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Rushdie: A Tale of Two Cultures

It's been more than two years since we in the West have had to ask ourselves, "What in The Satanic Verses would people who had not even read it find as reason to call for its author's death?" As soon as the Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced the sentence I bought a copy in protest. Like most Westerners I was angry because we hate censorship, because we consider one government's seeking to assassinate the law-abiding citizen of another technically to be an act of war, and because Western hostages were being held by pro-Iranian paramilitary groups, which we also hold technically to be an act of war. Then I realized I could understand neither Rushdie's book nor the reaction to it. So I read three English translations of the Qur'an (a case of anathema leading one to scripture), and V. S. Naipaul's Islamic travelogue, Among the Believers. After that, I felt I could proceed.

I found that Salman Rushdie's book can be interpreted as a study of human evil as a kind of disease, and of the mystery of redemption, written against the background of cultural dissonance between Islamic, Hindu, and Western societies. I also discovered how much of it might be perceived as shockingly obscene - how it could hit a pious Muslim like a fist in the eye, and then do it again and again. Almost every place or person's name seems to play on some concept of Islamic law, piety, or history. It's skillful play, but apparently Rushdie, like some of his characters, had become so Westernized that he lost his "gut feel" for just how outraged many Muslims would become at his approach to his subject matter. Still, in the West it is against the law to kill someone just for punching you in the eye.

But those who condemn Rushdie claim that they do so not merely because they are offended - they charge him with the specific crime of libeling the Prophet and his wives. Under Islamic Law it is enough to have four witnesses for a conviction. Under Western law, it is necessary to examine the evidence. The West and those who seek Rushdie's death, the Defense and the Prosecution, are in cultural disagreement before their opening arguments have even begun.

The Prosecution reads from the Qur'an: "Surely those who annoy Allah and His Messenger, Allah has cursed them in this world and the Hereafter, and he has prepared for them an abasing chastisement. And those who annoy believing men and believing women undeservedly, they bear the guilt of slander and manifest sin," and, "If the hypocrites and those in whose hearts is a disease and the agitators in al-Madinah desist not, We shall certainly urge thee on against them, then they shall not be thy neighbors in it but for a little while - Accursed, wherever they are found they will be seized and slain."

Says the Defense: According to notes in Muhammad Ali's translation[1] these verses are about agitators who spread false rumors maligning the Prophet and his wives, in an attempt to stop the spread of Islam. They imply a crime - slandering God, the Prophet, and his wives so as to dissuade believers - and a punishment - death. But has this crime really been committed?

Between twists of plot in the Accused's book, a prophet appears. Who is he? Not the historical Muhammad - he is "Mahound," a false prophet appearing in the dreams of a schizophrenic actor. The names of the dream-prophet's wives also appear, but only their names - the text makes clear that the wives themselves do not. God even appears briefly, but clearly in a form meant to mock the liberties that Western writers take with their plots and characters. And an Imam who can move the world around him appears, too.

Now in Western society, for a capital conviction the prosecution must establish that (1) the crime was committed by the accused (2) with intent. Let's analyze the alleged crime again. The dream-prophet Mahound is never called Muhammad: Rushdie is careful to distinguish between fantasy and history. Now to libel or slander, Rushdie would need to blur this distinction - he would need to write a falsified history rather than a novel. By Western standards there was neither crime nor intent. The intent is clearly not to libel historical persons, but to portray something in the dreaming mind of one of the novel's major characters who is mentally ill - alternately influenced by the forces of good and evil, unable to distinguish clearly between them, and capable of doing either - a sort of latter-day Everyman.

The Prosecution rejoins that the verses in question refer to more than actual libel. They refer to "annoying undeservedly." The Prosecution points out that there are Muslims in every country, and that simply the hearsay generated by the Western media is enough to carry the offense to the non-English speaking believers. Clearly Rushdie, himself a doubter, is trying to induce believers to doubt, and to prevent unbelievers from coming to believe.

The Defense points out that the furor over Rushdie's book has probably boosted sales of the Qur'an in the West more than anything in the last several years. Turning people from Islam is clearly not Rushdie's effect, nor does it seem to be his intent. To quote from page 507: "...and at the moment of their opening the waters parted, and they walked to Mecca across the bed of the Arabian Sea." Rushdie appears to believe, or at least to doubt his own doubt. Such a one would hardly seek to dissuade believers.

Moreover, says the Defense, the word "undeservedly" bears scrutiny. The Accused states that he never intended to libel or insult God, the Prophet, his wives, or the believers. Perhaps the Prosecution, in its readiness to imitate Divine Wrath without tempering it with Beneficence and Mercy, knocked Rushdie's faith out of him in his youth, leaving a "God-shaped hole in [his] heart," as he described in a televised interview. Perhaps to redress his youthful wounding by the Prosecution, Rushdie wrote a book in which some characters act out of their own willfulness while convincing themselves it is God's Will. Perhaps it is a satirical book which accuses the Prosecution of similarly going astray. Rather than consider (or even ignore) this criticism, the Prosecution reacts with the fatwa, the sentence of death.

The Defense reminds the Prosecution that the Qur'an also states (Surah 3, verses 134,135), "Thus it is by Allah's grace that thou art gentle to them. And hadst thou been rough, hard-hearted, they would certainly have dispersed from around thee. So pardon them and ask protection for them, and consult them in matters. But when thou hast determined, put thy trust in Allah. Surely Allah loves those who trust." And (Surah 24, verse 22) "...pardon and overlook. Do you not love that Allah should forgive you?" The Defense wonders if perhaps the Prosecution may be turning more people from Islam than the Accused.

Suddenly Rushdie declares, "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His last Prophet," and his erstwhile supporters cry foul. The Defense suspects that he has had time in isolation to discover what Paul Tillich called the Truth of Faith — to discover the faith in himself that survived his youthful and present traumas - to discover, as Tillich put it in The Courage to Be, "the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt." Perhaps Rushdie has discovered that, despite the ways in which some have read what he may think to be falsehood into the Prophet's Reading, it can still speak Truth to him. Rather than welcome him back to the conscious experience of faith, the Prosecution continues.

The Defense asks that the Prosecution take to heart the quoted passages at the beginning of this piece. The Defense asks that the Prosecution show some of the Beneficence and Mercy which it claims for Allah.

The Prosecution points out that the Defense is not rightly guided. Merely reading the Qur'an without true belief, and then applying Western logic and legal tradition will not lead to right judgment. The fatwa was spoken by an Imam, one (according to Shi'i Islam) who in his being mediates the Divine Will into the world, enabling the world to continue. The Divine Will is not something for an ordinary man to puzzle out by reading - it is something to be known by those to whom such knowledge is granted. If Allah had granted the Defense to understand what it had read, it would make no defense.

The Defense is caught short by that one. On the other hand, Westerners believe that all people are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," one of which is the right to speak one's mind however one chooses. The Western view that abrogating this right is a heinous crime is at its root religious - the Defense, too, is capable of righteous wrath. The Prosecution is asked to take note.

The Prosecution points out that the Defense does not extend the freedom of expression to obscenity. It was a sign of the Defense's depravity that it published The Satanic Verses, and a second sign that the Defense did not shelve it with the pornography. It is true that the Defense no longer punishes obscenity with death (or blasphemy at all), but then the disorder of Western society shows where such tolerance may lead.

The two cultures are at an impasse. The Accused (who may have foreseen some of this subconsciously - an irreverent poet is executed in his book for defending prostitutes who had taken the names of the dream-prophet's wives) continues to be ground between them.

Saddam Hussein: Family Ties

Different Muslims have different reactions to Saddam Hussein. Iranian POWs who were tortured by Iraqi troops think him a tool of the West. Palestinians think him their last best hope against the West. Egyptians, Saudis, Kuwaitis, and Moroccans fought in an alliance against him. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is divided. And, like Christianity and Judaism, Islam seems to be reluctant to criticize its own. I quote from Ali's translation of The Holy Qur'an, Surah IV ("The Women"), verse 29:

O you who believe, devour not your property among yourselves by illegal methods except that it be by trading by your mutual consent. And kill not your people. Surely Allah is ever merciful to you.

This hardly seems to describe Saddam Hussein's behavior toward those of his own citizenry who happen to be Kurds, toward the Shiite minority in southern Iraq, or toward the Kuwaitis. The truth is that for all his pious protestations that he will "bend the knee only before God," Saddam Hussein seems unwilling to kneel before the God proclaimed in the Qur'an.

After thus flouting the Qur'anic Message, Saddam has had the arrogance to call for a jihad (the "sacred struggle" - the duty of Muslims to strive against evil in themselves and in the world) against the leaders of other Arab states and against the West. That is to say, he has called upon Muslims to pervert their sacred duty to serve his greed for Kuwait's wealth, and his lust for temporal power.

Then Saddam continued by having his troops loot Kuwait to the extent that they removed premature infants from incubators, which they shipped back to Baghdad. Again I quote, this time from Surah 81 ("The Folding Up") verses 8 - 14:

And when the child buried alive is asked for what sin she was killed, and when the books are spread...Every soul will know what it has prepared.

The implication is that Hell awaits the murderers of children. And if more incubators were needed in Baghdad, Saddam could have bought them, instead of so many weapons.[2]

As of this writing, Saddam has caused his troops to pollute the Persian Gulf with oil from a Kuwaiti pipeline, and to pollute the air with smoke from Kuwaiti oil field fires. The Qur'an speaks about environmental devastation during warfare in Surah 27 ("The Ants"). There Solomon pauses to listen to the ants, who fear being crushed by his troops, and presumably spares them. Solomon's concern for Creation, even in time of warfare, indicts Saddam, the spoiler.

And so the cloak of Islam in which Saddam hides himself is wearing thin. Perhaps Muslim voices say as much and we in the West just aren't listening. In any case, Saddam is not what he says he is, and the Qur'an is not what some of its detractors would lead us to believe.

The Mediation is the Message

We Westerners often attempt to grasp Truth by the Torah and the New Testament. Their metaphors pervade our minds, even those of us who are Atheists. Similarly, our brethren in predominantly Islamic countries attempt to grasp Truth by the Qur'an. But of ourselves we cannot grasp Truth — Truth must first grasp us. Since all religions or belief systems attempt to grasp Truth, all religions can benefit from occasional self-criticism, from the prophetic voice in the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. Intolerance of such voices can lead to distortions in religions, and in their critics — Christianity had Nietsche, Islam has Rushdie. (To be fair, Rushdie also criticizes the West, significantly by having it bestialize one of his Westernized non-Western characters until he rehumanizes himself through hate.)

And of course, if we in the West and in the Middle East cannot tolerate criticism from within, we will evade any genuine cross-cultural communication. Which means we will continue to make wars because "we" are "right" and "they" are "wrong." If there is to be peace in the Middle East, it is up to Muslims to mediate their message to the West in terms we can understand, and it is up to the West to mediate its message in terms Muslims can understand. We in the West can prepare ourselves for this dialogue by reading the Qur'an. Then we can begin to ask, What is Islam? Is Islam more like the Battle of the Trench, or is it more like the Truce at al-Hudaibiyah, which the Qur'an hails as The Victory? More like the Ayatollah Khomeini, or more like Anwar Sadat?

A Sufi might say that the answer depends on the heart of the questioner. In any case, practically speaking, peace in the Middle East will be consonant with the religions and aspirations of the people who live there (and those affected by them), or there will be no peace. It will be difficult to achieve, because we have much for which we need to apologize to each other. We must remember, for example, that Saddam Hussein and Salman Rushdie are creatures of both our cultures.


  1. The Holy Qur'an, translated by Maulana Muhammad Ali, published in the US by Specialty Promotions, Chicago, IL, 5th edition, 1963. Ali's modernist and Ahmadi world view occasionally intrudes in his annotation and even the text (he refuses to translate al-Naml as ants) but I find his copious scholarly notes helpful in undertanding the context of the Revelation. In fairness, I note that some other translators object strongly to Ali's work. A perhaps more readable translation is N. J. Dawood, The Koran, revised edition, Penguin Books, New York, 1989.
  2. Reports of this particular transgression appear to have been propaganda aimed at stirring up emotions surrounding these verses.
Who is this idiot to comment on such things? See the Islamic Alcove.

We Westerners know little of Islam and understand less. Below I explore our confusion using images from the admittedly distorted lens of Western media. In order to break through my own confusion I appeal to the Qur'an for help, and in order to persuade my fellow Westerners to take it seriously, I quote translations of it here. If, in my ignorance, I tread on the sensibilities of others, I ask their forbearance. It is my intention to promote peace, rather than to provoke anger.