It can take me a long time to get around to reading a book. There are so many of them in the world. Sometimes it takes something extra to prompt me to pick up something. Hence, the current moral panic about Islam, and my various bits of reading on the subject, finally got me to reading Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.
Salman Rushdie was born in Mumbai into a culturally Muslim but not particularly devout Kashmiri family, and describes himself as an atheist. He was educated in the UK and has spent most of his adult life there, working as an advertising copywriter before his second novel, Midnight's Children, won the Booker Prize and allowed him to become a full-time novelist. The Satanic Verses is his fourth novel, published in 1988.
Its publication set off a storm of protest from Islamic fundamentalists around the world. Copies of the book were burned in the streets in various countries including the UK and US, bookstores that stocked it were picketed and even bombed, and it was banned in many Muslim countries as well as some non-Muslim ones.
These protests went up a level in February 1989 when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, at that time supreme leader of revolutionary Iran, issued a fatwa pronouncing a sentence of death on Rushdie and anyone else who had assisted in the book's publication. His proclamation encouraged Muslims around the world to take any opportunity they could to carry out the death sentence, and the Iranian government backed this with the offer of a monetary reward.
Both Rushdie and the British authorities took this threat very seriously. Rushdie went into hiding and was given police protection. The danger was very real - a number of attempts were made on his life although none managed to do him harm. The book's Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was not so fortunate, stabbed to death in his university office in 1991. Although Rushdie was not physically harmed he spent 10 years in hiding and the threats and constant vigilance took a heavy emotional toll. He is still not completely safe. The Iranian government formally withdrew its support for the sentence in 1998 as part of negotiations to restore diplomatic relations with Britain. However, Khomeini's successor as supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei, has reaffirmed it.
To us Westerners a death sentence seems extreme for writing a book. Many Muslims agree. In British and international law the sentence is clearly illegal and anyone carrying it out would be guilty of murder. Many Islamic jurists have also condemned it on the grounds of Islamic law. Khomeini never provided any reasons for the sentence (his pronouncement only contains the general accusation that it is "a text written, edited, and published against Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Qur'an") and there was never any attempt to try Rushdie or to give him opportunity to defend himself. Formal accusation and trial are both normal expectations in Islamic law.
It's not even clear if the Ayatollah read the book before he condemned it. For a start, it was written in English, a language in which he appears not to have been very fluent. It is possible that he had little or no interest in its actual contents and just saw a political opportunity to make trouble for the Western nations who were enforcing sanctions against his regime. Even if he did read it, it is doubtful whether he would have really understood the genre in which it is written.
The Satanic Verses is a magical realist novel. Magical realism was the height of literary fashion in the 1980s - The Satanic Verses was beaten to the 1988 Booker Prize by Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda. Novels in this genre combine magical or fantasy elements with literary realism. The best magical realist novels (and Rushdie is one of the masters) leave readers constantly unsure what to expect - will the story conform to the possibilities of real life, or should they be looking for something else?
This question is set very near the beginning of the story when its two main characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, fall out of a plane over the English Channel and inexplicably survive. For extra ambiguity, both characters are actors, and neither of the names they go by are their real names - Saladin has shortened his name for English consumption, while Gibreel's is an invented screen name (meaning, in case you missed it, the Angel Gabriel).
Although they miraculously survive, the two men are transformed, Saladin into an incarnation of Shaitan (complete with hooves and horns) and Gibreel, whose career has consisted of playing characters in religious epics, into a genuine incarnation of the angel whose name he has appropriated.
Rushdie uses this juxtaposition to explore the nature of faith, revelation, good and evil. You could expect Gibreel to be good, the angel of light, and Shaitan to be the angel of darkness but for Rushdie it is not that simple, and ambiguities multiply. Meanwhile, Gibreel has a series of tortured dreams in which he appears in angelic form to various characters which inhabit their own stories.
One of these subplots is particularly provocative. In several scenes Gibreel appears to the prophet Mahoud, a name often used derogatorily of the Prophet Mohammed. The scene from which the novel takes its name, and which is most often cited as the source of offence, is ironically based on an ancient but disputed Islamic tradition. In this tradition, the prophet receives and communicates a revelation instructing his followers to worship the three main goddesses of Mecca alongside Allah. This revelation is later revealed to be a device of Shaitan and retracted. In Rushdie's version, however, both revelations come from Gibreel. There is further ambiguity in that Gibreel has no control over the revelations he delivers, which are in some mysterious way drawn from him - they express not so much the will of Allah (who doesn't appear in the story) but the deepest desires of the Prophet himself.
There are other issues. One of the Prophet's scribes reveals he has made subtle alterations to the Prophet's words which have gone undetected. A brothel enhances its business by having its women take on the characters of the Prophet's wives (although there is no suggestion that the wives themselves are anything other than virtuous). In another subplot a young girl who receives a dubious angelic revelation is named Ayesha, after the Prophet's favourite wife.
Then again, if the Ayatollah actually read the book it is quite possible that the subplot which gave him the most offence was closer to home. A fanatical religious leader lives in bitter exile in Paris before returning to launch a bloody revolution in his home country. Guess which real life religious leader had similar experiences?
Aside from the obvious defence that this is a work of fiction, and that in any case an author is entitled to say what he wants, there are a couple of defences Rushdie could cite against the charge of blasphemy. One is that these events occur, not in the real world, but in the world of Gibreel's dreams. Right to the end of the story, the author sustains ambiguity about the nature of Gibreel's transformation. Does he, in fact, become an angel, or is this a manifestation of mental illness? Are his dreams intended to portray "what really happened" or to present an alternative and slightly disordered version of reality to match the disorder of its protagonist's mind?
Another defence is that Rushdie is asking legitimate questions of our faith. Merrold Westphal has pointed out that Freud's analysis of religion as an expression of our repressed desires and hatreds is psychologically correct as well as finding echoes in Christian theology. Freud is a "prophet of original sin". Hence Rushdie's suggestion that the Prophet's revelation is such an expression should be examined, not rejected in anger. Indeed, its violent rejection rather tends to confirm Freud's analysis than contradict it.
None of these ambiguities are likely to influence a fundamentalist reader. In fact, they were presented at the time to no affect. Fundamentalism, whether Islamic, Christian or otherwise, represents a search for certainty. Many fundamentalists distrust fiction altogether, seeing it as akin to lying. They also tend to be blind to ambiguities in their own faith traditions, to subtleties of genre and intent in their sacred writings and traditions. They tend to be hostile to critical scholarship, to not only prefer the literal and authoritative but to insist on it. Rushdie's ambiguities and imaginative reconstructions challenge this simple view of the world and suggest that things may not be so straightforward.
If fundamentalists respond to their fear and suspicion by isolating themselves from the parts of the world that challenge their view, they harm only themselves and perhaps the harm is not that great. However if, like the Ayatollah Khomeini, they try to impose their simplicities on the world around them, they harm all of us and the harm can be serious, even deadly as it was for Hitoshi Igarashi. No society can just stand by and let this happen.
So in a sense, the fundamentalists were right. Rushdie's book was indeed a direct challenge to their faith. But about one thing there can be no ambiguity - they are not right to try and kill him for it. They would be much better to listen to the questions, absorb them and work out their own answers. If, after mature deliberation, they end up answering "no, I don't think it was like that" then fair enough. They will still be wiser for the experience.