Samuel Fleischacker is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He has had particular interests in the relationship between culture and morality, and the nature and history of liberalism. He is the author of The Ethics of Culture, A Third Concept of Liberty: Judgment and Freedom in Kant and Adam Smith, On Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, and A Short History of Distributive Justice. Sam is currently working on a defence of revealed religion. Below, he discusses Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.
Samuel Fleischacker on The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
In March 1989, just as the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa was leading American bookstores to pull Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses off their shelves, I bought the last two copies from one store and placed them on facing chairs in the room of a bed-and-breakfast in which my then wife-to-be and I were staying. She laughed and clapped her hands when she saw them. 'How wonderful!' she exclaimed. '"His" and "her" heretical books!'
We had been awaiting the book with great enthusiasm. Fans of both Midnight's Children and Shame, we were delighted to have a chance to read one of Rushdie's novels hot off the press, and expected it, like his earlier books, to combine delicious prose with political and spiritual reflection of the sort that one rarely finds among contemporary writers.
We were not disappointed. The book is a romp, filled with erudite, multilingual puns of which Joyce would be proud - a character who regards movie stars as bordering on the demonic calls one famous actress 'Gracekali' - moves with the unforgiving pace of a roller coaster from the most disgusting scenes you can imagine to the sexiest or funniest or most sublime, presents fascinating characters who at the same time populate a symbolic landscape that evokes, in equal measure, the Ramayana, the Quran, the Arabian Nights, Ulysses, and Alice in Wonderland, and continually throws out, amidst all the cleverness and symbolism and attempts to churn the reader's stomach, the gems of Indian-inflected English at which Rushdie excels: 'Alcoholic beverage or what?' asks one lapsed-Muslim character, in response to a stewardess's inquiry about whether he would like a drink: 'So, okay, bibi, give one whiskysoda only.'
More surprisingly, perhaps, I found something in The Satanic Verses that I've seen in the work of a number of other artworks accused of heresy (Andres Serrano's Piss Christ and Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ, for instance, both of which caused a stir around the same time): a far deeper religious sensibility than that of the critics making the accusation. Essentially, Rushdie presents in modern guise an old theme in neo-Platonic theology: that God, if He exists at all, must somehow be found in every apparent evil and triviality, as well as in the people or events that seem obviously good. A true monotheist, as opposed to a dualist, cannot afford to lop off parts of the world as godless or satanic: the one source of goodness must sustain everything, even what seems on the surface to be opposed to it. For Rushdie, this means that good and evil must be intertwined, united somehow, with the whole ultimately being good rather than evil (good eventually triumphs over evil, in the novel, and in any case the unity of the two seems meant itself to be beautiful: thus good, for a Platonist). Hence the surprising moments of goodness in even the most evil characters, and of evil in the good characters, including the many ways in which the two main characters, the 'angelic' Gibreel and the 'satanic' Saladin, reflect each other and depend on each other; hence the appearance of theological concerns and language in the midst of the most raunchy, crude, or horrifying episodes; hence the comedic touch even at tragic moments and the hint of despair even in Rushdie's best jokes.
And hence, of course, the ambiguity of Mohammed, the ways in which the founding prophet of Islam is presented in this novel as struggling with the intertwinedness of good and evil. The famous 'satanic verses' that are said first to have been given as part of the Quran, and then withdrawn, receive here a fascinating explanation as part of a compromise that Mohammed makes to win acceptance for his religion from Mecca's leading families. Later he recognizes the implacable nature of his opposition, and the foolishness, therefore, of his compromise, and withdraws the verses. Throughout, he seeks the guidance of God and is committed to doing whatever best serves God's will. He is presented with the utmost dignity and respect - Rushdie clearly admires him - and as a proponent of the view Rushdie himself espouses: that beneath the seeming multiplicity of the world, including the seemingly sharp division between good and evil, all is one ('one one one,' as Mohammed's followers say in the novel), all is harmonious.
Rushdie does his best, I think, to try to imagine himself into Mohammed's shoes, to try to make sense of prophecy in terms that a modern secular person can understand. He presents Mohammed as struggling to figure out what God wants, rather than as simply knowing that, but this is a view of prophecy that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, or liberal Catholics and Protestants. Even if Rushdie is an agnostic or atheist (I suspect that he was an agnostic when he wrote the book but is now an atheist), he tries hard to draw from Mohammed's teaching a message that he can endorse himself. In Rushdie's hands, the oneness of the universe may not, ultimately, be something theological, but it is nevertheless of the highest importance that we recognize it: it means, among other things, as the whole of The Satanic Verses as well as many of Rushdie's other writings make clear, that there is a possibility of unity, of harmony and mutual respect, among Hindus and Muslims, Muslims and Jews, secular and religious people, and traditionalists and modernists. In particular, I think, Rushdie wrote this book to help secular people like himself understand religious people better, find something to admire in religious teachings. This was his olive branch to the religion of his youth, his attempt to come to a rapprochement with it, not his rejection of it.
Why, then, was the book so reviled by religious Muslims (and religious Christians and Jews, even if they deplored the fatwa against Rushdie)? Well, for one thing, Rushdie's critics didn't read the book, and believed characterizations of it that were blatantly false. For another, the violence and irreverent jokes and promiscuous sex in the book are likely to irritate religious readers, whether or not a deep theological teaching lies beneath the surface. (Rushdie probably expected such people to ignore the book; he wrote it for elite Western sophisticates, for whom the shock would be that they were supposed to take religion seriously.) And for a third, the sort of radical neo-Platonism I have been describing, in which one seeks God even where He seems most emphatically to be not, has always had an air of heresy about it, has always disturbed more traditional religious people.
That said, I think the critics of The Satanic Verses made not just a moral but a strategic mistake. I found myself being much more interested in the Quran after I read it than I had ever been before, and I was not alone: sales of the Quran went up everywhere that the book was read. Looking back on the novel now, I find much of it overwrought, and Rushdie has turned out in the intervening years to be shallower and more self-indulgent than I would like. But he offered us an opening for a deep conversation on religion in 1988, which could well have led to a far greater respect for Islam in particular among Christians and Jews. The fact that that opportunity was rejected rather than welcomed was a harbinger, and partial cause, of the catastrophic religious divide in which we now find ourselves.