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Islam, Muhammad, and the Revelation in The Satanic Verses: On Salman Rushdie’s tools of “Magical Realism” and the craft of deconstructionism

Growing up Muslim in Malaysia, then a progressive and liberal former British colony, I was taught and made to feel the name “Muhammad” as sacred. One’s entire existence revolves around the belief in one god, ALLAH, and to revere Muhammad as the prophet of Islam – the last one in the lineage of the hundreds of messengers, from Adam, Noah, and Abraham, to David, Moses, and Jesus. Muhammad, according to the teachings of Islam, is the Seal of the Prophets. “Laila ha iLAllah Muhammad dar RasulAllah” (There is No God but the God and Muhammad is the messenger of God”) repeated seventeen times daily in the five prayers if one is a devout Muslim. Muhammad signified more than a person – he too is a concept. Of peace, justice, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, intelligence, and wisdom. There is then the messenger of messages: the archangel Gibreel, Gabriel, or Jibrail who, according to Islamic teachings, revealed all the messages in the Quran. This being, whose form is unknown, is an intermediary between God and Man.

I cannot conceptualize the archangel Gibreel as an image of a magnanimous white-winged mythical being nor the man Muhammad as a white-robed-bearded-Arab or even the battle between the Islamic sects of the Sunni and the Shia as a Star Wars-like “battle star galactica” happening in a galaxy far, far away. The images of Muhammad, Gibreel, Muhammad’s wife Ayesha, and even Allah at best are “clouds of shrouds of imagination my mind cannot conjure and imagination cannot grasp” as human-like figures. Reverie, utmost sacredness, intense holiness – these are the feeling I’d have every time, as a child, I think of the story of Muhammad, Gibreel, and the Revelation.    

Until I read Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

Rushdie wrote of a scene of the revelation:

“… and then Gibreel and the Prophet are wrestling, both naked, rolling over and over in the cave of the fine white sand that rise around them like a veil” (124) The following passage too caught my attention on how he used the element of fantasy and realism in dissecting the historiography of Islam through the Quranic revelation. This particular passage story of Muhammad – bizarre the use of Voice as it may seem and written in the tradition Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism — is about the personification of the angel Gibreel, as a wrestler:

In a cave five hundred feet below the summit of Mount Cone Mahound wrestles the archangel, hurling him from side to side, and let me tell you he’s getting in everywhere his tongue in my ear, his fists around my balls, there was never a person with such a rage in him, he has to has to know he has to K N O W and I have nothing to tell him, he’s twice as physically fit as I am and four times as knowledgeable, minimum, we may both have taught ourselves by listening a lot but as is plaintoose he’s even a better listener than me … (125).

Reading this passage, I was forced to imagine that the archangel and the prophet of Islam are both wrestlers in a fantasy world somewhere in the land of Arabia. Growing up watching American wrestling shows and reading this story I recalled as Taras Bulba or Sinbad, I too was imagining the angel and the prophet as two heavy-set and half-naked fighters, like Arab Sumo wrestlers, in a ring cheered by non-human spectators. 

Here is the aim of the essay: using representative passages from The Satanic Verses. Specifically, my questions are: In what way did the author use the strategy of “magical realism” and alternative historicizing, as well as stylized language to critique the religion as well as the founder? How is Islam and its messenger, Muhammad characterized?

Work used for close reading

In my study of Salman Rushdie’s craft, I used primarily the novel The Satanic Verses; a complex modern-epic-like-three-novels-in-one story of two characters, Gibreel and Salman, who fell to earth after the plane they were traveling in was blown up by terrorists and crashed somewhere on the coast of The English Channel. The characters then moved across time and space, their names mutating in and out of history, and the episodes shifting and used as settings and foundations to critique the origin of Islam. I selected passages that exemplify Rushdie’s use of magical realism, drawing themes such as hybridity, mystery, irony, fantasy, magic, the supernatural, dreamscapes, textuality, and ideological critique. These are devices the author employed. They are found especially in the chapter on Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Ayesha, and to a lesser extent, in the story of the moments of revelation. In the following paragraphs, I will first describe briefly how Rushdie characterized the prophet of Islam and then proceed with a discussion of the themes of magical realism used as authorial tools of theological deconstructionism.

Characterizing Muhammad

The Satanic Verses is a story about doubt and the near loss of faith; the title of the novel borrowed from an incident in the life of Muhammad during one of the moments of revelation. Muhammad was said to have received a “false revelation” from Satan, rather than from Gibreel, the intermediary of Allah. In the verse passed or revealed to him Muhammad was told to accept the pagan gods as minor gods rather than to reject them. This is to appease the worshippers of Mecca who could not accept the new religion of Islam and to continue to make Mecca the center of trade in that region. The 365 pagan gods were housed in the then Ka’ba (the “kubah”/ “cube” or the House of Allah).  Each god represents the god of each tribe. The maintenance of the political philosophy of diversity and unity, under the Meccan governor Abu Sufyan was the reason Mecca flourished, When Muhammad came to take control, destroying the idols and unifying the Meccans with the idea of one God – “AlLah” – the governor went out to wage war against him. The relationship between the “satanic verses episode” during the ascendency of Muhammad is described in this passage on Rushdie’s work:

Indeed, the title ”The Satanic Verses” refers to an incident in the life of Mohammed, recorded by two early Arab historians (al-Waqidi, A.D. 747-823, and at-Tabari, A.D. c. 839-923), discredited by later commentators on the Koran, but taken up in Western accounts as the ”lapse of Mohammed” or his ”compromise with idolatry.’ … The story goes like this: confronted by the resistance of the leading merchants of Mecca to his monotheism, Mohammmed is reported to have accepted three local deities – al-Lat, al-Uzzah and Manat – as intercessory beings (or angels – ”daughters of Allah”). This would have been a shrewd diplomatic concession, at least in the short run, since Mecca depended upon the income from the pilgrimage trade to the shrines of these deities. … But Mohammed soon withdrew the verse of acceptance, saying that Satan had placed the words of concession upon his tongue (Mojtabai, A.G., The New York Times).

Through a fictional account, Rushdie took the liberty of characterizing Muhammad in an unflattering and, as accused by the producer of the fatwa on him, blasphemic way. Readers familiar with the life story of the prophet of Islam would immediately recognize the uncanny similarity of Muhamad and Mahound and the Jahilliya-setting of the story. The prophet is described as “… our mountain-climbing, prophetmotivated solitary is to be the medieval baby-frightener, the Devil’s synonym: Mahound.” (95) There seem to be a play of word in “prophetmotivated.” Could Rushdie mean “one who aspires to become a prophet,” and in the process, will profit from the success of becoming one, and there one is “profitmotivated”? This is an interesting strategy of using words to alter the nature of reality of Muhammad’s ascendency. The word “mahound” is a derogatory word used here to signify a “boogeyman” that is perhaps a reincarnation of the Devil. By associating Muhammad with a “mahound” and characterizing him as a “profit-motivated-prophetmotivated businessman”, Rushdie’s strategy of “word-mutation” and concept-association to destroy official knowledge and perception about the prophet of Islam, the author has succeeded in deconstructing meaning. Doubt is likely to be planted in the mind of the reader on who Muhammad is and what is his clear motive.

Rushdie characterized the society in Muhammad’s time as a place wherein social stratification existed, as exemplified in the division of workers in the post-nomadic Meccan society: the division of serfs (water-carriers) and entrepreneurial artisans (the businessmen). Rushdie renamed the tribe Muhammad came from — from the noble-historical name of the “Quraisys/Bani Hashim” to the “Sharks”, perhaps signifying the nature of the privileged Meccan aristocrats: cut-throat Bedouin mercantile-capitalists. Here Rushdie used the modern word “shark” (not indigenous to the desert of Arabia) to signify a pre-Islamic class of Wall-Street gung-ho -guerilla-marketing class of people. Rushdie wrote of the society and the birth of a new religion that renewed the old through the revelations sent down by the “voice,” Gibreel:

The city’s water comes from underground streams and springs, one such being the fabled Zamzam, at the heart of the concentric sand-city, next to the House of the Black Stone. Here, at Zamzam, is a beheshti, a despised water-carrier, drawing up the vital, dangerous fluid. He has a name: Khalid. A city of businessmen, Jahilia. The name of the tribe is Shark. In this city, the businessman-turned-prophet, Mahound, is founding one of the world’s great religions; and has arrived, on this day, his birthday, at the crisis of his life. There is a voice whispering in his ear: What kind of idea are you? Man-or-mouse? We know that voice. We’ve heard it once before (97).

Major French Enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau, to a degree or another, have studied Muhammad and maintained that the prophet of Arabia alongside the prophets of Israel Moses and Jesus were imposters. But unlike Rushdie’s parodical reorientation of those religious figures, especially of Muhammad, their designation stops there.  Their general attitude towards Muhammad ranges from rationality to ambivalence. Rousseau for example credited Muhammad as one who destroyed idolatry and paganism and united the Arabs under one religion. Writers studying the conception and representation of Muhammad in the 16th. century “clandestine literature” agree that the criticisms on Muhammad and how he disempowered the concentration of power amongst the economic class in Mecca were an indirect argument against the medieval church. The story of Muhammad told in the literature of the times was a way to create a polemic and generate controversies against the excesses of the Medieval church (Gunny).

In the foregoing paragraphs, I discussed the way Muhammad and the pre-Islamic society he lived in. In the following section on the central theme of this essay, I discuss the elements of magical realism in The Satanic Verses. The section that follows will situate Rushdie’s approach from a carnivalesque perspective popularized by a Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin.

Magical Realism as Rushdie’s Authorial Voice

The idea of conceptual impermanence, fluidity, transformation, instability, and metamorphosing across Time and Space is central in Rushdie’s element of characterization. For him, language is fluid and its used surrealistic, and concepts are amorphous as how it is represented artistically perhaps in Spanish painter Salvador Dali’s painting “The Persistence of Memory” In this context of linguistic subjectivity, the past and the present collapsed in dreamlike realism that vacillates between boundaries of Time and Space no longer concrete or uni-linear. Rushdie is fond of using the dream-state/dream sequence/dream-within-a-dream, as a device of magical realism, as the location of his scenes to mount attacks on Islamic foundationalism and monumentalism. Like a sculptor working in the tradition of Michel Foucault’s genealogy of ideas, he extracted the ideas of history dear to him – iconography, philology, historiography, and even the genesis of Islam – reshaped them into a world, sometimes enchanting, of newer interpretations.

Old ideas taken as truths become a bricolage of new and provocative inventions, albeit at times sculpted in the genre of pulp fiction. In addition to the way Rushdie craft his character above, he interconnects ideas in a fashion akin to fractal geometry – from patterns of randomness, elegant prose, for example, emerges. The idea of “hypertextuality” and “heteroglossia” proposed by the French linguistic theorist Julie Kristeva and the Russian Mikhail Bakhtin’s language being “carnivalesque,” I sense applies to the way Rushdie crafts his character and let him/her mutate like the concept Mandelbrot set (fractal geometry) so that the readers might be whirling, through history, philosophy, psychology, and meta-cognitive absurdities even in one (often long Joycean) passage. Texts, in the tradition of magical realism, are textured and layered and one is forced to read them from the point of view of multiplicity in meanings. Such is the skillfulness of Rushdie’s use of the technique of storytelling in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” (see Marquez) and Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” (see Kafka).

The idea of transmutation of beings as in Rushdie’s stories used in this study is a feature of Literature of the Supra-Real, The Surreal, The Absurd, and fundamentally of the magical explaining the real: of magical realism. As I have partially quoted in the introductory passage, an example of how Rushdie turned a mundane story of Muhammad’s experience of the Quranic revelation to a humorous and fantastical way personifying an angel as a wrestler and the otherwise deeply sacrilegious prophet of Allah wrestling:

In a cave five hundred feet below the summit of Mount Cone Mahound wrestles the archangel, hurling him from side to side, and let me tell you he’s getting in everywhere his tongue in my ear, his fists around my balls, there was never a person with such a rage in him, he has to has to know he has to K N O W and I have nothing to tell him, he’s twice as physically fit as I am and four times as knowledgeable, minimum, we may both have taught ourselves by listening a lot but as is plaintoose he’s even a better listener than me …  (A)fter they had wrestled for hours or even weeks Mahound was pinned down beneath the angel, it’s what he wanted, it was his will filling me up and giving me the strength to hold him down because archangels can’t lose such fights, it wouldn’t be right, it’s only devils who got beaten in such circs, so the moment I got on top he started weeping for joy and then he did his old trick, forcing my mouth open, and making the voice, the Voice, pour out of me once again, make it pour all over me, like sick (125)

Gibreel was also characterized by Rushdie in a way that borders between the fantastical the cynical, and the critical. The medium of the Quranic message is brought down to the level of more than a fallen angel with a lesser dignity than even the angel in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story of a very old man with enormous wings:

Gibreel, when he’s tired, wants to murder his mother for giving him such a damn fool nickname, angel what a word he begs what? whom? to be spared the dream-city of crumbling sandcastles and lions with three-tiered teeth, no more heart-washing of prophets or instructions to recite or promise of paradise, let there be an end to revelations, finnito, khatam-shud. What he longs for, black dreamless sleep. Mother-fucking dreams, cause for all the troubles in the human race, movies too, if I was God, I’d cut the imagination right out of people and maybe poor bastards like me could get a good night’s rest. (124)

The second exemplifying passage in The Satanic Verses written in this style is especially brutal in its criticism of the character of Ayesha, the most revered wife of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, likening her to a potential whore/prostitute in Titlipur, India (Rushdie, Satanic Verses) The prophet of Islam’s wife was represented as a mysterious being that escaped from being a whore and ended up marrying the angel Gibreel (dressed in coat and hat like a British gentleman, perhaps), albeit the union happened in a dream. The less than flattering characterization of the most revered woman in history is made to position Ayesha as an enemy of Imam Khomeini and later as a key ally of the American empire –Empress Ayesha – that transmutated from this goddess-like-Gibreel-consort-type-divinely-designed” woman of power, later to be destroyed by the Imam of the Shia kingdom. This representation of Ayesha is perhaps used as a metaphor for the Saudi Kingdom’s alliance with the United States of America.  In the tradition of magical realism, Rushdie wrote of how Ayesha encountered Gibreel and was married:

Then he was lying there and finding he could not get up, his limbs had become heavier than iron bars, it seemed as if his body might be crushed by its own weight into the earth. When she finished looking at him she nodded, gravely, as if he had spoken, and then she took off her scrap of a sari and stretched out beside him, nude. Then in the dream he fell asleep, out cold as if somebody pulled out the plug, and when dreamed himself awake again she was standing in front of him with that loose white hair and the butterflies clothing her: transformed. She was still nodding, with a rapt expression on her face, receiving a message from somewhere that she called Gibreel. Then she left him lying there and returned to the village to make her entrance. So now I have a dream-wife, the dreamer becomes conscious enough to think. What the hell to do with her? — But it isn’t up to him. Ayesha and Mishal Akhtar are together in the big house. (233)The third equally exemplary of Rushdie’s style of writing magical realism is in his characterization of (I presume) the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – a Joycean and Kafkaesque treatment of the essential and deadly-concluded essential tension between the Shia and the Sunni, framed in the phantasmagoric depiction of the enmity between the force of Shi-ism (The Imam) and Sunni-ism (Ayesha), in which the angel Gibreel was forced to serve the former, when the Imam wanted to engage in a battle with “The Empress” of Falsehood, Ayesha – one with a “list of […] crimes, murders, sexual relations with lizards, and so on … (216):

The Imam’s eyes are clouded; his lips do not move. He is pure force, an elemental being; he moves without motion, acts without doing, speaks without uttering a sound. He is the conjurer and history is his trick. No, not history: something stranger. The explanation of this conundrum is to be heard, at this very moment, on certain surreptitious radio waves, on which the voice of the American convert Bilal is singing the Imam’s holy song. Bilal the muezzin: his voice enters a ham radio in Kensington and emerges in dreamed-of Desh, transmuted into the thunderous speech of the Imam himself. Beginning with ritual abuse of the Empress, with lists of her crimes, murders, bribes, sexual relations with lizards, and so on, he proceeds eventually to issue in ringing tones the Imam’s nightly call to his people to rise up against the evil of her State. “We will make a revolution,” the Imam proclaims through him, “that is a revolt not only against a tyrant, but against history.” For there is an enemy beyond Ayesha, and it is History herself. History is the blood–wine that must no longer be drunk. History the intoxicant, the creation, and possession of the Devil, of the great Shaitan, the greatest of the lies — progress, science, rights — against which the Imam has set his face. (216-17)

The passage above is a powerful one which drew from not only the idea of history as formulated by Ali Shariati, the Iranian theoretician of the Islamic Revolution of Iran of 1979 who was assassinated by the Israeli-trained SAVAK secret police of the Shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi. Shariati conceptualized a revolutionary theory of Islamic Revolution leading to the principles of the Islamic state; a revolution that must begin with the intellectuals or the “raushanfekren” (see Abrahamian). 

In that brief passage lies a dense treatment of the Butterfly Effect of Islamic historiography. There is textuality in the way the story of Ayesha of the times of Prophet Muhammad of 13th. Century Arabia and the Imam Khomeini of late 20th. Century Iran is presented. There is a juxtapositioning of events in Kensington in modern-day England with the Mecca of Ancient Arabia. Herein lies Rushdie’s play of textuality central to the theme of magical realism. Ayesha, who existed hundreds of years before is presented as the arch-enemy of Shia Iran that called for the death of America and to its traitor to Islam, Ayesha the Empress – symbol of Sunni Islam. History, as presented by Rushdie, dark and somber it may seem, has its magic grounded on the realism of age-old Islamic ideological confrontation. A reader of this passage, however, would need to have a sound understanding of the origin of the Shia-Sunni conflict that became intensified with the incident at Karbala wherein the family of Prophet Muhammad was brutally massacred.

The fourth representative passage of Rushdie’s fictional technique of representation is in the way he described the first leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran: The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini or Imam Khomeini. In it contains a fascinating metaphor of a man obsessed with radically altering history and reconfiguring the nature of Time. The image of purity, of water the Imam drinks is juxtaposed with impurity – of wine which the Empress drinks. The last sentence is a chilling image of the way Ayesha, the most beloved wife of Prophet Muhammad, is represented:

“The Empress,” he points out, “drinks wine.” Burgundies, clarets, hocks mingle their intoxicating corruptions within that body both fair and foul. The sin is enough to condemn her for all time without hope of redemption. The picture on his bedroom wall shows the Empress Ayesha holding, in both hands, a human skull filled with a dark red fluid. The Empress drinks blood, but the Imam is a water man. (215)

Worth quoting at length is a passage exemplifying not only the elements of political and theological critique, hybridity, and textuality of historical events, but in the tradition of magical realism but how the element of fantasy is used. It describes the battle between the quintessential historical figures of Shia and Sunni Islam. The grand finale of the death of Empress Ayesha and the triumph of Imam Khomeini reads like a final scene of a Star Wars movie:

After the revolution, there will be no clocks; we’ll smash the lot. The word “clock” will be expunged from our dictionaries. After the revolution, there will be no birthdays. We shall all be born again, all of us the same unchanging age in the eye of Almighty God. He falls silent, now, because below us the great moment has come: the people have reached the guns. Which are silenced in their turn, as the endless serpent of the people, the gigantic python of the risen masses, embraces the guards, suffocating them, and silences the lethal chuckling of their weapons. The Imam sighs heavily. “Done.” The lights of the palace are extinguished as the people walk towards it, at the same measured pace as before. Then, from within the darkened palace, there rises a hideous sound, beginning as a high, thin, piercing wail, then deepening into a howl, an ululation loud enough to fill every cranny of the city with its rage. Then the golden dome of the palace bursts open like an egg, and rising from it, glowing with blackness, is a mythological apparition with vast black wings, her hair streaming loose, as long and black as the Imam’s is long and white: Al–Lat, Gibreel understands, bursting out of Ayesha’s shell. “Kill her,” the Imam commands. (221)

The element of the supernatural and the personification of an angel transformed into a jihadist in the service of the Ayatollah can be discerned in the passage below:

Gibreel sets him down on the palace’s ceremonial balcony, his arms outstretched to encompass the joy of the people, a sound that drowns even the howls of the goddess and rises up like a song. And then he is being propelled into the air, having no option, he is a marionette going to war; and she, seeing him coming, turns, crouches in air, and, moaning dreadfully, comes at him with all her might. Gibreel understands that the Imam, fighting by proxy as usual, will sacrifice him as readily as he did the hill of corpses at the palace gate, that he is a suicide soldier in the service of the cleric’s cause. I am weak, he thinks, I am no match for her, but she, too, has been weakened by her defeat. The Imam’s strength moves Gibreel, places thunderbolts in his hands, and the battle is joined; he hurls lightning spears into her feet and she plunges comets into his groin, we are killing each other, he thinks, we will die and there will be two new constellations in space: Al-Lat, and Gibreel. (221)

Lastly, in yet another passage exemplifying Rushdie’s craft, he wrote not only about Ayatollah Khomeini’s philosophy of history, but also the character of “Bilal X” as a metaphor of the struggle of the American Civil Rights leader, Malcolm X, and how the latter as a concept of the struggle of the oppressed in the United States is understood by the leader of the Iranian Revolution as a global struggle worth supporting. In Islamic history, Bilal ibn Rabah was a slave of Ethiopian origin freed by Muhammad and the first Caliph Abu Bakr, and honored as Islam’s first “muezzin” to make Islam’s first call to prayer or the “azan”. In Bilal X, Rushdie characterized the idea that America, in the eyes of the Ayatollah, need to be overthrown from the inside, through a radical movement such as that promoted by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.

 A fascinating aspect of Rushdie’s technique is his complex use of metaphor and personification weaved intricately by and through the philosophy of Islamic history. The Bilal-Malcolm X character-juxtaposition and hybridization is presented in a magical way through a scene that moves across time and space – from Mecca of Mohammad to Malcolm X and Ayatollah Khomeini of modern-day America and Iran respectively. Rushdie wrote:

In the early days, Bilal X protested at such a description of his voice. He, too, belonged to an oppressed people, he insisted, so that it was unjust to equate him with the Yankee imperialists. The Imam answered, not without gentleness: Bilal, your suffering is ours as well. But to be raised in the house of power is to learn its ways, to soak them up, through that very skin that is the cause of your oppression. The habit of power, its timbre, its posture, its way of being with others. It is a disease, Bilal, infecting all who come too near it. If the powerful trample over you, you are infected by the soles of their feet. Bilal continues to address the darkness. “Death to the tyranny of the Empress Ayesha, of calendars, of America, of time! We seek the eternity, the timelessness, of God. His still waters, not her flowing wines.” Burn the books and trust the Book; shred the papers and hear the Word, as it was revealed by the Angel Gibreel to the Messenger Mahound and explicated by your interpreter and Imam. “Ameen,” Bilal said, concluding the night’s proceedings. While, in his sanctum, the Imam sends a message of his own: and summons, conjures up, the archangel, Gibreel. (217)

Through the voice of Third Person Omniscient, the voice of a Magical Realist, of a writer in total control of his characters’ freedom to first explain the philosophy of history of the Imam (of the Iranian Revolution,) and the idea of Time and cycle of history in all its glory of a historical-materialistic and dialectical-materialism of a sort,  and next, to explain the vision of a “Desh” or an Islamic world-nation based on the concept of the “Ummah” ala’ the teaching of the Shi’a, Rushdie used metaphors, allusion, and personification as devices to explain the semiotics and the soteriology as well as the concept of salvation in an Islam that has a global and globalizing political agenda (see Abrahamian for a discussion of the philosophy of the Iranian Revolution).

 The five examples above on Rushdie’s craft employed in the tradition of magical realism give the reader a glimpse of the tools of deconstructionism using literary devices such as hybridity, fantasy, textuality, and the element of fantasy to affect a critique of theological ideology. The author personified and lampooned the arch-angel and satirized and mocked the much-revered prophet, making these characters all too human – as historical characters with warts and all.

What is Rushdie’s philosophical and discursive leaning when it comes to characterizing oppositional forces in Islam? The Satanic Verses may perhaps contain a wealth of resources for critical discourse analysts to deconstruct passages leading to propositions on Rushdie’s style of destroying foundations ala’ the styles of French deconstructionists Foucault or Derrida, on the subject of celebrating the supremacy of the Subaltern Narrative. What Rushdie did in The Satanic Verses is to present a world of Muhammadan Islam as a grotesque carnival of ideas to be critiqued. Herein lies the idea of carnivalesque I discuss in the next section; the idea central to grotesque humor in a world magic interplaying with realism.

Rushdie’s Bakhtinian Carnivalesque

Following Bakhtin’s idea of “carnival,” – drawn from the Russian philosopher and linguist’s study of the world of the French author Rabelais – in which he proposed that what is needed for society to be alive in an authoritarian world is the voices of the subaltern, subverting the grand narrative, in a humorous, circus-like, even bawdily-grotesque way. (Bakhtin, Rabelais) This is what I propose Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is about.  The crafting of dialogues and characterization are approached from a Bakhtinian carnivalesque way – parodies, insults, critical reflections, transmogrification of historical ideas vis-a-viz Islam, Muhammad, and the revelation, are skillfully crafted as a circus of ideas gnawing at the stoned-cold theocratic society outside. Bakhtin wrote of the Renaissance conception of the literature of the grotesque – or grotesque realism – as a form of criticism of Formalism that employs laughter as a tool. He wrote in The World of Rabelais:

In the Middle Ages, folk humor existed and developed outside the official sphere of high ideology and literature, but precisely because of its unofficial existence, it was marked by exceptional radicalism, freedom, and ruthlessness. Having on the one hand forbidden laughter in every official sphere of life and ideology, the Middle Ages on the other hand bestowed exceptional privileges of license and lawlessness outside these spheres: in the marketplace, on feast days, in festive recreational literature. And medieval laughter knew how to use these widely” … The walls between official and non-official literature were inevitably to crumble, especially because in the most important ideological sectors these walls also served to separate languages–Latin from the vernacular. The adoption of the vernacular by literature and by certain ideological spheres was to sweep away or at least weaken these boundaries” (Bakhtin, 72).

Humor – grotesque it may seem to fundamentalist Islam as such as that propagated by Imam Khomeini and the like – is what Rushdie was attempting to paint with words of his skillful and delightful prose. I believe this is not only a choice made by one writing about Islam as a “stranger and an outsider,” but one that has opened the eyes of the twentieth and twenty-first-century reader to other sides of Islam the world needs to see and have access to, albeit using dark humor. What Rushdie did with the novel was what French writers such as Tartuffe and Beaumarchais did during their period. But judging from the response to The Satanic Verses, the world of Islam is still not ready for such a creative and humorous form of criticism misconstrued as blasphemy punishable by death by way of a non-legal binding-opinion-natured “fatwa.”

Herein too lies the idea of the world painted in The Satanic Verses as a carnival of ideas past and present, sacred and profane, oscillating like a pendulum of history and ideology, and next trajectoring back and forth across Time and Space, masked for a Halloween of iconoclastic fiesta – these a circus and fanfare of ideas too hot for the critics of Rushdie to handle. Hence, the fatwa and a bounty for killing Rushdie and the “slay him wherever you find him,” as stated in one of the most misunderstood Quranic verses-often-quoted-by-critics-of-non-political-Islam-as a “violent ideology”. Such is the way dialogue and the dialogical imagination is handled in the world of Islamic extremism-fundamentalism ala Boko Haram (“against Liberal Education) and the Taliban (“the students”) Al-Qaeda (“the tactics/strategy) and Daesh (“the Islamic State” or ISIS/ISIL.) Rushdie’s extensive use of these elements of magical realism can also be found in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a tale of magical proportion deployed as a political critique of radical Islam (see Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories.)

Those are the forces of Formalism as how Rabelais’ saw in France as one that needed a critique in the form of an “absurd social theatre” as a carnival; an attack on Foundationalism using the iconoclastic-deconstructionist tools of the carnivalesque. For Rushdie, the religious world of Islam ought to be turned into a carnival Rushdie claimed; because as he said in his memoir Joseph Anton, Islam is the only major world religion that is born in recorded history and that its founder had claimed that he is merely a human being and a messenger of Allah chosen to renew previous messages – a fact strong enough to allow Islam to be scrutinized as a subjective phenomenon of a belief system (see Rushdie, Joseph Anton.)  Because the Quran is claimed to be compiled by Muhammad’s scribe and only after 200 years of his death the text called “recitations” as Muslims know it today is being officialized. For Rushdie, the act of putting it together ought to be interrogated regarding its claim of objectivity, as in the act of engaging in literary criticism.

The entire process — from the act from the context of the emergence of Muhammad, the role of the Angel Gibreel in revealing verses, and the proclamation that the “unpopular and lesser-known female god” al-Lah – ought to become the carnival of the historiography and phenomenology of Islam. The world of Rushdie, at least in the novel, is a heteroglossic and hypertextualized world of India, Great Britain, and Arabia in the time of Muhammad, the revered prophet of Islam.  His characters move in and out of time, through a carnivalesque way, all wearing masks of Timeless significance.       

In concluding this sub-section, I quote a view by a literary critic of Rushdie’s style of deconstructing vis-a-viz The Satanic Verses and magical realism:

In the case of Mr. Rushdie, he has used the hallucinatory devices of magic realism to try to capture, metaphorically, the sweep and chaos of contemporary reality, its resemblance to a dream or nightmare. For instance, in ”The Satanic Verses,” strange and impossible events occur: an orphan girl subsists on a diet of butterflies; two men fall from an airplane and miraculously survive; one sprouts an angelic halo, and the other, a tail and horns. The characters’ bizarre adventures, the novel’s numerous dream sequences, the convolutions of its plot, the melodramatic effusions of Mr. Rushdie’s prose – all are meant, in some heightened way, to give the reader a sense of just how fantastic recent history has become (Kakutani, The New York Times, 1989).


The focus of this essay on the craft of Salman Rushdie is to explore how magical realism as a genre of his fictional style of deconstructing Muhammad and Islam is used especially in The Satanic Verses. I selected and analyzed passages that exemplify Rushdie’s use of magical realism, drawing themes such as hybridity, fantasy, magic, the supernatural, dreamscapes, textuality, and ideological critique the author employed as devices. These elements are found especially in the chapter on the revelation of the Quranic verses and in the representation of Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Ayesha as she was pitted in an ideological clash of magical and fantastical Titanic proportions with Ayatollah Khomeini in the great war between the “Empress” and the “Imam.”

        The passages analyzed in this close reading of Rushdie’s craft showed how he viewed the world of Islam as a carnival of ideas to be liberally critiqued, in the manner of the “carnivalesque” as the Russian philosopher Bakhtin wrote about in the latter’s analysis of the novels of Rabelais. By turning realism into scenes depicting flights of fancy and fantasy, Rushdie wrote an alternate yet the painfully-humorous story of the revelation of the Quran. This is evident in his use of complex metaphors, personification, allusions, and anthropomorphism to show his readers what happened in history that has today created a violent schism in Islam. Stylizing his work in the genre of a synthesis between the real and the magical, the historical and the critical-genealogical, and the satirical and the sacramental, Rushdie was able to express freely his goal of story-telling as well as the core of his argument against a theology. Rushdie’s extensive use of these elements of magical realism can also be found in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a tale of magical proportion deployed as a political critique of radical Islam (see Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories.) It is deeply critical and as his opponents claimed, a distasteful way of hiding behind his fiction and luring readers into this phantasmagoric world of timeless events, that brought the fundamentalist Islamic world to hand him the fatwa or an edict calling for his death.

Works Cited

Abrahamian, Ervand, “Ali Shariati: Ideologue of the Iranian Revolution.”


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky.

       Indiana University Press, 1984.

Gunny, Ahmad. Prophet Muhammad in French and English Literature:

       1650 to the Present. Nairobi: Islamic Foundation, 2010

Hedges, Chris. “Rushdie Seeks to Mend his


Kafka, Franz. “Metamorphosis”

         http://www.gcit.org/ourpages/auto/2014/12/17/63704557/the-metamorphosis- text.pdf

Kakutani, Michiko. “Critique’s Notebook; Telling truth through Fantasy:

       Rushdie’s Magical Realism.”


Livings, Jack. The Art of Fiction: Salman Rushdie Interview.


Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”       https://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~cinichol/CreativeWriting/323/MarquezManwithWings.htm

Mojtabai, A.G. “Magical Mystery Pilgrimage: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie” http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/04/18/specials/rushdie-verses.html

Rushdie, Salman. Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Penguin, 1990.

Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York: Picador, 1988.

Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2012

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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