I decided to read this novel by Salman Rushdie because I had not read any of his work, because this particular novel is famous, and because of my interest in better understanding Islam. The novel is famous for the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini calling for the death of Rushdie for having committed blasphemy and for mocking the Islamic faith. There was a bounty of £2.8 million on Rushdie’s head and several failed assassination attempts; others associated with the novel were not as fortunate: Hitoshi Igarashi the Japanese translator, was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991, and a number of attempts were made on the lives of others. The novel was published in 1988, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but won the Whitbread Award for novel of the year. The fatwa was issued on 14 February 1989. In the UK, 13 Muslim barristers drafted an indictment for the High Court attempting to justify a charge of blasphemy. This attempt failed and blasphemy is no longer an offense under English law. For years, Rushdie lived at no fixed abode under Special Branch protection. In 1998, Iran issued a conciliatory statement and Rushdie declared he would no longer live 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Iranian state news agency reported in 2006 that the fatwa would remain in place permanently since fatwas can only be rescinded by the person who first issued them, and Khomeini had since died.
In the context of blasphemy, it is worth a brief description of the origin of the term ‘satanic verses’. Muhammad was living in Mecca at the time and he was experiencing difficulty persuading powerful Meccans to accept that he was the prophet of God. There is a theory – repeated in Rushdie’s novel – that, as a concession to these men, he gave brief permission for prayer to three popular idols. What is certain is that Muhammad originally recited several verses naming the idols, praising them and indicating that they should not be neglected. Muhammad then inserted three replacement verses which say that the idols are only ‘names’ and that ‘God revealed no authority for them’. His explanation for the change was that Satan had managed to slip in the verses without him knowing it.
In the novel, Muhammad (called Mahound) comes across as a weak, indecisive individual who uses religion for his own benefit. But the sequences in the novel involving Mahound are contained in the dreams of the character, Gibreel Farishta, who is mentally ill and who believes that he has become the archangel Gabriel, so these characterisations cannot be said to represent the author’s personal views.
The central plot of the novel is that two Indian Muslim actors fall from the sky over the English Channel when the flight they are on is blown up. Miraculously, they both survive, and they take on the personalities of the archangel Gabriel (Gibreel Farista) and the devil (Saladin Chamcha). Each of them has difficulty being accepted in London, each finds to a prior love, and each returns to his previous occupation. Chamcha seeks revenge on Farista for having deserted him after their fall from the sky, and he stokes Farista’s pathological jealousy, destroying his love relationship. Farista realises what his colleague has done and he forgives him. Nonetheless, Farista kills his lover, Alleluia Cone, and commits suicide. Chamcha returns to India and is reconciled to his dying father.
The novel – at 547 pages – has a great deal beyond this simple plot, including dream sequences involving the prophet Mahound. There are also sequences involving relationships of the primary characters with lovers, friends and acquaintances.
This is not an easy book to read. The sentences are long, sometimes complex, and the references to characters, places and things unfamiliar. There is one sentence 146 words long. Being somewhat familiar with Islamic history, I recognised some to the dream characters, but I could have benefited from a working knowledge of Indian mythology. It is also not easy to follow what is going on: is this part of a dream or reality? Having said that, I did find much of the writing uniquely engaging.
The feelings one encounters in reading the book are doubt bordering on hopelessness with some offsetting glimpses of humour. The doubt has to do with the purpose of life, religion, acceptance as an individual, and perception vs reality.
If you’re looking for another book to read by Salman Rushdie, take a look at Midnight’s Children. It’s by far my favorite of his books, but I’m a sucker for magical realism and post-colonial lit.