The Satanic Verses | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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The Satanic Verses | Part 8 : The Parting of the Arabian Sea | Summary

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Summary

Silver-haired Ayesha leads the pilgrims away from Titilpur on foot. They are surrounded by butterflies and followed (in a car) by Mirza Saeed Akhtar, who hopes to persuade them to "change their minds before anything crazy happens." The pilgrims travel through the neighboring village Chatnapatna and then through a drought-stricken area. On the eighteenth day of the march, an elderly woman named Khadija dies after dreaming of the archangel Azraeel. This is the first death, but not the last. Each time, Ayesha orders the remaining pilgrims to move on, leaving the bodies behind. Gradually, Mirza Saeed gains other passengers in his "station wagon of scepticism." He tells them stories, including those of the enchantress Circe and the "Pied Piper of Hamelin." Ayesha calls these stories "the Devil's verses."

The health of Mishal, Mirza Saeed's wife, continues to worsen. Near the town of Sarang, they are confronted by a mob of miners. Later, a mining accident kills thousands of miners. Ayesha claims this is a "judgment upon them." Not long after, they reach a mosque, where a baby has been abandoned. When the Imam of the mosque pronounces the baby the devil's child, Ayesha agrees. The crowd stones the baby, while the Ayesha pilgrims look on. For a time, the pilgrims refuse to continue on. Mirza Saeed, seeing an opening, asks Ayesha how the angel Gibreel speaks to her. She replies that he sings to her to the tunes of popular songs. The villagers are disillusioned, but Ayesha promises them miraculous proof of her legitimacy, and they follow her.

They reach the shore of the Arabian Sea, which Ayesha claims will part so they can walk across. There, the butterflies form the shape of a giant being, then dive into the sea. This sign convinces most of the villagers to follow Ayesha into the water. They calmly walk in and disappear. Some of the doubters who stayed ashore try to save them from drowning, but to no avail. Later, some of them say they saw the sea part. Returning home, the grieving Mirza Saeed pines away and dies. In a vision, he has a vision of walking through the Arabian Sea to Mecca with Ayesha and the pilgrims.

Analysis

Ayesha's pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, is inspired by a real event that occurred in 1983, when a group of nearly forty Shi'ites were led into Hawkes Bay by a leader who promised the waters would part so they could walk safely across the Arabian Sea. It may also be inspired by the story of Moses—recounted in both the Torah and in the Qur'ān—whom God empowered to part the Red Sea so that the Israelites could pass safely across. Moses is the most important prophet in Islam, after Muhammad, and Muslims see many parallels between the life of Moses and the life of Muhammad. In this part of the novel, then, Ayesha is cast as a prophetess in the vein of Moses and Muhammad.

In Islam, the hajj is a pilgrimage to Mecca, and one of the five pillars of Islam. Those who are able are required to make the pilgrimage once in their life. Those for whom the pilgrimage is impossible or extremely burdensome are exempted from this requirement, or can send another person to make the hajj in their place. Walking the entire way to Mecca is not a requirement of a real hajj.

Ayesha's plot line has several things in common with Mahound's, which seems appropriate given the hajj is supposed to imitate Muhammad's journey back to Mecca after firmly establishing Islam from Medina (Yathrib in the novel). Both Mahound and Ayesha are prophets who receive messages from the archangel Gibreel. Both denounce verses they say are from the devil. Both become more authoritarian as they rise in power, establishing greater and greater restrictions on behavior. Both are surrounded by true believers, doubters, people in between, and people who move from belief to doubt or doubt to belief. As such, Ayesha's story engages the theme of belief and unbelief in much the same way as does Mahound's. Even after the drowning at the Arabian Sea, there are those left alive who claim they saw the sea parting, and those who did not.

The detail that Ayesha hears the words of the archangel Gibreel put to the tunes of popular songs hearkens back to the first chapter of the novel. There, Gibreel sings a variety of tunes as he falls from Flight 420 to the sea. Although the dreamer Gibreel is not as active and present in Ayesha's story, compared to the other dreams, this is a reminder that the division between the dreamer and the archangel is blurry.

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