The Satanic Verses | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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The Satanic Verses | Part 4 : Ayesha | Summary

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Summary

Gibreel's dream takes him to the home of an Imam living in exile in London. On the Imam's wall hangs a portrait of a woman with long black hair, a "powerful woman, his enemy, his other"—the Empress Ayesha of his homeland, Desh. He is constantly surrounded by followers, who live in the same apartment building, and drinks only filtered water, believing its purity "communicates itself to the drinker."

From the apartment buildings, the Imam's followers broadcast messages to Desh over the radio. Today's message is broadcast by an American convert named Bilal X, and as usual it is meant to provoke revolution against the Empress Ayesha. Even more important, the message is one of revolt not only "against a tyrant, but against history," because the Imam believes progress, science, rights, time, and knowledge are all of the devil.

As Bilal X broadcasts, the Imam summons the archangel Gibreel to fly him to Desh. They arrive at the palace of the Empress Ayesha, and witness the people of the city revolting. Suddenly there comes from the palace a high wail and the goddess Al-Lat rises from within it. The Imam commands Gibreel to kill her, and he complies. Gibreel looks away from the dead body of Al-Lat to see the Imam has transformed into a large-mouthed monster. The people walk into his mouth, and he devours them. Then the clocks of the city ring incessantly, marking the end of Time.

In the dream, this story ends and another begins. In the new story, Mirza Saeed Akhtar wakes after a nightmare, and watches his wife Mishal sleeping. He goes out to the veranda and looks at the clouds of color-changing butterflies that are common in the town of Titlipur. Local legend has it that the butterflies are the familiar spirits of a woman named Bibiji—a saint—who lived to be 242 and died 120 years ago. Then he sees a woman on the lawn, eating the colorful butterflies one by one. When she collapses suddenly, he wakes the household, and the girl is taken inside and placed on a bed. Mishal recognizes her as Ayesha, an orphan. Over time, Ayesha comes to be regarded as a saint with whom the angel Gibreel communicates.

After seeing Ayesha and the butterflies, Mirza Saeed's libido increases, and he convinces his wife to go into purdah—to stay in the house and wear clothes that completely cover the body—framing it as an erotic game. Since she wants to conceive a child, Mishal agrees. She also begins spending most of her time with Ayesha, thinking that a friendship with the archangel's favorite might help her conceive. But one day Ayesha tells Mishal of a new message from the archangel: Mishal has breast cancer. The diagnosis is confirmed by a doctor. Ayesha disappears for one week. When she returns, she is clothed all in butterflies. She proclaims the entire village must go on a pilgrimage to Mecca to cure Mishal. "Everything is required of us," she says, using the angel Gibreel's original message to her, "everything will be given." She assures the villagers the Arabian Sea will part so they can cross, and so they prepare to leave.

Analysis

This dream sequence is broken into two separate stories that do not share much in common or seem to follow from one another. In the first story, an extremely conservative Imam—a Muslim religious leader—causes the overthrow of the Empress of Desh. There is an overt criticism of religious fundamentalists (such as the Ayatollah Khomeini) in the Imam's portrayal. He is authoritarian, imposing his will on the archangel Gibreel, whom one would think the Imam should be subservient to. The narrator notes that the Imam subjects Gibreel to "slavery." In addition, the Imam is overly concerned with purity to the point where he takes outrageous pains to keep himself pure. For example, he drinks only filtered water and only goes out surrounded by a ring of followers so he cannot even see the surrounding city. The theme of metamorphosis and rebirth, cast throughout the novel as part of the human experience, is here developed by its opposite: stability.

Both dream sequences are loosely set in modern times, in which Islam is an established religion. They contrast with the Mahound dreams, which retell the ancient origins of Islam. Both involve a woman named Ayesha, although the two characters seem to share little outside of their roles as female leaders with a link to the divine. Both involve the archangel Gibreel, and both show different ways a person can be a fanatical believer, for both Ayesha and the Imam demonstrate utter devotion. Yet the core ideas and symbols of these stories are in stark contrast.

The core idea of the Imam story is stability, refusal to change, and its symbol here is pure water (water takes on other symbolic meanings in other sections). The Imam refuses to be changed by London; he interacts with it as little as possible. He drinks filtered water because of its purity. His goal is to remain the same, to stop all change from happening. He will even go so far as to stop Time. If the opening line of the novel—"To be born again ... first you have to die"—contains a kernel of truth, it is that there can be no renewal without setting aside at least part of the old and accepting something new. Yet change, and its agent, Time, is the very thing the Imam wants to abolish.

The core idea of the second story is change, and its symbol is the butterflies. Butterflies, which undergo dramatic metamorphosis, are literally taken in—eaten—by the orphan Ayesha. Unlike the Imam, who keeps change out of his body and mind at all costs, Ayesha embraces change. She eats metamorphosis, and she herself is changed into a prophetess. She does not tell Gibreel what to do, as the Imam does. Rather, she accepts the angel's messages without question—without the "struggle" of Mahound or the "slavery" of the Imam. And she herself becomes an agent of change, causing an entire village to agree to a hajj that can only be accomplished if the Arabian Sea parts.

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