Cover of the first edition, showing a detail from Rustam Killing the White Demon from a Clive Album in the Victoria and Albert Museum
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
|Pages||546 (first edition)|
|LC Class||PR6068.U757 S27 1988|
|Followed by||Haroun and the Sea of Stories|
The Satanic Verses is Salman Rushdie's fourth novel, first published in 1988 and inspired in part by the life of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. As with his previous books, Rushdie used magical realism and relied on contemporary events and people to create his characters. The title refers to the satanic verses, a group of Quranic verses that allow intercessory prayers to be made to three Pagan Meccan goddesses: All?t, Uzza, and Man?t. The part of the story that deals with the "satanic verses" was based on accounts from the historians al-Waqidi and al-Tabari.
In the United Kingdom, The Satanic Verses received positive reviews, was a 1988 Booker Prize finalist (losing to Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda) and won the 1988 Whitbread Award for novel of the year. However, major controversy ensued as Muslims accused it of blasphemy and mocking their faith. The outrage among Muslims resulted in a fatw? calling for Rushdie's death issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, on 14 February 1989. The result was several failed assassination attempts on Rushdie, who was placed under police protection by the UK government, and attacks on several connected individuals such as translator Hitoshi Igarashi (leading, in Igarashi's case, to death).
The Satanic Verses consists of a frame narrative, using elements of magical realism, interlaced with a series of sub-plots that are narrated as dream visions experienced by one of the protagonists. The frame narrative, like many other stories by Rushdie, involves Indian expatriates in contemporary England. The two protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, are both actors of Indian Muslim background. Farishta is a Bollywood superstar who specialises in playing Hindu deities. (The character is partly based on Indian film stars Amitabh Bachchan and N. T. Rama Rao.) Chamcha is an emigrant who has broken with his Indian identity and works as a voiceover artist in England.
At the beginning of the novel, both are trapped in a hijacked plane flying from India to Britain. The plane explodes over the English Channel, but the two are magically saved. In a miraculous transformation, Farishta takes on the personality of the archangel Gabriel and Chamcha that of a devil. Chamcha is arrested and passes through an ordeal of police abuse as a suspected illegal immigrant. Farishta's transformation can partly be read on a realistic level as the symptom of the protagonist's developing schizophrenia.
Both characters struggle to piece their lives back together. Farishta seeks and finds his lost love, the English mountaineer Allie Cone, but their relationship is overshadowed by his mental illness. Chamcha, having miraculously regained his human shape, wants to take revenge on Farishta for having forsaken him after their common fall from the hijacked plane. He does so by fostering Farishta's pathological jealousy and thus destroying his relationship with Allie. In another moment of crisis, Farishta realises what Chamcha has done, but forgives him and even saves his life.
Both return to India. Farishta throws Allie off a high rise in another outbreak of jealousy and then commits suicide. Chamcha, who has found not only forgiveness from Farishta but also reconciliation with his estranged father and his own Indian identity, decides to remain in India.
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Embedded in this story is a series of half-magic dream vision narratives, ascribed to the mind of Farishta. They are linked together by many thematic details as well as by the common motifs of divine revelation, religious faith and fanaticism, and doubt.
One of these sequences contains most of the elements that have been criticised as offensive to Muslims. It is a transformed re-narration of the life of Muhammad (called "Mahound" or "the Messenger" in the novel) in Mecca ("Jahiliyyah"). At its centre is the episode of the so-called satanic verses, in which the prophet first proclaims a revelation in favour of the old polytheistic deities, but later renounces this as an error induced by the Devil. There are also two opponents of the "Messenger": a demonic heathen priestess, Hind bint Utbah, and an irreverent skeptic and satirical poet, Baal. When the prophet returns to the city in triumph, Baal goes into hiding in an underground brothel, where the prostitutes assume the identities of the prophet's wives. Also, one of the prophet's companions claims that he, doubting the authenticity of the "Messenger," has subtly altered portions of the Quran as they were dictated to him.
The second sequence tells the story of Ayesha, an Indian peasant girl who claims to be receiving revelations from the Archangel Gibreel. She entices all her village community to embark on a foot pilgrimage to Mecca, claiming that they will be able to walk across the Arabian Sea. The pilgrimage ends in a catastrophic climax as the believers all walk into the water and disappear, amid disturbingly conflicting testimonies from observers about whether they just drowned or were in fact miraculously able to cross the sea.
A third dream sequence presents the figure of a fanatic expatriate religious leader, the "Imam", in a late-20th-century setting. This figure is a transparent allusion to the life of Ruhollah Khomeini in his Parisian exile, but it is also linked through various recurrent narrative motifs to the figure of the "Messenger".
Overall, the book received favourable reviews from literary critics. In a 2003 volume of criticism of Rushdie's career, the influential critic Harold Bloom named The Satanic Verses "Rushdie's largest aesthetic achievement".
Timothy Brennan called the work "the most ambitious novel yet published to deal with the immigrant experience in Britain" that captures the immigrants' dream-like disorientation and their process of "union-by-hybridization". The book is seen as "fundamentally a study in alienation."
Muhammd Mashuq ibn Ally wrote that "The Satanic Verses is about identity, alienation, rootlessness, brutality, compromise, and conformity. These concepts confront all migrants, disillusioned with both cultures: the one they are in and the one they join. Yet knowing they cannot live a life of anonymity, they mediate between them both. The Satanic Verses is a reflection of the author's dilemmas." The work is an "albeit surreal, record of its own author's continuing identity crisis." Ally said that the book reveals the author ultimately as "the victim of nineteenth-century British colonialism." Rushdie himself spoke confirming this interpretation of his book, saying that it was not about Islam, "but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay." He has also said "It's a novel which happened to contain a castigation of Western materialism. The tone is comic."
After the Satanic Verses controversy developed, some scholars familiar with the book and the whole of Rushdie's work, like M. D. Fletcher, saw the reaction as ironic. Fletcher wrote "It is perhaps a relevant irony that some of the major expressions of hostility toward Rushdie came from those about whom and (in some sense) for whom he wrote." He said the manifestations of the controversy in Britain "embodied an anger arising in part from the frustrations of the migrant experience and generally reflected failures of multicultural integration, both significant Rushdie themes. Clearly, Rushdie's interests centrally include explorations of how migration heightens one's awareness that perceptions of reality are relative and fragile, and of the nature of religious faith and revelation, not to mention the political manipulation of religion. Rushdie's own assumptions about the importance of literature parallel in the literal value accorded the written word in Islamic tradition to some degree. But Rushdie seems to have assumed that diverse communities and cultures share some degree of common moral ground on the basis of which dialogue can be pieced together, and it is perhaps for this reason that he underestimated the implacable nature of the hostility evoked by The Satanic Verses, even though a major theme of that novel is the dangerous nature of closed, absolutist belief systems."
Rushdie's influences have long been a point of interest to scholars examining his work. According to W. J. Weatherby, influences on The Satanic Verses were listed as James Joyce, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Frank Herbert, Thomas Pynchon, Mervyn Peake, Gabriel García Márquez, Jean-Luc Godard, J. G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs.Angela Carter writes that the novel contains "inventions such as the city of Jahilia, 'built entirely of sand,' that gives a nod to Calvino and a wink to Frank Herbert".
Srinivas Aravamudan's analysis of The Satanic Verses stressed the satiric nature of the work and held that while it and Midnight's Children may appear to be more "comic epic", "clearly those works are highly satirical" in a similar vein of postmodern satire pioneered by Joseph Heller in Catch-22.
The Satanic Verses continued to exhibit Rushdie's penchant for organising his work in terms of parallel stories. Within the book "there are major parallel stories, alternating dream and reality sequences, tied together by the recurring names of the characters in each; this provides intertexts within each novel which comment on the other stories." The Satanic Verses also exhibits Rushdie's common practice of using allusions to invoke connotative links. Within the book he referenced everything from mythology to "one-liners invoking recent popular culture".
The novel provoked great controversy in the Muslim community for what some Muslims believed were blasphemous references. They accused him of misusing freedom of speech. As the controversy spread, the importing of the book was banned in India and it was burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, the Commission for Racial Equality and a liberal think tank, the Policy Studies Institute, held seminars on the Rushdie affair. They did not invite the author Fay Weldon, who spoke out against burning books, but did invite Shabbir Akhtar, a Cambridge philosophy graduate who called for "a negotiated compromise" which "would protect Muslim sensibilities against gratuitous provocation". The journalist and author Andy McSmith wrote at the time "We are witnessing, I fear, the birth of a new and dangerously illiberal "liberal" orthodoxy designed to accommodate Dr Akhtar and his fundamentalist friends."
In mid-February 1989, following a violent riot against the book in Pakistan, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran and a Shi'a Muslim scholar, issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers, and called for Muslims to point him out to those who can kill him if they cannot themselves. Although the British Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher gave Rushdie round-the-clock police protection, many politicians on both sides were hostile to the author. British Labour MP Keith Vaz led a march through Leicester shortly after he was elected in 1989 calling for the book to be banned, while the Conservative politician Norman Tebbit, the party's former chairman, called Rushdie an "outstanding villain" whose "public life has been a record of despicable acts of betrayal of his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality".
Journalist Christopher Hitchens staunchly defended Rushdie and urged critics to condemn the violence of the fatwa instead of blaming the novel or the author. Hitchens understood the fatwa to be the opening shot in a cultural war on freedom.
Despite a conciliatory statement by Iran in 1998, and Rushdie's declaration that he would stop living in hiding, the Iranian state news agency reported in 2006 that the fatwa would remain in place permanently since fatwas can only be rescinded by the person who first issued them, and Khomeini had since died.
With police protection, Rushdie escaped direct physical harm, but others associated with his book have suffered violent attacks. Hitoshi Igarashi, his Japanese translator, was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991. Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was seriously injured in a stabbing in Milan on 3 July 1991.William Nygaard, the publisher in Norway, was shot three times in an attempted assassination in Oslo in October 1993, but survived. Aziz Nesin, the Turkish translator, was possibly the intended target in the events that led to the Sivas massacre on 2 July 1993 in Sivas, Turkey, which resulted in 37 deaths.
In September 2012, Rushdie expressed doubt that The Satanic Verses would be published today because of a climate of "fear and nervousness".
In March 2016, PEN America reported that the bounty for the Rushdie fatwa was raised by $600,000 (£430,000). Top Iranian media contributed this sum, adding to the existing $2.8m already offered. In response, the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel prize for literature, denounced the death sentence and called it "a serious violation of free speech." This was the first time they had commented on the issue since publication.