of Jesus: his moral hostility to the devil is mixed with secret worship of the devil. Dostoevsky is always perverse, always impure, always an evil thinker and a marvellous seer.”
Rushdie would have liked a similar comparison in respect of Prophet Muhammad and Islam; but he does not deserve it because he lacks the honesty possessed by the great writers while he possesses a greed and cupidity they disowned. As a novel, The Satanic Verses is about as far from The Brothers Karamasov as the music of David Bowie or Boy George or Madonna is from the music of Tchaikovsky or Beethoven. Superficially, it paints nauseous grotesque absurd accounts of incoherent events, mostly with cartoons and caricatures where real people should have been, forcing the reader to take a most unpleasant journey largely because Rushdie`s deliberately cultivated notoriety pleads for his book to be read. The nausea comes to be suspended for a page here, a handful of pages there, when Rushdie demonstrates that a splendid artistry does exist within him even if he finds it impossibly difficult to muster enough discipline to maintain it. That other Indian writers have been imitating his style in the last few decades often without his substance may merely go to show how far critical editorial standards have collapsed in the book-publishing industry.
It is only when The Satanic Verses is seen as a tortured self-exploration by Rushdie to reconcile his Western life with his Islamic upbringing that it begins to become sensible and comprehensible. Madonna or Boy George’s music is not that of Beethoven and everyone has forgotten it already while no one forgets Beethoven, but it is still a kind of music. Similarly, no one forgets Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor and everyone will forget Salman Rushdie, but even so his work still needs to be tested for the presence of significant art. That there is some art in it, perhaps hitherto undiscovered, has been the purpose of this essay to reveal.
Akbar Ahmed, Discovering Islam; Pakistan Society
Thomas Carlysle, Heroes and Hero Worship
D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix
F. R. Leavis, The Living Principle; Valuation in Criticism (G. Singh ed.)
Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
SUBROTO ROY’s works include Philosophy of Economics: On the Scope of Reason in Economic Inquiry (Routledge, London & New York, International Library of Philosophy, 1989, 1991).