Ayatolah Khomenini’s fatwa sentencing Slaman Rushdie to death for writing the ‘blasphemous’ novel The Satanic Verses was perhaps the curtain raiser for the religious extremism, intolerance, and violence that would mark the dying decades of twentieth century and the birth of the next. The ugly, hydra-headed religious fanaticism of every variety continues to threaten the cherished values of enlightenment.
Rushdie’s recently published memoir, Joseph Anton, takes you through the travails of the author during those fatwa years, when Islamist assassins were on the prowl to execute him in order to claim the bounty announced by the Shia cleric and, of course, to reserve a place in heaven where rivers of wine flows non-stop and nubile girls roam around.
The book derives its title from the pseudonym Rushdie used during the fatwa years in order not to be identified by the fanatics. The memoir however is not merely a narrative of the ordeals that Rushdie had gone through during those years. The book provides a Rushdie enthusiast or a bibliophile a wealth of interesting materials on what led to the writing of Rushdie’s literary creations, including The Satanic Verses.
What we want to highlight here however is the book’s unequivocal advocacy of secularism, modernity, and rationality as opposed to religious bigotry and intolerance.
Rushdie finds the origin of Islam fascinating because, unlike many other religions, ‘it was an event inside history’, and hence “it was obviously influenced by the events and pressures and ideas of the time of its creation; that to historicise the story, to try to understand how a great ideas was shaped by those forces, was the only possible approach to the subject”.
Al-Lah, Mohammed and Divine Revelations
“Revelation was to be understood as an interior, subjective event, not an objective reality, and a revealed text was to be scrutinized like any other text, using all the tools of the critics, literary, historical, psychological, linguistic and sociological. In short, the text was to be regarded as a human artifact and thus, like all such artifacts, prey to human fallibility and imperfection”. (Page 24)
Undoubtedly, this would be the stand of any right thinking person, though not of an Islamist, who recites Quran as the word of god and hence considers it blasphemous to read it rationally.
On Allah gaining prominence in the Islamic imagery, Rushdie writes:
Meccawas prosperous….At the gates to the city stood temples to three goddesses, al-Lat, al-manat and al-Uzza. Winged goddesses, like exalted birds. Or angels. Each time the trading caravans from which the city gained its wealth left the city gates, or came back through them, they paused at one of the temples and made an offering. Or, to use modern language: paid a tax. The wealthiest families in Meccacontrolled the temples and muchof their wealth came from these ‘offerings’. The winged goddesses were at the heart of the economy of the new city, of the urban civilisation that was coming into being.
“In the building known as the Cube, or Ka’aba, in the centre of town there were idols of hundreds of gods. One of these statues, by no means the most popular, represented a deity called al-Lah, meaning the god, just as al-Lat was the goddess. Al-Lah was unusual in that he didn’t specialize, he wasn’t a rain god or a wealth god or a war god or a love god, he was just, vaguely, an everything god. It may be that this failure to specialize explained his relative unpopularity. People making offering to gods usually did so for specific reasons, the health of a child, the future of a business enterprise, a drought, a quarrel, a romance. There preferred gods who were experts in their field to this non-specific all-rounder of a deity. However, al-Lah was about to become more popular than any pagan deity had ever been.
“The man who would pluck al-Lah from near-obscurity and become his Prophet, transforming him into the equal, or at least equivalent, of the Old Testament God I Am and the New Testament’s Three-in-One, was Muhammad Ibn Abdullah of the Banu Hashim family….
“Here was a fascinating paradox: that an essentially conservative theology, looking backwards with affection towards a vanishing culture, became a revolutionary idea, because the people whom it attracted most strongly were those who had been marginialised by urbanization – the disaffected poor, the street mob. This, perhaps, was why Islam, the new idea, felt so threatening to the Meccan elite…” (Page 41-43)
Satanic Verses and Status of women in Islam
Anyone pondering over the status of women in Islamic societies today may wonder how it came to be so. Here, again, Rushdie take us to the early years of Islam:
“… … most of the major collections of Hadith, or traditions, about the life of he Prophet told the story of an incident that afterwards became known as the incident of the satanic verses. The Prophet came down from the mountain one day and recited the sura (number 53) call an-Najm, the Star. It contained these words: ‘have you heard of al-Lat and al-Uzza, and al-Manat, the third, the other one? They are the exalted birds, and their intercession is greatly to be desired.’ At a later point – was it days later? Or weeks, or months? – he returned to the mountain and came down, abashed, to state that he had been deceived on his previous visit; the Devil had appeared to him in the guise of the archangel, and the verses he had been given were therefore not divine, but satanic, and should be expunged from the Quran at once. The angel had, on this occasion, brought new verses from God, which were to replace the satanic verses in the great book: ‘have you heard of al-lat and al-Uzza, and al-Manat, the third, the other one? They are but names that your forefathers invented, and there is no truth in them. Shall God have daughters while you have sons? That would be an unjust division.’ And in this way the Recitation was purified of the Devil’s work. … …
“The ‘true’ verses, angelic or divine, were clear: it was the femaleness of the winged goddesses – the ‘exalted birds’ – that rendered them inferior and fraudulent and proved they could not be the children of God, as the angels were. Sometime the birth of a great idea revealed things about it future; the way in which newness enters the world prophesied how it would behave when it grew old. At the birth of this particular idea, femaleness was seen as a disqualification from exaltation.” (Page 43-45)
During the days following Ayatolah Khomeni’s fatwa, a number of writers came to the defence of Rushdie. The South African writer Paul Trewhela was one among them. Rushdie says, Trewhela defended him describing “the Islamist campaign as a ‘bursting forth of mass popular irrationalism’, arguing that “it was ‘the novel’s secularizing tendency that was at issue…its intention to ‘discuss Muhammad as if he were human’... and he argued for a robust secularist response to the religious attack” (Page 125).
The Khomeni-inspired Islamists used every available means to spread their culture of hate and violence. Here is Rushdie:
“Modern information technology was being used in the service of retrograde ideas: the modern was being turned against itself by the medieval, in the service of a world view that disliked modernity itself – rational, reasonable, innovative, secular, skeptical, challenging, creative modernity, the antithesis of mystical, static, intolerant, stultifying faith. The rising tide of Islamic radicalism was described by its own ideologues as a ‘revolt against history’. History, the forward progress of peoples through time, was itself the enemy, more than any mere infidels or blasphemers.” (Page 131)
Commenting on Iranian Nights, a play written by Tariq Ali with a character after Salman Rushdie himself, Rushdie writes in his memoir:
“Among the subjects the play did not explore were: religion as political repression and as international terrorism; the need for blasphemy (the writers of the French Enlightenment had deliberately used blasphemy as a weapon, refusing to accept the power of the Church to set limiting points on thought); religion as the enemy of the intellect.” (Page 177).Rushdie says these were the themes he might have treated had he written the play!
On the other hand, The Blasphemer’s Banquet, a play written by the poet Tony Harrison, treats blasphemy “being at the very root of Western culture. The trials of Socrates, Jesus Christ and Galileo had all been blasphemy trials and yet the history of philosophy, Christianity, and science owed them a mighty debt.”
“At the heart of the dispute over The Satanic Verses”, writes Rushdie,
“At the heart of the dispute over The Satanic Verses”, writes Rushdie,
“…was a question of profound importance: who shall have the control over the story? Who has, who should have, the power not only to tell the stories with which, and within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told? For everyone lived by and inside stories, the so-called grand narratives. The nation was a story, and the family was another, and religion was a third. As a creative artist he knew that the only answer to the question was: Everyone and anyone has, or should have that power. We should all be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirise them, and insist that they change or reflect the changing times. We should speak of them reverently, irreverently, passionately, caustically, or however we chose. That was our right as members of an open society.”
Cultural Relativism and Islamophobia
Cultural relativism is the favorite stance of religious apologists (and post-modernists as well). This has been used to justify every atrocities committed against the oppressed and especially against religion-based atrocities against women – be it burning of women in the pyre of their deceased husbands (sati), mutilation of girls, the practice of purdah, child marriage, and what not.
In this context, Rushdie quotes from an imaginary letter he wrote to the British Member of Parliament, Bernie Grant:
“Cultural relativism is the death of ethical thought, supporting the right of tyrannical priest to tyrannise, of despotic parent to mutilate their daughters, of bigoted individuals to hate homosexuals and Jews, because it is a part of their ‘culture’ to do so. Bigotry, prejudice and violence or the threat of violence are not human ‘values’. They are proof of the absence of such values. They are not the manifestations of a person’s ‘culture’. They are indications of a person’s lack of culture. (Page 187)
On the coinage of the word Islamophobia, Rushdie writes:
“A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia. To criticize the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot. A phobic person was extreme and irrational in his views, and so the fault lay with such persons and not with the belief system that boasted over one billion followers worldwide. One billion believers could not be wrong, therefore the critics must be the ones foaming at the mouth. When did it become irrational to dislike religion, any religion, even to dislike it vehemently? When did reason get redescribed as unreason? When were the fairy stories of the superstitious placed above criticism, beyond satire? A religion was not a race. It was an idea, and ideas stood (or fell) because they were strong enough (or too weak) to withstand criticism, not because they were shielded from it. Strong ideas welcomed dissent….
“It was Islam that had changed, not people like himself, it was Islam that had become phobic of a very wide range of ideas, behaviours and things. In those years and in the years that followed, Islamic voices in this or that part of the world –
Algeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan– anathematized theatre, film and music, and musicians and performers were mutilated and killed. Representational art was evil, and so the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban.
“‘Islamophobia’ was an addition to the vocabulary of Humpty Dumpty Newspeak. It took the language of analysis, reason and dispute, and stood it on its head.
“He knew, as surely as he knew anything, that the fanatical cancer spreading through Muslim communities would, in the end, explode into the wider world beyond Islam. Ifthe intellectual battle was lost – if this new Islam established its right to be ‘respected’ and to have its opponents excoriated, placed beyond the pale and, why not, even killed – then political defeat would follow” (Page 344-46)