The “Satanic Verses”

Note by Joel Kuortti

One of the most controversial topics in the Satanic Verses “affair” is the question of the “satanic verses” themselves. The title of the novel refers to an incident which is on the disputed terrain between fiction and fact. The “satanic verses” are, in transliteration from Arabic, tilk al-gharaniq al-‘ula wa inna shafa’ata-hunna la-turtaja, and translate into English as “these are exalted females whose intercession is to be desired” (Satanic Verses p. 340). (Note on the translation of these verses.) The verses comprising this sentence are said to have been added to the 53rd sura of the Qur’an entitled Surat-annajm, The Star (53:19ff)in order to acknowledge the validity of the goddesses Lat, Manat, and ‘Uzza. The tradition goes on to say that the verses were later withdrawn and denounced as “satanic.”

But the historicity of the incident is disputed by some of the early Muslim historians, especially (Muhammad ben Yasar) Ibn Ishaq (d. 768 CE), (Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah Ibn Umar) al-Waqidi (747-822 CE), (Muhammad Ibn Muslim Ibn Shihab) al-Zuhri (d.741 CE), Muhammad Ibn Sa’d (d. 845 CE), al-Tabari (c. 839-923 CE), Ibrahi. Ibn Hisham, Ibn Ishaq’s editor, omits the passage, but it is preserved as a quotation from al-Tabari, in Guillaume’s translation of Ibn Ishaq (Ishaq 165-166. See Muir, pp.lxxix-lxxx).

Some Islamic and most non-Muslim Western commentators on the Qur’an have accepted this story of Muhammad’s momentary acceptance of the verses; others have repudiated it. But the prevailing Muslim view of what is called the “Gharaniq” incident is that it is a fabrication created by the unbelievers of Mecca in the early days of Islam, and, Haykal comments, afterwards the “story arrested the attention of the western Orientalists who took it as true and repeated it ad nauseam.” (Haykal 105) The main argument against the authenticity of the two verses in Haykal and elsewhere is that “its incoherence is evident upon the least scrutiny. It contradicts the infallibility of every prophet in conveying the message of His Lord.” (Haykal 107) In other words, since Muslims believe Muhammad to have faithfully reported God’s word, it is surprising that Muslim scholars have accepted such a discreditable story, and not at all surprising that it might have been invented by Islam’s enemies. In his analysis of the passage, Haykal comes to the conclusion that “this story of the goddesses is a fabrication and a forgery, authored by the enemies of Islam after the first century of Hijrah” (Haykal 144). Zakaria Bashier shares this view, though he further argues that even if the verses were to be regarded as being genuine, they would not impugn the Prophet’s infallibility because they were in fact uttered by Satan. (Bashier 175). He also refers to similar observations by al-Suhayili (see Bashier 173).

The argument that W.M. Watt, for his part, provides for the inarguable authenticity of the verses is that “it is inconceivable that any Muslim would invent such a story, and it is inconceivable that a Muslim scholar would accept such a story from a non-Muslim.” (Watt xxxiv). Similarly, in his highly controversial book Twenty-Three Years, the Iranian ‘Ali Dashti concludes that “the evidence given in well-attested reports and in the interpretations of certain commentators makes it likely that the incident occured.” (Dashti 32). As evidence for the possibility of such a recitation and its subsequent withdrawal, the following passage from the Qur’an is often cited: “And We did not send before you any apostle or prophet, but when he desired, the Shaitan made a suggestion respecting his desire; but Allah annuls that which is cast” (22:52). As the suras of the Qur’an are traditionally not presented in chronological order (and just what that order might be is generally under dispute), it could be possible that this passage is referring to such a withdrawal.

The verses were perhaps first named “satanic verses’ by Sir William Muir, as Ahsan notes (Ahsan 139, footnote 2). Later the term was widely adopted, for example by Watt in his book Muhammad at Mecca. Daniel Pipes explains that as the term “satanic verses” does not occur anywhere else than in Western Orientalists’ works, and states that Rushdie “unwittingly adopted a part of the orientalist tradition.” (Pipes 116) Rushdie maintains that the term “comes from al-Tabari, one of the canonical Islamic sources.” (Rushdie: “Choice between Light and Dark” 11)

A list of references to the “satanic verses” in the novel.

Page 24
the incident of the Satanic verses in the early career of the Prophet

Page 114
The Star … At this point, without any trace of hesitation or doubt, he recites two further verses.

Have you thought upon Lat and Uzza, and Manat, the third, the other?’ . . . ‘They are the exalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed.’

Page 123 the three winged creatures, looking like herons or swans or just women

‘It was the Devil . . .’

Page 124
He stands in front of the statues . . .

After the repudiation of the Satanic verses . . .

Page 340
he would still speak, at nights, verses in Arabic . . .Page 366
What finally finished Salman with Mahound: the question of the women; and of the Satanic verses.Page 368
I went on with my devilement, changing verses . . .Page 373
Have you heard of Lat, and Manat, and Uzza . . .There are allusions in the London plot from time to time which connect the verses to Gibreel:

Page 285
it proved impossible to identify the verses

Page 445
the return of the little, satanic verses that made him madPage 459
What does a poet write? Verses. What jingle-jangles in Gibreel’s brain? Verses. What broke his heart? Verses and again versesPage 544
But I heard verses/You get me Spoono/V e r s e s


The transliteration is given without diacritical marks. The translation in The Satanic Verses here is closest to the one in William Muir, The Life of Mohammad from Original Sources 81). Another translation can be found in M. M. Ahsan: “These are the high-soaring ones (deities) whose intercession is to be hoped for!” (Ahsan 132). Arabic variants appear on pp.132 & 141 of the same source, and there are variant transliterations in Muhammad Husayn Haykal, p.111.

Rushdie’s own most extended discussion of this issue appears in his Critical Quarterly interview, pp. 59-62.

Karen Armstrong, in her Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, speculates about what truth might lurk behind this tale without necessarily alleging that Muhammad recognized the three goddesses as in any way comparable to God himself:

The gharaniq were probably Numidian cranes which were thought to fly higher than any other bird. Muhammad, who may have believed in the existence of the banat al-Llah as he believed in the existence of angels and jinn, was giving the “goddesses” a delicate compliment, without compromising his message. The gharaniq were not on the same level as al-Llah–not that anybody had suggested that they were–but, hovering as it were between heaven and earth, they could be valid intermediaries between God and man, like the angels, whose intercession is approved in the very next section of Sura 53. The Quraysh spread the good news throughout the city: “Muhammad has spoken of our gods in splendid fashion. He alleged in what he recited that they are the exalted gharaniq whose intercession is approved.

(p. 114).

Back to discussion.