Why The Satanic Verses is so controversial?

“The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie

On 12 August 2022 Salman Rushdie was attacked on stage, stabbed multiple times that left him wounded including on the right side of his neck where he lost a lot of blood.

The attack is still related to this 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, which became controversial because of the blasphemous nature towards Islam.

But what exactly is the blasphemy?

According to a theory that the likes of Rushdie believe, The Satanic Verses is a reference to a few lines that were said to be temporarily included in the Qur’an by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that mentions about Al-Lat, Al-‘Uzzá, and Manāt, which, according to the pagan religion that existed in Mecca before the spread of Islam, are the daughters of Allah.

The theory suggest that the lines acknowledge the existence, worship, and worthiness of these three goddesses, and it went like this: “Have ye thought upon Al-Lat and Al-‘Uzzá. And Manāt, the third, the other?”

Eventually, however, according to the theory the Prophet (PBUH) informed the Islamic community that these specific verses did not come from Allah through the angel Gabriel, but deceptively whispered by Satan (hence, the satanic verses). And thus the verses were said to be omitted from the Qur’an, never made it into the hadith compilation, and erased from history (due to its false idolatry nature).

So, what did Salman Rushdie wrote in the novel that becomes so controversial?

The controversy is centred at the disrespectful portrayal of a character “inspired by” the Prophet (PBUH). Starting with the choice of name, Mahound, that was used in the past by medieval Christian writers in a derogatory tone to depict the Prophet (PBUH) as a demon who inspired a false religion. In addition, the exact age, vocation, family situation, even the physical description of Mahound is also identical with the Prophet’s (PBUH).

Furthermore, in the novel Mahound is portrayed as a deceitful person with self interest (unlike the real Prophet), who, for example, casts doubt on the divine nature of the Qur’an, and misattributes certain actual passages in the Qur’an that puts men “in charge” of women and gives them the “right” to strike wives, thus indirectly attempted to portray the Prophet as sexist (Sure, plenty of hardliners are doing it, but not the Prophet).

The novel itself is nothing like I’ve seen before. It paints a multi-layered picture on life, magic, and spirituality, with multiple narrations occurring through dream sequences that centers around 2 main characters that fall from a plane crash but miraculously survived. But then one character (Gibreel Farishta) turned into an angel, while the other (Saladin Chamcha) turned into a devil.

What comes afterwards are bizarre sub-plots in a form of those dream sequences. While some sub-plots tell the love triangles and ordinary human interactions between the characters, others are notable for their stance that made the book so controversial.

For example, one sub-plot seems to attempt to re-write the history of early days of Islam. It briefly mentions about the story of Siti Hagar (PBUH) and the zamzam water, but most significantly it describes the life of the character Mahound in 7th century Jahilia (Rushdie’s name for Mecca) that includes the debatable satanic verses incident, where in the attempt to escape persecution Mahound publicly acknowledges the existence of Allah’s daughters, but later after safety he declared that the revelation came from Satan and not God through the angel Gabriel (while according to Rushdie the revelation did come from Gabriel, thus portraying Mahound as a deceptive character and questioning the tenet of his “Submission” community – aka Islam – as a monotheistic religion).

Another sub-plot attempts to re-write the history of the incident where the Prophet (PBUH) and his followers came back to take control of Mecca without a bloodshed, but in Rushdie’s version the character Mahound became a vengeful dictator that ruled Jahilia with heavy self-interest.

Another notable sub-plot depicts a character that was sitting in exile and received a revelation from an angel (aka Farishta himself) to fight the goddess Al-Lat (one of Allah’s daughters) in the battle to control Desh (an analogy for Iran). The character resemblance the real-life Ayatollah Khomeini, which is why the Ayatollah then issued a fatwa to kill Rushdie (not necessarily because of Rushdie’s depiction of Islam, but could be because of the depiction of him), which FYI goes against the real teachings of Islam.

So, is the book worth the risk of controversies, anger, and even decades worth of death threats for Rushdie, not to mention several failed marriages that may or may not caused by the threats?

The theme of the book appears to be based around Rushdie’s own background as an Indian-born British citizen to a Muslim Kashmiri family, which could be a clue on the tone of victim of racism (of the Indian characters, by the British) and his biased view towards Islam.

Moreover, although there’s no record of Rushdie’s falling out with his liberal Islam upbringing, he self-proclaimed himself as a “hardliner atheist” that would put him in the same category as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, rather than Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders. In other words, more pretentious intellectual snob looking down on “organised religion” than someone who had a traumatic personal experience which turned them into a “free speech” warrior.

But at the end of the day, freedom of speech is one thing but the book doesn’t look to be an attempt for a healthy scholarly religious debate, but instead it is a thinly veiled attack on an entire religion’s history that emboldens its false negative stereotypes, which reflects the author’s atheist hardliner way of thinking. Because Salman Rushdie studied history at the University of Cambridge, so any historical inaccuracies are not the result of ignorance or lack of research. He knows exactly what he’s writing about.

And speaking of historical inaccuracies and lack of research, the so-called “Satanic Verses” actually still exist in the Qur’an, in Surah 53:19-20, and if you read on to verse 21-23 you’ll see clearly that they are a part of a longer sentence that addresses the false idolatry nature. Again, Rushdie knows exactly what he’s writing about.

Now, of course any attacks on him are not justifiable, but I understand the anger. Just like I don’t agree with what Rushdie is trying to portray, but from looking at his background I also understand why he did it. We don’t need to like it (or choose a side, for that matter) in order to understand it. Funny what one book can do to someone’s life.

But objectively and purely from a reader’s point of view, like I said the big picture of the story is a bit out of the box and nothing like I’ve encountered before, with a plot line that could even become an interesting movie (although it can do without the insults). But as a book, the writing style is generally painful to follow, and in need of a further editing (and not even for the content, but for the structure and poor punctuations). Which makes me wonder whether all the awards that it gets are the result of a genuine literacy excellence or due to its “freedom of speech” controversies.

All in all, I believe one sentence from the book can summarise his whole motive for writing it. “What is the opposite of faith?” Rushdie asks in part II of the novel. “Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself a kind of belief.” No, the opposite of faith is “doubt.” And he’s attempting to install this doubt through insulting the fundamental premise of a religion, the integrity of its Prophet, and oh I almost forget, he also portrays the Prophet’s (PBUH) wives (Peace Be Upon Them) in the novel as whores in the most popular brothel in Jahilia, “The Curtain, Hijab.” That’s why it’s so controversial.