Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Phenomenon of the "satanic verses" in Islamic History

Back in 1988, when Salman Rushdie published his novel The Satanic Verses, he earned the wrath of most Muslims worldwide, and Imam Khomeini of Iran, the leader of the Iranian Revolution and an authority for Shi' Muslims, issued a death fatwa against Rushdie as a result. Rushdie eventually apologized to Muslims and apparently reverted to Islam (he was born and raised a Muslim but left Islam later on). 

Most Muslims have not read this book. Most non-Muslims who have read this book wanted to read it mostly to see what the hell the controversy was about, but -- oh here's a shocker -- they didn't get it. They didn't get what the fuss was about. Why? Because they lacked even the most rudimentary knowledge about Islam, the Qur'an, the Prophet, Muslims, and Islamic history. They didn't know the characters that Rushdie was playing with. They didn't know the real names of the characters and not the caricatures that Rushdie creates for his novel. (I'll write about the book, the plot, the characters in a separate blog post when I'm finished with the book.) So they just didn't get it. As for the Muslims, most believe (are told) that the book is an attack on Islam.

That's not to deny that there are some non-Muslims who 1) understood what the controversy was about, regardless of their own response to the book, and/or 2) enjoyed the book and appreciated it regardless of their intimate knowledge of Islam/Muslims/Islamic history, etc.The majority, however, did not get it and probably still don't.

In fact, P. Brians writes that most people who have an opinion on the book actually have not read it: "
Between its hostile critics who refuse to read it and its supporters who fail to read it, The Satanic Verses must be one of the most widely-unread best sellers in the history of publishing."

I'm reading the novel currently. For many reasons. Like, how I want to know what the fuss is about, how I'm at a point in my life where I think I can read this book without getting angry or feeling severely offended, how I want to understand Rushdie's "version" of Islamic history, and -- hell -- I want to know why this book has won so many awards. Most positive reviews of the book talk about it in terms that are so certainly not the point of the novel, such as: it tackles issues of migration or the problems of immigrants. Dude, that's like so not the point of the book--and if it is a major point in the book, it really could have been conveyed without the baggage that most Muslims find very offensive. 

Muslims and non-Muslims (and different types of Muslims and non-Muslims) read the book differently, no matter how enlightened both groups might be about Muslims and Islam. A non-Muslim is less likely to see why it offended Muslims. Seriously, it's not just that we (Muslims) are insecure in our faith; it's not that we can't handle criticism--but this book really isn't a criticism of Islam. Well, I would argue it's not (I can understand why others would argue that it is a critique of Islam, but I'll get into that later). To understand why this book was an insult to Muslims, please click here. Most importantly, I'm glad I'm reading the book because I never knew about this whole "satanic verses" episode in Islamic history. And now I know. It feels really good to know that I was wrong in assuming what the title meant, when there is actual history behind it.

What does the phrase "satanic verses" refer to? 

This is crucial. When I first heard about the book, I thought it was referring to the Qur'an. (I think most other Muslims think the same thing.) I thought that Rushdie, an ex-Muslim at least at the time of writing the novel, wanted to show that the Qur'an was basically all satanic, that it's a creation of Satan, not God, and so on. But in fact, that's not it. In Islamic history, when you hear "the satanic verses," it's not a reference to the Rushdie affair; it is in fact a reference to an incident that is believed to have taken place during the revelation of certain Qur'anic verses. It is when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) (allegedly) mistook Satan's words for God's words. This incident is Islamically called Qissat al-Gharaniq al-'Ula ("story of the cranes"). These verses are in Surah al-Najm, "The Star," Chapter 53 of the Qur'an. They read as follows: 

1. By the star, when it sets.
2. This fellow-man of yours has not gone astray, nor is he deluded
3. Nor does he speak out of his own desire.
4. It is nothing but
pure revelation that has been revealed by God.
20. Now tell me about Lat and ‘Uzza
21. And Manat, the third one, another goddess!
[Insert Satan's words, 2 verses--> Indeed, they are as high-flying cranes [gharaaniq]! And, indeed, their intercession (with God) is hoped for!]
22. ‘What! for you the males and for Him the females!’
23. That indeed is an unfair division.

[Manat, Lat, and Uzza were the names of some prominent goddesses that pre-Islamic Arabs worshiped.]

So, the "satanic verses" are the ones interpolated between verses 21 and 22. 

Influential Muslim scholars, historians, and commentators on the Qur'an, such as al-Tabari and Ibn Taymiyyah, discuss this phenomenon of the "satanic verses" in the Qur'an (the phrase "satanic verses" was coined by William Muir Watt, a Scottish Orientalist and colonial administrator who lived from April 1819 to July 1905. Biographers of the Prophet (peace be upon him), such as al-Waqidi, Ibn Sa'ad, and Ibn Ishaq (who wrote the original biography of the Prophet that was later revised and abridged by Ibn Hisham), also write about this phenomenon in their biographies. Al-Tabari (838-923 CE), an Islamic scholar who wrote a comprehensive history of the world, says the following:
When the prophet saw his people turning away from him, and was tormented by their distancing themselves from what he had brought to them from God, he longed in himself for something to come to him from God which would draw him close to them. […]He pondered this in himself, longed for it, and desired it. Then God sent down the revelation. 'By the star when it sets! Your companion has not erred or gone astray, and does not speak from mere fancy...' [Q.53:1] When he reached God's words, 'Have you seen Allāt and al-'Uzzā and Manāt, the third, the other?' [Q.53:19-20] Satan cast upon his tongue, because of what he had pondered in himself and longed to bring to his people, 'These are the high-flying cranes [Gharāniq] and their intercession is to be hoped for.' When Quraysh heard that, they rejoiced […]When he came to the prostration [sujūd] and finished the chapter, he prostrated and the Muslims followed their prophet in it, having faith in what he brought them and obeying his command. Quraysh went out and were delighted by what they had heard of the way in which he spoke of their gods. They were saying, ‘Muhammad has referred to our gods most favourably. In what he has recited he said that they are “high-flying cranes who intercession is to be hoped for”.’ […] Gabriel came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Muhammad, what have you done! You have recited to the people something which I have not brought you from God, and you have spoken what He did not say to you.’ At that the Prophet was mightily saddened and greatly feared God. But God, of His mercy, sent him a revelation, comforting him and diminishing the magnitude of what had happened. God told him that there had never been a previous prophet or apostle who had longed just as Muhammad had longed, and desired just as Muhammad had desired, but that Satan had cast into his longing just as he had cast onto the tongue of Muhammad. But God abrogates what Satan has cast, and puts His verses in proper order. [22:52] That is, ‘you are just like other prophets and apostles.’
[Source:  G. R. Hawting, The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam: From Polemics to History,  page 131] If you're more interested in al-Tabari's original (Arabic words), which many Muslims might understandably request because they might be too shocked to believe that any Muslim scholars would take this incident or discussion seriously or not immediately dismiss the possibility of this occurrence, here is the complete reference to the work in which he cites it: Abu Ja`far Muhammad bin Jarir al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Tabari: Tarikh al-Umam wal-Muluk, 1997, Volume I, Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyyah, Beirut (Lebanon), p. 550.

As Shahab Ahmed, whose research centers on the Satanic Verses (from the Islamo-historical point of view), reveals in his article "Ibn Taymiyyah and the Satanic Verses," it seems that ""the incident formed a fairly standard element in the histrical memory of the early Muslim community regarding the life of its founder." However, from 8th century onwards, with the development of Hadith Sciences (collecting, compiling, sifting through hadiths to determine the degree of their (un)authenticity) as well as the development of Theology, this historical memory becomes subject to re-evaluation. One of the reasons that this episode was dismissed as impossible to have occurred was due to the belief that Prophets are immune from committing errors (an Islamic doctrine called "ismat al-anbiyah," literally "the protection of the prophets," which renders them incapable of committing sins). Yet, Ibn Taymiyyah (died 1328 CE), believed to be the "father" of the very strict form of Islam today know as Wahhabism, is one of the scholars who believed this event really took place, and his rationale is precisely that: Yes, the Prophets are incapable of sinning and making such an error, but not at the moment of transmission, when God is sending a revelation to them; at this moment, anything can happen to the revelation. What's more, there's a message in this whole historical event, a message that attests the Prophet's authenticity and legitimacy as a Prophet for he was able to distinguish between a revelation sent by God and that sent by Satan--and he had no shame and was not afraid to recant it.

Moreover, this doctrine of infallibility is understood differently by Shi' Muslims and Sunni Muslims. (Shi' Muslims, for example, completely reject the possibility of this incident, arguing that the Prophet could never have made such a mistake, not even (rather, certainly not) during revelation.) While most Sunni scholars have stated that anyone who believes that the Prophet could have fallen prey to Satan's trick is a kafir (disbeliever), some believed it certainly took place, and others believed it may have. During Ibn Taymiyyah's lifetime, which would be around 14th century, his position on the incident was a minority one, as the majority had completely rejected it by now. To read Ibn Taymiyyah's account of this incident, please refer to Shahab Ahmed's work on Ibn Taymiyyah's position of the "satanic verses."
Acording to,
The Prophet(P), it is alleged, recited these along with other verses of Surah an-Najm in the prayer. The idolators of Makkah who were present in the Ka'bah at that time joined him in the prayer because he praised their deities and thus won their hearts. The story afterwards reached Abyssinia where the Muslims, persecuted by the Makkan infidels, had earlier migrated and many of them returned to Makkah under the impression that the disbelievers no longer opposed the Prophet(P) and the Islamic movement. The story also says that the angel Gabriel came to the Prophet(P) the same evening and told him about the mistake he had committed by reciting verses which were never revealed to him. This naturally worried the Prophet(P) and made him apprehensive. 'Admonishing' the Prophet(P), God revealed the following verses of Surah al-Isra' which read:
And their purpose was to tempt thee away from that which We had revealed unto thee, to substitute in our name something quite different; (in that case), behold! they would certainly have made thee (their) friend! And had We not given thee strength, thou wouldst nearly have inclined to them a little. In that case We should have made thee taste an equal portion (of punishment) in this life, and an equal portion in death: and moreover thou wouldst have found none to help thee against Us! [Qur'an 17:73-75]
This made the Prophet(P) feel very guilty until God revealed the following consoling verse of Surah al-Hajj:
Never did We send a messenger or a prophet before thee, but, when he framed a desire, Satan threw some (vanity) into his desire: but Allah will cancel anything (vain) that Satan throws in, and Allah will confirm (and establish) His Signs: for Allah is full of Knowledge and Wisdom. [Qur'an 22:52]

What is most fascinating here are the verses that were revealed to Muhammad (pbuh) in response to his having (allegedly) recited the "satanic verse." As verse 22:52 says, "... but when he framed a desire, Satan threw some (vanity) into his desire...." Ibn Taymiyyah is one of those who uses these verses as support for his stance. It would be particularly helpful to look at the tafseer (Qur'anic exegesis) of early Muslim scholars to see how they addresses this issue and how they interpreted these verses given their historical context.

Ibn Ishaq, al-Tabari, and others who have discussed this phenomenon didn't imagine all this; their sources were the people around them, the same ones who gave them other information that they included in their works. Muslims actually seem to have believed this for the first century or so after the Prophet's passing. A critical look at this episode in our history, if we can call it that, began to take place in a certain historical context:

But we also have some hadiths that refer to the incident--except that, once analyzed, the isnads (chains) of these hadiths have a missing link. That is, their authenticity and soundness are questionable because they don't go back to the Prophet and/or any of his companions and/or there is no link between one narrator and another. These hadiths, as well as this whole event in general, are discussed in detail here. And discusses the whole scenario in detail as well.

As for those who argue(d) against this phenomenon and insist(ed) that it never did occur and hence there's nothing to talk about, they remind us that the Prophet was infallible, and he could never have been subject to such a serious error (the response to which from the opposite side is discussed above). They also surveyed the hadiths in which the event is reported, and they discovered that the missing links indicate that it's a false report, thus proving that it is all a lie. Again, the hadiths are analyzed in the link mentioned at the end of the previous paragraph.

As for my opinion on Rushdie's Satanic Verses ...

As for me, I appreciate satire. No matter what it represents. I think it's a beautiful and creative form of writing. I also think the novel itself is a great piece of literature. However, I can't help but wonder ... how would both Muslims' and non-Muslims' response have been to this novel had it played with Biblical figures, such as Jesus or Moses or Mary, in the exact same way that it did with Islamic ones. I'm not implying that Rushdie should have done that. I would've found his motives equally questionable. But it's certainly something to think about: how common is it, and what would happen if, we sexualized Biblical figure or otherwise made any sexual innuendos about them or just created "fiction" in which depict their sexual lives--or if we created "fiction" in which we doubted or brazenly questioned the very essence of Christianity or another major world religion. And this is where I find the west's response to Rushdie's novel very interesting. Really, what if this book was about Christianity instead?

Of course, one can argue that Rushdie wasn't born/raised into a Christian or another non-Muslim family, so this novel sort of developed as a commentary on his own experiences and life as a Muslim, and so the novel would be totally different were he a non-Muslim and had no affiliation with Islam/Muslims. But let us assume for one moment that he wasn't a Muslim. Would this novel really have been so politicized?

And, of course, we dare not ignore the name "Mahound": the name of the "prophet" in Rushdie's novel, it refers to the name that medieval Christians/Europeans had for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)--an insulting term that actually meant/means "the devil." 

But I'll talk more on the book itself once I finish reading it, inshaAllah.


  1. I never really understood the Muslim response to Satanic verses till I read your blog even though I understood the reference made in the book to Ayah-ul-Gharinq. To be honest, I think this is the first dispassionate analysis of the whole issue that I have read. I come from India - the first country to ban the book - based on excerpts of the book which appeared in a magazine (now defunct) - named Illustrated Weekly of India.

    Personally I think the USP of Salman Rushdie, if you read all his novels, his the "ethnic oddity" value. But then my evaluation may not count as I am now one of those high-brow literary egg-head. Why I am saying this will be clear later on.

    The curious thing about this episode was - excerpts of the novel appeared FIRST in India rather than in U.K. where the author was residing and the book was scheduled to be released. Predictably there were riots leading to two deaths and Government promptly banned the book. Ayatollah Khomeini (whose grandfather emigrated from Punjab) saw the riots and asked his followers what all this was about. When it was explained to him he promptly issued an fatwa as only Shiites claim extra-territoriality in their rulings. (These expat Indians are a trouble I tell you). The rest is history.

    Personally I feel Salman or his book wouldn't have achieved the fame/notoriety. depending upon which way you look at it, but for riots/fatwa. What irritates me is that English publisher thought they could push some buttons and have an “incident” in India which would push up the sales. While it panned something on those lines, events spun out of control and I don't think neither Salman nor the publishers bargained for it. As a book I would rate is a moderate literary piece and it may have been forgotten soon enough or at the best may have been discussed in saloons where rich women frequent.

    Coming back to your query on how other religious groups would have reacted - the evidence is rather clear. Dan Brown had alleged that Jesus Christ fathered a child through Mary Magdelene. The Last Temptation of Christ by Kazantzakis explores the idea of Christ leading a normal life (A great novel and a great film too). Dan Brown's novel is recent and he has suffered nothing more than laughing all the way to bank.. Kazantzakis who wrote his novel in 50s was condemned by the Church and Roman Catholic Church proscribed the book (The film - Last Temptation of Christ was banned in India). Nikos response to the condemnation was - "You gave me a curse, Holy fathers, I give you a blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and may you be as moral and religious as I". (Personally I think that Kazantzakis is a mystical writer) . Do read the book or at least see the films – The Last Temptation and Zorba the Greek.

    Curiouser things happened in India as result of this ban on Salman Rushdie. In 1970s M.F. Hussain painted a series of pictures depicting naked goddesses (excepting for one I find no problems with other paintings), No outrage with the public. Now there calls for banning his paintings and objections to his being honoured with any civilian decorations. Cases were filed in the courts against Hussain. Protests against his paintings (painted 10-15 years before) led to cancellation of many exhibition. All this lead to him leaving the courting and acquiring Qatari nationality before his eventual demise there. I also feel that in all this our media didn't offer him space defend his own works. I do not why and can only speculate – either because he refused to speak to them or perhaps the media wasn't interested in getting his side of story. He reportedly had said in 70s that some Mullahs who came up to him that Hinduism allows him to paint in any manner he likes – but Islam does not allow me the same freedom.

    One unfortunate effect of coarsening/deadening of discourse in India. Talk of law of unintended consequences.

  2. Of course, one can argue that Rushdie wasn't born/raised into a Christian or another non-Muslim family, so this novel sort of developed as a commentary on his own experiences and life as a Muslim, and so the novel would be totally different were he a non-Muslim and had no affiliation with Islam/Muslims. But let us assume for one moment that he wasn't a Muslim. Would this novel really have been so politicized?

    And, of course, we dare not ignore the name "Mahound": the name of the "prophet" in Rushdie's novel, it refers to the name that medieval Christians/Europeans had for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)--an insulting term that actually meant/means "the devil." So, there.

    Great research started on the satanic verse,i read little bit the novel but i certainly smells biasness from rushdi towards religion.especially the name given to the charectors as you arose again my interest in the story,so let me read it in detail and discuss with you next,but well done orbaly for taking this isuue up with solid logic and arguments..witing for more dig out....The overwhelming and exagerrated reaction from muslims projected Rushdi's (not a greatest novel of the time it is)novel and work super standing in the eyes of west and many...Anyways see the videos of Rushdi and besides his speech note his body language and facial expression thoroughly, and you will find some answers as well...thanx for sharing.

  3. Hey just search for Mr. Diety at youtube. They make fun of biblical character in every way possible. This is one thing I really admire about west, they are lot less hypocrite when it comes to religion and freedom of speech as a society.

  4. Just like you, I also thought that Satanic Verses was referring to the Quran in general. I never read the book, but an excerpt from it, but just like most people didn't understand what was going on. I had never heard about this particular incident with the satanic verses. Thanks for sharing.

  5. For starters I love you for writing this article I read the book 2 years ago in order to see what the fuss was about I'll start by telling you what I think.

    Although I am a great fan of magical realism which is essentially Rushdie's playground I find that his magical element is far more prominent than Murakami's or Kafka's and thus it does not serve to create the same atmosphere instead it only highlights his "oh so clever" prose (I'll give him that - yes his idiom can be quite amazing sometimes).

    However when I read the parts in question my heart shook with terror and disbelief and I asked God for forgiveness some of the lines haunt me to this day "Mahound the businessman" and I must add that I am an extremely liberal Muslim in fact many years ago I considered myself an atheist and have only just begun to grasp religion again and even so I am incredibly open minded and agree with the principle of free speech. He clearly wrote the book for its shock value, he of all people knew what such things meant and he probably did it in order to teach these Mullahs a lesson but either way I find that he is a deplorable man for offending so many people intentionally.

    I have to thank you for elucidating the fact that such an incident could never have taken place I knew deep down that it was all rubbish but when I heard that it had been mentioned in certain other writings I was quite shocked.


Dare to opine :)

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