Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses

Chapter I: The Angel Gibreel

This chapter is preceded by an epigraph from Book I, Chapter VI of Daniel Defoe's The Political History of the Devil as well Ancient as Modern (London: T. Warner, 1726), p. 81. Defoe's location of Satan's abode as the air is of course highly appropriate for this novel in which the demonic falls from the air. But more importantly, the Devil is a wanderer, an image of the rootless immigrant. More details from Martine Dutheil.

The novel opens with the two main characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, falling to earth because the plane they have been flying in has just been blown up by the terrorists who have hijacked it. We are then told a good deal of detail about their backgrounds, their occupations, their love affairs, and how they happened to find themselves together on the plane. Then the story of the hijacking is told, leading up to the moment of explosion which began the novel.

Chapter II: Mahound

Gibreel falls asleep and "dreams" the beginning of the other main plot of the novel, the story of Mahound, more or less closely based on the traditions surrounding Muhammad and the founding of Islam in the seventh century. It is this plot that resulted in the attacks on Rushdie by Muslim critics. We see Mahound surveying the city of Jahilia and are introduced to various significant locales. The period corresponds historically to the early days of Muhammad's preaching in Mecca, where he was not widely accepted, and the Ka'ba was still filled with pagan idols, including those of the three goddesses who are the focus of the "satanic verses." Mahound's preaching has earned the hatred of the ruler of Jahilia, Abu Simbel, whose fortune is derived from worshippers at their temples. Abu Simbel, aware that Baal is his wife Hind's lover, blackmails the poet Baal to satirize the Mahound and his companions.

But then he tries a more effective alternative to render the prophet harmless by offering him toleration if he in turn will acknowledge the three goddesses whose temples he and his wife receive their income from. Mahound horrifies his followers by seeming to be willing to deviate from his message of strict monotheism. He consults with the Angel Gibreel, who has up to this point been dictating holy scripture to him, and becomes convinced that the "satanic verses" quoted at the bottom of p. 114 [top of p. 117], acknowledging the three goddesses, should be proclaimed as inspired, though the narrator hints on p. 112 [114] that they have been inspired not by God, but by the devil.

Mahound's decision produces an orgy of celebration which results in death for some, and he himself wakes up in Hind's bedroom. Mahound realizes the "satanic verses" are indeed satanic, and goes to the Ka'ba to repudiate them. A fierce persecution of Mahound's followers is unleashed, and he has to flee to Yathrib. Gibreel dreams that he is being attacked by the goddesses, for in his dream-role as the archangel/devil he has been responsible both for suggesting the verses and repudiating them.

Chapter III: Ellowen Deeowen

Rosa Diamond, an old woman who spends much of her time dreaming about the past (the Norman Invasion and her own, in Argentina), witnesses Gibreel and Saladin's descent to earth and rescues them; but Saladin is arrested as an illegal immigrant, while Rosa dies. The police strip and humiliate Saladin, who discovers that he is turning into a hairy, goatlike creature. In a bizarre secret hospital where animal/human experiments reminiscent of H. G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau are being carried out he is befriended by a physiotherapist and escapes.

The scene shifts to Saladin's home where his wife Pamela, rather than grieving for him, has started an affair with Jumpy Joshi, and does not welcome the news that he is still alive. The two lovers flee and engage in an orgy of lovemaking until Saladin finds them in his goatlike form.

On the train to London Gibreel is bored by an American fundamentalist with the same name as a "false prophet" in Islamic tradition: Maslama. Various signs convey to Gibreel that he is evolving into an angel. This scene shifts to introduce Alleluia Cone, former lover of Gibreel, speaking to a class of schoolgirls about her career as a mountain-climber. Gibreel, entering London, haunted by the ghost of another lover--Rekha Merchant--runs into her on the street.

Chapter IV: Ayesha

Gibreel's dreams resume with a narrative imitation of a long zoom shot focussing in on the fanatical Imam, in exile in London. This figure is clearly based on the Iranian Muslim fundamentalist leader, the Ayatollah Khomeni. His companions are named after prominent companions of Muhammad, and his enemy in his homeland of Desh is named after Muhammad's favorite wife. Gibreel as angel carries the Imam to the capital city of Desh, as the Islamic Gibreel had carried Muhammad to Jerusalem. They witness a popular revolution in which the evil Ayesha dies. From her dead body springs the spirit of Al-lat, one of the three goddesses of the "satanic verses," but she is defeated by Gibreel. The Imam triumphs and tries to freeze time by destroying all the clocks in the land. Rushdie provides his own commentary on this image in discussing the Iranian revolution: ". . . the revolution sets out quite literally to turn back the clock. Time must be reversed" ("In God We Trust" 383).

A separate plot now begins, involving Mirza Saeed Akhtar, his wife Mishal, and the mystical, mysterious and beautiful Ayesha (a quite different figure from the Ayesha of the Desh plot, but in the long run equally destructive). As Mirza watches the butterfly-clad Ayesha, he longs for her. A long flashback tells of Ayesha's girlhood and introduces us to several characters from the village of Titlipur. Mirza Saeed tries to transmute his lust for the girl into passion for his wife, but it is Mishal who becomes close to Ayesha. This intimacy is a disaster, for the seemingly insane girl claims to have been told by the Angel Gibreel that Mishal has breast cancer. The only cure, she pronounces, is to make a foot-pilgrimage to Mecca. Unfortunately, this involves walking across the Arabian Sea. The skeptical and furious Mirza Saeed cannot stop his wife from going, but decides to accompany them in hopes of somehow saving her.

Chapter V: A City Visible but Unseen

Back in contemporary London, the guilt-ridden Jumpy Joshi takes the goatlike Saladin Chamcha back to his apartment above the Shaandaar Café, dominated by Hind, the wife of Muhammad Sufyan. (The name of the cafe means something like "splendid" or "glorious.") This Hind is not as lascivious as the one in the "satanic verses" plot, but she is almost as fierce. She has two teenaged daughters--Mishal and Anahita--who will become fascinated with the strange man/devil that Saladin has become. We pause in the plot to learn more about the family and its interrelationships. Hind muses on the disgusting weirdness that is London.

A dream provides details of Saladin's escape from the "hospital." He phones his old work partner, Mimi Mamoulian, only to find that he has lost his job. He briefly encounters the name of Billy Battuta, who will figure prominently in the novel later. His old boss, Hal Valance, explains why his television series has been cancelled. He is enraged to learn that Gibreel is alive, and--far from helping him out in any way--is claiming he missed Flight 420 and seems to be engaged into making his "satanic verses" dreams into a movie. Meanwhile his wife has become pregnant by Jumpy. Everything seems to be conspiring against Saladin; and, battered into submission by fate, he loses his supernatural qualities after a visit to the bizarre Hot Wax nightclub. A subplot involves a series of gruesome murders of old women for which the black militant leader Uhuru Simba is arrested.

The next section returns to the story of Allie Cone, detailing her childhood and young adulthood. Her reunion was Gibreel is passionate, but it will be spoiled by his insane jealousy. Again haunted by Rekha Merchant, a deranged Gibreel tries to confront London in his angelic persona, but he is instead knocked down by the car of film producer S. S. Sisodia, who returns him to Allie and signs him up to make a series of films as the archangel of his dreams. Again he tries to leave Allie, but a riot during a public appearance lands him back again, defeated, at Allie's doorstep. At the end of the chapter we learn that a most uncharacteristic heat wave has broken out in London.

Chapter VI: Return to Jahilia: Return to Jahilia

This chapter, the most controversial in the novel, returns us to Jahilia, from which Mahound had fled (historically this corresponds to the Prophet Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina). Mahound is returning to his home city, having gained many followers while he was away. The monstrous Hind, miraculously unaged, continues her reign of terror over the city. The cynical Poet Baal encounters Salman, now disillusioned with Mahound. He says that in Yathrib the prophet has become obsessed with laying down various restrictive laws, some of which parallel parts of the Sharia, traditional Islamic law. This passage has been widely attacked by Muslim scholars as inaccurate and blasphemous, but clearly Rushdie was not attempting a scholarly discourse on Islamic law. It is, however, a satire on restrictive moral codes. He also describes what he takes to be the origins of the religion's restrictions on women.

Salman, noting that the revelations Mahound received were very convenient for the Prophet himself, has begun to test him by altering the revelations given to Mahound when they are dictated. He has realized that Mahound is far from infallible; and, terrified that his changes to the sacred text will be discovered, he has fled to Jahilia. Muslims who see this as a satire on the dictation of the Qur'an find it highly offensive, for the sacred scripture of Muslims is held to be the exact and perfectly preserved word of God in the most literal sense.

The aged Abu Simbel converts to the new faith and surrenders the city of Mahound. At first Hind resists, but after the House the Black Stone is cleansed of pagan idols (as the Ka'ba was similarly cleansed by Muhammad), she submits and embraces the new faith as well. Bilal manages to save Salman from execution; but Baal flees, hiding in a brothel named Hijab. The prostitutes there have blasphemously taken on the names of the Prophet's various wives. No scene in the novel has been more ferociously attacked, though as Rushdie points out it is quite inaccurate to say that the author has made the Prophet's wives into whores. Rather the scene is a commentary on the tendency of the profane to infiltrate the sacred. Nevertheless, the imagery and language of this section has offended readers mightily. Baal becomes a sort of pseudo-Mahound, by making love to each of the prostitutes in turn. Salman visits Baal and tells him a story that implies the real Ayesha may have been unfaithful to Mahound.

The brothel is raided, Baal sings serenades to the imprisoned whores and is himself arrested and condemned to death. Hind, meanwhile, retreats to her study, evidently practicing witchcraft. It is revealed that her "conversion" was a ruse to divert Mahound's attention while she trained herself in the magical powers necessary to defeat him. Ultimately she sends the goddess Al-Lat to destroy the Prophet who, with his dying breath thanks her for killing him.

Chapter VII: The Angel Azraeel

This is by far the most eventful chapter in the novel, and the one in which readers are most likely to get lost. The Saladin/Gibreel plot resumes as the former meditates on his two unrequited loves: for London and for Pamela, both of whom have betrayed him. He calls on his wife, now pregnant by Jumpy Joshi, and says he wants to move back into his home, although he seems to have fallen out of love with her. Back in his room at the Shaandaar Cafe, he watches television and muses on various forms of transformation and hybridism which relate to his own transmutation and fantasizes about the sexy teenaged Mishal Sufyan. The first-person demonic narrator of the novel makes one of his brief appearances at the bottom of p. 408 [top of 423]. The guilty Jumpy coerces Pamela into taking Saladin home. The pair is involved in protests against the arrest of Uhuru Simba for the Granny Ripper Murders. Saladin goes with them to a protest meeting where an encounter with Mishal makes him feel doomed. Jumpy mentions Gibreel to him. After hearing evangelist Eugene Dumsday denounce evolution on the radio, he realizes that his personal evolution is not finished.

A heat wave has hit London. At a bizarre party hosted by film maker S. S. Sisodia, Saladin meets Gibreel again. He starts out to attack him, furious at the latter's having abandoned him back when the police came to Rosa Diamond's house; but enraged by the beautiful Alleluia Cone, he more effectively avenges himself accidentally by blurting out the news of his wife's unfaithfulness, unaware of the effect this will have on Gibreel, who is extremely prone to jealousy. Gibreel insanely assaults Jumpy Joshi, whom he fears is lusting after Allie.

Allie, driven to distraction by Gibreel's jealousy, invites Saladin to stay with her and the sedated Gibreel in Scotland. The two lovers are bound in an intensely sexual but destructive relationship which makes Saladin more than ever determined to take his revenge on Gibreel, whom he takes to the Shaandaar Café, where they encounter drunken racists. On the way back to Allie's flat Saladin plants the seeds of his campaign against Gibreel's sanity by telling him of the jealous Strindberg. He begins to use his talent for imitating many voices to make obscene and threatening phone calls to both Allie and Gibreel, and he succeeds in breaking the couple up.

Gibreel, now driven completely insane, is suffering under the delusion that he is the destroyer angel Azraeel, whose job is to blow the Last Trumpet and end the world. A riot involving both Blacks and Asians breaks out when--after Uhuru Simba dies in police custody--it is made clear that he was not the Granny Ripper. Gibreel is in his element in this apocalyptic uprising. It is not always clear in what follows how much is Gibreel's insanity and how much is fantastic reality: but he experiences himself as capable of blowing streams of fire out of his trumpet to incinerate various people, including a group of pimps whom he associates with the inhabitants of the Jahilian brothel in his dream. On a realistic level, the ensuing fires are probably just the result of the rioting that has broken out around him. Jumpy Joshi and Pamela die when the Brickhall Community Relations Council building is torched either by Saladin, or by the police. When Saladin returns to the Shaandaar Café he finds it ablaze as well, and plunges in to try to rescue the Sufyan family, but instead he is rescued by Gibreel. As an ambulance takes the two men away, Gibreel lapses back into madness and dreams the next chapter.

Chapter VIII: The Parting of the Arabian Sea

It is important to know that the events in this chapter are based on a real occurrence. In 1983 thirty-eight fanatical Shi'ites walked into Hawkes Bay in Karachi (the site of the Rushdie family home in Pakistan). Their leader had persuaded them that a path through the sea would miraculously open, enabling them to walk to the holy city of Kerbala in Iraq (Ruthven 44-45).

The story of the mystical Ayesha from the end of Chapter IV resumes. One disaster after another assails the pilgrims following Ayesha in her march to the sea; but she insists on continuing, as does Mishal, Mirza Saeed's wife, despite his repeated attempts to dissuade her. He tries to persuade Ayesha to accept airplane tickets to complete the pilgrimage to Mecca (which is in fact the most common way for pilgrims to make the hajj today); but she refuses. Her fanaticism makes her more and more ruthless, unmoved even by the deaths of fifteen thousand miners nearby. She behaves like the evil Ayesha of the Desh plot when an Imam announces that an abandoned baby is a "Devil's Child," and allows the congregation of the mosque to stone it to death. Finally, the horrified Mirza Saeed watches as his wife and others walk into the sea and are drowned; though all other witnesses claim that the sea did miraculously open as Ayesha had expected and the group crossed safely. Mirza Saeed returns home and starves himself to death, in his dying moments joining his wife and Ayesha in their pilgrimage to Mecca, though probably only in his mind.

Chapter IX: The Wonderful Lamp

A year and a half later, Saladin flies home to be with his dying father. He has heard that Gibreel is now making films based on the "dreams" which have alternated with the present-day plot throughout the novel. On the plane he reads of various scandals and disasters taking place in India: clearly it is no utopia. Whereas Saladin resents the former maidservant who has married his father and taken on his mother's identity, his lover/friend Zeeny Vakil immediately sympathizes with her. After years of hostility to his father, Saladin finds no support in those surrounding him for his attitude. As he sits by his father's bedside the two are finally reconciled. Saladin has inherited his father's estate and is now rich. Meanwhile a dispute over a film on Indian sectarianism has become the center of a censorship controversy in a way that ominously forshadows the treatment which Rushdie's Satanic Verses was to receive upon publication.

Gibreel has also returned to Bombay, depressed and suicidal. The movie he tries to make is a "satanic" inversion of the traditional tale from the Ramayana, reflecting his disillusionment with love after having been rejected by Allie. Ultimately he goes entirely mad, kills Sisodia and Allie (hurling the latter symbolically from the same skyscraper from which Rekha Merchant had flung herself). Visiting Saladin, he confesses, then draws a revolver from the "magic" lamp Saladin had inherited from his father, and shoots himself. Zeeny Vakil's final words to Saladin, "Let's get the hell out of here," may be ambiguous: they could mean only "Let's leave," but she may also be inviting him to leave the the realm of the Satanic in which he has been living for so long.