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Brooks Cooper
Brooks Cooper

The Satanic Verses

Washed up on the wintry English coast, salvaged by an aged widow, who is imaginatively reliving her early married life on the Argentine pampas, the survivors feel themselves to be ''born again'' in some sense yet to unfold. Gibreel seems to be acquiring a radiance; Chamcha is slowly developing horns, hoofs excessive body hair and a tail. The two men are ''conjoined opposites'' in relation to one another and within themselves. Gibreel (Gabriel), who has a halo - an angelic countenance without, treachery and poisonous jealousy within - will do the work of Azraeel, the angel of death, as his radiance intensifies to consuming fire. Chamcha, a suffering mass of misunderstood, kindly intentions, will exact a terrible revenge before the end. Interestingly, it is only when Chamcha begins to vent his anger and rage that his satanic stigmata start to disappear.

The Satanic Verses


Deeper ground for puzzlement, if not complaint, lies elsewhere - particularly in the choice of the name ''Mahound'' for Mohammed. In the medieval Christian mystery plays, Mahound (spelled variously ''Mahowne,'' ''Mahon,'' ''Mahum'' or ''Mahun'') is sometimes the friend of Pontius Pilate or Caesar, sometimes the friend or cousin of Herod, but always a satanic figure. (The name ''Mahound'' seems to have been created by the conflation of ''Mahomet'' and ''hound.'') How are we to understand the adoption - by a writer born a Muslim - of so defamatory a name for the prophet of Islam? And how are we to account for Mr. Rushdie's incorporation of this name into the creed of Islam: ''There is no God except Al-Lah, and Mahound is his Prophet''?

To understand the shock of this, Westerners might try a satanic substitution in the text of the Nicene Creed. Few orthodox Christians would find the alteration a laughing matter. So why Mahound? Again, it must be remembered that this is fiction. ''It was so, it was not.'' . . . as the storytellers say. More precisely, this is a dream within a fiction - twice removed from the actual. Before his ill-fated flight, the dreamer, Gibreel, had a crisis in faith and did a lot of reading. And the insanity defense might be invoked, although it tends to explain away and diminish his visions. Gibreel is, we are told, in the grip of ''paranoid schizophrenia.'' Yet, clearly, something more programmatic is afoot here. In a direct aside to the reader, the author offers this by way of explanation:

But the problem is that many historical texts do contain the anecdote, in around 50 slightly varying versions. Moreover, as the book Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam (2017) by Shahab Ahmed convincingly shows, the first generations of Muslims did not question the incident. Only gradually, with the development of certain doctrines regarding the sinlessness of prophets, did the story become impossible to accept. Even Ibn Taymiyyah, the 14th-century firebrand and intellectual forefather of Salafism, accepted the veracity of the satanic verses story.

In his book, Ahmed proposed that the story served particular functions in different contexts for the very first generations of believers: it might have originated to explain certain obscure Quranic verses; it might have been an uplifting narrative of triumph over adversity, of succumbing to temptation at a moment of despair, and then returning to the straight path. In other words, it is possible for believers to find meaning in a non-orthodox interpretation of the anecdote. Likewise, it is possible for a nonbeliever such as Rushdie to find something valuable in the life of the prophet, even when God is out of the picture. The Muhammadan revelation becomes a matter of human history and behaviour, a story of belief and credulity, of power and knowledge, one that has echoes throughout human experience. 041b061a72


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