Muslim Hate of Authors
Sir Salman doesn't deserve the vituperation heaped upon him by the Muslim world.
Friday, 6 July 2007
When Queen Elizabeth knighted the author of the 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie, last month, there was rage throughout the Islamic world. Although Sir Salman, as he is now to be called, was not honoured specifically for this controversial novel, many Muslims interpreted the award as a poke in the eye for Islam. "The latest act of the British government was shameless and imprudent and can not be interpreted to anything but blind hostility and absolute brainlessness," declared the speaker of the Iranian parliament speaker, Gholamali Haddadadel.
The Satanic Verses is not my favourite novel, but it has a place in my life's journey. When the book first came out in 1988, I was a devout Muslim. By 1996 I had left the religion, and I bought it to see what the fuss was all about. When my then-husband saw the book on the coffee table, he left me with three small children. He had never read it. This lack of effort to understand, appreciate and build bridges is not uncommon amongst Muslims.
Back in 1989 Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa condemning Rushdie to death. I wonder if he had read it. Then an Iranian businessman offered a US$3 million bounty for his death. I wonder if he had read it. In 1991 the Japanese translator was stabbed to death. I wonder if his murderer had read it. In fact, most Muslims who aver that they are willing to kill Rushdie have probably never read The Satanic Verses. According to Islam, one cannot say or think anything against the prophet Mohammed. Even if a Muslim were to read the book out of curiosity, he/she would be blaspheming the prophet, even if he/she respected the prophet in his/her heart.
When I first read the book in 1996, I was not a skilled reader of literature. But even then, I thought that it was just a novel, and although the character Mahound was obviously an allusion to the Prophet, Rushdie was not writing history and not suggesting that Mohammed was actually possessed by demons.
Eleven years later, after further study at university, and after having become a Christian, I re-read The Satanic Verses. Although I enjoyed it, I now realise that post-modern style makes it a very difficult text for many readers, not just Muslims. As an example of the genre of "magical realism", Rushdie parodies certain events and persons from the Qur'an and the life of the Prophet. But the plot is so bizarre and far-fetched and the characters so distant from reality that it is difficult to discern the author's true intentions.
I would venture to say that it is impossible to understand The Satanic Verses without an appreciation of post-modern irony. Because of the multi-vocal nature of irony, naïve readers who can only grasp univocal utterances will be baffled. For more sophisticated readers, the genre of magical realism offers great compensations. Irony -- sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes wry or perplexing -- enriches the literary dish. It keeps us on our toes, inviting us to dig through layers of possible meaning and competing significations.
No doubt Rushie anticipated that not everyone would comprehend his ironic treatment of a holy text and of the figure of the Prophet. What he failed to foresee was that Muslim incomprehension would lead to a fatwa, book-burnings and violent demonstrations.
In my experience, Christians are much more tolerant and appreciative of literary texts. For instance, in modern literature the use of Christ figures has almost become a cliché -- Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, Neo in the Matrix trilogy, and even Superman in Superman Returns. The works of the devout Catholic Flannery O'Connor contain many characters which suggest Christ. Many of these are somewhat less than Christ-like, which may be felt as disrespectful by many people, but neither the Pope nor Billy Graham ever issued fatwas.
Let me say a few words in Rushdie's defence against intolerant Muslims (and also against too-literal Westerners). Apart from its ironic comedy, one reason that the book has been so hard for fatwa-waving ayatollahs to understand is that it is a critique of post-Christian Western society. It speaks to a sceptical generation that has cast off its traditional ties to religion and is longing to get back home to be with its "Father." In my reading, it is a New Testament story of redemption and "rebirth". In this case, the prodigal son returns home to India, to the jahilia, the town of ignorance. Jahilia is an offensive term for Muslims because it implies that Arabia is a jahilia. In fact, Rushdie is suggesting that our so-called progressive, irreligious world is restless and schizophrenic. Surely there is something in this diagnosis. More people, especially children are being diagnosed with depression than in any time in history.
It is impossible for Muslims to see all this in the book. They are not familiar with Christian themes of rebirth, redemption, baptism, Lucifer and so on. Rushdie has written a novel which mixes Christian and Muslim motifs in a most unsettling way. Essentially it is not a novel about Mohammed, still less about Islam. Sadly the outrage over an obscure novel by an "apostate" Muslim is one more confirmation of the West's difficulty in communicating with conservative Islam.
Shamim Hunt is currently a PhD student in the Institute of Philosophic Studies program at the University of Dallas in Texas.
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