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Satanic Verses' polarising untruths

Muslims burning Satanic Verses in Bradford, 1989
Salman Rushdie's book provoked a furious reaction from many Muslims

By Lawrence Pollard
Arts correspondent, BBC News

It must be both the most talked about and the least read book of recent times. Since it came out in 1988 The Satanic Verses has seemed more a principle to be argued over than a book to discuss.

From the very first call for it to be banned - made by Indian MP Syed Shahabuddin - its critics have proudly announced they didn't have to read it to know it was wrong.

And anecdotally, as I have been sitting re-reading the book, many colleagues have come up and admitted they had either bought it but never opened it or started and given up. So what is it like?

The Satanic Verses is three stories, told in three styles, threaded together in one novel.

In the first story, two contemporary Indians fall out of an exploding aeroplane and survive. One seems to become an angel floating around London, the other grows horns and cloven hoofs.

In another story a poor Indian girl of great beauty, surrounded by butterflies, leads a pilgrimage of Muslim villagers into the Arabian Sea, where they drown.

And in the third, most controversial strand, a prophet founds a religion in the desert. Although this story makes up only 70 of the 550 pages of the novel, it is the part which provoked the furious reaction we now call the Satanic Verses controversy.

Author's defence

The story is inspired by an apocryphal incident in the life of the Prophet Muhammad called (in the West at least) the Satanic Verses.

These are verses of the Koran which Muhammad later retracted as incorrect and blamed on the prompting of Satan - rather than being revealed to him (as was the Koran proper) by the Angel Gabriel.

Salman Rushdie, file image
I had no intention to be disrespectful towards the religion itself or its founder
Salman Rushdie

The issue is a controversial one for scholars and religious teachers and in basing part of his novel on the incident Rushdie knew he was dealing with potentially inflammatory material. So what did he do?

Rushdie created a prophet called Mahound. Living in a city built of sand, Mahound founds a radical religion as revealed to him by the Angel Gabriel.

Slowly, Rushdie introduces doubt over the nature of this revelation, until one of his disciples expresses his disillusion.

He "began to notice how useful and well timed the angel's revelations tended to be, so that when the faithful were disputing Mahound's views on any subject, from the possibility of space travel to the permanence of Hell, the angel would turn up with an answer, and he always supported Mahound".

Speaking at the time of publication, and before the fatwa, Rushdie said he'd gone to what he thought were enormous lengths to avoid confrontation.

"I had no intention to be disrespectful towards the religion itself or its founder," he said.

"I thought let's not call him Muhammad, let's not call it Mecca, let's not call it Islam, let's put it into a dream… how much further can you go before you say I am not trying to make a literal attack on Islam but a discussion about some of the themes which arise out of the religious experience."

Untruth, hallucination and dream

Elsewhere in the book characters have mystic visions, hallucinations and suffer doubt.

They live in Mumbai, in London, in the countryside, they suffer racism, violence, riot, terror - this is a broad canvas, on which many people are shown struggling with the stresses of immigration and of revelation.

But the echoes in the story of Mahound are what caused the trouble, being too close to the story of Muhammad's Satanic Verses for the comfort of some Muslims.

People looking for something offensive, heretical or blasphemous won't find it
John Sutherland

The book was not well-reviewed when it came out - and seemed to cause confusion. Bear in mind this was 1988, before the fall of communism and long before the so-called clash of civilisations between Islam and the West became the news of the day.

For Professor John Sutherland, critic and Booker prize judge, The Satanic Verses should now be seen as Rushdie's best novel, prophetic and the fruit of his obsession with on the one hand the magic of the Arabian Nights and on the other the literal truth claimed for the Koran.

"Rushdie is fascinated in the way that novels are true and the ways in which they become true through multiple untruths," he said.

"People looking for something offensive, heretical or blasphemous won't find it. It's not a diatribe, a calculated insult. It's an extremely good novel."

Indeed, the book is full of untruth, hallucination and dream - but it feels so real and convincing. There is a suggestion that just as writing is a great trick, so too is religion. A trick of language, like a novel.

But whether it was a good or a bad book soon seemed irrelevant, as it began to reframe debates over race relations and freedom of speech.

In a new book on the affair, the Indian-born British writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik argues that the row over The Satanic Verses led many British Muslims to define themselves as Muslims anew, and heralded a retreat from freedom of speech in the UK.

"I think the fatwa has been internalised in that there's a level of self-censorship now [and] care not to offend in a multicultural society which nobody had really thought about much prior to the Rushdie affair," he writes.

"The critics lost the battle but they've won the war."

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