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The Satanic Verses and Beyond

by David A. Kerr

David A. Kerr is professor of Islamic studies and director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslin Relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 5, 1989 p. 354. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


While the Prophet Muhammad was in Mecca, preaching against Arabian polytheism, ; he asked: "Have you seen al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat, the third, the other?" These words are recorded in the Qur’an as part of what Muhammad believed to be direct divine revelation. The Qur’an goes on to ridicule these three supposed deities, condemning them as "nothing but names you have devised." Some classical Muslim commentators, however, record that Muhammad may have originally interjected another phrase suggesting that the pagan deities were "exalted birds" through which the Meccans could intercede with Allah; but he quickly retracted these words, saying that they were of the devil.

These so-called Satanic verses, which inspired the title of Salman Rushdie’s novel, are for Muslims evidence of the Prophet’s utter trustworthiness, of his ability to distinguish true from false revelation, and hence of the authenticity of the Qur’an as the very Word of God. Islam’s detractors, by contrast, have used these words to impugn the nature of Muhammad’s inspiration, to caricature him as at best confused, at worst a tool of Satan. This is nowhere more evident than in the long history of medieval Christian polemic against Islam which perpetuated a character assassination of Muhammad, with lasting consequence for Western attitudes toward Islam.

Rushdie has said that his book is not about Islam but "about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay." In two chapters that take the form of a fictional dream of a fictional character, Rushdie deals in a fantastical way with the birth of a great world religion which claims to be based in revelation. It is these chapters which cause such deep offense to Muslims. Though allegorical in style, they clearly refer to the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad, his wives and companions in terms that are bound to give insult. The naming of the prophet as "Mahound," for example, directly evokes medieval European polemics which called Muhammad by this word, a synonym of the devil. He is said to have written his revelation at the prompting of one of his companions (another Salman) His wives are portrayed as harlots, and his companions as bums.

The book is not an objective critique of Islam, to be sure; but to protest that it is not about Islam, or at least about what Rushdie thinks of religion and revelation, is disingenuous. Rushdie admitted as much in a detailed BBC interview. "Islam is one of the greatest ideas that ever came into the world." Arguing that the historicity of its founding events is ambiguous, he went on: "Let’s take the themes I’m interested in and fantasize them and fabulate them and all that, so that we don’t have to get into the issue: did it really happen like this or not?" The theme which interests him most, he said, is how recipients of a new idea act: "When you’re weak, do you compromise; when you’re strong, are you tolerant?" Regarding the Prophet’s strength, Rushdie emphasized that Muhammad "was very tolerant" in victory, though he permitted the death of a satirical writer. Rushdie remarked: "At the very beginning of Islam you find a conflict between the sacred text and the profane text, between revealed literature and imagined literature."

Thus, Rushdie’s book is also about human doubt, which he calls "the central condition of the human being in the 20th century . . . the basis of the great artistic movement known as Modernism." The only sense in which he admits that his book is anti-Islamic is in its attack upon an uncritical acceptance of religious authority, which has been enforced by contemporary fundamentalists. "Their extremism is actually something fairly new," he contends. "Islamic culture is the one in which I grew up -- I know it well. In my family, in the Indian subcontinent, there was an absolute willingness to discuss anything. . . . These people’s [the fundamentalists’] Islam is not the only Islam."

Muslim protest is nonetheless understandable. Islam believes that Muhammad was the final Prophet of God, by whom God set his seal upon the truth of all earlier revelation. The Qur’an proclaims Muhammad to be "a beautiful example for whosoever believeth in God and the Last Day." Islamic theology upholds the Prophet’s sinlessness, and the Qur’an also warns seriously against blasphemy, which includes "speaking falsely" against God and his prophets; for those who do there awaits a "dire punishment" in the judgment of God on the Last Day. Islamic law has taken this as grounds for making blasphemy a capital crime.

Though Ayatollah Khomeini and others who call for the death of Rushdie have invoked this law against blasphemy, many authoritative Muslim leaders have condemned Khomeini’s action as itself in contravention of Islamic law. According to senior religious scholars at Cairo’s al-Azhar University, recognized throughout Sunni Islam as an unrivaled center of orthodox learning, blasphemy must first be proven in an Islamic court, and the guilty allowed to confess and retract the blasphemy. Capital punishment is allowed only where there is no repentance. Tahir Mahmoud, legal scholar at the New Delhi Institute of Islamic Studies, has said: "What Rushdie has done is definitely a crime against Islamic law. If he were a citizen of an Islamic state he could be prosecuted. But he is not. And under Islamic law any Muslim is not just allowed to kill anyone. The secretary general of the Arab League expressed similar views. However distasteful Rushdie’s book is, he said, he has become the focus of "a dimension of intolerance that is not tolerated by Islam itself."

These voices find much support among Muslim leaders in Britain and the United States. One of the leaders of the anti-Rushdie campaign in Britain, Hesham el-Essawy, head of the Islamic Society for the Promotion of Religious Tolerance in the UK, is on record as saying that he does not want the book to be banned, but wants Viking to include a note, like an erratum slip, stating the orthodox Muslim view. He condemns Khomeini as a "bigot," and with respect to Rushdie quotes the Qur’anic verse bidding Muslims to use "wise and fair exhortation, and reason . . . in the better way."

Hasan Abdullah of the University of Chicago says: "We are really outraged at the pronouncements of Khomeini and the fundamentalists of Islam, because it is a religion of tolerance of opinion, of discussion, of dialogue; it is not a closed religion." Condemning the book as "a blatant assault on Islam," the Islamic Society of North America nevertheless insists that "Islam does not condone violence or the incitement to violence directed against its author and those associated with its publication."

In late 1988 in Pakistan, where the recent election of Benazir Bhutto set back the Islamization program of her late predecessor, Zia al-Haqq, the conservative Islamic Democratic Alliance used Rushdie (who has family in Karachi) as a rallying point for opposition to Bhutto, who, schooled in Britain and America, stands in the same liberal intellectual tradition as Rushdie. The American Cultural Center in Karachi thus became the focus of demonstrations. The fire spread to the Pakistani community in Britain, centered in the industrial cities of the Midlands and the North.

In India, Rajiv Gandhi was quick to concede to demands to ban the book made by a few Muslim members of parliament, presumably because he wanted to secure votes among the Muslim population. No doubt there was also a personal element in this case, since Indira Gandhi was the target of an earlier Rushdie novel, Midnight’s Children, over which she threatened a libel suit against Rushdie.

Egypt, struggling with domestic conflict between fundamentalists and liberals, banned the book, just as it banned a much greater book by Nobel laureate Neguib Mahfouz, Children of Our Alley, because of its allegorical insinuations about the Prophet and early Islam.

Khomeini, looking to restore his own prestige among fundamentalists inside and outside Iran after his compromise in ending the Iran-Iraq war, was not going to be upstaged by these acts. His anti-Rushdie statements must be seen as part of the power game going on in Tehran between the pragmatists, led by President Ali Khamaini and Speaker Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, and the purists, led by Prime Minister Hussein Moussavi and Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashami. Rafsanjani, who aspires to win the presidency, is the architect of Iran’s gradually improving relations with the West, which are vital for rebuilding the Iranian economy. No wonder he urged Western diplomats to be patient while he tried to abate the storm in Tehran. The withdrawal of the European legations adds to the difficulties of the Iranian pragmatists.

Rushdie is understandably incensed that his book is being kicked around as a political football. He has been particularly critical of Rajiv Gandhi, whom he accuses of being "Philistine, anti-democratic and opportunistic." But Rushdie’s Muslim critics see another form of opportunism surfacing around the book in the West: the campaign for freedom of speech is judged by some to be cover for a new bout of anti-Islamic rhetoric (Islam being identified solely with Khomeini) , and is seen as closely tied to the commercial interests of authors, librarians, booksellers and the media.

"How long," asks Hesham el-Essawy, "are we going to sit watching one TV program after another insulting Islam? If this goes on, with a second generation of Muslims growing up in Britain faced by this wall of misunderstanding, they will one day react violently." Similar sentiments have been expressed by Muslims in the United States: "Here you can trample on people’s feelings; do you call that freedom of expression?"

The real question the Rushdie affair raises is how to deal with the collision of values. Muslim societies still have a more traditionally religious worldview; Rushdie observes, "If you come from India or Pakistan, how can you reject religion? Religion is the air everyone breathes." It follows that it is hardly possible to discuss religion in the same way as is done in the much more secularized cultures of the West. But in a pluralistic world community no culture has the unassailable right to project its values as universal. This is acknowledged in Rushdie’s much-publicized statement of regret which he offered to sincere Muslims offended by the publication of his book: "Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others."

The same point is well made by Neguib Mahfouz, who dislikes but accepts the ban on his work as understandable in the culture in which he lives. "Not all countries are alike in cultural standards," he points out. But Mahfouz supports Rushdie’s freedom in Britain, where Rushdie describes the role of the writer as that of looking at things "differently from the way in which the people in power tell us to look at the world."

The question of how different cultural values may coexist within the new pluralism of Western society has become critical in multireligious Britain and in parts of North America. Behind the public posturing around Rushdie’s book, important social realities have been revealed. One of Rushdie’s favorite spots in London is Brick Lane in the East End. In the 1930s it was a place of Jewish settlement; now it is the home of Pakistanis and Bengalis. The market there is full of young people who are Asian by descent,

Muslim by religion and British by citizenship. It is in their lives that the issues of pluralism are being struggled through. No longer fitting easily into the cultural traditions of their parents and having as yet little place in British culture, they exist in a sort of anonymity, the butt of racist abuse. It is their crisis which fuels the fictional fantasy of Rushdie’s book.

For the sake of those in such situations, be they in Bradford, Brick Lane, Chicago or Detroit, let those who feel secure in a majority culture listen to what Rushdie has to say, and match appropriate criticism of his excesses and insults with a healthy dose of self-criticism for the racism in Britain and the West which is one of the main concerns of his book.


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