The Satanic Verses, 30 years later: Salman Rushdie's novel is a manifesto for our times

Thirty years ago this month, these words appeared in a book that would transform our world:

Question: What is the opposite of faith? 

Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself is a kind of belief. 


“Angels,” wrote Salman Rushdie, in The Satanic Verses, “are easily pacified; turn them into instruments and they'll play your harpy tune. Human beings are tougher nuts, can doubt anything, even the evidence of their own eyes. Of being-their-own-eyes. Of what, as they sink heavy-lidded, transpires behind closed peepers ... angels, they don't have much in the way of a will. To will is to disagree; not to submit; to dissent.”

Few books — not Lucretius Carus’ De rerum natura, not Giordano Bruno’s De l'infinito universo e mondi, not François-Marie Arouet’s Voltaire, not James Joyce’s Ulysses — have claimed as much blood as The Satanic Verses, though all sought to upend the world. Islamabad and Kashmir saw murderous riots protesting the book; figures involved in its publication were assassinated.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to ban imports of The Satanic Verses, in the wake of appeals from Member of Parliament Syed Shahabuddin and literary gadfly Khushwant Singh, still stands, a grim shadow over India’s cultural landscape. Censorship, by law or by lumpen, has become the norm.

It’s time to revisit the ban, and its grim legacy. Perumal Murugan’s Madhorubhagan; K Senthil Mallar’s Meendezhum Pandiyar Varalaru; DN Jha’s Holy Cow; James Laine’s histories of Shivaji, even blogs or Twitter provocations: what we may not read shapes our minds and our lives.

 The Satanic Verses, 30 years later: Salman Rushdies novel is a manifesto for our times

It’s time to revisit the ban on The Satanic Verses, and its grim legacy

“Have you thought of al-Lāt and al-‘Uzzá and Manāt, the third, the other?” the Archangel Gabriel dictated to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam.

Al-‘Uzzá, goddess of the morning and evening stars, was worshipped from Petra to Persia; al-Lāt, who represented fertility, and Manāt, she made up the trinity who dominated the imagination of pre-Islamic Arabia. Pilgrims from around the region marched each year to a black stone at Quidaid, near Mecca, Manāt’s most sacred sanctuary.

But, as the Sūrat an-Najm was recited, the Prophet’s contemporary Muhammad ibn Ka’b was to claim, the Devil entered the conversation: “These are the exalted gharāniq [cranes], whose intercession is hoped for.”

This deeply heretical event, hacking at Islam’s monotheist foundation, lies at the core of The Satanic Verses ethical challenge. How can we know what we believe is correct? How far can we be certain our most cherished certainties are not seductions by the Devil, or our own vanities? Are the narratives we build our lives around in fact fictions? Put another way, ought doubt — not certainty — guide our actions?

Philosophers and scholars have, over the decades, grappled with the incident of the so-called Satanic verse — an event regularly reported in exegesis from the first two centuries of Islam. Indeed, Taqī ad-Dīn Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah, an iconoclastic medieval scholar, recorded that “early Islamic scholars collectively considered the Verses of Cranes in accordance with Quran”.

Later scholars, though, noted that the evidence for the verse was thin, a single narrator whose account was recorded two generations after his passing.

The orthodox insist the actual event involved a group of pagan Quraish converted to Islam — but then, shamed and threatened by the peers, invented the incident of the verse to claim they embraced Muhammad after he venerated their traditional goddesses.

Maxime Rodinson, an eminent scholar, has argued the incident was likely true, since “the makers of Muslim tradition would never have invented a story with such damaging implications for the revelation as a whole”. In his view, the pragmatic politician Muhammad had — briefly — chosen a “practical road to unanimity” with his tribal adversaries.

Fred Halliday, conversely, has cast the story as a cautionary tale, which seeks “not to malign God but to point up the frailty of human beings”.

Later historians, conscious that there’s no empirically-robust way to settle the debate, have mostly steered clear of the controversy.

In 630 CE, the warrior Khalid al-Walid entered the temple at Nakhala, where tribes of Quraish and Kinanah worshipped al-ʻUzzā. Al-Walid was, chroniclers recount, confronted by a naked woman who cut down nine of his men before she was overpowered, and cut in two.

“That was al-ʻUzzā,” Muhammad told him, “and never again shall she be worshiped in your land”.

Few of the women and men willing to die — and kill — to silence The Satanic Verses demonstrated any understanding of the philosophical debates around which it hinged: indeed, the pious made the argument that reading the book would, in itself, constitute blasphemy. To understand this reaction, the philosopher Kenan Malik has pointed to profound shifts in identity politics that coincided with the release of the book.

First, Malik notes, the protests against the book came just as a “Muslim” identity emerged among diasporic communities in Europe. Where the first generation of Muslim immigrants were loose believers, seeking liberation from the conservatism of their homelands, the second had been expressly liberal and secular.

The third generation, though, coming of age in the 1980s, grew up disillusioned with democracy — disenfranchised by racism and poorly educated, this cohort found its voice through the Saudi Arabia-Iran competitive fundamentalism sparked off by the 1979 revolution that brought Islamists to power in Teheran.

Ironically, state-sponsored multiculturalism — which privileged identity over class — and social welfare, which allowed young people to sunder themselves from the wider community, deepened the alienation.

The furore over Rushdie’s book in Europe spread rapidly on to Pakistan and India’s Kashmir — a sign of the growing influence of diasporas over events at home — finally exploding into Iranian ruler Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s infamous fatwa against the book and its author. Saudi Arabia rapidly responded with calls for the Islamic world to act against the book, fuelling a rising tide of religious bigotry worldwide.

Peter Mayer, Penguin’s head when it published The Satanic Verses, stood by the book through the violence that followed, aware “that what we did now affected much more than simply the fate of this one book. How we responded to the controversy over The Satanic Verses would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it”.

It’s hard to imagine a publisher taking a similar position today on any controversial book: in 2014, the same Penguin withdrew Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus from stores even in the absence of a ban, while the Jaipur Literary Festival not only withdrew an invitation to Rushdie in 2012, but evicted writers who wanted to read from his works.

The decades since The Satanic Verses appeared have seen a hardening of the belief that in the pursuit of peace amid multicultural societies, offence ought not be permitted. This idea, in turn, rests on another: that our beliefs and ideas are so important that they ought not face challenge.

Perdition, not peace, is where this road leads: since almost any critical thought will offend someone, the path leads inexorably on to the silencing of all but those who have bullets to back their words.

Updated Date: Sep 30, 2018 09:48:20 IST