Saturday, January 05, 2008

Censored History: A “Literal” Reading of The Satanic Verses

The Satanic Verses has been both reviled and supported like few other books in the history of English fiction. This controversial novel by Salman Rushdie indubitably prospered much more than it should because of the hype surrounding it. But, nonetheless it also draws our attention to a very vital aspect of urban society, that of the nexus between fundamentalism and censorship. M.F.Hussain or Mani Ratnam, Deepa Mehta or Tasleema Nasreen, we have had numerous instances of fundamentalist groups rising up in protest against parts of creative works which they consider as harmful to their sentiments. Unaffected groups too show their sympathy, much more for the sake of political correctness rather than for genuine ideological convictions, often backed by flimsy and fourth hand accounts of the nature of the offensive portions. Satanic Verses falls right into this framework and moreover, represents itself as a classic case of censorship backfiring upon itself. In this paper, I would be discussing the nature of the offence and the consequent events followed by a discussion of the relative merits of both the book and its detractors, ending with a social perspective on the causes that led to the controversy at the first place.

Protests against the book started before its publication itself, when, based on excerpts, reviews and interviews of the author published in India Today and Sunday in September 1988, Members of the Indian Parliament, Syed Shahabuddin and Khurshid Alam Khan started campaigning for a ban on the book. The Indian Government promptly acted banning the book on October 15th of the same year. The tone of the dispute can be estimated in the audacious and highly emotional rhetoric of Syed Shahabuddin, when he wrote, “I have not read it, nor do I intend to. I do not have to wade through a filthy drain to know what filth is” (qtd. in Pipes 19-20). The action soon moved over to Great Britain, when, frustrated with the inaction of the British Government, Muslim organisations took over and burned copies of the book on December 2nd and again on the 14th of January, 1989. These was just the beginning and events took a stronger turn in Pakistan on the 12th of February when a crowd of over ten thousand, fuelled by a crude Urdu translation of the controversial aspects, burned the American Cultural Centre in Islamabad, resulting in six casualties which included five demonstrators and one Pakistani policeman. The next day saw another protest in Srinagar, Kashmir which left one dead and sixty injured. That night, the tone of the protest rose to the level of state policy when Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini of Iran took matter into his hands and issued a fatwa or legal judgement calling on all “zealous Muslims” to execute the author and whoever is involved in the publication of Satanic Verses. Anyone who died in the process was to be a martyr. The task of killing Rushdie was made more attractive by an Iranian charity organization the 15th Khorbad Relief Agency who announced a reward of 1 million Dollars to a non-Iranian and 200 Million Rials to an Iranian for Rushdie’s head. Lot other Iranians endorsed Khomeini’s action and many Islamic groups and individuals declared their intention to execute Rushdie. On the 17th of February, Rushdie offered an apology regarding the effect of his book though not regarding the contents of the book as such, and thus had very little ameliorating effect. Khomeini confirmed his edict once again putting the Iranian Government in sticky waters, and the latter distanced itself from the edict by saying that any action by a Muslim against Rushdie has nothing to do with the Republic. The controversy continued for another couple of months when on the 29th of March, two Muslims in Brussels, one of them an Imam in a mosque and the other a librarian there, were killed as they stressed on Rushdie’s freedom of speech though condemning the book itself as “gratuitously blasphemous”. This incident temporarily ended the international ramifications of the Rushdie affair (Pipes 19-37). India had its own share of troubles too. Prominent historian Mushir-ul-Hassan was severely beaten up as he had said in an interview, “I think the ban should be lifted. I think every person has a right to be heard and to be read”, even as he took care not to show any sympathy with the book’s contents (Pipes vi-vii). The controversy continued into the early 1990’s. The Italian translator of the Satanic Verses, Ettore Capriolo was wounded in an attempted assassination in Milan in 1991; and a week later, Hitoshi Igarishi, the Japanese translator, was stabbed to death in Tokyo and in 1993, William Nygaard, the book's Norwegian publisher, was shot and severely wounded outside his Oslo home (Martin 15).

What was there in the book that created such furore which resulted in so many deaths and instant fame for Rushdie? The book has its literary merits, it is sophisticated and employs quite a number of literary techniques like magic realism (though Rushdie does not think that he borrows anything from Marquez) and has some moments of poetry in it. But what concerns us more is the literal meaning of the text rather than its literary manifestations. It might sound what Daniel Pipes calls as an “intellectually deficient” reading, but fundamentalist censorship lacks sophistication and is concerned more with emotional issues and the power that comes easily with it. Such sentiments hark at fascism, but the argument has its merits. Hitler’s rise to power was based on emotional issues of race, as is that of the Bharatiya Janata Party ascendancy to power based on “religious nationalism”, especially in Gujarat now and in the Hindi speaking belt in the 1990s. Faith and emotions are indispensable for humanity, but have their own dangers when brought to the level of state polity which requires a higher level of rational thinking than fatwas and rath jatras. Nonetheless, Satanic Verses was lambasted by taking instances and examples in isolation. Indeed, as Pipes says, the real political effect that the book had can be gauged only by reading excerpts in isolation and out of context and that too preferably in translation. The book itself is a quite complicated one, more than 500 pages in length where three plots, seemingly unrelated at first glance, are developed. The first plot concerns two Indians Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamsha and follows their travails after their miraculous escape following a mid-air plane crash and are developed in five chapters (Chapters 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9). The second story is detailed in chapters 2 and 6 and it recounts the life of the Holy Prophet, relying partly on historical facts and partly on the author’s imagination. The third plot, in Chapters 4 and 8, is about the mass exodus of a village to Mecca and their subsequent death, when they expect the waters of the Arabian Sea to part as they follow the mystical Ayesha. This portion of the text has allusions of Khomeini’s exile in Paris and has strong suggestions that it is a parable on Iran and its Islamic Revolution of 1979. The last two plots appear interrelated though they have very little relation to the first plot which is about the complex relationship between the colonized and the colonizer. In fact, Rushdie once commented in an interview in 1984 that he had two books in mind, one on migration and the western world and the other a “novel about religion . . . which was not simply a secular sneer” (Pipes 54-55). Clearly, it was this second project which he mingled with the first that gave the book its controversial slant.

These controversial excerpts need to be examined. One of them concerns a dream of Gibreel regarding the Prophet which makes two chapters of the book, Mahound and Return to Jahilia. Mahound is an archaic name for the Prophet and Jahilia is Rushdie’s name for Mecca and the word means ignorance in Arabic. The most offensive verses are those that have to do with the satanic verses as they are in the Qur’an. Now, any doubt on the Qur’an is not to be had as they are deemed as the exact word of Allah as any doubts would question the very basis on which Islam has developed. Now to the case of the satanic verses themselves. The Prophet’s monotheism was not attracting the well-to-do of Mecca because of their polytheistic propensities and in order to make them friendlier towards His preaching, He recited the following verse with reference to three of the most prominent Meccan Goddesses:

Have ye thought upon al-Lat and al-Uzza
And Manat, the third, the other?
Then, originally, the verses (known today as the satanic verses) followed:
These are the exalted cranes
Whose intercession is to be hoped for. (53:19, 20) (Trans. qtd in Hahn )

Thus, Muhammad accepted the three Goddesses and resultantly, Polytheism, to work out a temporary peace measure with the Meccan rulers. However, the second couplet, the one undermining the monotheism of Islam, was supposedly breathed into the Prophet by Satan, and thus is named as the satanic verses. The Prophet changed the lines later, when He is supposedly informed by the Angel Gabriel about his “mistake”. These lines represent quite a delicate issue because of the unlikely explanation of His changing the narrative of God while retaining the sacrosanct element of the premises of the Islamic faith. Commentators often take a neutral course on this issue but Rushdie did not do it. He opines that the Prophet spoke the false verses not because of satanic influences but because He saw an opportunity to further His cause. But doing that, Rushdie constructs the Qur’an as a human artifact rather than being the word of God, making the entire base of Islam as one built on a deceit. It is equivalent to saying that Jesus is not the Son of God or that Ram or Krishna was not an incarnation of Vishnu. Even the fact that this entire narration takes place in a dream does not absolve Rushdie of his “blasphemy”.

The Muslim World had to deal with this now. They could not dismiss or ignore the story regarding the satanic verses. The issue was raised in 1936 by Muhammad Hasayn Haykal where he exposed the inherent contradictions in the meaning of the word “birds” and the matter was considered as settled. Rushdie pried open something that was supposed to be healed and questioned an assumption that had found its roots even in the Christian West. A New York Times account summarizes the incident as one where Rushdie tries to “revive a blasphemous story (that was) discredited by later experts on the Koran”. Rushdie doubts the divinity of the Qur’an in other instances as well, like when Salman, a character in the novel, alters the dictations of Mahound, though he is caught later on in the act. But the episode ends ambiguously, as Mahound took some time to discover Salman’s trickery, raising doubts on the authenticity of Mahound’s words themselves. These instances have historical ramifications and are not figments of the writer’s imagination, as Daniel Pipes points out. Again, Mahound is portrayed by Salman as a “damned successful businessman” taking his dictation through a very “businesslike archangel” from a “highly corporate, if non-corporeal, God”. The ramifications are that the Prophet had narrated the Qur’an to suit His purposes, once again reflecting on the Qur’an as messages of a mortal human being rather than of Allah. Such explanations of the Qur’an had comprised the polemics of medieval Christian writers. Muslim anger against Rushdie was more because he revived archaic calumnies against Islam and indeed so, as the name Mahound itself dates back to the medieval era. Rushdie justifies himself by saying that he wanted to use the name Mahound by turning a term of insult into one of proud identification. But once again, it is hard to pin down Rushdie as to what he actually intended.

But what really takes the cake is the episode in the Brothel called The Curtain, a translation of al-hijab or the veil. Here, the twelve prostitutes all take the names of the Prophet’s wives and also their personalities. People who circled the Kaba at daytime circled the fountain of love there at night waiting for their turn. The Brothel is itself shown as an anti-Islamist hub, where the newly converted men could have sexual gratifications with the Prostitutes imagining them as the Prophet’s wives. And in His death, once again the Prophet ambiguously thanks one of the deities of the satanic verses, raising questions regarding His own beliefs. In all these instances, Rushdie keeps alternatives open; most probably fearing a direct backlash in case of a direct unambiguous stand. But that cut no ice with his critics. They denounced him as a detractor of Islam and thus followed the controversy and violence that made both Rushdie and his book famous as well as notorious. And finally, we need to keep it in our purview that Rushdie also ridiculed contemporary Islamic figures like Khomeini, his most flamboyant critic and the Shahi Imam Syed Abdullah Bukhari of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, and no wonder he endorsed Khomeini’s edict to kill Rushdie (Pipes 53-69).

Was Rushdie ridiculing Islam? The answer is no. Rushdie, though, obviously wanted to ruffle some feathers as he had a deep knowledge on the nexus between fundamentalism and censorship. And he obviously could predict the furore that would happen, as he says in the novel through Mahound’s mouth that he is setting his words against the very words of God. But what he did unintentionally was to drag an above average novel into the cauldron of what Samuel Huntington termed as the clash of civilizations. Rushdie’s book, felt his critics, gave another opportunity to the liberal West to denigrate Islam and the argument goes that being a Muslim, he ought to speak for the Prophet rather than against Him. These are issues for which it is hard to reach a conclusion, as even a rational understanding would mean being anti-religious or anti-caste or even anti-nation. Rational explanations of emotional issues also raise problems of obfuscating relations of power that often determine such issues, thus often taking a stand which goes against a victimized community. But how far can we allow fundamentalism to spread its wings based on this imbalance of power is also a very touchy issue. It is often debated that Indian secularism applies only for Hindus while letting Muslim fundamentalists go Scot free, but once again, we need to keep in mind that there is already a level of criticism present regarding minority fundamentalists being aired openly by majority backed fundamentalists. Equating the two would mean ignoring the balance of power. Rushdie, if he is guilty, is guilty just of doing that.

Works Cited

Martin, Brian. “Making Censorship Backfire.” Counterpoise, Vol. 7, No. 3, July 2003, pp. 5-15.

Hahn, Ernest. “Satanic Verses.”

Pipes, Daniel. The Rushdie Affair. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1990.

Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. London: Vintage, 1988.

1 comment:

John said...

This is great! I have to give a presentation on this text and this has given me ideas. Thank you...