Misguided provocateur vs. murderous zealot: ‘The Satanic Verses’ still beguiles 34 years on

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Salman Rushdie’s brutal stabbing revives debates on religion and freedom of speech, as well as fears of terrorism

By Revd Frank Gelli, an Anglican priest, activist, and cultural critic. He has read philosophy and theology at London and Oxford Universities, served in parishes in London and also as a chaplain to the Church of St Nicholas, British Embassy, Ankara, Turkey. He has published several books on spiritual subjects available on Amazon, and lectured on religious/interfaith dialogue at many academic conferences in the UK, the United States, Switzerland, Qatar, Iran, and Italy.

Salman Rushdie’s 1988 book, ‘The Satanic Verses’, has not lost its sulphurous potential. A zealot badly stabbed the aging author in New York. He sustained life-changing injuries. Was it divine chastisement or an act of satanic intolerance?

There are no ‘satanic verses’ in the text of the Koran. Surah 53, verses 19-20, reads: “Have you seen Lat and Uzza and Manat, the third?” An allusion to three female idols or goddesses worshipped by the Mecca pagans. It condemns them. The problem begins with a single tradition claiming that Satan impersonated the Angel Jibreel, tempting the Prophet to add another verse: “These are exalted cranes, whose intercession is hoped for.” Mohammed, they say, initially took the words as genuine but quickly spotted the deception and expunged them. Most Muslim exegetes reject the idea that Satan could trick the Prophet. That would undermine the certainty of revelation – a thought too horrible to contemplate. Islam preaches God the One, not a monstrous divine quaternity, comprising three female deities to boot!

Perusing ‘The Satanic Verses’ is a mixed experience. It’s a pretentious work, abounding in trendy literary tricks: Frame narrative, magical realism, dream visions, etc. The author occasionally entertains but there are also reams of tedious and plodding narrative. However, Rushdie displays a cunning way of beguiling the reader into his stories. The Prophet beloved by Muslims becomes ‘Mahound’, a disparaging name invented by medieval Christian scoffers of the rival religion. Mahound’s career cruelly satirizes that of the real Prophet. (Jibreel, who transmitted the Koran, is nicknamed ‘God’s postman’.) The hurt it causes believers must be deep – not unlike what I as a Christian feel when Jesus is besmirched. The Messiah, too, was tempted by Satan three times, but he told the foul beast to get lost. Satan came back at the Cross, hoping to get his prey, but like a greedy rat, was caught in the trap God laid for him.

Can the story of the satanic verses be credited? Did the devil really deceive Mohammed, if briefly? The key tradition is reported by a certain Ibn Ka’b. It is too long and intricate to relate. One argument impresses me though. Ibn Ka’b was a good Muslim. Would he have transmitted a story so negative to his religion if it hadn’t been true? Similarly, when critics impugn the veracity of the Gospel writers about Jesus’ person, the retort is that they included episodes too embarrassing not to be authentic. St. Mark writes (3:21) that on one occasion, Jesus’ family wanted to restrain him because the people said he was mad. Clearly, the Evangelist wasn’t out to present a merely hagiographic Christ, but to report the truth. Likewise with old Ibn Ka’b about Mohammed?

After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against Rushdie in 1989, the book’s Japanese translator was killed. Other assassination attempts took place in Italy, Norway, and Turkey. Violence erupted around the world. Now it’s the author’s turn. But don’t paint all Muslims over with the same brush. Two enlightened Imams from the London Regent’s Park Mosque, Dr. Zaki Badawi and Dr. Gamal Suleiman, attempted a reconciliation. Badawi called on Muslims to spurn the book but spare the man, while Suleiman suggested that Rushdie should repent and declare himself a good Muslim. That would put the jinn back into the bottle and calm things down. Alas, extremists disrupted the Imams’ sermons and demanded the apostate should die, repentance or not. The well-meaning clerics, whom I personally knew, had to resign their posts, and the sad affaire rumbled on. Shortly after Charlie Hebdo published ill-fated caricatures of Mohammed seven years ago, 12 people were massacred by jihadists. “We have avenged the Prophet!” they shouted after the deed. ISIS terrorists murdered 90 people in the Paris Bataclan Club and wounded hundreds. Eighty-six died when a jihadist rammed a truck into a crowd in Nice. The number of such attacks, and their victim counts, have been on the decline in recent years, but is Rushdie’s attempted murder the shape of things to come? Islamophobes must be rubbing their hands with glee.

The unctuous British media are oozing defenses of free speech. Funny for a country which shut down an entire TV channel, RT, because it did not say ‘the right thing’ on Ukraine! In line with age-old, inglorious English hypocrisy. Now, because zealot Hadi Matar is of Lebanese origins and has Shia sympathies, biased Western media are using the incident to target Iran – the only Muslim nation which has the pluck and integrity to stand up for the rights of Palestinians. Says a lot!

If Muslim theology is correct, Salman Rushdie will get his full comeuppance in the Hereafter. But I must confess this – years back, I was strolling about in West London (Hammersmith) when my eyes alighted on a glum figure skulking along the other side. No mistake – it was Rushdie! ‘My chance to earn the fat reward?’ I briefly wondered. Prudence and my conscience prevailed. I let him go by. Call me a Christian namby-pamby – I am jolly glad I did!

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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