Written by the famous (and often considered as infamous) writer Mr. Salman Rushdie and published by Viking press in 1988, ‘The satanic verses’ became one of the most controversial and discussed books of the decade. The book, being Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel, was inspired in part by the life of Prophet Muhammad himself.
Salman Rushdie, as a writer, was well known for using contemporary events and people to create his characters and to give depth and quality to his work using Magical Realism (acceptance of magic in the rational world).
The story, boiled down to its essence, is the story of two men ‘Farishta’ and ‘Chamcha’, who are trapped in a hijacked plane flying from India to Britain. Both are actors of Indian Muslim background. Farishta is known to play Hindu deities and Chamcha is working as a voiceover artist in England.
The plane goes down, but both are miraculously saved, hence transforming their personalities as they try to piece their lives back together. One takes on the personality of the archangel Gibreel, and the other one that of a devil. The story unfolds slowly as both of them go through events that would change them and make them realize many things.
In this story, Salman Rushdie has embedded dream vision narratives and a series of half-magic visions, notably ascribed to the mind of Farishta. The frame narrative nature and the thematic details really help paint all of this clearly throughout the story. There are many things linked by the common motifs of divine revelation, doubt, faith and fanaticism.
Slowly coming to the controversial part of the novel.
In one of these sequences is a transformed re-narration of the life of the prophet Muhammad in Macca. At the centre of this narrative is the episode called as ‘The Satanic Verses’. This episode, the gist of which can be written down in three sequences, was taken as an offence and an insult by the Muslim communities in many countries.
The first sequence is Muhammad proclaiming a revelation in favour of the old polytheistic deities, only to renounce later that it was an error induced by the ‘Shaitaan’ (the Devil). Some events later, one of the prophet’s companions claims that he, doubting the authenticity of Prophet Muhammad, had altered portions of the Quran as they were dictated to him.
The second sequence is the story of an Indian peasant girl, Ayesha. She claims to be receiving revelations from the Archangel Gibreel (also known as Gabriel). She makes her village community to embark on a pilgrimage to Mecca, claiming that they will be able to walk across the Arabian Sea. The story ends in confusion and disaster, as all of the villagers disappear, leaving conflicting testimonies about whether they were able to cross the sea magically or they just drowned.
The third sequence is a dream narrative about Imaam – a religious leader who is linked through various recurrent motifs – to the figure of the ‘Messenger’.
Receiving favourable reviews from critics and the book being announced as ‘Rushdie’s largest aesthetic achievement’, controversies developed soon after the release and distribution. The interpretations o this book, being considered by some communities as an insult to Islam, gave birth to conflicts among fans and experts.
“The book is not about Islam, but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay.”
– Salman Rushdie
“He embodied an anger arising in part from the frustrations of the migrant experience and generally reflected failures of multicultural integration”
– M. D. Fletcher
The controversy provoked by the novel led to Rushdie being accused of misusing freedom of speech, and the import of the book was banned in India. In the United Kingdom, the book was burned demonstrations. A violent riot took place in Pakistan in the February of 1989, followed by which, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme leader of Iran at the time, ordered a ‘Fatwa’ calling on all Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers. Rushdie received round-the-clock police protection. However, the hostility was reaching all the way up to the political figures.
British Labour MP Keith Vaz led a march, calling him an ‘Outstanding Villain’ shortly after his election in 1989.
Rushdie, however, escaped physical harm, but his Japanese translator was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991, his Italian translator was also stabbed and got seriously injured on July 3 1991, his Publisher in Norway was shot three times and the Turkish Translator was also injured in attempted assassinations.
In 1998, after years of enduring, Rushdie declared that he would stop living in hiding.
Born in Bombay, the 67 year old writer has a British citizenship now and has spoken on various occasions about the book and how it affected his life.
Experts all around the world discuss and debate on the book’s interpretations till this day.