Today is the 30th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s issue of a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing the novel The Satanic Verses. In the run-up to this anniversary there has as usual been much discussion of the controversy, but very little about the novel itself. This is consistent with the pattern of the last three decades. Of the two Satanic Verses that exist – the controversy and the novel – people were always familiar with the former and deeply unclear about the latter. To this day very few people seem interested in what is between the covers of the book that stirred the Ayatollah’s ire. A default presumption has been arrived at, which is that there was some misunderstanding about which the Ayatollah took advantage to make a religious and geo-strategic power grab. And while this contains a portion of the truth it still lies quite some distance from the truth itself.
The novel is a dense and multi-layered narrative stretching to around a quarter-of-a-million-words. For the general reader a failure to get through it is forgivable. There are significant portions of the work which anyone unfamiliar with Islamic history would find it hard to make sense of. Happily or otherwise, there are more readers familiar with that history in the West today than there were in 1989, and so perhaps with time the reputation of The Satanic Verses as a novel, rather than as a controversy, will grow. For anyone who gets the references the work is packed with deep humor and perception.
This starts from the novel’s opening scene in which a plane is hijacked in the sky and the novel’s main characters magically descend to earth. From there on the narrative is laced with dream-sequences about the early days of Islam, and both these historical sections and the contemporary ones abound in references to Mohammed, his wives and the origins of the religion. In one of the least remarked-upon aspects of the novel, there is even a section in which Rushdie writes of the man who would attempt to end his life.
In the fourth chapter called ‘Ayesha’ (also the name of Mohammed’s last and youngest wife) a character appears called simply ‘the exiled Imam’. The character is a not-remotely disguised Ayatollah Khomeini. There is also a convert character called ‘Bilal X’, ‘formerly a successful singer.’ One of the strangest aspects of the whole novel and the affair around it is that the characters within it and the characters they were based on would keep getting tangled up with each other: before the novel, inside it and afterwards. Shortly after the real-life Imam ordered the novelist’s death the convert singer Cat Stevens (on whom ‘Bilal X’ was clearly based) famously said on national television in Britain that he would willingly inform the Ayatollah where Rushdie was, if he knew, and that he would like to see Rushdie himself – rather than an effigy – burned. Like him, the Ayatollah continued to live up to the nightmare of his fictionalized counterpart. In the bloody Iran/Iraq war Khomeini famously sent legions of his country’s young to die as suicide bombers. In the novel the exiled Imam (after a rant against the ‘apostate’ Aga Khan for drinking alcohol) extols a future when ‘Water will have its day and blood will flow like wine.’
Later Gibreel sees a swarming crowd appears in the streets: ‘In the dark doorways of the city there are mothers with covered heads, pushing their beloved sons into the parade, go, be a martyr, do the needful, die.’ The Imam’s voice says ‘You see how they love me’. ‘This isn’t love,’ Gibreel replies. ‘It’s hate.’ Which, incidentally, comes from the celebrated interview that Oriana Fallaci carried out with the Ayatollah in 1979. In the novel this episode finishes with the vision of ‘the Imam grown monstrous, lying in the palace forecourt with his mouth yawning open at the gates; as the people march through the gates he swallows them whole.’ The clocks of the city chime:
‘Announcing the end of Time, the hour that is beyond measuring, the hour of the exile’s return, of the victory of water over wine, of the commencement of the Untime of the Imam.’
The whole episode is a magnificent meditation not just on Khomeini’s blood-soaked career but on the fanaticism which grew in the aftermath of the novel. Yet it was not this which would cause most offense (if offense was caused by any particular passage). For those few Muslims who did read the book and felt grievously offended, such contemporary politics were incidental. Of far greater significance, and grievance, was Rushdie’s re-imagining of the origins of Islam. Muslims who had never had the foundations of their religion questioned robustly found such passages so shocking as to be almost uncommunicable.
Ziauddin Sardar was one such. In his 2004 memoir Desperately Seeking Paradise he described the sensation of reading The Satanic Verses when it came out. Years later he wrote, ‘It felt as though Rushdie had plundered everything I hold dear and despoiled the inner sanctum of my identity. Every word was directed at me and I took everything personally. This is how, I remember thinking, it must feel to be raped.’
The section that would likely have caused most offense to even such a relatively progressive Muslim as Sardar would have been a passage which is among the novel’s most brilliant: a superlative dream sequence in which the dictation of the Koran is re-narrated into a tale of ‘Mahound’, the Messenger and his scribe ‘Salman the Persian’. ‘Mahound’ was a generally derogatory variant of ‘Mohammed’ used in the Middle Ages.
In Rushdie’s novel the section satirizing the origins of the Koran is a searingly sad and humorous tale. Gibreel (Gabriel) appears to the Prophet who, ‘Salman the Persian’ finds ‘spouting rules, rules, rules… rules about every damn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one’s behind. It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left unregulated, free.’ The rules that flow include dietary laws, the way in which to kill an animal by bleeding and the positions in which sexual intercourse is and is not allowed. But it is when Gibreel gets into the business technicalities of how a man’s property should be divided that Salman wonders ‘what manner of God this was that sounded so much like a businessman.’ The result of this thought is the first crack in Salman’s faith. He begins to suspect that Mahound is not really taking dictation from an archangel but just making it up as he goes along.
‘Because of course Mahound himself had been a businessman, and a damned successful one at that, a person to whom organization and rules came naturally, so how excessively convenient it was that he should have come up with such a very businesslike archangel, who handed down the management decisions of this highly corporate, if non-corporeal, God.’
With the first seeds of doubt planted, Salman steadily begins to notice how ‘useful’ and ‘well timed’ the ‘revelations’ appear to be in coming to Mahound as well as how consistent the revelations are in giving divine backing to Mahound’s opinions on all matters. Because Salman is the most literate of Mahound’s followers he is given the task of writing down the endlessly-spouted rules. And it is in this section that the novel has one of its most magnificent satirical set-pieces. Salman decides to test the Messenger and, surreptitiously at first, he begins to change what Mahound dictates:
‘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.’
Salman wants to be found out for his alteration. He wants the man he believes in to correct him when he reads the passages back to him. But he doesn’t. And so the next time he changes something bigger. Mahound says ‘Christian’. Salman writes, ‘Jew.’ Again Mahound doesn’t notice the change and Salman leaves the tent with tears in his eyes realizing that the man who he had followed is a fraud. ‘There is no bitterness’, he says, ‘like that of a man who finds out he has been believing in a ghost.’
Salman realizes that he could bring Mahound down by exposing his fabrications. He continues changing bigger and bigger things in the dictation until he ends up changing whole verses, to the point that he begins to fear that Mahound has finally come to guess that his words are different in the writing than in the telling. Finally Salman chooses to escape.
‘That night I lay awake, holding his fate in my hands as well as my own. If I allowed myself to be destroyed I could destroy him, too. I had to choose, on that awful night, whether I preferred death with revenge to life without anything. As you see, I chose: life.’
Saddest of all is the end of this sequence. Though he has escaped, Salman has lost his chance to challenge Mahound’s claim that he was receiving divine dictation. Now, Salman relates, ‘Mahound is coming in triumph; so I shall lose my life after all. And his power has grown too great for me to unmake him now.’
‘Why are you sure he will kill you?’ someone asks. Salman answers, simply, ‘It’s his Word against mine.’
Salman the Persian has missed his chance to unpick the religion at its beginning. Afterwards it was to be not just a matter of one man’s word against another’s but a matter of ‘faith’ and ‘tradition’ against truth. It was into this same labyrinth – in which what is true and what is untrue, what is felt and what is believed are unextractably blurred – that Rushdie and his novel fell three decades ago. To some extent the novel at least is still there. Said to be offensive by people who have not read it and said to be inoffensive by other people who haven’t read it. There are many remarkable things about The Satanic Verses affair, but one of the most unremarked upon is the way in which the novel itself has remained in the background. Perhaps now that three decades have passed a new generation will discover it afresh.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.