Salman Rushdie and ‘The Satanic Verses’ – 20 years after the fatwa
It is dull. But so, in Cranmer’s humble opinion, is Mr Rushdie’s entire literary canon.
But aesthetics aside, it is worth considering the allegory which resulted in Mr Rushdie’s fatwa. For its declaration on February 14th 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini was the precursor of all that his since ensued in the religio-political debate around the Al-Qaeda school of Islam .
It is just 70 pages in the third section of the novel that we read of a prophet who founds a religion in the desert. The episode is inspired by an apocryphal incident in the life of Mohammad which (in the West) is referred to as the ‘Satanic Verses’. These are suras of the Qur’an which Mohammad is said to have retracted, because they were ‘the prompting of Satan’ rather than being revealed to him by the Angel Gabriel, as he said the rest of the Qur’an was.
But Salman Rushdie did not recount the story as history; he created an Arabian Nights allegory. He called his prophet called Mahound: ‘Living in a city built of sand, Mahound founds a radical religion as revealed to him by the Angel Gabriel. Slowly, Rushdie introduces doubt over the nature of this revelation, until one of his disciples expresses his disillusion. He "began to notice how useful and well timed the angel's revelations tended to be, so that when the faithful were disputing Mahound's views on any subject, from the possibility of space travel to the permanence of Hell, the angel would turn up with an answer, and he always supported Mahound".
He purposely did not call his prophet Mohammad, or mention Mecca, or refer to Islam. His work is not therefore offensive, heretical or blasphemous.
But those who interpreted it as so are responsible for the climate of fear that has gripped race relations and freedom of speech. Since 1988, the UK has become more censorious. It is not only liberty which has been compromised, but creativity, artistry and political discourse.