In hisÃ‚Â MathnawiÃ‚Â the great Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi tells a story about Moses and a shepherd. Moses happens upon the shepherd and hears him address God: “If you were here, God, I would serve you. I’d comb your hair and wash your clothes. I’d kill the lice on your body. I’d milk my goats and offer you a bowl of fresh milk.” Moses, highly offended, accuses the shepherd of blasphemy and threatens him into silence. But then Moses himself is reprimanded by God for coming between Him and the shepherd, for causing a break instead of a union.
Unfortunately God doesn’t speak to mankind anymore, otherwise I imagine he would give the same reprimand to those who demand Rushdie’s head. ForÃ‚Â The Satanic VersesÃ‚Â may rightfully be seen as a “religious” book, written not out of contempt for the tradition but out of anguish over it. More than anything, it’s a book about a crisis of faith, a human condition that is usually not allowed for by those who would live by the certainty of a distant hell and heaven. Rumi’s shepherd believed in God and related to Him in the vocabulary of a shepherd; Rushdie does not believe in God yet feels compelled to try and make, in what may be called a Rushdie-an manner, a statement of faith. For Rushdie the opposite of faith is not disbelief. That is “Too final, certain, closed. Itself a kind of belief.” For him, the opposite of faith is “Doubt. The human condition…”
Here, I must point out that the first and, in the opinion of some of the most profound minds in Islam, the greatest such crisis of faith was faced by Satan when he refused to obey God’s command (as stated in the Qur’an) to bow before Adam, and thus insisted on retaining the absolute integrity of his devotion to the One. Satan was punished by God, but has been celebrated by Sufis such as al-Hallaj (tenth century) and poets such as Iqbal (twentieth century). Iqbal called Satan “Lord of the People who Cherish Separation,” and saw in his rebellion a creative tension.
Rushdie describes his book as an attempt to “give a secular, humanist vision of the birth of a great world religion.” I have no reason not to believe him. In fact, I submit that in Rushdie’s own terms, “Mahound the Prophet” and “Submission the Idea” are not only triumphant but also worthy of our respect. Repeatedly, various characters in the book are asked: What kind of idea are you? When you are weak will you compromise; when you are strong will you be generous? Abu Simbel, the Grandee of Jahilia and an enemy of Mahound, answers the first question: “I bend. I sway. I calculate the odds, trim my sails, manipulate, survive.” Rushdie’s Mahound is also human, he too has his moment of compromise, the moment of the Satanic Verses, but then he transcends it and embraces the inevitable.
What is the moment of the Satanic Verses? Al-Lat, Manat and al-Uzza were three goddesses in pre-Islamic Arabia. Their names occur in the Qur’an, in chapter 53, verses 19-23, but a story of how those verses were first revealed and later partly abrogated because they allegedly contained words favourable to the goddesses, was told by at least one of the earliest commentators with reference to verse 52 in chapter 22. The exegist suggests a desire on the part of the Prophet to make Islam easier for the Meccans, but since Qur’an is the Word of God, he assigns the effective role to Satan, who, he says, placed the compromising words on the Prophet’s tongue without his noticing it. However, a later revelation informed the Prophet of what had happened; it also abrogated the Satanic words.Most of the later commentators reject this version, though some of them explain the event by arguing that Satan only caused the unbelievers to hear those words, that those words never actually crossed the Prophet’s lips. Contemporary Muslim scholarship is unanimous in rejecting the entire story; many Western scholars accept it but do not question the Prophet’s sincerity.
Does Rushdie charge his Mahound with insincerity, does he accuse him of fraud? This is how Rushdie’s Gibreel explains revelations: “…in these moments it begins to seem that the archangel is actually inside the Prophet, I am the dragging in the gut, I am the angel being extruded from the sleeper’s navel, I emerge, Gibreel Farishta, while my other self, Mahound, lies , entranced, I am bound to him, navel to navel, by a shining cord of light, not possible to say which of us is dreaming the other. We flow in both directions along the umbilical cord.”
These words contain the empathy of a secular mind, not charges of deception. To hear those charges, listen to William Muir Esqr. of Bengal Civil Service in hisÃ‚Â The Life of MahometÃ‚Â in 4 volumes, published in 1858. After recording the incident of the Prophet’s first revelation, Muir comments: “Thus was Mahomet, by whatever deceptive process, led to the high blasphemy of forging the name of God, a crime repeatedly stigmatized in the Coran itself as the greatest that mankind can commit” (vol. 2, p. 75).
I bring up William Muir for two reasons. One has to do with Satan. While discussing the possible explanations of the Prophet’s belief in his own inspiration, Muir writes, “It is incumbent upon us to consider this question from a Christian point of view, and to ask whether the supernatural influence, which appears to have acted upon the soul of the Arabian Prophet, may not have proceeded from the Evil One and his emissaries. It is not for us to dogmatize on so recondite and mysterious a subject; but the views which Christian verity compels us to entertain regarding the Angel of darkness and his followers, would not be satisfied without some allusion to the fearful power exrcised by them, as one at least of the possible causes of the fall of Mahomet — the once sincere enquirer — into the meshes of deception.”
The Christian polemicist would have Satan as the active cause of all the revelations; the Muslim exegist assigns only the abrogated words to Satan’s powers, the rest to Allah through Gibreel; but Rushdie’s secular purpose is different. Again listen to his Gibreel, who “hovering-watching from his highest camera angle, knows one small detail, just one tiny thing that’s a bit of a problem here, namely that it was me both times, baba, me first and second also me. From my mouth, both the statement and the repudiation, verses and converses, universes and reverses, the whole thing, and we all know how my mouth got worked.”
The second reason I bring up William Muir is that when Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who single-handedly changed the destiny of Muslim South Asia in the nineteenth century, read Muir’s book, he did not burn it. Instead, in 1869, he sailed off to England, spent many months in the British Museum libraries, wrote a well-documented rejoinder in Urdu, had it translated into English and then published it from London with his own money. And if anyone thinks Sayyid Ahmad Khan feared his English masters they don’t know what they are talking about.
I don’t deny that there are words, actions and images in the book that would deeply hurt the sentiments of any good Muslim or even of many good Christians and Jews. Even a dubious Muslim like myself felt offended several times. If I imagine that God would scold those who want Rushdie dead, I have no doubt that God would slap Rushdie’s wrist hard and more than a few times for not being more sensitive to the sentiments of exactly those whom he wished to champion. But I cannot question Rushdie’s motives. Anyway, there is a greater issue.
In the early history of Islam, a group of Muslims began to denounce the first three Caliphs as usurpers, and accused Ayesha of conspiracy and worse; some of them even suggested that there had been deletions in the Qur’an. Other Muslims persecuted them. The two groups still hold to their separate views, but after much killing and conflict have learned to live with each other. Similarly, while the vast majority of Muslims insisted on the transcendence of God, a small group found greater joy in God’s immanence; they sought to unite with Him; one of them even boldly shouted “I am the Truth.” Many of them were severely punished; the one who made the bold claim was crucified. But over the centuries the two groups learned to accept each other. Now, in these troubled times of ours, a man for whom the God of his tradition is dead but its historical prophet very much alive, has tried to imagine a life of the soul incorporating the latter but independent of the first. What should be done to him? What will be done to him? How will History judge us in its course?
The Prophet of Islam was very clear in his mind as to which of his acts and words were “prophetic,” and which “human.” Once, he gave someone advice concerning horticulture which turned out to be wrong; he accepted his mistake, and told the man that he was not infallible in mundane matters. Ordinary Muslims, however, see him as almost divine, not just free of any sin but devoid of any human weakness at all. The common Muslim in South Asia does not get his idea of the Prophet from learned texts; he gets it from themauloodÃ‚Â sermons and popular texts that celebrate the Prophet’s birth. He learns about the orphan boy who grew up to receive prophethood, who suffered greatly at the hands of his enemies but never took revenge, who bore ridicule and public humiliation without raising a hand to defend himself. The ordinary Muslim vows in his heart to defend that gentle soul with all the force at his command. That’s why it is so easy to arouse him in the Prophet’s name.
I learned about the Prophet from my grandmother, who also had me read to her some of her favourite books. She told me that when the Prophet returned to Mecca in triumph he forgave all his former enemies. Now, as an adult, I read the earliest available biography of the Prophet, written of course by a Muslim. It confirms what my grandmother had told me, but it also adds that a few people were in fact ordered by the Prophet to be killed, including two or three poets, one of whom was a woman. Does this take anything away from his larger act of magnanimity? It does not. In fact it underscores his generosity by bringing it within human dimensions. Now forgiveness becomes something possible for ordinary mortals like us.
C.M. Naim is Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago. This presentation was given at a forum at University of Chicago twenty years back on 10th March 1989 after a fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie. Outlook Magazine also republished this article recently at their website.
Photo: Salman Rushdie