Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses

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The Satanic Verses Summary

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The Satanic Verses was written by British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie in 1988. It was the fourth and most controversial novel of what has become a long and distinguished career. The title is an allusion to a possible incident in Islamic teachings where the prophet Muhammad mistook “satanic suggestion” for divine revelation. Though there are many different versions of the story, and many reasons to dispute its historical accuracy and relevance, the main elements of the account are the same: while reciting a sura (chapter of the Qur’an), the prophet Muhammad was tempted by Satan to instruct listeners to think upon three Meccan pagan goddesses (Al-Lat, Al-‘Uzza and Manat) to pray for their intersection. A similar event takes place in Rushdie’s novel, which focuses on the lives of two Indian Muslim actors returning to Britain. Rushdie uses magical realism to explore the transformative nature of the immigrant experience, assimilation, alienation and identity.

The novel is divided into nine parts which alternate between the main plot following the two actors, and a series of on-going dream sequences. The main storyline begins by introducing dual protagonists Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. Gibreel is a famous Bollywood actor, who overcame a difficult youth and fought mental illness. Before the action of the plot he had an affair with an English mountain climber Allie (Alleluia) Cone, causing his previous lover to commit suicide. Gibreel decides to follow Allie to London, haunted by the ghost of his former lover. Saladin is an obscure voice actor who grew up in Bombay and had a difficult relationship with his father. He attended a boarding school in London, becoming fully estranged from his father when he remarried a woman with the same name as his dead mother. Saladin has returned briefly to India to act in a play where he began having an affair with an old friend Zeeny, but broke it off before he left because he felt she was too sympathetic to his father. The two characters board a flight headed to England, which is hijacked by Sikh nationalists and crashed into the English Channel. While falling from the plane Gibreel transforms into the archangel Gabriel and Saladin transforms into Satan.

They both somehow survive the accident and wash up on the shores of England where they are taken in by an elderly woman, Rosa Diamond. The police arrive believing that the men are illegal immigrants, but arrest only Saladin. He pleads with Gibreel to help him, but Gibreel does nothing and Saladin is taken away. He is beaten by the police who do not believe he is a British citizen, but who eventually release him to a hospital to recover. By this time Saladin has further transformed into a human-goat hybrid, as have many of the patients at the hospital, which is a potential side-effect of the discrimination they endure at the hands of white British citizens. The patients escape from the hospital and Saladin heads back to his apartment where his wife Pamela is having an affair with his rival Jumpy Joshi.  Joshi agrees to help hide Saladin at a hotel run by his neighbors, but he grows too large to stay and must be hidden in the basement to a nightclub instead. Saladin begins to blame Gibreel for all of his problems and it is his hatred that eventually turns him back into a human.

Gibreel finds Allie and attempts to rekindle their affair, but this is short lived when an angel appears to him and demands he spread the word of God. His attempts to do so are met with dismissal as everyone seems to think he is insane, so in a fit of frustration Gibreel steps in front of a car. The man who hits Gibreel hopes to make Gibreel into a movie star again, so he and Allie take him to the hospital for treatment. As he begins to recover, the man offers Gibreel movie roles, which he must promote by appearing at a dance hall. During his appearance the crowd rushed the stage; Gibreel levitated above them and disappeared, eventually waking up on Allie’s doorstep. It is unclear whether or not these events are taking place or if they are illusions brought on by Gibreel’s developing mental illness.

Saladin realizes the true nature of his transformation and decides to succumb to the evil within him and kill Gibreel. However the opportunity presents itself several times and he cannot bring himself to do it. Instead he learns many explicit details of Gibreel’s affair with Allie and makes a series of prank phone calls to Gibreel, making his believe that Allie is cheating on him. Gibreel leaves Allie, but eventually realizes it was Saladin making the phone calls.  Despite this knowledge, Gibreel still saves Saladin when a fire breaks out in their neighborhood and he becomes trapped under a beam. Over a year after the fires Saladin finally reconciles with his dying father in India. Gibreel also returns to India after two of his movies have flopped. He murders Allie and the producer, and confesses to Saladin before killing himself.

This is interspersed with several of Gibreel’s dream sequences which reframe elements of the life of Muhammad. The first follows a businessman named Mahound, who begins a new monotheistic religion called Submission in Jahilia, a land dominated by polytheism.  At first the city’s leader persecutes Mahoud’s followers, but eventually says he will offer them protection if Mahound acknowledges three of Jahilia’s goddesses alongside Allah. He does so by calling them Allah’s daughters, but quickly recants declaring that the revelation was the work of Satan. For their own safety Mahound and his followers flee to Yathrib. Twenty-five years later Submission has spread widely and Mahound has become very powerful. He again attempts to convert Jahilia, and does so successfully, despite the resistance of some.

Another dream sequence tells of the child Ayesha in the village of Titlipur. As Ayesha ages she claims to have lain with the archangel Gibreel and prophesizes that her village must make the pilgrimage to Mecca on foot. They do so, but Ayesha becomes tyrannical in the endeavour and there are many casualties along the way. When they reach the sea Ayesha says that Gibreel will provide a path for them. The pilgrims walk into the water and begin to drown. Despite some doubters trying to save them, nobody is rescued and bodies begin washing up to shore.

Despite receiving many positive reviews The Satanic Verses drew criticism from Muslim groups which claimed the novel was blasphemous and made a mockery of their faith. Rushdie endured several failed assassination attempts and was eventually placed under the protection of the British government.