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The Satanic Verses | Context


Religion in India

Though much of The Satanic Verses is set in or near London, England, several sequences take place in India, in or near the city of Bombay (now called Mumbai). Main characters Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha are both native to India, a vast country with a great deal of religious diversity. While India is predominantly Hindu, more than 10 percent of the world's Muslims live there, and in the novel both Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha are of Muslim background.

Historically, India is the birthplace of both Hinduism and Buddhism, two of the world's major religions, as well as a number of smaller religions. Today, Hinduism is still the dominant religion in India overall, with over 800 million adherents. One of the oldest known religions, Hinduism involves the worship of a number of deities, though many Hindus believe these deities are all representations of or aspects of a supreme being. The teaching of reincarnation—that birth and death are not end points of a single life but points on a continuous cycle of incarnations—is an important Hindu teaching.

However, the rise of Islam changed the religious dynamics of India beginning around the 12th century, especially in the northern areas. Islam spread from its roots in Mecca and Medina (cities in modern Saudi Arabia) throughout the world. Today it is the dominant religious faith in many countries, including Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Algeria, and Morocco. In some parts of northern India, Muslims are in the majority, although at the turn of the 21st century they were still less than 15 percent of India's total population.

Islam is one of three major Abrahamic religions, along with Judaism and Christianity. These monotheistic religions trace their roots back to the patriarch Abraham and share many prophets and stories. Islam began in the 7th century, when the prophet Muhammad is believed to have received a revelation from Allah (the Arabic word for God). The revelation, called the Qur'ān, revealed the will of Allah and provided practices by which a believer—a Muslim—could obey Allah's will. Islam's most essential religious practices are known as the Five Pillars of Islam and include the Profession of Faith: "There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet," five daily prayers, giving money to charity, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, a desert valley in Saudi Arabia, known as the hajj.

India's Ties to Britain

India's strong connections with England go back to colonial times, when the British East India Company grew from a trading company into a governmental arm of imperialist England in the 18th century. The East India Company was legally dissolved in 1873. The fact remains, however, that British culture has had a huge impact on the Indian subcontinent, as it has on other nations it colonized, including the United States. The ties between the two nations remain strong and a great deal of travel and immigration between the two has continued. At the time of the 2011 British census, 1.4 million people of Indian ethnic origin were living in England and Wales.


In the novel, Gibreel Farishta is a Bollywood actor. Bollywood, which centers in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is a large part of the Indian film industry. From its origin in the 1930s to the 21st century, Bollywood's extravagant costumes and high-energy dance scenes have been a staple of Indian entertainment. Today, enthusiasm for Bollywood films has spread worldwide, with distribution throughout South Asia, Great Britain, the United States, and other areas.

Bollywood films are characterized by formulaic plot lines, over-the-top drama, and large musical numbers featuring precise choreography to music that incorporates Indian classical with modern popular musical genres. Bollywood actors quickly become celebrities, and they tend to work nonstop on several films at one time. One of the most popular Bollywood actors during the 1970s and into the 1980s was Amitabh Bachchan, whose celebrity status rose to heights never before seen in Bollywood. However, his career declined after an accident on set nearly took his life, despite his amazing recovery. Bachchan became the inspiration for The Satanic Verses' Gibreel Farishta.

Magical Realism

Magical realism, or magic realism, is a literary genre in which supernatural elements are placed in realistic contexts. The magical elements are not perceived as magical in the narrative, as is the case in fantasy. Rather, the characters, and even the narrator, accept them as natural, ordinary events. The effect on the reader is surreal—strange and dreamlike. Some literary scholars theorize that magical realism grew out of the postcolonial reality of different cultures—colonists and native cultures—living side by side.

The colonial expansion of European nations brought European culture into all parts of the world, including the Americas, Africa, and India. European colonization most often resulted in a native population ruled by the colonizing European power. In addition, native populations were often exploited for labor and many were sold into slavery. Although many of these countries won independence (for India, independence from Britain came in August 1947), for the most part European colonists continued to live in their new homes. In the same way, those who were transported from their native countries as slaves, soldiers, or servants often settled where they landed. This gave rise to a postcolonial reality in which very different cultures lived, sometimes uncomfortably, side by side. The contrast between these often very different cultures is echoed by magical realism's calm acceptance of sometimes startling occurrences, such as magical transformation.

This theory seems to apply readily to Rushdie's use of the genre to describe the experience of being an immigrant—a theme present in The Satanic Verses as well as in Rushdie's other works. Immigrants and colonists alike experience cultural practices that are perfectly ordinary to those practicing them but that seem strange and alien to outsiders. For example, visitors to the United States often comment on the brightly colored foods—not every culture adds as much artificial coloring to foods as do Americans. Thus, people either living in their homeland among colonizers or living as immigrants inside their colonial countries are constantly exposed to the fantastical. Therefore, they must accept conflicting or contradictory ideas and ways of living to survive, an experience with deep and lasting psychological consequences as immigrants' senses of self and personal identities are challenged and reshaped. While most postcolonial writers address this sense of alienation in various ways, some, such as Salman Rushdie, mimic this experience for their readers through the use of magical realism.

The "Satanic Verses"

According to Islamic teaching, Muhammad received the text of the Qur'ān word for word, as a recitation from the archangel Gabriel. The process began in 610, when Muhammad was 40 years old, and it took many years to complete the 114 chapters that constitute the text. The story of the satanic verses is not found in the Qur'ān itself, but it exists in Islamic tradition, particularly in the histories of Arabian historian al-Waqidi (A.D. 747–823) and Muslim scholar at-Tabari (A.D. c. 839–923). In this event, later contested as being untrue by Muslim leaders, Muhammad receives verses that allow recognition of and prayers to three pre-Muslim pagan goddesses. Some scholars believe that the verses were a compromise with the surrounding polytheistic culture, but the compromise was later retracted. Since Muhammad is believed to have transcribed the exact angelic words, however, the episode of the satanic verses presents a thorny theological problem. It calls the validity of the Qur'ān into question and is therefore a touchy subject.

To play on this idea of "satanic" verses, Rushdie makes the devil the narrator of the story. He introduces this device in the epigraph, in which he quotes Daniel Defoe's The History of the Devil: "Satan, being thus confined to a vagabond, wandering, unsettled condition, is without any certain abode." This quote refers to the belief that Satan, an angelic being, was cast out of heaven. Being unable to return to his heavenly home, he became a wanderer—and one on whom a great deal of evil is blamed. So the devil becomes the narrative voice of The Satanic Verses—a choice also exhibiting Rushdie's darkly amusing sense of humor. It is a useful choice, as it allows Rushdie to extend the device to comment on the plight of immigrants, who are separated from their true homes, feel at times like unsettled wanderers, and are often demonized by society.

The Controversy

The controversy surrounding the novel hinges on one plot line—Gibreel's dreams of Mahound, who is modeled after Muhammad. Many Muslims found the characterization of Mahound offensive, and the book was banned, burned, and denounced on multiple occasions worldwide. One book burning took place near London, where much of the book is set. Bookstores were bombed. Thousands of Muslims protested the novel in India and Pakistan, and many governments of Muslim countries banned the book.

The situation got even worse in 1989 when the leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa demanding Rushdie's death and offering $1.5 million as a reward. Rushdie found out about the price on his head when a journalist called him. He soon went into hiding, assisted by British government officials. He took an alias, Joseph Anton, and lived and wrote in secret for the early part of the 1990s. Over time, the bounty on Rushdie's head rose to $5 million. Meanwhile, people associated with the book were targeted by those who opposed it. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator, was stabbed and killed. Unsuccessful attacks were attempted on the Italian translator and the Norwegian publisher of the book.

After the Ayatollah Khomeini died, the Iranian government in 1998 declared there would be no effort to enforce the fatwa, although the fatwa still exists. Rushdie wrote about his experience in his 2013 memoir Joseph Anton: A Memoir.

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