The Satanic Verses
by Salman Rushdie
Viking Press, 1989, 547 pages, $19.95
Toward the end of The Satanic Verses, a modern Indian businessman stutters: "Fact is, religious fafaith, which encodes the highest ass ass aspirations of the human race, is now, in our cocountry, the servant of lowest instincts, and gogo God is the creature of evil."
Not only in India, where it was quickly banned, but all around the world, Salman Rushdie's book seems to have brought out some of the most demonic reactions to what we might otherwise write off as a minor concern to the modern world. Religion, or attacks on it, whether we like to admit it or not, can pack as much punch as a nuclear bomb. Rushdie's whole book is a farcical elaboration of this theme.
Falling to earth from a blown-up 747, his two phantasmagoric heroes, "Gibreel" (Gabriel) Farshita, the movie star become archangel, and the Saladin Charncha, who grows devil's horns and cloven hooves, represent the divine and demonic sides of humanity, religion, and perhaps even — Jung would have loved this book — the two sides of God!
History becomes a kaleidoscope where good and evil continually tumble into ever new configurations that dazzle and confound.
But why the sharp reactions to this particular book?
True, Rushdie sports a brilliant command of the English language, combined with a brash use of slang and even a freewheeling inventiveness in his profanity. But this hardly makes him a great author or even the profound critic of religion he aspires to be. As the recently deceased Imam in Brussels said — before he was gunned down in his Mosque — he had seen worse attacks on the Prophet. And certainly, there have been worse attacks on the Ayatollah than Rushdie's little vignette of the exiled Iranian "Imam" living behind drawn curtains, drinking filtered water and plotting his comeback from his flat in London (Paris).
Moving backwards through time, Rushdie presents his "Mahound" (Mohammed) as a shrewd Arabian businessman who sincerely believed he was getting messages from God to clean up on licentiousness and polythesim and to found a new society based on the rule of the one God and his justice. A clear cut and simple program. But nothing is ever that simple.
The prophet makes a few mistakes. He tries to smooth the way by converting a few of the local pagan goddesses into "angels" and the compromise backfires. So he blames his misreading of the divine will on "Satan". But more often, whenever he gets in a bind he simply consults the archangel again, and of course, Gabriel always confirms the prophet is right!
I think it would be wrong to conclude that Rushdie is only singling out Islam for his attack. Rushdie only happens to come from that background himself. The target of his critique is more ecumenical whether he realizes it or not. Fundamentalism and fanaticism of all stripes cannot escape the fire.
So the reaction of those who see revelation as some kind of divine dictation rather than inspiration can be easily understood. Revelation through inspiration allows for human foibles, factual or historical errors, or even the incorporation of myth—as long as God's purpose is served.
Revelation by dictation, on the other hand, seems constrained to defend the perfection and inerrancy of the scribe or whomever is dictated to—otherwise how can we be absolutely sure he is telling the truth? If this seems illogical (most writers feel no qualms about discarding broken pens or worn-out typewriters) it is only because the security needs of the believer have become more important than the message itself. The need to self-righteously possess our little sliver of truth replaces the desire to be possessed by the Truth. So faith (which is fundamentally a trust in God) is replaced by fanaticism.
If Rushdie’s lampoons provoke such sharp reactions I suspect it is because they cut a bit too close for those who like to believe their religion enshrines the purest goals, but easily find it a handy means for furthering their own political aims and selfish needs.
But if in our secular Western society this only seems ! to be a way of making some TV evangelists rich, it does not mean that the rest of us can relax. Our own gullibility and proneness to self-delusion should make us beware. Too often what are merely our own bright ideas take on the infallibility of God's word. Still, nothing succeeds like success. We too often forget |that evil constantly lurks under the guise of good, “the corruption of the best is the worst," and it is hard to I tell Gabriel from Azraeel, the angel of death.
All this comes out in Rushdie's modern parable of religious self-delusion, his story of Ayesha, the Indian beggar girl who leads a demented pilgrimage to Mecca. She and a wealthy land-owner's wife, hoping for a cure for her cancer, convince their simple villagers that the Gulf of Arabia will part for them like the Red Sea did for the Israelites under Moses and Aaron.
Under the two women's growing self-confidence almost all believe — and nearly all drown. Only the skeptics, reluctantly following in the land-owner's by now battered Mercedes-Benz station wagon (Noah's ark?), but stopping in time at the sea's edge, escape.
There are other stories, too, some of them less successfully expressive of the inanity and aimlessness of people whose lives are cut off from religious tradition and left without belief.
But out of all of this I can only conclude that Rushdie, in his own dazzling but stuttering way, is a disappointed lover of the divine, a doubting seeker after God.
R. W. Kropf 12/1/89? Rushdie.doc.html