For the third entry in this blog’s series on famous novels that have been the source of raging controversies, I want to talk about Salman Rushdie’s 1988 work The Satanic Verses. I read this work for the first time in April 2018, and I’ll be honest in saying that one reason this novel intrigued me was the censorship and accusations of blasphemy it has faced since publication. This is a work so controversial–Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death, forcing the author to go into hiding for years–that the challenges faced by previous books I’ve discussed in this series almost seem mild in comparison.
Like One Hundred Years of Solitude (which I talk about here), The Satanic Verses is a monument to magic realism, a literary style in which fantastical elements intertwine with realistic ones to create a sense of surrealism. Rushdie’s novel opens with a commercial jetliner exploding over the English channel due to a terrorist attack, only for two of the passengers, Farishta and Chamcha, to fall to earth and miraculously survive. The former man begins to adopt the persona of the Angel Gabriel, a significant figure in Islam, while the latter turns into a satanic figure whom British authorities quickly detain. For the rest of the novel, these two men go in paths both opposite and converging at times. Farishta’s mental health falls apart and Chamcha struggles to understand how he became a demon, while both men and their relatives attempt to balance their Indian identities with life in the West.
Rushdie goes further and includes bizarre passages that add even more religious elements to his work. One section details the Prophet Muhammad’s life and includes a narrative in which Satan tricks Muhammad into writing certain verses (the “satanic verses” behind this book’s title) permitting the worship of three goddesses in the Quran before Muhammad renounces this action. Another passage shows an Indian girl leading a group of her followers into the Arabian Sea because she claims the Angel Gabriel will allow them to float on the water. These elements of the novel form the backdrop for the huge controversies that ensued.
A 2012 article from The Guardian does a good job listing out the many reasons Muslims accused this novel of blasphemy, but I will mention some of the major ones here:
- Rushdie never actually refers to the Prophet Muhammad as “Muhammad.” Instead, he calls Muhammad “Mahound” or “the Messenger,” the former being a pejorative;
- The novel criticizes Islam for having too many rules;
- A lengthy passage in The Satanic Verses analogizes Muhammad’s wives as prostitutes; and
- The nature of the “satanic verses” episode in the creation of the Quran and Islam is controversial, and using this narrative as the title of a book offended many Muslims.
One reason I highly recommend the reader today to dust off The Satanic Verses–and any oft-challenged novel, for that matter–is so that they can make up their own mind on the controversies. As I said earlier, the whirlwind surrounding this book is one reason I read it in the first place.
Although I am not a Muslim, I could definitely see how Muslims would find this work offensive, especially regarding the section about Muhammad’s life. That makes it difficult for me to reconcile with my belief that The Satanic Verses is also one of the most beautifully-written and fascinating novels to grace literature. I also believe omitting the controversial aspects of this book would take away from its overall impact–the oomph Rushdie packs in six hundred pages is astounding. Whether you agree with any of these opinions–or with the views of anyone else praising or excoriating this work, for that matter–depends on just one thing: if you dust it off.
Read what others have to say about this work on Goodreads.com here.