Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses: a Recipe for Controversy

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Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses addresses much more than the infamous controversy within Islam. It is about nationalism, migration, religion, postmodernism, politics, rebirth, hybridization, transformation, compromise, and Islam. However, the great controversy of the Satanic verses, as portrayed in Rushdie's novel, serves as the template from which all the other issues can be examined. Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, likewise, can be seen as an expected response that seems to fit the themes addressed in the novel. The typical Western opinion that the Ayatollah's reaction is representative of "backwards" Islam is also an ironic manifestation of the novel's themes.

Rushdie is best described as a chef who concocted an elaborate recipe for controversy. Like a bitter apostate Christian who attends church to ask blasphemous questions, he even intended to cause this controversy in order to bring more public attention to the themes he addresses in his novel. It never happened and then it did, maybe then or maybe not. Rushdie's recipe starts with three main ingredients: three ongoing plotlines that could exist independently. The first is Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta's ordeal, initiated at the beginning of the novel with their fall and miraculous survival from the terrorist attack on the jumbo jet Bostan Flight AI-420 (the significance of the flight number is up for interpretation). Rushdie then adds the tale of Ayesha and the town of Titlipur, and finally, the chapters set in Jahilia with the prophet Mahound and the religion of Submission. After the rebirth of Gibreel and Saladin after the airplane attack, the novel follows these two Indian expatriate actors as they fall in love and in lust, struggle with the complex issues of migration and otherness; and experience the schizophrenic visions/dreams/hallucinations of Gibreel Farishta. He imagines he is indeed an Angel of God, guiding Mahound the Messenger of Submission, Ayesha the prophetess on an impossible foot pilgrimage with the villagers of Titlipur through the Arabian sea, and he also imagines he appears to his modern contemporaries in London. Like flour, this is a framework to give the novel the proper consistency—a base from which to operate. Saladin (whose birth name is Salahuddin), is an Indian who has lived in England since his secondary school years. He has totally assimilated into British culture and is ashamed at anything Indian. He fails to see that it is his skin color that keeps him from being a great actor—his roles are usually voices in ads and characters abstract TV shows. Gibreel, on the other hand, is a famous Indian movie star known for his roles as Hindu gods. He falls in love with Ali Cone, and moves to Britain. Saladin Chamcha, having been transformed into a demon by his descent from the plane, is not as lucky in his visions/pursuits/victimizations. He is arrested by immigration police who are seemingly not surprised at his transformation into a horned, hoofed, hairy man. He manages to ruin Gibreel's love affair with the Mount Everest-climbing ice queen Ali Cone. Yet true love is always just beyond his reach with Zeeny, a nationalist Indian that Chamcha lusts with while in his hometown of Bombay and Pamela Lovelace, his thoroughly British iconic wife from London. Meanwhile, the young girl Ayesha (a magnet for butterflies that come to clothe and feed her) convinces the entire village of Titlupur to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. She promises that the angel Gibreel (who is dreaming all of this) will part the Arabian Sea for their safe crossing. Unfortunately, the group perishes, or fortunately, they are allowed to pass through under the sea. As with the other miracles in this book, the event is rather ambiguous. Although I am unsure of the significance of this subplot, it held my interest and, like sugar, made the book more palatable.

Mahound the Messenger's story is clearly the spice: there is only a pinch, but it is...
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