Rushdie’s Moral Hegira

by Lamin Sanneh

Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 21-28, 1989, p. 622. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


An examination of the cross-cultural encounter dramatized in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses — and the furor the novel created in the Islamic world and the West.

Book Review:

The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie. Viking, 547 pp., $19.95.

The story begins aboard flight Al-420 bound for London from Bombay. Over the skies of London the plane is blown apart by the bomb of a Sikh terrorist, and Gibreel and Saladin tumble out of the skies. As they fall they believe they are dead, but find that they are very much alive. They land, first as despised Asian immigrants in Britain, and then as extraterrestrial beings: Gibreel as the archangel himself, and Saladin as the devil. Gibreel roams the streets of London bent on saving lost souls, but he suffers strange dreams. One dream concerns Mahound, a businessman turned prophet (styled after the Prophet Muhammad, who was formerly in the caravan trade) , and another features Ayesha, beloved spouse of the Prophet, leading her people on a hazard-strewn pilgrimage. Saladin, having sprouted hair, horns and hoofs, finds himself an unwelcome immigrant and is arrested. He receives support from the immigrant community he had sought to avoid when he embarked for London, wishing to conquer the heights of British culture. He becomes the symbol of a double dilemma: of cultural alienation and of rejection by his adopted land.

When Saladin and Gibreel meet, Saladin succeeds in convincing Gibreel that the latter had been dreaming, and Gibreel wakes to madness. Then Saladin goads him into fits of jealous rage by hoax phone calls using different voices. The theme of "satanic verses," which Rushdie first develops with Gibreel insinuating his own ideas into the mind of prophet Mahound, now blossoms as poisoned ivy under Gibreel’s feet: "Violets are blue, roses are red/ I’ll get her right in my bed," the reference being to Allie Cone, Gibreel’s English paramour. Gibreel turns into a raging devil and thunders ruin and destruction on London. Out of the ashes Rushdie devises a saving moment: Saladin offers his life to save the immigrant community he had been loathe to identify with -- but Gibreel intervenes to stay his hand. So on the night of death and destruction, reconciliation triumphs in one corner of the city.

The violent eruptions occasioned by The Satanic Verses stem in part from Rushdie’s powers of evocation, which are considerable, and in part from the nature of Muslim religious sensibilities, which are also considerably profound, When Rushdie allows his characters to lapse into dream states, he creates the space to erect great structures of fancy and imagination -- though the structures connect most tangibly with, the real world. It would be easy to identify the passages in the book that have caused the most offense: the section dealing with Mahound, which also deals with the whole question of the "satanic verses," with reference to the well-known verses in the Qur’an (in surahs 53 and 21) that many commentators see as indicating a questionable Islamic monotheist compromise with Meccan polytheism. We then have a major section on Ayesha, who is later impersonated by one of the prostitutes, the whores of "The Curtain," and from that impersonation the reader is given full details of Ayesha’s strong-willed character, and the scandal involving her and an apparently innocent young man, Safwan, who rescues her on a desert trail only for idle tongues to wag about their alleged secret conduct. "The two young people had been alone in the desert for many hours, and it was hinted, more and more loudly, that Safwan was a dashingly handsome fellow, and the Prophet was much older than the young woman, after all, and might she therefore have been attracted to someone closer to her age? ‘Quite a scandal,’ Salman commented, happily. ‘What will Mahound do?’ Baal wanted to know. ‘O, he’s done it,’ Salman replied. ‘Same as ever. He saw his pet, the archangel, and then informed one and all that Gibreel had exonerated Ayesha.’" And so the dishonoring of Ayesha is remedied by an equal dishonoring of the revelation.

The issue of the Prophet himself receiving the revelation attracts considerable attention. As the Prophet receives the divine message, he has the archangel Gibreel, transformed into a character, first lurking in the shadows and then occupying the center stage with his elaborate dream concerning the city of Jahilia (jahiliyya = the pre-Islamic era of darkness and ignorance). In this section the blasphemous suggestion is made that the Qur’an has been tampered with by the archangel Gibreel who deliberately altered and falsified the message since he thought he was dealing with a gullible Prophet Mahound.

"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. So there I was, actually writing the Book, or re-writing, anyway, polluting the word of God with my own profane language. But, good heavens, if my poor words could not be distinguished from the Revelation by God’s own Messenger, then what did that mean?" That assault on the integrity of the Qur’an ("Your blasphemy, Salman, can’t be forgiven. Do you think I wouldn’t work it out? To set your words against the Word of God," the reference being this time to Salman as Mahound’s official scribe) is spiced with gossip about Mahound’s womanizing and moral turpitude. By the time Gibreel’s dream ends, the denouement is still to come. But most Muslims would not wait for that.

Europeans and North Americans find it hard to appreciate the depth of outrage and anguish The Satanic Verses has caused in the Muslim world, and I am afraid that the issue of the death threat against the author has served merely to deepen confusion in the West. It has been easy for Westerners to sidestep the questions the book has raised and to take refuge in matters of freedom of speech, the limits of citizenship and state jurisdiction, due process and the rule of law -- a response that involves little cross-cultural awareness. As long as the West is reluctant to face the fact that for Muslims religion is not a matter for private, individual decision, it misunderstands what actuates the hopes and conduct of a significant part of the world and also conceals from itself the depth of its own religious roots.

Two aspects of the Islamic context of the novel call for comment. One is the status Muslims assign to the Qur’an and, by implication, to the Prophet Muhammad, its chosen bearer. One irate Muslim illustrated this issue in a personal letter to Rushdie in the New York Times. "The Muslim view is that even incorrectly reading the Koran is a cardinal sin. The Koran is neither read nor recited in translation for the very reason that translation might introduce alteration. This matter is deadly serious and to make it a subject of insensitive fantasy is equally serious" (S: Nomanul Haq, "Salman Rushdie, Blame Yourself," February 23, 1989)

That is a point ordinary Muslims around the world understand, but, alas, not so even sophisticated Westerners. When I have tried to introduce the idea of the nontranslatable Qur’an to my Harvard students and Western friends, one of their typical reactions is to think that, like Roman Catholics and the Latin Mass before the Second Vatican Council, Muslims will also soon come to realize the necessity for translation, which will then open them up to higher criticism. Consequently, many Westerners find, it difficult to recognize Islam on its own terms, and they mask that failure by a form of self-flattery and a unilateralism in which Islam is reduced to a sub-category of Christianity. The notion that Muslims would wish to follow in the footsteps of Christianity strikes many of us as self-evident, and so we have been slow to concede the full claims of Muslims for the special status of the Qur’an. Even the helpful suggestion by some Western scholars that the Qur’an should properly be compared to Jesus Christ in Christianity has failed to instruct or deter. After all, we recall, what fancy academic footwork have we not done in the name of "the quest for the historical Jesus"? So "the quest for the historical Qur’an" would be a logical complement, bringing Islam into line with Christianity.

The fact that Islam is a missionary religion with converts in numerous parts of the world, including the U.S., confirms people in their conviction that some process of translation must be taking place -- and it is. But our reluctance to concede the primacy of a non-translatable Qur’an in the central rites of Islam renders us tone deaf to Muslims’ attitudes toward it. Unfortunately, that reluctance extends to the obligatory nature of Muslim practice itself: we think it is not as important, for example, that Muslims are required to perform the prayers as that they pray. In that way we impose upon voluntary individualism o the

religion one professes than that one is free to profess it.

The second matter relates to the novel’s central device of employing the dream technique to develop and explore character. In an open letter to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India, published in the New York Times (February 17) , Rushdie defended his use of dreams as an imaginative instrument. He said the portion of the book most offensive to Muslims "happens in a dream, the fictional dream of a fictional character, an Indian movie star, and one who is losing his mind, at that. How much further," he queried, "from history could one get?" Nevertheless, Rushdie goes on to say that he also uses the dream technique to offer his view of the phenomenon of revelation and "the birth of a great world religion," a paragraph unfortunately mangled by a printing flaw. In that comment Rushdie reveals that he is much closer to gut-level Islam than the fictive distance of a dream might indicate.

Much of the defense of Rushdie comes from writers who have argued that it is only religious naïveté that prevents Muslims from being able to distinguish between fact and fantasy. The religious zealots who have hounded Rushdie, we are told, have only literal minds and are thus a danger to liberal society and its cultivation of the ironic mind. To such zealots, the argument goes, we cannot entrust the crucial distinction between disagreement and suppression, nor expect "a relaxed child of the Enlightenment" to find congenial room in that frenzied company of bookburners. All of this talk, animated by mistrust of religion, evades a central responsibility of the West toward itself and the rest of the world.

For Muslims the dream is not a neutral category, or even, as Rushdie claims, a pathological state, which is also how the modern West views the subject. On the contrary, the dream has an exalted place in the Muslim tradition. The most authoritative Islamic writer on the subject, ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641-1731) , makes an explicit claim for dreams in his two-volume encyclopedic work. He says, "One who does not believe in dreams does not believe in God and the Last Day." He continues, "The knowledge of dreams is the first science from the beginning of creation and has never ceased to be bestowed on Prophets . . . who were instructed regarding the science until their Prophethood was demonstrated by means of it." Muslims believe that prophecy has 46 parts, and that the dream is one of them.

Thus it is not the literal mind of the religious zealot that prevents Muslims from seeing the difference between fact and fantasy or between dream and sanity, and we flatter ourselves if we think it is refined sensibility rather than cultural limitation that makes us strip dreams of any real significance. In this area, too, Western readers of The Satanic Verses may have missed a chance at self-understanding

Before pronouncing on Rushdie’s accomplishments in The Satanic Verses, it is necessary to examine some major themes that have emerged in the West in response to the novel.

The first theme is the most predictable, and it relates to what I described above as Western cultural self-flattery. This view says in effect that thanks to the Enlightenment the West has outgrown those obscurantist medieval habits that allowed religion to thrive, which were accompanied by repression, heresy trials and witch-hunts. The Enlightenment put up a steel barrier against that archaic age by giving us institutions and ideas that enshrine the liberty of the individual and freedom of conscience. As one Roman Catholic writer was at pains to point out for the benefit of the pope in view of Khomeini’s approach, the church does not live in the Middle Ages, and Muslims ought to be told so.

It does not require support for the late ayatollah to say that it demands a particularly agile imagination to collapse his Iran and its sophisticated technological accouterments into a past stage of Europe’s development. Such a conflation flatters (and misleads) only the West. It is a way of viewing Islam as in a telescope, encountering there in enlarged detail something of our Manichaean past now rendered obsolete by human evolution. However, this is a peculiarly partial evolutionary view, in which religion evolves but not the Enlightenment or the French Revolution. Islam is not a sub- category of the West, and seeing it in those terms merely perpetuates an image that is familiar, but also negative.

Another response has been to call for self-criticism. In the Times Literary Supplement, L. A. Siedentop writes:

The most poignant aspect of the debate unleashed by the Islamic response to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is the confusion it has revealed in the West. The Christian or post-Christian nations are confused about their own identity to an astonishing extent. That confusion has two important consequences. It makes the West a less effective defender of certain values than it ought to be. And, second, it prevents the West from understanding what is happening throughout the world at the most important level, the level of belief. We have become rather unused to considering belief as the source of change ["Liberalism: The Christian Connection," March 24-39].

The crux of the problem, then, for us in North America is our inability or reluctance to see how religion, rather than market forces, can be a basis of social identity and personal motivation and be the fundamental source of value. Whereas in the West "truth" exists as a function of organized will and its eventuality in success, for Muslims the social, economic, political and military orders are all expressions of a fundamental religious truth. Whereas we put religion in the sphere of private life and promote economic pursuits -- such as transnational corporate trade and dealings on the stock market -- to the level of universal norms, Muslims accord that status to matters religious. Islam is the religious counterpart to the transnational corporate enterprise; the Qur’an the imperishable stock, so to speak, in which all believers have a joint share; and pilgrimage to Mecca the goal and reward for personal and collective endeavor. All this has implications for our practice of separating private and public, church and state, the public order and civil society, state jurisdiction and individual rights, criminal law and civil justice, and so on.

Rather than taking at face value Western rhetoric about itself as individualistic, secular and materialistic, and thus as an avowedly non-religious mode of civilization, we should recognize the deep religious roots from which these so-called secular values stem. Western liberalism, as Siedentop has cogently argued, is itself the offshoot of the Christian religious heritage, especially in its Protestant variety: liberalism is Protestant Christianity purged of its ritual and sacramental content. The rise of the modern West is at heart the rise of the free individual, the free individual conceived as a moral agent imbued with an inviolable conscience, and thus the linchpin of the religious project of personal autonomy in a redeemed world.

One facet of the West’s religious legacy is the sense of the sanctity of life; that idea has both ontological roots and an incarnational metaphysic. The apparent reckless abandon with which a Muslim leader could call for the death of a writer offends not just our notions of due process or even the boundaries of state jurisdiction but our view of this life as our hallowed destiny. We think to die for religious truth is an act of blind zeal, whereas Muslims think to die just for national honor is an act of infidelity. Both sides justify death, but the West places national interest before religion, and Muslims do the reverse. There are, of course, many areas of complexity, with national honor sometimes taking on a religious guise on both sides. However, with the doctrine of the separation of church and state, the West found itself having to deal with death, but unable completely to do so within the limited discourse of military force and the public will.

In the novel, Rushdie has embarked on a peculiarly distinctive journey for which the book may be seen as both transcript and affidavit. The grand theme of The Satanic Verses is the transition from the individual as the representative of a collective heritage to the individual as an autonomous, psychic entity. One may speak of it as a transition from the social solidarity so characteristic of the non-Western world to the spirit of personal responsibility of the West provided, of course, one also realizes that such transitions are taking place among persons who have not journed to the West. In one place in the novel a dialogue articulates this theme. "Tell your son," Changez booms at Nasreen, "that if he went abroad to learn contempt for his own kind, then his own kind can feel nothing but scorn for him." The isolation of a foreign country makes those words ring several decibels above the tolerable limit. Thus the novelist speaks of his adopted England as "a peculiar-tasting smoked fish full of spikes and bones, and nobody would ever tell you how to eat it."

Among the writers who have explored that theme in the West we find the same wrestling with the norms of inherited tradition, the same anguished questioning, as if to know oneself one has to test, and even exceed, the bounds of propriety. And as we know from the great writers of every age, the revolt against convention can be a sort of faith, a conviction as deep as what it tries to overthrow. In a mature resolution of this tension we may get a reflection of the positive elements of tradition outside its dogmatic straitjacket.

Rushdie himself is well aware of where he is aiming his blows. In a passage of prophetic significance, he writes: "A man who sets out to make himself up is taking on the Creator’s role, according to one way of seeing things; he’s unnatural, a blasphemer, an abomination of abominations. From another angle, you could see pathos in him, heroism in his struggle, in his willingness to risk . . ." That project, of exploring the spirit and limits of being human, is, of course, a deeply characteristic quality of Western literature and philosophy, from St. Augustine to Thomas Merton, from Meister Eckhart to William James and Albert Camus. For its sake people are prepared to undergo singular privations and take enormous risks. And it cannot, seemingly, be done without unscrambling tradition, at least without measuring oneself against its ultimate sanctions.

In Rushdie’s case those ultimate sanctions happen to be Islamic. Whatever his personal attitude toward the Islamic heritage, he cannot unglue himself from it. On the contrary, his own project of personal freedom is bound up with what risks he is prepared to take with that aspect of his past, a past that also shapes and forms his present. He would not dispute that we cannot divest ourselves completely of our cultural formation. And so he experiments with Islamic culture, turns it inside out and upside down, flirts with it, chucks it aside, and performs endless dissections and experimentations to see whether truth can withstand the cut and thrust of human manipulation. For if it cannot, then it is not worth having.

But after we have dealt with ourselves as severely and as mercilessly as we are capable and still find at the center of being an insistent voice of truth, then where is left to hide? Wherever that leaves us, whether with an awakened sense of cosmic harmony or the frightful feeling of confronting an indifferent or hostile Power, we can never understand ourselves completely without reference to that existential struggle. So what defines us, then, is not our capacity to submit blindly to authority, or to carry out its extreme orders, but to face ourselves without the crutches of secondhand faith, or secondhand doubt. In that sense the novel sees the new conditions of exile as a fresh hegira, "emigration," a new moral condition demanding a response somewhat analogous to the response of religious people to a revelation. Thus constituted as a universal religious analogy, secular England assumes a moral imperative for all muhajirin, "emigrants," and is thus an apt analogue to the Medina of the first Muslim emigrants. The exiled Rushdie in the secular West, then, must, like the candle, provide illumination by consuming his own heritage.

Concerning the issue of immigration as a process of creative cross-cultural encounter and not simply as unthinking conformism to received dogma, Fuentes says the mission of all great literature is to be "a harbinger of a multipolar and multicultural world, where no single philosophy, no single belief, no single solution, can shunt aside the extreme wealth of mankind’s cultural heritage. Our future depends on the enlarged freedom for the multiracial and the polycultural to express itself in a world of shifting, decaying and emerging power centers." I find in The Satanic Verses a recollection of that great theme.