ON VALENTINE’S DAY 1989, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, declared a death sentence on British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses, along with any who helped its release: “I ask all Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.” The Ayatollah accused Rushdie of blasphemy, of sullying Islam and its prophet Muhammad, though many saw it as a desperate cry for popular support after a humiliating decade of war with Iraq. There followed riots, demonstrations, and book burnings across Europe and the Middle East. Death threats poured in. Viking Penguin, Rushdie’s UK publisher, was threatened with bombings. The author himself was forced into hiding under the pseudonym “Joseph Anton,” a mash-up of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov and the title of Rushdie’s 2012 memoir of the controversy. The media and public still remember it as “The Rushdie Affair,” though most people born after the 1980s have never heard of it.
Unlike the recent attack on lampoon magazine Charlie Hebdo or the threats against Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, the creative text behind the Rushdie Affair was renowned as high art. It netted the 1988 Whitbread Award and was named a Booker Prize finalist (Rushdie had already won a Booker for his second novel, Midnight’s Children). It was lauded by the Who’s Who of 20th-century literature: Norman Mailer, Bruce Chatwin, Marina Warner, Joan Didion, Martin Amis, Nadine Gordimer, Peter Carey, David Lodge. Its author was forever crowned “godfather of Indian fiction” alongside Rabindranath Tagore, Amitav Ghosh, V. S. Naipaul, and Amrita Pritam. Yet recent coverage of the 25th and 30th anniversaries of the Affair focuses on everything but the novel itself, whether international politics, reflections by friends, or the author’s storied sex life. How many gems go unnoticed without a look at the writing? How are readers any different from fanatics like Khomeini if they remain content with contextless snippets and watercooler talk?
Rushdie writes in his memoir that when friends asked how they could help, he told them, “Defend the text.” While this reviewer’s goal is not to defend per se, it is to take the text on its own terms. The Satanic Verses does talk about Islam, though not as a whipping boy. Instead, the youngest Abrahamic religion stands as case of something new, of something unverified and unstable, keeping company with other new and unstable things — the India-Pakistan partition, reincarnation and rebirth, rock ’n’ roll, marital infidelity — in the book that make up one long rumination on the newness of being an immigrant, the novel’s master theme. In this way, Rushdie is also reflecting on himself, is “naming” himself, as a migrant to Britain from India, with resonances that echo the recent refugee crisis in Europe. He appeals to the patron saint of migrants, “of all exiles, all unhoused people” — namely Satan, the first castaway, whose revelations, the titular Satanic verses, supposedly slipped into the Qur’an along with God’s. But with the bitter irony of art imitating life, Rushdie’s Faustian contract turned on its framer in a way he didn’t imagine, reflecting the very theme of change at the novel’s core.
Rushdie has described The Satanic Verses as the hardest thing he ever wrote. “I thought of the novel as a huge monster I was wrestling with,” he told Vanity Fair in 2014. “[When it was done,] I was utterly exhausted.” Nor should readers be surprised at such feelings as they grapple with its pythonic mass — loquacious, sprawling, and populous, the book could be split into three and still stand on its own. The loosely jointed plot follows two Indian immigrants to England: Gibreel Farishta, a film star known for interpreting Hindu deities and who has resurfaced after a near-fatal illness; and Saladin Chamcha, a voice actor living in London for the past 15 years, estranged from his Indian background and father. In the opening scene, they miraculously survive an airplane bombing by Sikh separatists, also actors, and float down to earth hurling song lyrics at each other. After a soft landing, they are taken in by Rosa Diamond, an immigrant from Argentina.
Gibreel’s and Saladin’s paths then diverge for most of the novel. Saladin is arrested but escapes police custody and goes into hiding with the help of his wife’s lover, “Jumpy” Joshi, after which he becomes swept up in a popular movement in London’s immigrant community. Meanwhile, Gibreel rekindles an old love affair with ice climber Alleluia Cone, starts his comeback into popular film, only to succumb to schizophrenia, but still agrees to headline a dance show. In the climax, Saladin uses his gift for voices to drive Gibreel completely into madness by making prank phone calls from apparent strangers, as popular protests cause fires to break out in Brickhall, a fictitious borough of London. Amid the conflagration, Saladin becomes trapped under a beam, and Gibreel, realizing it was he who made the prank calls, must choose whether to save him.
The main narrative of Gibreel and Saladin has two subplots folded in. The first is in seventh-century Arabia and chronicles the rise of an unnamed religion and its prophet Mahound, a thinly veiled analogue of Muhammad. First by preaching and later by force, he and his deputees conquer Jahilia, “The Age of Ignorance,” a derogatory Arabic term for pre-Islamic society and which Rushdie imagines as an actual city made completely of sand. In the second subplot, readers meet Ayesha, a 20-year-old prophetess and orphan, who leads her entire village of Titlipur in the land of Desh (both fictional places) on a pilgrimage to Mecca by foot across the desert, requiring them to walk right into the Arabian Sea. During Ayesha’s story, readers are briefly introduced to The Imam, an exiled leader who tries to incite revolution against her for control of Desh. But, in a memorable tableau, he winds up eating the very rebels who storm Ayesha’s house.
Binding these several threads are dream sequences that throw Gibreel into fits of madness, written in a style described by some as magical realism (Rushdie explicitly acknowledges the debt to Borges in a 2014 New York Times essay). However, this process turns out to be nothing less than divine revelation. As the plot advances, Gibreel realizes his true identity as the archangel Gabriel (the literal translation of his name, Gibreel Farishta). Both the Mahound and Ayesha stories, plus numerous shorter sequences, happen when Gibreel falls asleep and melds psychically with other characters. “All around him, he thinks as he half-dreams, half-wakes, are people hearing voices, being seduced by words. But not his; never his original material.” The progression of Gibreel’s divine mission coincides with the progression of his mental illness. He cannot fulfill the one without embracing the other. He even transforms physically into this role, emitting a halo of light and growing to gigantic size. Later in the book, he acquires a trumpet that he christens Azraeel, the angel of destruction in the Hebrew Bible, from which he shoots flames that destroy parts of London. This ends up starting the fire from which he must choose whether to rescue Saladin, the man who ruined him.
In one dream sequence, Gibreel unwittingly transmits the whisperings of Shaitan, the Islamic name for Satan, to Mahound. Here the novel channels the apocryphal “Satanic verses” episode of Islamic history, wherein the Devil allegedly tricks Muhammad into reciting verses that exhort believers to worship three pagan goddesses, Al-Laat, al-‘Uzza, and al-Manaat. The traditional account has Muhammad repent and replace these verses with new ones repudiating the goddesses, found in Qur’an 53 (Surah al-Najm): 19–23. But in contrast to the original story, Rushdie makes Gibreel the transmitter of both godly and Satanic revelation. “[M]e first and second also me,” he says when Mahound tries to blame the Devil for the initial, faulty verses. Wrestling throughout the novel to contain God and Satan all at once in mixed-up revelations called “angelicdevilish,” Gibreel finally succumbs to insanity due to a second legion of voices that evoke the ones in his head — that of Saladin Chamcha making prank calls.
The notion of Gibreel as both angel and devil, a hybrid state aptly symbolized by the ambiguity of the Satanic verses, shapes the book’s leading themes of newness and change. In a 1989 New York Times article by Michiko Kakutani, Rushdie singles out the “constant possibility of metamorphosis […] What is being expressed [in The Satanic Verses] is a discomfort with a plural identity.” Almost every facet of the novel embodies this idea. The English writing itself, for instance, is peppered with words from Hindi-Urdu, Gujarati, and Telugu, at times sounding like a creole. The plots and subplots, names of characters, and settings overlap in narrative time. Even physical change plays a role. Gibreel starts to put on angelic properties as noted, but it is Saladin’s mutation into a goatlike satyr — a devil — that really occupies reader attention. Here the Kafkaesque overtones are unmistakable, as Rushdie clarifies in his memoir: “[I] liked the name [Saladin] Chamcha for its echoes of Kafka’s poor metamorphosed dung beetle, Gregor Samsa.”
The metamorphosis at the heart of these individual changes is that of immigrants coming to terms with their new reality. Whether the in-between space of human and beast, angel and devil, fiction and reality — it’s no accident that the novel is full of actors, pretenders, and make-believers — all of them point to what it feels like to lose one’s homeland and be planted in another, imaginary one (Imaginary Homelands is the title of a later essay collection by Rushdie). The link is especially clear in a scene where, having been whisked away to a private hospital, the goatman Saladin gets caught up in a patient outbreak by nonwhite immigrants who have transformed into water buffalos, manticores, and primates. When he asks how this happened, they blame their British subduers. “They describe us,” the manticore explains. “That’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct.” Thus with the power of word and image are the immigrants subjugated, a point that echoes postcolonial criticisms by Gayatri Spivak and others against British control of the Indian subcontinent through erasure of local cultures, to be overwritten with new, European ones.
In the novel, the only way the immigrants can fight back is by reclaiming word and image, which they do through a revolt under the icon of a devilish-looking face emblazoned on banners and T-shirts. Like Rushdie himself, they appeal for salvation to Satan as the patron saint of migrants and exiles. While the movement’s details are fictional, they draw heavily on tensions in 1980s London around an uptick of violence that presages the current migrant crisis in Europe and North America. Riots erupted in Brixton, Birmingham, Leeds, and Liverpool, out of widespread deprivation and distrust of the police among immigrant communities. In the book, such tensions are personified in the conflict between Gibreel and Saladin, the former a celebrity symbol of Indianness, the latter a devotee of all things British. As they plummet to earth in the opening scene, Gibreel is singing a 1950s Bollywood pop song while Saladin belts out “Rule, Britannia!”
Although larger social tensions form the postcolonial subtext, The Satanic Verses is a fundamentally introverted work, especially next to Rushdie’s earlier novels Midnight’s Children, about the India-Pakistan partition, and Shame, a round criticism of Pakistan that was later banned. Indeed more than introverted, The Satanic Verses is about the author himself. He is present in Mahound’s disillusioned scribe Salman (Rushdie’s own first name), who purposely distorts the prophet’s revelation to test its veracity. He is in Gibreel when the latter has an extramarital affair with Alleluia Cone, or when he loses faith in God and, breaking Muslim dietary laws, stuffs his face with pork to prove he won’t go to hell (Alleluia is based on Robyn Davidson, an Australian hiker and author; the pork scene is a real episode from Rushdie’s school days). He is in Saladin when, in one of the book’s most moving scenes, he is reconciled to his father just before the latter succumbs to cancer, as was Rushdie to his own father.
He is also present in the novel’s compassionate revisionist take on Islam. In his memoir, Rushdie attributes this outlook to his father, who saw the coming of Islam as an event inside of history, something with a context, and, therefore, something to be interrogated: “‘What kind of idea are you?’ the novel asked about the new religion.” Hence the concern for revelation as a subjective experience, and for Muhammad as a flawed mortal, in the vein of Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ. But what Rushdie thought of as a “humane” exploration of Islam and its prophet led to outrage at, for example, the implication that the Qur’an is partly inspired by the Devil. Other details invite misreading from those who do not prize nuance in thought. In one scene, characters who persecute Mahound call him and his companions “scums and bums”; in another, prostitutes take on the names of Mahound’s wives to arouse their clients, seeming to slander the prophet’s own wives. And more than one commentator has remarked on The Imam’s unflattering resemblance to Ayatollah Khomeini, his likely counterpart in reality, who too was forced to eat the fruits of revolution run amok.
In hindsight of Rushdie’s persecution, these details have led many to ask: Did Rushdie know The Satanic Verses would cause such a backlash? Could he have avoided the violence? The question misses the point, at least for this reviewer. Aside from abandoning freedom of speech by giving credence to the heckler’s veto, it overlooks the decision Rushdie made to devote himself to writing long before he crafted The Satanic Verses. Reflecting on how his early years were marred by failed personal relationships, Rushdie quotes the cautionary opening of William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Choice”: “The intellect of man is forced to choose / perfection of the life or of the work.” In taking the latter road, namely committing to craft at the expense of his personal life, Rushdie set a course toward what he calls a Faustian contract in reverse. “Dr. Faustus sacrificed eternity in return for two dozen years of power,” he says in The Satanic Verses. “The writer agrees to the ruination of his life, and gains (but only if he’s lucky) maybe not eternity, but posterity, at least.”
These words were written before the Rushdie Affair began; they appear again in the author’s memoir of that Affair over two decades later. That they have haunted him since is beyond dispute, but so is the fact that his bargain, for its being struck, led to a better world of literature. And Rushdie himself was finally able to name what he was and is, and perhaps what he continues to be.
Kevin Blankinship is a professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University. In addition to scholarship and teaching, he reviews books for general audiences, writes commentary about Middle Eastern culture, and works as a freelance translator. You can read his work at The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Marginalia, and Bridges.