First mounted August 18, 1996
Last revised August 28, 2008.
This study guide was prepared to help people read and study Salman Rushdie’s novel. It contains explanations for many of its allusions and non-English words and phrases and aims as well at providing a thorough explication of the novel which will help the interested reader but not substitute for a reading of the book itself. Many links are provided to other sites on the Web where further information can be found.
The “Rushdie Affair”
|This is not a site for polemics about the novel or the “Rushdie Affair”. To many Western readers The Satanic Verses appears as a brilliant attack on religious bigotry. To many Muslims, East and West, it appears as a vicious series of insults to many of their most cherished beliefs. There are other positions: liberal and conservative non-Muslims deplore his irreverence, and liberal Muslims deplore the fatwa against Rushdie and support his right to publish, or even admire his work; some American and British non-Muslim critics have been critical of him. But the important debate, the one that makes a difference in the real world, is the one between the extremes, and between those extremes there remains a seemingly unbridgeable gulf. It is not my desire to exacerbate the tensions surrounding this novel, nor to delve in any depth into the controversy. That has been done, exhaustively, by many others. I recommend especially Michael Hanne’s “Salman Rushdie: ‘The Satanic Verses’ (1988)” as a thoughtful overview of the “affair” and Joel Kuortti’s Place of the Sacred: The Rhetoric of the Satanic Verses Affair (1997). But one cannot entirely ignore the controversy.||A note on the terms “East” and “West” as used on this page.|
Perhaps the contribution I can most usefully make is to discuss the differences in perspective of the antagonists in the affair toward the modern novel as a form. Islam is a religious tradition which in many influential quarters is self-consciously seeking to purify itself from modernizing, liberal tendencies. Although Islamic tales both short and long abound, and there are many authors of fiction who are highly honored, the modern novel as such is not a comfortable form in the Muslim world. Often it is identified with the West, with mere entertainment, with lax morals. In addition, Muslim writers who write novels are often critical of tradition. The 1994 near-fatal assault on the Egyptian Nobel Prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz illustrates the perils that even the most acclaimed of novelists may encounter in an era of religious polarization. To be sure, most Muslims abhor such assaults; but the feelings which cause them are all too familiar in such countries as Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and even Turkey.
To a conservative Muslim, Islam is not just a religion in the sense that most Westerners use the term, a private faith which provides hope and consolation within a secular world. Islam is a way of life, a body of law, an all-embracing cultural framework within which novels are distinctly unimportant and potentially troublesome. That a mere novelist should dare to satirize fundamental religious beliefs is intolerable.
In the Western European tradition, novels are viewed very differently. Following the devastatingly successful assaults of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment upon Christianity, intellectuals in the West largely abandoned the Christian framework as an explanatory world view. Indeed, religion became for many the enemy: the suppressor of free thought, the enemy of science and progress. When the freethinking Thomas Jefferson ran for President of the young United States his opponents accused him of intending to suppress Christianity and arrest its adherents. Although liberal and even politically radical forms of Christianity (the Catholic Worker movement, liberation theology) were to emerge from time to time, the general attitude toward religion among that class of people who value serious fiction has been negative.
Pious bigots were the objects of scorn by such popular Nineteenth-Century authors as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Twentieth-Century writers as different as James Joyce and Margaret Atwood have vividly depicted in novels the threats posed by conservative religious beliefs. So-called “Catholic” authors such as T. S. Eliot and Graham Greene routinely explore doubt more than faith; and even the greatest of all Christian novels, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is so harrowing in its investigation of the challenges of faith that it has probably swayed more people away from religion than toward it.
Furthermore, from the time of Matthew Arnold onward, it has been frequently claimed that serious fiction and art could largely fill the gap left by the collapse of the cultural influence of traditional religion. The claims to the importance of high seriousness in fiction have been under assault by the most recent generation of critics for some time; but the justification for studying novels in an academic setting ultimately rests on the very claims of cultural significance that these critics attack. Fiction has not just been an irritant to religion in the West; it has posed itself as an alternative to it.
Rushdie’s own claims for the importance of the novel are only slightly less exalted in his essay, “Is Nothing Sacred”. Although at its end he rejects the claims of the novel to be able to replace religion, he makes some strong claims for it:
Between religion and literature, as between politics and literature, there is a linguistically based dispute. But it is not a dispute of simple opposites. Because whereas religion seeks to privilege one language above all others, the novel has always been about the way in which different languages, values and narratives quarrel, and about the shifting relations between them, which are relations of power. The novel does not seek to establish a privileged language, but it insists upon the freedom to portray and analyse the struggle between the different contestants for such privileges.Carlos Fuentes has called the novel “a privileged arena“. By this he does not mean that it is the kind of holy space which one must put off one’s shoes to enter; it is not an arena to revere; it claims no special rights except the right to be the stage upon which the great debates of society can be conducted.
. . . while the novel answers our need for wonderment and understanding, it brings us harsh and unpalatable news as well.It tells us there are no rules. It hands down no commandments. We have to make up our own rules as best we can, make them up as we go along.
And it tells us there are no answers; or rather, it tells us that answers are easier to come by, and less reliable, than questions. If religion is an answer, if political ideology is an answer, then literature is an inquiry; great literature, by asking extraordinary questions, opens new doors in our minds.
. . . literature is, of all the arts, the one best suited to challenging absolutes of all kinds; and, because it is in its origin the schismatic Other of the sacred (and authorless) text, so it is also the art most likely to fill our god-shaped holes.
In the Twentieth Century the novel came to be viewed as primarily oppositional, critical of the culture which produced it. Rather than providing values, it challenges them. Modern novels are praised for their courage in exposing hypocrisy, challenging tradition, exploring forbidden themes. If blasphemy is not the most common of techniques in Western fiction it is because so few writers take religion seriously enough to feel it worth attacking. Popular religious books are generally excluded from the New York Times best seller list as unworthy of notice, no matter how well they sell. The writer who does not challenge the beliefs and prejudices of the reader is generally viewed by the literary establishment as dull if not cowardly.
To complicate matters, the Enlightenment ideals of freedom of speech and press have an almost religious significance in the West. A typical response to the fatwa is Silvia Albertazzi’s statement that “Freedom of expression is more important than any offence any book might cause,” a statement which would be unthinkable in any profoundly religious culture. Albertazzi’s own Catholic ancestors would certainly have disagreed.
Rushdie came from a liberal Westernized family which had no great fervor for religious tradition:
My relationship with formal religious belief has been somewhat chequered. I was brought up in an Indian Muslim household, but while both my parents were believers neither was insistent or doctrinaire. Two or three times a year, at the big Eid festivals, I would wake up to find new clothes at the foot of my bed, dress and go with my father to the great prayer-maidan outside the Friday Mosque in Bombay, and rise and fall with the multitude, mumbling my way through the uncomprehended Arabic much as Catholic children do–or used to do–with Latin. The rest of the year religion took a back seat. I had a Christian ayah (nanny), for whom at Christmas we would put up a tree and sing carols about baby Jesus without feeling in the least ill-at-ease. My friends were Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, and none of this struck me as being particularly important.
(Rushdie: “In God We Trust” 376-377)
At the time of the writing of the novel he evidently did not even consider himself a Muslim (see below, note on p. 29). Certainly he was never an adherent of that sort of Islam which believes that apostasy is a capital offense. He was steeped from an early period in fiction, both Eastern and Western; and as a writer seems to have accepted the High Modern view that the writing of outspoken controversial fiction is a calling, perhaps even a duty. All of his works contain controversial themes; and beginning with Midnight’s Children in 1981 he took on South Asian politics in a way that earned him denunciations and bans as well as praise for his courage. He has often expressed his opposition to the religious extremism that informs modern Pakistani and Indian politics, and The Satanic Verses is another stage in a consistent critique of such extremism. What makes it different, however, is that in it he chose to criticize not only modern religious figures such as the Ayatollah Khomeni, but dared to question the authority of the very root of Islam: the inspired nature of the Qur’an and the authority of the Prophet Muhammad.
To a secularized European, his critique of Islam in the novel seems very mild and tentative; but there has never been anything like it in the Muslim world. Scoffers and libertines there have been; but they were fundamentally unserious. Rushdie seems to have been trying to become the Muslim Voltaire; but Islam has never undergone an equivalent to the European Enlightenment, let alone the development of a “higher criticism” such as the West has subjected the Bible to for the past two centuries. (But see Saadi A. Simawe’s ” Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and Heretical Literature in Islam” for a thorough discussion of Islamic scepticism in relation to the novel and Feroza Jussawalla’s “Rushdie’s Dastan-e-Dilruba: The Satanic Verses as Rushdie’s Love Letter to Islam,” for an interesting exploration of Islamic revisionism in Muslim India.)
In the secularized West his critique seems routine; in much of the Islamic East, it is unspeakable. The modernist assumptions it springs from are irrelevant, hardly understood. Many Muslim critics have asserted that equivalent blasphemy against Christian beliefs would never be tolerated, whereas in fact a wildly anti-Catholic comedy like “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You” can have a long, profitable run without any encountering any physical or even legal threat. Obscenity is taken much more seriously in the West than blasphemy. Rushdie tried to bridge the gulf between East and West and instead fell into the void. No one can reconcile these two views with each other because they are rooted in basically incompatible, even hostile world views.
Many of his Muslim critics have argued that The Satanic Verses, besides being offensive, is bad fiction. Non-Muslim views have been distinctly mixed, the most common criticism being that the novel does not “hold together” in a disciplined fashion. But that is true of many fine novels, including many of Rushdie’s favorites. In a 1983 interview with Una Chaudhuri on the influences on Midnight’s Children he commented on his penchant for unconventionally-shaped fictions:
As for other influences, well, there’s Joyce, for a start. And Swift, and Stern. I’m very keen on the eighteenth century in general, not just in literature. I think the eighteenth century was the great century. Well, take Fielding; the thing that’s very impressive about Tom Jones is the plot, that you have this enormous edifice which seems to be so freewheeling, rambling — and actually everything is there for a purpose. It’s the most extraordinary piece of organization which at the same time seems quite relaxed and not straitjacketed by its plot. I think that’s why the book is so wonderful. So, yes, I would have thought the eighteenth-century novel had something to do with mine. And Joyce, because Joyce shows you that you can do anything if you do it properly.
“Imaginative Maps,” Turnstile, p. 37.
For my own argument that the novel does possess a special kind of unity, see my essay, “The Unity of The Satanic Verses.
Unfortunately, many of his most ardent defenders defend him out of ignorance, for they have not managed to read past the first few chapters of this dense postmodern, intertextual, multicultural work. Nevertheless, the book continues to draw admirers, many of whom now consider The Satanic Verses Rushdie’s finest work. When I first opened its pages I was introduced into one of the most intoxicating, thoughtful, and hilarious works I had ever read. It is a playground for literate readers, filled with allusions and symbols of all kinds, which delight by their incongruity or their aptness. It is also a highly interesting attempt at establishing a middle ground between Western and Eastern chauvinisms, asserting that the immigrant has a uniquely valuable perspective. Rather than being outsiders, exiles, the immigrants create a unique perspective that allows them to comment insightfully on both East and West. (But see also Feroza Jussawalla on this subject.)The mixture of cultural influences, or what Rushdie calls the “chutneyfication” of culture, is one of the most enlivening aspects of his work. He throws off phrases in Hindi, Arabic, and Urdu which are bound to make the Western reader feel something of an outsider. He delights in playing with those aspects of Indian and Arabic culture which have been trivialized in the West in what Edward Said calls “orientalism,” satirizing the failure of Europeans to grasp what they persistently exoticize. Indeed the work is largely a critique of Western racism, of anti-immigrant prejudice, and a defense of the richness and worth of South Asian and Middle Eastern culture. But because it is a contemporary critique, it is not one-sided. His Indians are no angels–even if they sometimes take on the form of angels. Nevertheless he exuberantly celebrates Indian literature, music, film, and food; portraying the South Asian immigrants as providing an enlivening spice in dull, overcast London.
No one has better described this aspect of the novel than Rushdie himself:
If The Satanic Verses is anything, it is a migrant’s-eye view of the world. It is written from the very experience of uprooting, disjuncture and metamorphosis (slow or rapid, painful or pleasurable) that is the migrant condition, and from which, I believe, can be derived a metaphor for all humanity.Standing at the centre of the novel is a group of characters most of whom are British Muslims, or not particularly religious persons of Muslim background, struggling with just the sort of great problems that have arisen to surround the book, problems of hybridization and ghettoization, of reconciling the old and the new. Those who oppose the novel most vociferously today are of the opinion that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own. I am of the opposite opinion. The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it. The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves.
(“In Good Faith” 394)
After Khomeni condemned Rushdie to death, it became impossible to experience this light-hearted, playful side of the novel in the way he surely intended. Yet to be fair to the book we should try to read it without letting the fatwa obscure its merits.
Between its hostile critics who refuse to read it and its supporters who fail to read it, The Satanic Verses must be one of the most widely-unread best sellers in the history of publishing. Rushdie’s allusiveness is much more transparent than that of James Joyce, one of his main influences; but it still provides a major obstacle to many readers. In the “Acknowledgements” to the novel, Rushdie lists only a few sources, while stating, “The identities of many of the authors from whom I’ve learned will, I hope, be clear from the text. . . .” But much of the effect of his allusions has been lost on readers curious about this controversial work. These notes are an attempt to gather together the ideas of many different scholars who have contributed to understanding the text, adding my own notions and insights to the mix. Many consultants, both within India and abroad, have contributed to these notes, but requested that they remain anonymous, Such is the fear of Rushdie’s enemies. Yet I hope that even they will read these notes as they are intended: not as a brief on behalf of the novel or an indictment of it, but as a guide to understanding it–for whether one views it as a postmodern masterpiece or decadent desecration of all that is sacred, it is incumbent on the reader to understand what is on the page.
I have not assumed that Rushdie’s allusions to traditional icons of Western culture are universally understood either, and have taken some pains to explicate for Americans the numerous Britishisms in novel which are easily comprehensible to English readers. My experience with students reading the work leads me to believe that over-explanation is less harmful in this case than under-explanation.
Rushdie clearly never envisioned the kind of annotation I am providing here. After all, part of his style is meant to startle the Western reader into realizing he/she is not the center of all stories. In an interview with Salon magazine, he commented on his use of words unfamiliar to many of his readers:
. . . I use them as flavoring. I mean, I can read books from America and I don’t always get the slang. American writers always assume that the whole world speaks American, but actually the whole world does not speak American. And American Jewish writers put lots of Yiddish in their books and sometimes I don’t know what they’re saying. I’ve read books by writers like Philip Roth with people getting hit in the kishkes and I think, “What?!”It’s fun to read things when you don’t know all the words. Even children love it. One of the things any great children’s writer will tell you is that children like it if in books designed for their age group there is a vocabulary just slightly bigger than theirs. So they come up against weird words, and the weird words excite them. If you describe a small girl in a story as “loquacious,” it works so much better than “talkative.” And then some little girl will read the book and her sister will be shooting her mouth off and she will say to her sister, “Don’t be so loquacious.” It is a whole new weapon in her arsenal.
However, on May 3, 1999, Melinda Penkava interviewed Salman Rushdie about his new novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet on the National Public Radio phone-in talk show, “Talk of the Nation.” Asked about the possibility of “Cliff’s Notes” to his writings, Rushdie answered that although he didn’t expect readers to get all the allusions in his works, he didn’t think such notes would detract from the reading of them: “James Joyce once said after he had published Ulysses that he had given the professors work for many years to come; and I’m always looking for ways of employing professors, so I hope to have given them some work too.”
The problem with The Satanic Verses, is that many readers have found themselves so disoriented that they have never finished the book. If you want to savor the text the way Rushdie originally intended, try reading it without the notes; but when you come to a term or reference that just begs to checked out, you can search for it here.
Much of the following is based on Ian Hamilton’s article, “The First Life of Salman Rushdie,” which is the most systematic and thorough treatment thus far of the author’s life. Rushdie himself is reportedly working on an autobiography.
Rushdie was born to liberal, prosperous Muslim parents in Bombay June 19, 1947. In August 14 of that year, Pakistan divided itself from India as part of an agreement ending the period of British colonialism in South Asia. The result was a chaotic and extremely violent period as 6,000,000 Muslims moved north to the newly-established Islamic state and 8,000,000 Hindus and Sikhs moved south fleeing it. Rushdie’s parents, however, remained in Bombay while Rushdie was growing up, so that he never identified with the strongly pro-Islamic stance of many Pakistanis. In 1961, when he was 13, he was sent to England to study at Rugby School. In 1962, his family followed him to England, became naturalized British citizens, and lived for two years in Kensington, which features as a locale in The Satanic Verses. When his father decided to move the family to Karachi, Pakistan, a country that Rushdie detested, he felt as if his homeland had been taken away from him.
In 1965 he went on to study history at Kings College, Cambridge, where his father Anis Ahmed Rushdie had also studied. In his senior year Rushdie investigated the origins of Islam and encountered for the first time the story of the “satanic verses.” He also pursued his interest in movies and became involved in the theater as an actor. When he graduated in 1968 his father tried to persuade him to take over the new towel factory he had established in Karachi, and their already strained relationship worsened.
Venturing into television production and publishing, he encountered instances of censorship which persuaded him that he belonged back in London, where he lived for a time on welfare and occasionally acted, enjoying being young in London during the height of the sixties. However he eventually went to work writing ads for a firm called Sharp MacManus. In 1971 he finished a novel entitled The Book of the Pir (a term which occurs as well in The Satanic Verses), but it was rejected and never published. He returned to advertising, preparing television commercials for Ogilvy & Mather. The character of Hal Valance in the novel is based partly on bigoted advertising executives he met during this period in his life.
In 1970 he met Clarissa Luard, the model for Pamela Lovelace in The Satanic Verses and they began living together two years later. In 1976 they married. In 1971 he had written his first published novel, Grimus, a bizarre science-fiction/fantasy novel with few ties to the South Asian material which was going to inform his best fiction. His experiences in 1977 working with a project to assist immigrants from Bangladesh convinced him that racism permeated British society. He himself, with light skin and English accent, was better accepted.
The phrase that really gets me angry is this thing about being “more English than the English.” It is used as if it should be offensive. I point out to these people that if there was an English person living in India who adopted Indian dress, who had learnt to speak Urdu or Hindi or Bengali fluently without an accent, nobody would accuse him of having lost his culture. They would be flattered and pleased that the language had been acquired so efficiently. And they would see it as a compliment to themselves. But they wouldn’t accuse him of having betrayed his origins.
(Quoted in Hamilton 102.)
Although the Anglophile Saladin Chamcha is portrayed as more than a bit of a fool in the novel, his rejection of Zeeny Vakil’s accusations that he has betrayed his Indian roots may reflect Rushdie’s own struggles with this issue.
In 1980 Rushdie published Midnight’s Children, the novel that catapulted him to fame. It is a brilliant and searing satire on the history of modern India, with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as one of its main targets. It gained lavish praise in the West and won the famous Booker Prize for fiction, and was also well received in South Asia, But not by everyone. His relatives were offended when they recognized unflattering portraits of themselves in the novel. One of its prime targets, Mrs. Gandhi, sued for libel and won her case demanding an expurgated, revised version shortly before she was assassinated (it was never published).
Like The Satanic Verses, Midnight’s Children combines fantasy and magic with political satire in a manner strongly reminiscent of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, though he has preferred to claim Günter Grass as a greater influence. Like García Márquez he integrates fantastic elements into everyday life, and routinely refers to events to come as if they were already known, techniques which he were to be a hallmark of his later fiction as well. Another García Márquez pattern which recurs in Rushdie’s fiction is the doomed love affair which is at first resisted by the female partner, then burns wildly and destructively in an outburst of almost supernatural eroticism.
His next novel was Shame, a 1983 critique of the Zia ul-Haq regime and of Benazir Bhutto which was effective enough to earn its banning in Pakistan. After falling in love with author Robyn Davidson on a tour of Australia, he ended his marriage to Luard by moving in with her for what was to be an extremely stormy relationship, resulting, suggests Ian Hamilton, in the portrait of Alleluia Cone in The Satanic Verses. His portraits of both characters based on Clarissa and Robyn in The Satanic Verses are rather sympathetic, with Rushdie apparently casting himself in the rather unsympathetic Saladin Chamcha role (Hamilton 106).
A 1986 trip to Nicaragua under the Sandinistas led to the nonfiction book, The Jaguar Smile, much criticized as simplistically partisan, but reflecting the constant interest in politics which runs through his fiction. In 1986 Rushdie met the American writer Marianne Wiggins, whom he married two years later. (Their relationship was a difficult one as well; they were to stay together longer than they might have when he was forced underground by Khomeni’s fatwa, but ultimately they were to be divorced.) In 1987 he returned to India to make a film just in time to encounter the outbreak of Hindu/Muslim violence resulting from the controversy over the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, a conflict which was to have a major influence on the writing of The Moor’s Last Sigh.
Back in London to edit the film, he was suddenly summoned to his father’s deathbed where he achieved a reconciliation with the old man which is reflected in the novel in the final reconciliation between Saladin and Changez.
On September 26, 1988, Viking Penguin published his long-awaited novel, The Satanic Verses. Although the book was generally praised in Europe and America, it was viewed by some as undisciplined and by others as baffling. Few Western readers understood much of what was to be so offensive to Muslim readers. A Muslim Minister of Parliament in India attacked the novel, and it was quickly banned there. Photocopies of the pages considered most offensive were circulated among various Islamic organizations and to the embassies of Islamic nations in London. On October 8, a Saudi newspaper published in London denounced Rushdie, and various threats and complaints followed; but it was only in January of 1989 that the protests burst into full public consciousness. The book was burned before the television cameras in England, in Iran five members of a mob attacking the American Culture Center in Islamabad in protest were shot to death, and in Kashmir, sixty were injured in another protest and one person died.
Rushdie responded to the book burning in January with a bold defense in which he said, in part:
Nowadays . . . a powerful tribe of clerics has taken over Islam. These are the contemporary Thought Police. They have turned Muhammad into a perfect being, his life into a perfect life, his revelation into the unambiguous, clear event it originally was not. Powerful taboos have been erected. One may not discuss Muhammad as if he were human, with human virtues and weaknesses. One may not discuss the growth of Islam as a historical phenomenon, as an ideology born out of its time. These are the taboos against which The Satanic Verses has transgressed (these and one other: I also tried to write about the place of women in Islamic society, and in the Koran). It is for this breach of taboo that the novel is being anathematized, fulminated against, and set alight. . . .The Satanic Verses is not, in my view, an antireligious novel. It is, however, an attempt to write about migration, its stresses and transformations, from the point of view of migrants from the Indian subcontinent to Britain. This is, for me, the saddest irony of all; that after working for five years to give voice and fictional flesh to the immigrant culture of which I am myself a member, I should see my book burned, largely unread, by the people it’s about, people who might find some pleasure and much recognition in its pages. I tried to write against stereotypes; the zealot protests serve to confirm, in the Western mind, all the worst stereotypes of the Muslim world.
“The Book Burning,” p. 26.
The Ayatollah Khomeni, leader of the Iranian revolution and the target of a fiercely satirical portrait in the novel, responded by issuing a denunciation of Rushdie called a fatwa:
I inform all zealous Muslims of the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses–which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an–and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities. God Willing, whoever is killed on this path is a martyr.
(Quoted in Hamilton 113.)
Many Muslims have since criticized the fatwa, and denied Khomeni’s authority to issue it; but it has had an immediate and lasting effect on Rushdie’s life.
Shortly afterward he went into hiding, guarded by British policemen who have been his constant companions ever since. Rushdie attempted a reconciliation with his enemies by meeting with a number of prominent Muslim clerics and declaring himself Muslim, at least in a cultural sense; but the détente he had attempted to achieve came to nothing, and he has since resolutely defended himself. Rather unfairly, a number of smug academics safe in their offices have blamed this gregarious, energetic man for this early attempt to find a way out of his life of enforced solitude and mortal peril. (The essay “In Good Faith” incorporates his earliest and fullest defence of the novel and critique of his attackers.) He has become an international celebrity in the cause of freedom of speech, a target for would-be assassins, and the subject of endless discussion over the merits and influence of the novel that began it all: The Satanic Verses.
Because the story of his subsequent struggles and triumphs since is readily available from other sources and not really relevant to understanding The Satanic Verses, it will not be repeated here. He remains under the threat of the fatwa, which has been renewed several times by the successors of Khomeni now governing Iran; but in recent years he has ventured out in public more and more for surprise speeches and other appearances.
About a year after the issuing of the fatwa, a film portraying a successful attack on the author was released but not widely viewed. In a March 1996 interview with the Gleaner, an electronic publication of Gleebooks in Sydney, Australia, Rushdie commented on the film:
When, within a year or so after the Fatwah, there was a movie made in Pakistan called International Guerillas in which I was portrayed rather unpleasantly as somebody wearing a rather ugly range of pastel safari suits and also behaving as a drunkard, a torturer, and indeed a murderer. And in the end– and the heroes of this film were the international terrorists they sent to hunt me down and in the end I did indeed get killed.There was one–I have to say to in parentheses–one scene of rather good unintentional comedy which I hope you’ll appreciate when the kind of– the “me” character has had his fill of lashing and slashing at one of the international terrorists who’d been imprisoned for his pleasure by what looks like the Israeli Army, when he has finished having his fun, he says–he orders the Israeli Army to take this fellow away to some dungeon and spend all night reading him The Satanic Verses. Whereupon this man completely crumples, and says, “Not that, anything but that, etc.” That was a good scene. But many of the other scenes of the film were less good.Anyway the film got to England and was refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Classification largely because the Board correctly saw the film was extremely defamatory, that I would have a very straight-forward case in law, it would be able– if they gave it a certificate to sue not only the film makers but also them. So the film got banned. And so I found myself in the extraordinary position of having to write to the Board, waiving my legal rights, promising that I would not sue and saying, “Would you please give this film a licence,” because I did not want to be defended by an act of censorship.And the thing turned into a rather shapely parable of the free speech position. Because if this film had been banned, if it had not been given a certificate it would have become a very hot number indeed. The illicit videos of this film would have circulated in their goodness knows how many thousands and it would have become glamorous as an object. And instead it got its certificate and the producers of the certificate booked a very large cinema in Bradford in the North of England which is where the largest Muslim Community in England lives, and nobody went. You know. The film got taken off after one showing because it was playing to an empty house. It just goes that actually if you do let people make up their minds they can tell the difference between rubbish and what is not rubbish. And nobody wants to pay money to see a bad movie in the end.
According to Sara Suleri (“Whither Rushdie” 199), popular hostility to the author was so strong that the actor who played Rushdie in the film himself received several death threats.
Rushdie has also replied to those who argue that novels such as his deserve condemnation because they do not respect the religious sensibilities of some believers:
Religious extremists, these days, demand “respect” for their attitudes with growing stridency. Few people would object to the idea that people’s rights to religious belief must be respected–after all, the First Amendment defends those rights as unequivocally as it defends free speech–but now we are asked to agree that to dissent from those beliefs, to hold that they are suspect or antiquated or wrong, that in fact they are arguable, is incompatible with the idea of respect. When criticism is placed off-limits as “disrepectful,” and therefore offensive, something strange is happening to the concept of respect. Yet in recent times both the American N.E.A. and the very British BBC have announced that they will employ this new perversion of “respect” as a touchstone for their funding and programming decisions.Other minority groups–racial, sexual, social–have also demanded that they be accorded this new form of respect. To “respect” Louis Farrakhan, we must understand, is simply to agree with him. To “dis” him is, equally simply, to disagree. But if dissent is also to be thought a form of “dissing,” then we have indeed succumbed to the thought police.
I want to suggest that citizens of free societies do not preserve their freedom by pussyfooting around their fellow citizens’ opinions, even their most cherished beliefs.
“How News Becomes Opinion, And Opinion Off-Limits”, p.20.
Rushdie writes of the title:
You call us devils? it seems to ask. Very well, then, here is the devil’s version of the world, of “your” world, the version written from the experience of those who have been demonized by virtue of their otherness. Just as the Asian kids in the novel wear toy devil-horns proudly, as an assertion of pride in identity, so the novel proudly wears its demonic title. The purpose is not to suggest that the Qur’an is written by the devil; it is to attempt the sort of act of affirmation that, in the United States, transformed the word black from the standard term of racist abuse into a “beautiful” expression of cultural pride.
(“In Good Faith” 403)
List of Principal Characters
Gibreel Farishta, born Ismail Najmuddin
Indian film star, specializing in playing Hindu gods, though he himself is a Muslim, takes the form of an angel. Rushdie has said of Gibreel:
the character of Gibreel himself is a mixture of two or three types of Indian movie star. There was in the forties a Muslim actor, a very big star at the time, who did somehow get away with playing major Hindu divinities and because he was so popular it was not a problem. And it was interesting to me that mega-stardom allowed you to cross those otherwise quite fraught religious frontiers. So there was a bit of that in Gibreel. And then there was an element of the big South Indian movie stars, a bit of Rama Rao. And finally there was a large bit of the biggest movie star in India for the last fifteen or twenty years, Amitabh Bachchan.
Rushdie: “Interview,” p. 52.
(See also Brennan 155, Ruthven, Aravamudan: “‘Being God’s Postman is No Fun, Yaar'” 9 and Jussawalla 231).
Raj Kapoor has also been mentioned as a model (Fischer 122). The name means “Gabriel Angel” in Urdu and Persian.
Born Salahuddin Chamchawala, a voice impersonator, “Chumch,” “Spoono” (because “chamcha” is Hindi for “spoon,” see p. 83). Takes the form of a devil. His original name is comical because it combines a heroic first name (Saladin–the great Muslim hero of the Crusades) and the term “spoon-seller.” Chamcha also means yes-man:
A chamcha is a very humble, everyday object. It is, in fact, a spoon. The word is Urdu; and it also has a second meaning. Colloquially a chamcha is a person who sucks up to a powerful people, a yes-man, a sycophant. The British Empire would not have lasted a week without such collaborators among its colonized peoples. You could say that the Raj grew fat by being spoon-fed.
(Rushdie, “Empire” 8).
Feroza Jussawalla says that the name echoes a Bombay street slang insult–“salah chamcha”–“bastard homosexual” (“Resurrecting” 107).
Saladin’s wife, leftist. Her name combines those of the heroine in Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela and of the villain in his Clarissa; thus the name may be a subtle allusion to the given name of Rushdie’s first wife, Clarissa Luard..However, the name is almost certainly also meant to refer to the sixties porn star of Deep Throat, Linda Lovelace.
The prophet featured in the Satanic Verses plot. His name is taken from a relatively obscure insulting European name for Muhammad, most likely borrowed by Rushdie from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (VI, vii; see Jussawalla: “Resurrecting” 108).
Zeeny “Zeeny” Vakil
Doctor at Breach Candy Hospital, art critic and political activist, lover of Saladin.
Female partner of Saladin in the voice impersonation business, later companion of Billy Battuta. Her name may be suggestive of mammalian breasts, though Yasmine Gooneratne suggests the name means something like “worthlessness” in Hindi. On p. 274, the newspapers say her name is Mildred, so “Mimi” may be merely a nickname, or the papers have got it wrong.
Wife of a businessman, lover of Gibreel. Commits suicide with her three children by jumping off the roof of Everest Vilas and then haunts Gibreel throughout much of the novel. Her first name calls to mind the brilliant actress (renowned for her beauty and brilliant dancing) of the same name. The actress was much talked about in the gossip rags of Bombay in the seventies, her name being linked to the megastar Amitabh Bachchan (whose injury during the shooting of a fight scene in “Coolie,” and the life-threatening infection that subsequently developed, mirrors what happens to Gibreel. The 1981 movie Silsila was partly based on the Amitabh/Rekha affair. (David Windsor) “Merchant” may be an allusion to the famous Indian filmmaker Ismail Merchant, the model for S. S. Sisodia.
Allie Cone (originally Cohen). Tender-footed climber of Mount Everest. Her name may also allude to that of the goddess Al-Lat (Seminck 17).
Karim Abu Simbel
Ruler of Jahilia. The last two parts of his name refer to the location of the gigantic sculptures of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II (r. c.1304-1237 BC); probably intended to suggest his imposing, grandiose manner. However, his name is probably also linked to that of Abu Sufyan, an opponent of Muhammad who was married to one Hind (see below).
Jamshed” Jumpy” Joshi
Lover of Pamela Chamcha, Saladin’s wife. Like Baal, he is a poet.
Proprietor of the Shaandaar Café, father of two daughters: Mishal and Anahita.
S. S. Sisodia
Indian filmmaker living and working in London. His name not only mocks his stuttering, but inspires the punning nickname “Whisky” (“whisky and soda”).
Mirza Saeed Akhtar
The zamindar of Titlipur, whose wife, dying of cancer, follows the mysterious Ayesha to the sea in search of a miracle.
Characters who share a name
One of the techniques used by Rushdie to knit this multifaceted work together is to assign the same names to certain characters in different plots of the novel. (It is worth noting that García Márquez also repeats the names of characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude, but to very different effect.)
The cruel ruler of Desh in the Imam plot (playing the role of the former Shah of Iran); the fanatical girl who leads to the march to Mecca in the Titlipur plot; and the name of the youngest and favorite wife of Mahound and of the historical Muhammad, whom he married when she was only eleven and about whom several stories are told which indicate she was rather independent-minded and occasionally critical of the Prophet (see Netton: Text, pp. 30-31; Haykal 139, 183-184, 331-333). Her name also alludes to Queen Ayesha of H. Rider Haggard’s She, pale, long-haired queen of an Arabic-speaking people in Africa (Seminck 24). The text of She. Information on Haggard.
A follower of Mahound; follower of the Imam. See below, note on p. 101. The historical Bilal was a former black slave who converted to Islam and was made the first muezzin (the official who calls the faithful to prayer).
The grasping wife of Muhammad Sufyan in the main plot; the cruel, lascivious wife of Abu Simbel in the “satanic verses” plot. Named after the seventh-century Hind bint ‘Utba, wife of Abu Sufyan (see above), powerful local leader in Mecca and custodian of the temple (Parekh 30). She is famous for her ferocity during the Battle of Uhud in 625 when she tore open the chest of Muhammad’s uncle, Hamzah ibn ‘abd al Muttalib, and bit into his liver. She was also the mother of one of Muhammad’s wives (Fischer 131-132; see also Haykal 267-268). Hind also shares a characteristic with another fictional character, H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha (see above, note on “Ayesha.”)
Follower of Mahound; follower of the Imam.
Mishal Sufyan is the older daughter of Muhammad Sufyan and lover of Hanif Johnson in the main plot; Mishal Akhtar is the dying wife of Mirza Saeed Akhbar in the Titlipur plot. “Hanif” is the first name of Anglo-Pakistani novelist and film director Hanif Kureshi and historically is a term referring to pre-Islamic monotheists (Haykal 601, no. His last name is used for the minor character of Mrs. Qureishi (Nazareth 171). The Qureishi (or Quraysh) were the tribe of which Muhammad was a member and whose name means “shark”.
Bilal, Khalid and Salman
Followers of Mahound, and of the Imam. The guard outside the Imam’s room on p. 210 is Salman Farsi (“Farsi” is a term designating a follower of the Persian religion of Zarathustrianism); Salman the Persian is a follower of Mahound who ultimately loses his faith in him in the “satanic verses” plot; and of course it is the first name of the author.
The notes to each chapter are on a different page. Since the notes are quite detailed, this means that some pages are quite long. I cannot break these notes up into smaller pieces without making them much more difficult to manage. Having a limited number of pages also allows you to search through them for the passage you are interested in with a minimum of trouble.
Note: In the following annotations, the page numbers refer to the hardbound first edition and to the first paperback edition of The Satanic Verses published by “The Consortium.” Where the pagination of the Holt Owl paperback edition differs, its page numbers are given in [square brackets].