“Satanic Verses is the scandalously acclaimed fourth novel by the Indian-born British writer Salman Rushdie, published in 1988. The novel is written in the genre of magical realism. The main theme of the novel is emigrants and emigration, the impossibility of assimilation in a new culture, and the inevitability of returning to one’s roots. The novel is banned in many countries. In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced Salman Rushdie to death for “Satanic Verses. The sentence remains in force to this day.
Plot and Main Characters
The novel is written in the genre of magical realism. The title comes from the part of the Qur’an described by Ibn Ishaq in the first biography of the prophet. The authenticity of this part is disputed by historians of Islam.
The main theme of the novel is emigrants and emigration, the impossibility of assimilation in a new culture, and the inevitability of returning to one’s roots.
The novel is told in two parallel branching lines, in modern Bombay, London and Bombay again, as well as in ancient Arabia at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The modern part begins with a terrorist bombing of a plane from which two Indian Muslims, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, fall out and undergo a fantastic metamorphosis.
The actor Chamcha, an Indian immigrant, in Britain worked mainly in voice-over, married to an Englishwoman, no children, gradually turns into a satyr and then into a devil. Because of this transformation, he is pursued by the police, hides in a London hotel, creates a fashion for diabolism among young Londoners, and finally transforms back into a man.
Playboy Farishta, who in India was a famous Bollywood actor specializing in roles of Hindu deities, haunted by the ghost of a suicidal mistress, becomes the incarnation of the archangel Jabrail. And while in London he has a torrid affair with the mountaineer Hallelujah, he moves through time and space as the archangel. Among his travels in Mecca (called Jahiliyah in the novel), he meets the Prophet Muhammad (called the Messenger and Mahound) at the very beginning of the development of Islam.
It was probably this chapter, in one episode in which Mahound, under pressure from Jahiliyya leaders, agrees to recognize several pagan goddesses as having special status in the eyes of God, and in another in which Mahound’s former opponent, the poet Baal, hides in a brothel whose prostitutes call themselves the names of the Messenger’s wives, that provoked the wrath of Ayatollah Khomeini. In another branch, Jabrail meets a fanatical religious leader living in exile, in whom one might recognize Khomeini himself.
The novel ends with Farishta, whose travels can be seen as episodes of worsening schizophrenia, killing Hallelujah in a fit of jealousy. Chamcha, after reconciling with his father, returns to live in India.
Chronology of reactions to the publication of the novel
- September 26, 1988: The novel is published in Britain.
- October 5, 1988: India bans importation of the novel.
- November 21, 1988: the Grand Sheikh of Egypt, Al-Azhar, appeals to an Islamic organization in Great Britain to initiate legal action to ban the novel’s distribution.
- November 24, 1988: The novel is banned in South Africa and Pakistan; in the following weeks it is banned in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Sudan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Qatar.
- December 1988-January 1989: British Muslims publicly burn the novel in Bolton and Bradford; the Islamic Security Council demands a public apology from Penguin Publishing, withdrawal of the novel, destruction of all copies and a ban on reprints.
- 1989: the novel is released in Germany by 19 major German publishers simultaneously (“Die Satanischen Versen”, Artikel 19 Verlag).
- February 12, 1989: Six people are killed and 100 wounded during a demonstration against Rushdie in Islamabad, Pakistan.
- February 13, 1989: One person killed and 60 wounded in a demonstration against Rushdie in Srinagar, India.
- February 14, 1989: Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issues a fatwa urging all Muslims to execute all those involved in publishing the novel; an Iranian religious foundation offers a cash reward for Rushdie’s murder.
- February 16, 1989: Rushdie is protected by the British government’s witness protection program and issues a statement regretting that Muslims were offended by the book; Ayatollah Khomeini responds: “It is the duty of every Muslim to use everything he owns, his life and wealth, to send Rushdie to hell.”
- February 17, 1989: Iranian leader Ali Khamenei says Rushdie can be forgiven if he apologizes.
- February 18, 1989: Rushdie apologizes, as suggested by Ali Khamenei; IRNA (the official news agency) says Rushdie’s performance is sufficient to exonerate him
- February 22, 1989: novel published in the United States; under pressure from Muslims, two major bookstore chains remove the book from the shelves of one-third of the country’s bookstores.
- February 24, 1989: An Iranian businessman offers $3 million for the book.