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Satanic Choices: Poetry and Prophecy in Rushdie's Novel.

That such an episode could actually have been mentioned and treated by ancient Muslim authors whose authority is not doubted merely proves that at the heart of the foundation of Islam, what we have here called the textual question, that of divine-human "construction"... had already been settled satisfactorily for that time. In fact, great debates took place on the subject;... the Mu'tazilites went so far as to deny the uncreated origin of the Koran.... What can be said is that this text was at one and the same time human, all-too-human, as well as divine--at times excessively divine.

Fethi Benslama 84-85

In one of the shorter dream narratives in The Satanic Verses, Gibreel Farishta dreams of an imam in exile and his spokesman Bilal. The imam's life is guided by only one desire: to return to his homeland and effect the revolution that will deliver his people to the divine expanse of eternity and liberate them from the chains of historical time. The imam says: "Human beings who turn away from God lose love, and certainty, and also the sense of His boundless time, that encompasses past, present and future; the time-less time, that has no need to move" (214). His contempt for his archenemy, the Empress Ayesha, is expressed in similar terms:

She is nothing: a tick, or tock. She looks in her mirror every day and is terrorized by the idea of age, of time passing. Thus she is the prisoner of her own nature; she, too, is in the chains of Time. After the revolution there will be no clocks; we'll smash the lot. (214)

The greatest enemy of the imam, we learn, is not Ayesha but history itself. "We will unmake the veil of history," says Bilal, "and when it is unraveled, we will see Paradise standing there, in all its glory and light" (210-211).

The imam's desire succinctly expresses what is perhaps essential to the idea of the sacred in most cultures: the sacred resists history; it resists temporality itself. Insofar as the sacred belongs to the realm of the transcendent, it relies on positing a radical and hierarchical difference between the timeless and the temporal: the temporal always derives from, or veils, the timeless. [1] Thus, as opposed to the unchanging purity or the self-existent nature of the timeless, history is illusion--the illusion of change and decay, life and death, progress and destruction. But perhaps history is also perceived as illusory insofar as it presents itself as an inconclusive narrative that can be endlessly interrogated: the meaning it yields wavers and shifts, a fickle flame. A susceptibility to narrative as such, however, does not distinguish the historical from the sacred, for the idea of the sacred may also be presented as a narrative--as it is, for example, in the Koran. But such texts differ from other narrativ es not only because they are believed to be revealed rather than humanly written but also because they appear to carry an incorruptible kernel of significance. They wish to establish the same relationship with all their readers: a relationship, one might say, of submission--the dictionary translation of the Arabic word islam.

The Satanic Verses seeks to negotiate a relationship with such an idea of the sacred. On the one hand, it presents the sacred as a space that resists both history and textuality--the indeterminacy of meaning. On the other hand, it also questions this idea of the sacred by suggesting that such a trope might itself be a historical and literary creation. The sections of the novel that narrate Gibreel Farishta's dreams of being transformed into his namesake, the angel Gabriel, represent this complexity most vividly, although other sections, staged in a less apparitional context, also engage with the world of belief. Farishta's dreams cast doubt on what one might call the apparatus of institutional religion: the link between God and His messenger, the integrity of the prophet, the absolute uniqueness of divine speech. Some of the other sections of the book--for instance, the one describing the hijacking of the protagonists' airplane--similarly call into question the universal sacralization of categories authorize d by the world of belief. Here we note that the Sikh terrorist Tavleen and the prophet Mahound share the same concept of history--for both of them, history becomes assimilated in the project of revelation. History is an interrogator who judges, chooses, and condemns with the certainty of a transcendent authority. In the airplane, Tavleen murmurs:

When a great idea comes into the world, a great cause, certain crucial questions are asked of it.... History asks us: what manner of cause are we? Are we uncompromising, absolute, strong, or will we show ourselves to be timeservers...? (81)

Insofar as the conflict between the sacred and the profane informs every aspect of the novel, it is this tension that gives the book its distinctly self-conscious texture. A recurring concern with the status of words, the authority of narratives, the impact of verses shapes the twists of the plot. Indeed, the transformations and amputations that characterize the postcolonial and postmodern world are not only represented thematically but are also reflected in the text's consciousness of its own narrative mode. Rather than assuming the familiarity and stability of the novel as a genre, The Satanic Verses dramatizes the relationship of the novel to older forms of narrative such as epic, myth, and romance. It juxtaposes the language of the novel against the language of revelation to show that perhaps nothing is more characteristic of the novel as a genre than its ambivalent relation to other genres. The text's focus on the confusion between prophetic and poetic utterance points toward the hidden force of desire that informs all utterance. It illustrates, among other things, that the death of God has left us haunted by a bewildering ghost whom we can no longer name.

In its depiction of the hybrid, tension-fraught world of British immigrants, and of Farishta's helpless captivity in a magical landscape, the novel presents itself on many levels as a reader of myth. It recounts the stories of Saladin Chamcha, a Bombay-born stage actor who lives in London, and Gibreel Farishta, a superstar of the Indian film industry who decides to give up his sparkling career in order to go to London and join the woman he loves. Having miraculously survived a hijacking and plane crash, the two main characters begin a series of adventures as they attempt to come to terms with their respective histories.

Saladin Chamcha's confusion about his identity stems from his inability to escape his cultural past, embodied, most fittingly, in the figure of a perversely powerful father. On arriving in England, Chamcha devotes himself to an adoration of all things British, caught in the thrall of an absurd if touching romance with an imagined island--an occidentalist fantasy. The problem begins when, instead of becoming the perfect Englishman, he changes into a monstrous beast, the "native" devil of the colonial and Christian imagination, complete with hoofs, horns, tail, and a certain embarrassingly prominent member. Gibreel Farishta's anguish is also caused by a severance with tradition--in his case, the religious tradition of Islam--which he rejects suddenly and violently after years of unquestioning belief. Once again, it is not a clean severance. Unable either to embrace or renounce belief, Farishta is haunted by a series of dreams in which he finds himself playing the role of a skeptical and powerless Angel Gabriel .

Not only does the novel reorient and re-present Islamic lore and the Koranic text, it also confronts and unravels the mythic constructions of home and community, of England and India, of rational modernity and the triumph of secular thought. By relentlessly exposing the enshrined icons of the past to the violating gaze of the present, it thus attempts to historicize both the icons themselves and the gaze that views them. In that sense, one might read The Satanic Verses as performing one of the distinctive functions of its genre, at least as this genre has been understood and theorized in the West. Reading the work of Lukacs or Bakhtin on the novel, for instance, one is immediately struck by the power of their desire to read the novel not only as a mirror of modernity, of the condition that is proper to our time, but also as an agent that performs the task of rendering the world historical. Other critics have also written about the novel's privileged relationship to history, [2] but in many ways, Bakhtin and Lukacs seem to be exemplary in their insistence on this connection. A closer examination of some of their ideas might therefore prove to be a useful detour on our way to understanding some of the questions that Rushdie's text proposes.


History is a deviation from the Path, knowledge is a delusion, because the sum of knowledge was complete on the day Al-Lah finished his revelation to Mahound.

Rushdie, The Satanic Verses 210

Although Bakhtin's and Lukacs's respective theories of the novel are finally quite different, they concur in their perception of the novel as a genre that confronts the loss of transcendent meaning and is therefore characteristic of a world that speaks to us in many voices at once. But more importantly perhaps, they both understand the novel as a genre that renders our world historical in a manner that is quite unprecedented: if the epic gave us tradition, the novel gives us history. Thus Bakhtin writes of the epic:

By its very nature, the epic world of the absolute past is inaccessible to personal experience and does not permit an individual, personal point of view or evaluation. ... It is given solely as tradition, sacred and sacrosanct, evaluated in the same way by all and demanding a pious attitude toward itself. (16)

In the context of the furor over Rushdie's work, one might note that the defenders of the Islamic tradition have relied on precisely the same attitude toward the Koran in order to express their outrage against The Satanic Verses. Quite apart from how the book actually portrays the prophet Muhammad or his wives or the scene of revelation, in their view it is already heretical because it approaches the Koranic narrative with audacious familiarity and propels it into the irreverent realm of the intimate.

Unlike the epic, the novel speaks from the locus of the present, and therefore, according to Bakhtin, it also gives us the possibility of a future; it liberates us from the absolute mortality to which the epic condemns us:

when the present becomes the center of human orientation in time and the world, time and world lose their completedness as a whole as well as in each of their parts. The temporal model of the world changes radically: it becomes a world where there is no first word (no ideal word), and the final word has not yet been spoken. For the first time in artistic-ideological consciousness, time and the world become historical: they unfold, albeit at first still unclearly and confusedly, as becoming, as an uninterrupted movement into a real future. (30)

The narrative mode of the novel, then, is fundamentally attentive to the relation between time and the world; it exposes that relation as being constitutive of both temporality and existence. Time and the world become historical when they are no longer perceived as being governed by a recognizable trajectory, when they acquire the possibility of a "real" future--that is, of a future that would not be the projected, anticipated, or revealed continuation of a story that has already been written. According to Bakhtin, the world of the epic cannot possibly allow access to such a future, not only because it has already constituted an origin and valorized it as ideal in such a way that all movement away from it is inevitably a movement of decline, but also because it so firmly encloses the past within the impermeable citadel of tradition that such a past cannot then be reinterrogated or reoriented toward the future. Thus Bakhtin writes:

Through contact with the present, an object is attracted to the incomplete process of a world-in-the-making, and is stamped with the seal of inconclusiveness....But meanwhile our present has been moving into an inconclusive future. And in this inconclusive context all the semantic stability of the object is lost. (30)

The novel renders the world historical because it participates in this erosion of semantic stability and because it recognizes time itself as an agent of such erosion. In order for an object or an image to come into contact with the present, it must encounter our "unpreparedness" (Bakhtin 30); we must not approach it as something that is already entirely known to us, or conversely, as something that already knows us. One might almost say, then, that in order to give ourselves the possibility of a future, we must first encounter the past as a stranger with whom we might once again begin a relationship without trajectory. The novel thus brings to our attention a link between history and interpretation that allows us the hope of an uncharted and hence "real" future.

This concept of historicity is crucial to Bakhtin's reflections on the novel, although perhaps Lukacs explains more lucidly how time becomes essentially constitutive for the narrative mode of the novel. "Time becomes constitutive," he says, "only when the bond with the transcendental home has been severed" (122). In other words, the work of time as a performative agent, liberated from or depleted of essence (and Lukacs's work, I think, preserves that ambivalence), can become constitutive only when the temporal appears as the mark of a disjunction between meaning and life; it is unable to do so in the world of the epic which is already saturated with meaning or essence. The temporal emerges as a fluctuating and unreliable player--a player in its own right--when it no longer follows the path marked out for it by a valorized origin and thus makes possible a concept of history that is antithetical to Tavleen's and Mahound's. For Lukacs, the novel "tells of the adventure of interiority" (89); thus it can make man ifest both the way in which an object or an experience is transfigured over time and the way in which the perceiving subject itself is transformed. It is only in the novel, Lukacs says, that we encounter hope and memory as "creative" forces that act upon and transform the object of experience. This is not very far from Bakhtin's claim that "an eternal re-thinking and re-evaluating" (31) is characteristic of the novel.

The Satanic Verses explicitly presents itself as a rethinker and a critical reader--not only of the Koran but also of Ovid, Lucretius, Joyce, Melville, Blake ... identifying all the literary allusions would itself be a formidable task. Although the Koran may not be an epic, the tale of its revelation and of the origin and rise of Islam might well have something in common with the structure of epic tales. A fantasy of the epic world--a world of heroic battles, perilous journeys, and archetypal struggles--surfaces in several episodes in the novel and in fact becomes a driving force of the text. The Satanic Verses responds to this imagined world in two ways: it shows us how much that world is still a part of our world, and conversely it shows us how a certain "modernity"--or at least an irony or skepticism that we generally identify with modernity--was already a part of the epic world. [3]


But if you are in doubt as to what We sent down to Our slave, then produce a Sura the like thereof, and summon witnesses of yours other than God, if you are truthful.

--The Bounteous Koran 6

The composition of the Qur'an is not a miracle. Human beings are capable of the same, and of better.

--Nazzam the Mu'tazilite, qtd. in Adonis 41

We remember that Gibreel's sequential dreams about the life of Muhammad/Mahound begin after he recovers from a long illness and that the recovery itself begins exactly at the moment when he confronts his own loss of faith. The illness has been for him a period of constant prayer and pleading--the plea for recovery slowly changing to the more desperate plea for an interlocutor. From questioning the nature of God ("Are you vengeance or are you love"), he now begins to question the very existence of God: "Ya Allah, just be there, damn it, just be." It is at that terrible moment of isolation, when he realizes "that there was nobody there at all," that his illness gives way to recovery. The narrator calls this a "day of metamorphosis" (30), and thus records this as one among the several scenes of metamorphosis that occur in a text that, on one level, is constituted as a conversation between Ovid and Lucretius.

Metamorphosis thus becomes a guiding trope of the novel: a metaphor that responds at once to the lives of migrants, the transformations of tales, and even to the sly slippage between desire and intention, the hidden and the acknowledged, that becomes crucial to Mahound's story. The connection between migrancy and metamorphosis is fairly obvious. [4] It surfaces in the novel's distinction between exile and migrant: the exile guards against change, stubbornly holding on to the dream of return, "frozen in time" (205); the migrant becomes invaded, transformed, metamorphosed. Thus on a thematic level, the drama of metamorphosis is enacted in the stories of various migrants whose lives (and bodies) are transfigured in postcolonial cities, while on a formal plane, this drama is played out in the mutations of literary traditions and genres that produce the gargantuan and wildly allusive body of the cosmopolitan text.

After Saladin's ordeal at the hands of the British police, when he finds himself suddenly transformed into a bestial creature, the change is explained in terms of a loss of identity that has left him vulnerable to the power of description vested in his captors, the police, and more generally, in the entire state apparatus. The text suggests that Saladin's transformation is partly the result of his having succumbed to that power of description, and also that he was particularly vulnerable to it because he had already lost a refuge or home that a more stable sense of identity would have provided. Saladin himself ruminates on a version of this explanation when he reflects on the two theses on metamorphosis that his friend Sufyan recounts to him: Lucretius's idea that change necessarily entails a kind of death--the death of the old self--and Ovid's belief that souls themselves remain constant even as they "adopt in their migrations ever-varying forms" (277). Saladin chooses Lucretius over Ovid: "A being going th rough life can become so other to himself as to be another, discrete, severed from history" (288). His transformation thus becomes a sign of both a prior and a future homelessness: now that he has become an other, he has been splintered from history itself. The novel does not quite endorse his reading of his own situation, for by the end of the book, not only has Saladin regained his human appearance but he has also returned to a life and a land that he thought he had entirely forsaken.

In some ways, Gibreel's metamorphosis appears to be more violent, especially in terms of its final consequences. Perhaps the violence of the change--from believer to skeptic--registers more deeply with Gibreel because he is someone who wishes to remain the person he always was: "continuous--that is, joined to and arising from his past . . . at bottom an untranslated man" (427), as the narrator says much later. Despite his avowed renunciation of faith, he finds that he cannot dissociate himself quite so easily from the passion that has hitherto sustained his life and now manifests itself in the extravagance of his dreams. Through the final implicit victory of Saladin, the novel suggests that Gibreel's greatest error might well lie in his overriding desire for continuity and authenticity.

The thematic resemblances among all the different dream narratives are quite apparent. They are all narratives of departure and return, of lost homelands, and most obviously, of struggles with faith; and their connection to Gibreel's waking life is easily established. Gibreel's own appearance in the dreams as a confused and helpless Angel Gabriel, a nonknower or nonbeliever who finds himself forced to be a messenger of faith, is also clearly related to the roles he plays in theological movies, or more accurately to the roles he will play after his crisis of faith. What is perhaps more interesting is the way in which this crisis manifests itself in the dreams: a crisis of will that presents itself most strongly as a crisis of utterance. For it is his absolute inability to fathom the mystery of his own utterances in the dreams that causes him the greatest discomfort of all. The problem is not merely that he is perceived as a messenger of divine utterance, but that in some inexplicable way, he becomes such a me ssenger--he is, in fact, able to say exactly what his listeners wish to hear, although he does not know whence such speech appears:

All around him, he thinks, as he half-dreams, half-wakes, are people hearing voices, being seduced by words. But not his: never his original material. --Then whose? Who is whispering in their ears, enabling them to move mountains, halt clocks, diagnose disease? (234) [5]

Gibreel, of course, is not the only one plagued by the confusion of voices: in what has now become the most notorious section of The Satanic Verses, it is Mahound who acknowledges an error of recognition and naming. Having first accepted as divine revelation the dictates of a voice that sanctions the worship of the old goddesses of Jahilia within the practice of Islam, Mahound later decides that the message he received came in fact from the devil and orders that it be expunged from the record of revelation. Rushdie's narration of the "satanic verses" incident becomes perhaps the text's most powerful strategy for questioning the authority and transmission of revealed words. The episode itself has been described by several Muslim historians and biographers, of whom the best known are the ninthcentury historians Al-Tabari and Ibn Sa'd. Whether or not these accounts are true, they nevertheless suggest that an anxiety regarding the phenomenon of revelation was evident quite early in the history of Islam.

Ibn Sa'd relates that at a time when Muhammad strongly desired to establish better relations with his countrymen, he was once at the Ka'ba, reciting from the Koran. [6]

When he came to the passage: "Do you behold Allat and Al 'Uzza, and also Manat, the third idol?"--which now concludes: "What? shall ye have male progeny and Allah female? This were indeed an unfair partition!"--Satan suggested two lines to him: "These are the exalted females, and truly their intercession may be expected." (Andrae 19)

Muhammad then prostrated himself and prayed, and the whole tribe of Quraish followed him. Later that evening, [7] when the prophet was meditating at home, the angel Gabriel appeared to him, and Muhammad recited the sum to the angel. "Have I taught you these two lines?" asked Gabriel (Andrae 19). Muhammad then realized his error and remarked that he had attributed to Allah words that He had not revealed.

The story has evoked responses of several kinds. Tor Andrae claims that "the whole narrative is historically and psychologically contradictory" (19), but maintains that there is some element of accuracy in it: in one instance, Muhammad did in fact attempt a compromise between monotheism and pagan idolatry in order to reach an understanding with his people. Providing ample justification for the resentment of later Muslim historians against orientalist biographers, he then declares that "parallels to such opportunism are by no means lacking in Mohammad's later conduct" (20).

Montgomery Watt is more sympathetic in his treatment of the incident. He argues that even the cult of the goddesses might be considered a "vague monotheism" (62) insofar as the enlightened Arabs regarded the deities as manifestations of a single divine power. Thus the word goddess here suggests a sacred power associated with certain places, rather than a more elaborately anthropomorphized deity. The Semitic religion, Watt says, "has a less personal conception of the divine" (62) than, for instance, Greek paganism. Thus, Muhammad and his followers might not have regarded the worship of the goddesses as being necessarily a violation of the monotheistic principle.

Orientalist scholars have always shown a particularly strong interest in the story, often retelling it in ways that have angered Muslim historians. Many of the latter maintain that it is a fabrication, propagated by those who wished to attack the very basis of Islam: the idea of monotheism or tawhid. This is the view of Muhammad Husayn Haykal, one of the most respected biographers of the prophet, who writes:

Rafiq Zakaria has also dealt at length with the incident in his book Mohammad and the Quran, partly in order to expose the various prejudices that have always accompanied the narration of the incident and partly as a polemic against Rushdie. Zakaria charges that Rushdie "opened old wounds" by his "lurid picturization of this incident" (15). Like Haykal, Zakaria reads the story as a negation of the central message of the Koran and a slur on Muhammad's mission. He comments on various readings of the incident and finally presents as conclusive the assessment of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-98), perhaps the most eminent Muslim intellectual of undivided India, and the work of Maulana Abul'ala Maudidi, the founder of the Jamaat-i-Islami, "the foremost [Muslim] fundamentalist organization in South Asia" (Zakaria 16). Maudidi's version of the incident is particularly interesting in that it shifts the burden of error from the prophet to the listening congregation. While the prophet was reciting the sura "Al Najm," Maudi di says, the listeners were so elated by his eloquence and by the mention of the three goddesses that they did not hear what he actually said.

the forgers must have been extremely bold to have attempted their forgery in the most essential principle of Islam as a whole: namely, in the principle of tawhid ... in which [the prophet] never accepted any compromise. (114)

They thought the goddesses were being praised when in fact their authority was being dismissed. Later, when the Quraish realized their mistake, they invented the story of satanic intervention as an expression of their displeasure with Muhammad. Thus it remains a story of mis-hearing and misjudgment, but in this version it is the pagan Arabs who allow their desire to obscure or redirect the course of revelation.

However, Zakaria's main argument has more extensive implications. It rests largely on a blanket repudiation of the traditions on which early Arab writers based their work. [8] Various authorities are quoted to demonstrate that the works of the eighth-century writer Ibn Ishaq and the ninth-century writers Tabari, Waqidi, and Ibn Sa'd have little basis in historical accuracy and instead rely largely on gossip and myth. According to Zakaria, not only are these writers themselves irresponsible and romantic in their approach to the material, but also the very tradition on which they base their work is suspect, for their accounts contradict each other in several instances and "none of them has produced any reliable evidence" for their work (16). Zakaria agrees with Maudidi's conclusion that perhaps with the best of intentions, they failed to see the "incongruity and contradictory nature" (18) of this tradition.

Zakaria and other modem commentators judge the work of the early chroniclers, like that of Rushdie perhaps, by the standards of accuracy and inaccuracy, the demands for evidence and rational cogency, that are properly characteristic of the desire for a scientific, empirical history, even though in this case it is the history of a miracle or a faith that is under scrutiny. I am certainly in no position to read or analyze the original work of the early writers, but it does seem that in judging this work from the perspective of empirical historians, the modern commentators are making what one might call a generic error, where a history that has not yet emerged as distinct from legend or poetry is now judged by the alien standards of history as a social science. [9] It might be instructive for us to note that for scholars like Zakaria, as for the Sikh terrorist Tavleen in the novel, it becomes a relatively easy matter to assimilate a certain version of history within the project of revelation: in the name of suc h a history, it is finally literature that must be silenced. What first appears, then, as a complaint directed against orientalist writers turns out to be an expression of discomfort with all work that cannot be relegated to the margins of Islamic historiography. Those who have charged Rushdie with joining ranks with imperialists, as well as those who have hailed him as a champion of Western values of freedom and democracy,10 would do well to remember that in fact, Rushdie has predecessors in the Arab tradition itself, and that the battle between gossip and truth, or literature and history, need not be waged at the boundary between East and West.

In Rushdie's text, the interest in the episode of the satanic verses shifts to some degree. Certainly the incident is still concerned with the tension between monotheism and polytheism, which acquires a specific resonance for Indian Islam, crowded by a pantheon of Hindu deities. But Rushdie focuses more explicitly on what has been a source of anxiety for the tradition as well as for modern Muslim scholars: the incident's skillful subversion of the very phenomenon of revelation. In The Satanic Verses, the episode's significance derives from Mahound's tacit acknowledgment of a failure of recognition--a failure that is mirrored in Gibreel's failure, later in the novel, to recognize the voice of Saladin in the telephonic verses that prove to be his undoing. The verses that Mahound proposes as true revelation to replace the earlier, heretical words seem to settle the question of monotheism quite definitively--even as they make use of a familiar misogynist detour--but they offer little help in laying to rest the a nxiety about recognizing (and naming) the sources of belief. In Rushdie's text, the new verses read:

Shall He have daughters and you sons? That would be a fine division!

These are but names you have dreamed of you and your fathers. Allah vests no authority in them. (124, emphasis added)

It is evident that Rushdie's translation consciously calls attention to the ambiguous status of dreaming, which can signify at once an idle fantasy and a profound vision. Most other English translations of the sura "Al Najm" of the Koran, to which Rushdie's text refers, do not use the word dream at all. Nevertheless, one may read the sura itself as betraying an anxiety about revelation, at least in its overriding concern with establishing its own authority. [11] The sura in the text of the Koran reads:

By the star when it sinks down, your companion [Muhammad] neither strays nor is allured; neither does he speak out of whim. It is naught but a revelation inspired, taught him by one vigorous in power [Gabriel], prudent and in true nature, while poised on the uppermost horizon. Then he drew near and lower, until he was at two bow lengths distant or nearer. Then he revealed to His servant what He revealed. The heart did not flasify what he saw. Do you dispute over what he saw? ... Indeed he saw his Lord's greatest signs. Have you seen al Lat and al 'Uzza, and Manat the third, besides? Have you [begotten] males and has He [begotten] females? That is indeed an unjust partition. They are nothing but names you yourselves and your fathers named them. God has sent no authority concerning them. They [the Pagans] but follow surmise and what the souls desire, when indeed there came to them guidance from their Lord. (The Bounteous Koran 700-01l) [12]

At least in light of what we already know about the sura, it is hard not to read the first few lines as responding to voiced or unvoiced allegations about the source of revelation. The text appears to be particularly concerned to establish the purity of the prophet's declarations. It states that they stem neither from whim nor desire--the desire, for instance, to either placate or defy the idolaters--but that they only record what was revealed to the prophet by the archangel.

For Rushdie's story, however, the archangel is not a transparent authority but only a figure of deference. Who really speaks, the novel asks, when the archangel speaks? Thus in the novel, the focus shifts to Gabriel; and in his dreams of doubt and despair, Gibreel Farishta, whose name literally means Gabriel Angel, appears to himself as an archangel forsaken by his faith. In these dreams Gibreel becomes the guarantor of revelation, except that the archangel himself does not know whose messages he transmits or how he transmits them. When Mahound decides that the earlier revelation about the goddesses was but a trick of the devil, Gibreel the messenger is more mystified than anyone:

Gibreel, hovering-watching from his highest camera angle, knows one small detail, just one tiny thing that's a bit of a problem here, namely that it was me both times, baba, me first and second also me. From my mouth, both the statement and the repudiation, verses and converses, universes and reverses, the whole thing, and we all know how my mouth got worked. (123)

Gibreel's mouth, as we know, gets "worked" by Mahound's will, as it does in other dreams by the imam's or Ayesha's will, so that Gibreel remains, in every scene, an actor reciting words that he neither chooses nor even understands.

How then are we to read such a version of the story of the satanic verses? As an allegory that dramatizes the relationship between politics and religion, the legislator and the angel of God, such that the legislator actually becomes a ventriloquist who turns the gods into his puppets, as in Hobbes's account of the early lawgivers? (177). As a psychological reading of the mystery of revelation, which demonstrates that what is imagined as revelation is but the desire of the prophet? Or to go even further, as a suggestion that the sacrosanct voice of the heart--whether it be named instinct, desire, or revelation--is nothing but a ruse of power, its instrument and slave? The text itself corroborates all these readings, and possibly others as well. We may, indeed, keep in mind that since the story of the satanic verses, like several other episodes in the novel, is narrated as a dream, we should perhaps also allow our approach to be guided by the peculiar logic of the dream world. We could at least say that like a dream, the story is overdetermined, that the elements in the story are determined by several contexts, and that each of these contexts might be represented in the story by various elements. [13]

Thus we find, condensed in Gibreel's dreams, images of the Bombay film world, the legends of Islamic hagiography, the backdrop of an India struggling to define itself as a socialist, secular state, and the dreamer's own struggles with his loss of faith. On a more overtly linguistic level, the dreams are also connected to the dreamer's names: the name he was given, Ismail Najmuddin (Star of the Faith), which perhaps guides his later preoccupation with the sura "Al Najm" (the Star) of the Koran; and the stage name he adopts, Gibreel FArishta (Gabriel Angel), in memory of his mother, who thought of him as her very own angel, "her personal angel, she called me, farishta, because apparently I was too damn sweet" (17). We might also note here the ways in which the names of other characters circulate through the various episodes of the book--Hind, Bilal, Ayesha--appellations that proliferate like metaphors. As the plot moves from one landscape to another, from the real world to the dream world, we encounter familia r figures, names, references: memories both preserved and strangely transformed. Gibreel's dreams thus become the dreams of the novel itself, the text's own dreaming of its manifold contexts.

We might find here a way of understanding why the source of revelation, or indeed of utterance itself, becomes such a persistent enigma in Rushdie's treatment of the satanic verses episode. If the text continually draws attention to its own inability to name the source of utterance, and if it explicitly focuses on the possibility of error whenever such an attempt at naming is made, then by this very gesture it points toward that which perhaps defines it as a text-that is, as a literary rather than a revealed text. In spite of a momentary error, Mahound can later definitively assert that his words bear the authority of divine law, but a story like that of the satanic verses can only circulate by veiling its sources: its power derives precisely from its lack of authorization. It has a history but no recognizable origin: as gossip, fable, indictment, or parable, it becomes the shadow play" that mimics and mocks the drama of revelation. It inhabits the story of revelation, one might say, in a way that is just as disruptive or as uncanny as the way in which the novel inhabits the epic, or the secular inhabits the sacred. The text's preferred model for such inhabitation is the experience of the dream, perhaps because dreams represent to us at once the most intimate and the most alienating relationship we can have with ourselves.


In granting a primordial status to writing, do we not, in effect, simply reinscribe in transcendental terms the theological affirmation of its sacred origin or a critical belief in its creative nature?

Michel Foucault 120

In an essay written in defense of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie says: "At the center of the storm stands a novel, a work of fiction, one that aspires to the condition of literature" (Imaginary Homelands 393). One might remark that the very act of defense--the necessity of defense, perhaps, in Rushdie's case--is already symptomatic of a certain "condition of literature." We certainly know that this is true of the Western tradition, where literature has always had to defend its right to speak or exist even as it abjures the kind of authority that is claimed, for instance, by philosophy or theology, which have generally insisted on regarding literature as frivolous, false, or dangerous. The Arab tradition has not been very different in this respect. In response to the fatwa against Rushdie, the Tunisian writer Tahar Bekri writes:

If we thought the present era was going to be more clement in this regard, we should have remembered the works of Gibran burned by the Church and the words of dozens of Arab writers condemned by the mosques. It is as if repression were an integral part of our landscape or scenery.... It should be recalled that the Arab poets who came before Islam all communicated with their genies, and poetry itself was seen as the parchment of the devil. (64-65)

The work of the Arab writer Adonis, which undertakes a comprehensive analysis of Arab poetics, confirms this general thesis. Adonis convincingly demonstrates that most Arab theoreticians have conceived of poetry either as an object of pleasure (as diversion) or as a threat to the pursuit of knowledge. His work shows us that the overt political repression that Bekri mentions has also been aligned with a more complex, sustained, and insidious assault, not only on particular works of literature, but on the status of literature itself.

Presumably, it is not to this condition that Rushdie refers when he says that his novel aspires to the "condition of literature." What he means becomes more clear in "Is Nothing Sacred?" another essay in Imaginary Homelands. Here he argues that in battling the oppressive militancy of the sacred, we must also remain vigilant against the temptations of a counter-rhetoric that would turn literature into yet another variant of a sacred discourse--one that must be safeguarded and defended at all costs, or one that becomes the arbiter of civilization, the guarantor of freedom, and so forth. Certainly most attempts at a defense of literature find themselves entangled in such claims, thereby inciting accusations of a kind of secular fundamentalism or righteous liberalism that can afford to place all its trust in the grand abstractions of the Enlightenment. [14]

Nevertheless, Rushdie claims that there is a privilege that literature deserves: "the privilege of being the arena of discourse, the place where the struggle of languages can be acted out" (Imaginary Homelands 427). In some ways, this argument is not very different from the one he has been cautioning us against, and indeed, in several instances, Rushdie reveals his own attachment to the very ideals of European modernity that his antagonists wish to question. And yet it seems to me that Rushdie does qualify--or explain-this privilege. He claims that in fact it is not a privilege at all: "this privilege [is what literature] requires in order to exist" (emphasis added). In other words, if literature cannot be deprived of this attribute without ceasing to be literature, then we can hardly think of it as a privilege.

In many ways, The Satanic Verses stages this discussion, not only because it stages the conflict between poet and prophet, but also because it is consciously a book about verses--a book where, in almost every episode, we encounter someone reading, writing, or listening to verses. In the Jahilia section, the pagan poets mock and fear Mahound's revealed verses; in London, Jumpy Joshi struggles to transform and render poetic the fallen idiom of politics; in Farishta's visions, the ghost of his mistress, Rekha Merchant, recites the work of the Urdu poet Faiz; Farishta himself, as the angel Gabriel, imparts his messages to Ayesha sung to the tunes of popular Hindi songs; and finally, Chamcha commits perhaps the most vicious crime in the book by reciting to Farishta, over the telephone, a series of verses that cause Farishta to question the fidelity of his lover, Allie Gone. It would be a mistake, then, to presume that the title of the book refers only to the story of Mahound's encounter with the devil, for variou s kinds of verses in the book prove to be malevolent in effect Baal's last poems in adoration of the 12 whores lead to his captivity and execution; Chamcha's jingles drive Farishta insane and finally cause him to kill both his lover and himself. Indeed, Chamcha's simple little verses, so precisely crafted to summon the dementia of jealousy, are plainly called "satanic" by the narration:

One by one, they dripped into Gibreel's ear, weakening his hold on the real world.... In spite of his protestations to the contrary, he started slipping away from her; and then it was time for the return of the little, satanic verses that made him mad. (445)

It is clear by now that satanic itself becomes a many-layered adjective in this novel. But what does the word signify here? It would only make sense to turn to the book's epigraph, a quote from Defoe's The History of the Devil:

Satan, being thus confined to a vagabond, wandering, unsettled condition, is without any certain abode; for though he has, in consequence of his angelic nature, a kind of empire in the liquid waste or air, yet this is certainly part of his punishment, that he is... without any fixed place, or space, allowed him to rest the sole of his foot upon.

We find that it is Satan's nomadic character, rather than his sin, which is most compelling for this text: Satan becomes an emblem for the wanderer or the migrant. But Satan also becomes a figure embodying paradox: he is "confined" to a "wandering" condition; he is a devil with an "angelic nature"; he has an empire but no home. Thus, his condition is "unsettled" because he has no "fixed place, or space"--no territorial home, but also no stable nature that he can abide in. Satanic verses, then, might refer to the verses of such a Satan or to verses about such a Satan, who becomes a name for migrancy as paradox. In that sense, we might read the title as properly naming the book as a whole, since all the episodes, in one way or another, reflect on the ways in which migrancy signals the encounter between irreconcilable elements.

But the text also makes a larger claim: it seems to say that perhaps all verses could be satanic and that literature itself is migrant, not only because it wanders wantonly from reader to reader, but also because it does not derive authority from its source or origin, as for instance Mahound's words claim to do. Among Mahound's adversaries in the city of Jahilia are numerous poets from whom he must distinguish himself, and his confrontation with the poets in fact becomes a prominent theme in the book.

Before beginning his recitation of the sura "Al Najm," Mahound announces the terms of this confrontation: "This is a gathering of many poets... and I cannot claim to be one of them. But I am the Messenger, and I bring verses from a greater One than any here assembled" (114). While this is certainly a claim to transcendent authority, we might also keep in mind that a certain context perhaps made revelation the only refuge of a poetry that wished to distance itself from the realm of diversion to which it had been relegated. We know that the revelation marks a significant landmark in the Arab literary tradition. Not only did the study of the Koran transform the scholastic scene so that, increasingly, works of history, philosophy, political theory, and jurisprudence were written, collected, and studied, but it also galvanized an interest in poetics and rhetoric. Even though most literary critics of the time were mainly interested in demonstrating the Koran's superiority to other poetic texts, the comparison itse lf turned the Koran into a new literary ideal that demanded serious study, so that it was no longer possible to treat poetry only as idle pleasure. [15]

The Satanic Verses suggests that the Koranic text was able to arrogate such power to itself only by making a decisive break with the tradition of pre-Islamic poetry--and indeed, with literature itself. Mahound's suspicion of poetry is dramatized in his relationship with the satiric poet Baal, who always questions the authority of Mahound's words. Their antagonism grows stronger with the progression of their respective careers until finally Baal is sentenced to death, not for his poetry but for the crime of dishonoring the prophet's wives by suggesting that their names might be profitably used in a brothel. To compound his sin, Baal himself takes on the role of their husband, the prophet. The enterprise proves to be a great success for the brothel, as countless men are charmed by this drama of seduction. By recognizing the sources of fantasy, Baal succeeds, according to Mahound, in "bringing the worst out of the people" (392). The order for Baal's execution follows the closing of the brothel and the execution of the twelve guilty prostitutes, thus inciting the final exchange between the two men, where Baal shouts "Whores and writers, Mahound. We are the people you can't forgive," and Mahound replies, "Writers and whores. I see no difference here" (392).

Apart from their common ability to offer pleasure, sometimes by appealing to people's "worst" instincts, what connects writers and whores is perhaps their defiance of the laws of fidelity. The writer inevitably interrupts or complicates the presumed fidelity of representation, just as the whore contaminates the fidelity of marriage. This devious trait of writing is underscored in the novel by Rushdie's periodic invocation of the traditional beginning of Arab folk tales: It was and it was not so; it happened and it never did. Stories flirt with us, at once making and withdrawing the claim to truth. By presenting themselves as the double of history, they thus also call into question the truth claims of history, just as the whore, perhaps, calls into question the allegiance of the wife.

Mahound's violent rejection of writers and whores is reminiscent of a familiar strain in the Western tradition. We remember that in The Republic, writers are censured not only because their work operates in the realm of imitation and is thus distanced from, and inferior to, the realm of truth, but also because their work beckons us toward the lawless regime of pleasure. Hence in book 10, Socrates says to Glaucon: you may acknowledge Homer to be the first and greatest of the tragic poets; but you must be quite sure that we can admit into our commonwealth only the poetry which celebrates the praises of the gods and of good men. If you go further and admit the honeyed muse in epic or in lyric verse, then pleasure and pain will usurp the sovereignty of law and of the principles always recognized by common consent as the best. (339; emphasis mine)

Poetry is to be banished because it threatens to institute the treacherous reign of the senses. Like whores, writers produce a disruptive economy that undermines the regulatory ends of the state.

If, however, in reading the couple writer/whore, we are now led toward a defiant celebration of this identification, we should also note the ways in which the text warns us against such exuberance. For the novel clearly shows us that trading in fantasies can never be an innocuous enterprise. Just as the 12 prostitutes finally prove themselves to be "the most oldfashioned and conventional women in Jahilia" (384), who really want nothing more than to be the dutiful wives of a strong and wise man, so too is Baal exposed in his own secret desire to be the mirror image of his enemy, the prophet. And if we can read the poet Baal's parody of the prophet as expressing also his desire to become the prophet, we might read the narrator's parody of a Higher Power in a similar way. Mimicking the elusive voice of revelation-- the God/Devil whose identity temporarily eludes even the prophet--the narrator appears several times in the course of the story as a vacillating presence. These interjections usually appear as if in the voice of Satan--for instance, in the brief comment on Farishta's and Chamcha's fall from the doomed airplane:

And another thing, let's be clear: great falls change people. You think they fell a long way? In the matter of tumbles, I yield pride of place to no personage, whether mortal or im-. From clouds to ashes, down the chimney you might say, from heavenlight to hellfire.... (133)

Or more succinctly, after a narratorial digression on the differences between angels and humans:

I know: devil talk. Shaitan (Satan) interrupting Gibreel.

Me? (93)

However, when a Higher Power actually makes a vivid appearance on the scene, we see a thinly disguised Salman Rushdie in the form of God. Gibreel's vision of the Supreme Being, we are told, "was not abstract in the least":

He saw, sitting on the bed, a man of about the same age as himself, of medium height, fairly heavily built, with salt-and-pepper beard cropped close to the line of the jaw. What struck him most was that the apparition was balding, seemed to suffer from dandruff and wore glasses. (318)

In a novel that has managed to evoke a global command for the death of the author, here he is, hilariously flagrant: the author as God. Of course we recognize here a parody of an outmoded conception of writing and authorial power, but perhaps we also recognize that however much it might be slandered and dismembered, this conception may never quite die. It might, in fact, be partially revived each time an author, in a grand, if blind, gesture of power, assumes the authority to write. And particularly to write a novel such as this, which so fiercely wants to reveal something to us about our time, our condition--the time of postcoloniality, the condition of hybridity--and thus assigns to itself the task of a revelation. Very early in the book, anticipating from the reader a query about Gibreel and Chamcha's fall, the narrator admonishes, "Slow down; you think Creation happens in a rush? So then, neither does revelation.. ." (5).

We can now perhaps reread what had earlier appeared as an ambivalence regarding the status of literature in Rushdie's essay "Is Nothing Sacred?" The hidden desire of literature is to be the law itself, even as its work is to transgress the law. Literature cannot conceal its own desire to become revelation, even while its mode of narration mocks its claim to the authority of truth. Perhaps more than anything else, it is this impossible desire that makes literature "satanic."

This is what the text signals: on the one hand, the desire of literature to become revelation, and on the other, revelation's inability to cease becoming literature. In the novel, it is the scribe Salman who draws attention to the materiality of revelation by noting that if revealed words are substitutable, they cannot be inherently distinct from the fallen words of common language. As he sits at the prophet's feet, writing down the verses that Mahound recites, Salman gradually begins to make little changes that escape Mahound's attention:

So there I was, actually writing the Book, or re-writing, anyway, polluting the word of God with my own profane language. But, good heavens, if my poor words could not be distinguished from the Revelation by God's own Messenger, then what did that mean? What did that say about the quality of the divine poetry? (367)

Rushdie's own rereading of the Koran follows the trajectory inaugurated by his namesake in the novel by situating the sacred narrative in the profane tradition of intertextual writing. However, even in the hands of more submissive readers, the Koran has not been able to transcend the categories of literary analysis--indeed, as I have mentioned before, it is paradoxically responsible for having institutionalized and legitimized those categories. In the Arab tradition, it was the study of the Koran that led to a serious examination of the distinctions between literal and figurative language, in-junction and parable, transparency and allegory, such that the Koranic verses themselves are widely recognized as being of two kinds: those that proclaim basic principles in an unambiguous fashion (Muhkamat), and the more allegorical or elusive verses (Mutashabihat). There also arose a corresponding division between types of exegesis: the distinction between accessible, explanatory interpretation (tafsir) and esoteric i nterpretation (ta'wil) is also largely based on a recognition that the text was not always semantically transparent. [16]

I have attempted to map here how the novel mirrors the Koran's slide toward profane literature by its own aspiration toward the status of revelation. Although the tendency to incorporate and parody other genres, both literary and extraliterary, is characteristic of the form of the novel, such mimicry does not indicate only an ironic distance but also an anxious imitative desire, perhaps a more Lukacsian nostalgia for the authority of earlier genres. If the novel indeed renders the world historical, it might do so not only by speaking from the locus of the present but also by asking us to rethink the relation between older and newer forms of writing and by throwing into disarray our generic categories of analysis.


Although The Satanic Verses builds its plots from spatial and temporal antinomies--childhood and adulthood, colonialism and postcolonialism, faith and skepticism, India and England, the epic and the novel--these antinomies are never presented in sequential relation to one another. Instead, they appear in a continuous process of informing and transforming one another or, as I have tried to suggest, of inhabiting one another. Very early in the story we are told that "newness" is made of "fusions, translations, conjoinings" (8), and moreover that it must make compromises to survive. The concept of hybridity, often used to describe Rushdie's work, perhaps does not do justice to the ways in which these processes of transformation reflect acts of interpretation and reading. What distinguishes the sacred from the profane, history from poetry, tradition from innovation, and, finally, law from literature depends less on the content of the utterance and more on the manner in which it is heard or received.

In highlighting the interpretative moment, the text follows a path that the novel, as a genre, has traditionally recognized and charted as its own. However, Rushdie's text does not only celebrate the power and play of interpretation or the politics of reception. It also demonstrates that no utterance freely relinquishes its authority to the listener or the reader, and that even literature, that most transgressive or blasphemous arena of discourse, harbors a desire to speak the language of revelation: to speak, as it were, from the place of the law.


(1.) For a more comprehensive discussion of this idea, see Eliade and Balslev.

(2.) See, for example, Joel Weinsheimer, who reminds us that in the eighteenth century, "story and history were nearly synonymous, just as factual research and imaginative elaboration were not nearly so dichotomized as we would like to think they are today" (3).

(3.) For a provocative, if brief, discussion of the novel as a critical reader of earlier narrative, see Kermode. Commenting on Hans Frei's observation that the development of hermeneutics in Germany was historically contemporaneous with the birth of the novel in England, Kermode asks: "Can it be that prose fiction was always a substitute for critical thought about the interpretation of earlier narrative, especially sacred narrative?" (124-25).

(4.) In book 10 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Venus describes metamorphosis as a punishment "halfway between" exile and death (241), thus collapsing the spatial and temporal coordinates of identity.

(5.) Among the many ironies generated by the reception of this book, the most remarkable might be that a novel that constantly dwells on the mysterious sources of utterance should cast upon its writer the heaviest burden of authority and authorship. Or perhaps this too is already inscribed in a certain logic of metamorphosis as contrapasso--a logic that the text both appropriates and denies, and which finally seems to take on a power of its own.

(6.) I am drawing here on Tor Andrae's retelling of Ibn Sa'd's account, which in general does not differ from that given by other biographers, though there is some disagreement on details.

(7.) Montgomery Watt says: "the earliest and best sources give no indication of the interval before the abrogation. It may have been weeks or months" (64).

(8.) For a concise account of Islamic traditions, see Cook's biography of the prophet. In chapter 7, Cook writes: Tradition . . . is whatever the Muslim scholars have handed down, formally by a process of oral transmission, in practice as a vast literature. It embraces all aspects of the sayings and doings of early Muslims, and comprises many different genres; within it a particular tradition may recur in a variety of contexts and in numerous variants. The early narrative accounts of the life of Muhammad form a small if significant part of this body of material. (61)

(9.) Rushdie himself draws attention to this question in Imaginary Homelands: Fiction uses facts as a starting-place and then spirals away to explore its real concerns, which are only tangentially historical. Not to see this, to treat fiction as if it were fact, is to make a serious mistake of categories. The case of The Satanic Verses may be one of the biggest category mistakes in literary history. (409)

(10.) I would consider Bruce King a member of the latter group. He claims that "Rushdie looks critically at both East and West, but the moral values are those of the individualistic, free thinking West" (435). Talal Asad's reading offers a more complex analysis, though finally it assesses Rushdie's novel in a similar way. Asad argues that the very idea of eroding the boundary between literature and religion belongs to a secular, bourgeois modernity and that such a privileging of literature is quite foreign to the Muslim tradition. By appealing to an elite, secular (and yes, imperial) concept of literature, Rushdie's work, he suggests, shows itself to be a product of Western modernity (269-306). Although Asad is quite brilliant in his analysis of the British liberal establishment, his comments on literary and aesthetic history are a little confusing. Even outside of the Western bourgeois canons of literary theory, and even in premodern times, literature (or the arts in general) and religion have often occupie d contiguous or indivisible terrains. The rasa theory of art, perhaps the best known among Indian aesthetic theories, provides a strong example. Most famously expounded by the tenth-century scholar Abhinavagupta, this theory clearly sacralizes aesthetic pleasure; and in his commentary on Anandavardhan's Dhvanyaloka, Abhinavagupta repeatedly draws connections between poetic or aesthetic enjoyment and the joy of spiritual bliss. See Masson.

(11.) According to tradition, the first few verses were revealed 18 months before the Hijra and are thus of a considerably later date than the verses where the repudiation of the goddesses occurs, which are believed to have been revealed in the seventh year before the Hijra. But in tone and intent, the beginning appears to be of a piece with the rest.

(12.) This is M. M. Khatib's translation. N. J. Dawood's translation of the last verses reads: Have you thought on Al-Lat and Al-Uzzah, and thirdly, on Manat? Is He to have daughters and you sons? This is indeed an unfair distinction! / They are but names which you and your fathers have invented: Allah has vested no authority in them. The unbelievers follow vain conjecture and the whims of their own souls, although the guidance of their Lord has come to them. (The Koran 115)

(13.) I am obviously referring here to Freud's use of the term overdetermination: In the case of every dream which I have submitted to an analysis of this kind I have invariably found these same fundamental principles confirmed: the elements of the dream are constructed out of the whole mass of dream thoughts and each one of those elements is shown to have been determined many times over in relation to the dream thoughts. (318)

(14.) Gayatri Spivak offers a characteristically astute analysis of this problem. In discussing the complex position of the postcolonial critic, she argues that "it is only if we recognize that we cannot not want freedom of expression as well as those other normative and privative rational abstractions that we on the other side can see how they work as alibis" (237).

(15.) See, for example, Weeramantry and Adonis.

(16.) For a more detailed history of the interpretative tradition, see Arberry.


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