Plot Summary for Chapter VI
This chapter, the most controversial in the novel, returns us to Jahilia, from which Mahound had fled (historically this corresponds to the Prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina). Mahound is returning to his home city, having gained many followers while he was away. The monstrous Hind, miraculously unaged, continues her reign of terror over the city. The cynical Poet Baal encounters Salman, now disillusioned with Mahound. He says that in Yathrib the prophet has become obsessed with laying down various restrictive laws, some of which parallel parts of the Sharia, traditional Islamic law. This passage has been widely attacked by Muslim scholars as inaccurate and blasphemous, but clearly Rushdie was not attempting a scholarly discourse on Islamic law. It is, however, a satire on restrictive moral codes. He also describes what he takes to be the origins of the religion’s restrictions on women.
Salman, noting that the revelations Mahound received were very convenient for the Prophet himself, has begun to test him by altering the revelations given to Mahound when they are dictated. He has realized that Mahound is far from infallible; and, terrified that his changes to the sacred text will be discovered, he has fled to Jahilia. Muslims who see this as a satire on the dictation of the Qur’an find it highly offensive, for the sacred scripture of Muslims is held to be the exact and perfectly preserved word of God in the most literal sense.
The aged Abu Simbel converts to the new faith and surrenders the city of Mahound. At first Hind resists, but after the House the Black Stone is cleansed of pagan idols (as the Ka’ba was similarly cleansed by Muhammad), she submits and embraces the new faith as well. Bilal manages to save Salman from execution; but Baal flees, hiding in a brothel named Hijab. The prostitutes there have blasphemously taken on the names of the Prophet’s various wives. No scene in the novel has been more ferociously attacked, though as Rushdie points out it is quite inaccurate to say that the author has made the Prophet’s wives into whores. Rather the scene is a commentary on the tendency of the profane to infiltrate the sacred. Nevertheless, the imagery and language of this section has offended readers mightily. Baal becomes a sort of pseudo-Mahound, by making love to each of the prostitutes in turn. Salman visits Baal and tells him a story that implies the real Ayesha may have been unfaithful to Mahound.
The brothel is raided, Baal sings serenades to the imprisoned whores and is himself arrested and condemned to death. Hind, meanwhile, retreats to her study, evidently practicing witchcraft. It is revealed that her “conversion” was a ruse to divert Mahound’s attention while she trained herself in the magical powers necessary to defeat him. Ultimately she sends the goddess Al-Lat to destroy the Prophet who, with his dying breath thanks her for killing him.
Notes for Chapter 6
House of the Black Stone
See above, note on p. 94 .
How has Jahilia changed?
Official pronouncements of the Pope.
four hundred and eighty-one pairs of ruby slippers
While the number of slippers is doubtless meant to recall the huge shoe collection of the infamous Imelda Marcos, wife of the deposed dictator of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, their color is an allusion to Dorothy’s magic shoes in the film version of The Wizard of Oz.
old women were being raped and ritually slaughtered
As in London by the “Granny Ripper.”
Pun on “manticore,” a mythical Indian beast with the head of a man, body of a tiger or lion, and feet and tail of a scorpion or of a dragon; from Persian mandchora: “man-eater.”
The word “assassin” is derived from this Arabic term meaning “eater of hashish,” based on tales of such drugged men carrying out murders.
The Persian. Sulaiman.
Salman is being treated as an immigrant, like Salman Rushdie. The Arabic “Sulaiman” is the same as English “Solomon,” the wise king of ancient Israel. But Salman points out that his name, like other words containing “slm” like “Islam” and “Muslim” connotes “peaceful” in Arabic.
What do the laws proclaimed by Mahound tell us about his attitudes and character? Why do you think Rushdie chose to relate these particular laws?
Salman had persuaded the Prophet to have a huge trench dug
See above, note on p. 101 . The telling of the story given here seems to question the high reputation for cleverness which Salman’s tactic earned him.
Oh, such a practical angel
Joel Kuortti presents the most plausible parallel in Muhammad’s career: “A similar tradition is recorded, where Muhammad employed ‘Abd-Allah Ibn Abi Sarh as his scribe; but the latter began to make changes in the recitation and finally lost his faith as these verses were accepted by Muhammad. Later ‘Abd-Allah was sentenced to death and pardoned in the same way as Salman Farsi. The most notable difference between Salman and ‘Abd-Allah in this is that Salman makes the changes without Mahound’s consent, or knowing about it” (Dashti 98, Muir xv & 410, Watt Bell’s Introduction 37-38). See also Armstrong, pp. 244-245. Saadi A. Simawe notes that Salman’s suspicions of the genuineness of Mahound’s revelations may also be inspired by certain criticisms made by his wife Ayesha of the historical Muhammad: “When the Qur’an allowed Muhammad to marry as many women as he wished, she protested with cynicism, “Allah always responds immediately to your needs . . .” (185). See also Armstrong, p. 196.
Present arguments for and against the proposition that the story of Salman’s distortion of the texts dictated to him by Mahound is an attack on the infallibility of the Qur’an.
What kind of idea . . . does Submission seem today
Refers back to p. 335 : “WHAT KIND OF AN IDEA ARE YOU?” One of the major motifs of the novel, dealing as it does with the problem of self-definition.
See note on p. 301 .
Alluding to the famous scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene ii.
Literally “hypocrite,” “liar,” but referring to an anti-messianic figure in Islamic tradition comparable to the Christian Antichrist who is predicted to mislead many at the end of time by disseminating lies and half-truths. Also spelled Dadjdjal (Arabic).
The three false goddesses, also known as the “banat al-Llah.” In Arabic, the Qur’an calls them “gharaniq.” See Karen Armstrong’s comment on this point (p. 114).
colossus of Hubal
Al-Kalbi in his Book of Idols describes this statue depicting Hubal (Biblical Abel) as being made of as a red agate (Faris 23). See Al-Kalbi, p. 23.
How does Khalid’s slaying of Uzza symbolize the triumph of the new faith? Note the traditional Islamic title given to the “Most High” (God).
All who Submit are spared.
According to tradition, Muhammad forgave the historical Hind for her mutilation of his uncle (Haykal 411).
Why is Mahound so angry with Khalid when he asks what is to be done to Baal?
The Curtain, Hijab
Literally “veil,” (Arabic) as in the facial covering worn by many Muslim women; but also the curtain behind which Muhammad’s wives retreated from public view. At first the institution of the hijab was applied to Muhammad’s wives only; but later it was adopted by many women. Karen Armstrong argues that veiling and the seclusion of women in general are not Qur’anic, but influenced by earlier Persian and Byzantine customs (197). In sufi metaphysics the term refers to the veil separating the divine and human realms. This episode has called down more wrathful denunciation than any other, with many Muslim critics stating that it portrays the wives of Muhammad as whores. Defenders of Rushdie point out that these are only whores pretending to be his wives, which is true, but somewhat beside the point, since the effect is almost equally blasphemous to a believer. Rushdie himself explains his intentions in creating this episode:
If you can remember, Jahilia is presented as being this debauched zone of licentiousness into which this new idea, which had all kinds of notions of purity and abstinence and so on, had just been introduced. So it’s the first clash between those two very, very incompatible ways of looking at the world. The old debauched world creates for itself a kind of debauched image of the thing that’s just arrived, and that image is eventually destroyed. That is simply my way of concentrating the reader’s mind on what was really happening here and reminding them that after all the harem is also a place where women have been bought and sold. So it may not be a place where they are plying their sexual favours . . . but certainly the harem is a place to which women have been sent for reasons other than desire, so that there are two kinds of ways of locking up women, if you like. One for the pleasure of one man and the political good of many other men, whose families they came from. In the other case you lock up women in order to, as it were, make them available for the pleasure of many men. The two worlds just seem like strange positive-negative echoes of each other and a way of showing that was to make them physically mirror each other. The same number of women, this little degraded fellow, this poet, in one world and the Prophet in the other. That’s why I thought of it. I suppose I underestimated its explosive content.
Rushdie: “Interview,” p. 64.
Circassians, inhabitants of the northern Caucasus on the border between the former Soviet Union and Turkey, were much prized as slaves in ancient times. Slaves used as harem guards were castrated to protect the women they guarded. Information on Circassians.
thirty-nine stone urns
Of course, in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves there was someone in each jar. See Tchu Tché Tchin Tchow. above, p. 327 .
Rushdie may have given this name to his butcher because the Qur’anic Ibrahim (Biblical “Abraham”) slew a ram after having been prevented from slaying his son.
great temple of Al-Lat at Taif
An object of pilgrimage, like Mecca, in pre-Islamic Arabia. The other goddesses also had their temples, Uzzah at Naklah, and Manat at Qudayd. All of them were overthrown by Muhammad. (Armstrong 64-65)
Muhammad’s favorite wife, A’isha (Ayesha) was still a child when he married her. According to tradition, when he asked her what her the toys were that she was playing with, she answered “Solomon’s Horses” (Watt 323 & Armstrong 157).
sweet wine made with uncrushed grapes
This alludes to a wine-growing technique developed by Arabs in Andalusia (personal communication from Salman Rushdie).
This story of a potential scandal concerning Ayesha is retold by Haykal, emphasizing her innocence (332-332). More details are provided in Armstrong (pp. 200-201).
a dead woman
When the Ayesha of H. Rider Haggard’s She died, she similarly aged all at once after having miraculously preserved her youth for centuries. Information on Haggard.
Probably alluding to the name of one of Muhammad’s followers who became the second of the Caliphs who ruled after his death: ‘Umar b. al-Khattab (c. 591-644) (Netton 35).
 the La-ilaha
The qalmah (Arabic). See note above, on p. 105 .
the death of Mahound
This account closely follows the biographies of Muhammad. Mahound lies with his head on the lap of his favourite wife, Ayesha. In Islamic tradition, the words she utters at the end of the chapter are ascribed to Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s bosom friend and Ayesha’s father, who consoled the mourning believers with them after Muhammad’s death. See Ibn Ishaq, p. 683. (Joel Kuortti) See also Armstrong, pp. 255-256.
In Islam, the angel of death who will blow the last horn at the end of the world. In addition, when someone is fated to die, God causes a leaf inscribed with his or her name to fall from the lote tree beside the divine throne, and forty days later Azraeel must separate his soul from his body. His Arabic name is more commonly rendered Izra’il (Gibb “Izra’il”).