In his novel, Salman Rushdie devotes to the incident of the ‘‘satanic verses’’ – an indisputable historical fact that the Koran evokes, without detour or ambiguity (Verse 52, Sura 22) – the second chapter of the novel entitled Mahound.
By Salman Rushdie
The city of Jahilia is built entirely of sand, its structures formed of the desert whence it rises. It is a sight to wonder at: walled, four-gated, the whole of it a miracle worked by its citizens, who have learned the trick of transforming the fine white dune-sand of those forsaken parts, – the very stuff of inconstancy, – the quintessence of unsettlement, shifting, treachery, lack-of-form, – and have turned it, by alchemy, into the fabric of their newly invented permanence. These people are a mere three or four generations removed from their nomadic past, when they were as rootless as the dunes, or rather rooted in the knowledge that the journeying itself was home.
– Whereas the migrant can do without the journey altogether; it’s no more than a necessary evil; the point is to arrive. –
Quite recently, then, and like the shrewd businessmen they were, the Jahilians settled down at the intersection-point of the routes of the great caravans, and yoked the dunes to their will. Now the sand serves the mighty urban merchants. Beaten into cobbles, it paves Jahilia’s tortuous streets; by night, golden flames blaze out from braziers of burnished sand. There is glass in the windows, in the long, slitlike windows set in the infinitely high sand-walls of the merchant palaces; in the alleys of Jahilia, donkey-carts roll forward on smooth silicon wheels. I, in my wickedness, sometimes imagine the coming of a great wave, a high wall of foaming water roaring across the desert, a liquid catastrophe full of snapping boats and drowning arms, a tidal wave that would reduce these vain sandcastles to the nothingness, to the grains from which they came. But there are no waves here. Water is the enemy in Jahilia. Carried in earthen pots, it must never be spilled (the penal code deals fiercely with offenders), for where it drops the city erodes alarmingly. Holes appear in roads, houses tilt and sway. The water-carriers of Jahilia are loathed necessities, pariahs who cannot be ignored and therefore can never be forgiven. It never rains in Jahilia; there are no fountains in the silicon gardens. A few palms stand in enclosed courtyards, their roots travelling far and wide below the earth in search of moisture. The city’s water comes from underground streams and springs, one such being the fabled Zamzam, at the heart of the concentric sand-city, next to the House of the Black Stone. Here, at Zamzam, is a beheshti, a despised water-carrier, drawing up the vital, dangerous fluid. He has a name: Khalid.
A city of businessmen, Jahilia. The name of the tribe is Shark.
In this city, the businessman-tumed-prophet, Mahound, is founding one of the world’s great religions; and has arrived, on this day, his birthday, at the crisis of his life. There is a voice whispering in his ear: What kind of idea are you? Man-or-mouse?
We know that voice. We’ve heard it once before.
The fortunes of the city of Jahilia were built on the supremacy of sand over water. In the old days it had been thought safer to transport goods across the desert than over the seas, where monsoons could strike at any time. In those days before meteorology such matters were impossible to predict. For this reason the caravanserais prospered. The produce of the world came up from Zafar to Shcba, and thence to Jahilia and the oasis of Yathrib and on to Midian where Moses lived; thence to Aqabah and Egypt. From Jahilia other trails began: to the east and north-east, towards Mesopotamia and the great Persian empire. To Petra and to Palmyra, where once Solomon loved the Queen of Sheba. Those were fatted days. But now the fleets plying the waters around the peninsula have grown hardier, their crews more skilful, their navigational instruments more accurate. The camel trains are losing business to the boats. Desert-ship and sea-ship, the old rivalry, sees a tilt in the balance of power. Jahilia’s rulers fret, but there is little they can do. Sometimes Abu Simbel suspects that only the pilgrimage stands between the city and its ruin. The council searches the world for statues of alien gods, to attract new pilgrims to the city of sand; but in this, too, they have competitors. Down in Sheba a great temple has been built, a shrine to rival the House of the Black Stone. Many pilgrims have been tempted south, and the numbers at the Jahilia fairgrounds are falling.
At the recommendation of Abu Simbel, the rulers of Jahilia have added to their religious practices the tempting spices of profanity. The city has become famous for its licentiousness, as a gambling den, a whorehouse, a place of bawdy songs and wild, loud music. On one occasion some members of the tribe of Shark went too far in their greed for pilgrim money. The gatekeepers at the House began demanding bribes from weary voyagers; four of them, piqued at receiving no more than a pittance, pushed two travellers to their deaths down the great, steep flight of stairs. This practice backfired, discouraging return visits . . . Today, female pilgrims are often kidnapped for ransom, or sold into concubinage. Gangs of young Sharks patrol the city, keeping their own kind of law. It is said that Abu Simbel meets secretly with the gangleaders and organizes them all. This is the world into which Mahound has brought his message: one one one. Amid such multiplicity, it sounds like a dangerous word.
The Grandee sits up and at once concubines approach to resume their oilings and smoothings. He waves them away, claps his hands. The eunuch enters. ‘Send a messenger to the house of the kahin Mahound,’ Abu Simbel commands. We will set him a little test. A fair contest: three against one.
Bilal and Salman, forgetting Baal, follow Khalid. All three are nervous, young. He’s still not home, Hamza reports. And Khalid, worried: But it’s been hours, what is that bastard doing to him, torture, thumb-screws, whips? Salman, once again, is the calmest: That isn’t Simbel’s style, he says, it’s something sneaky, depend upon it. And Bilal bellows loyally: Sneaky or not, I have faith in him, in the Prophet. He won’t break. Hamza offers only a gentle rebuke: Oh, Bilal, how many times must he tell you? Keep your faith for God. The Messenger is only a man. The tension bursts out of Khalid: he squares up to old Hamza, demands, Are you saying that the Messenger is weak? You may be his uncle . . . Hamza clouts the water-carrier on the side of the head. Don’t let him see your fear, he says, not even when you’re scared half to death.
The four of them are washing once more when Mahound arrives; they cluster around him, whowhatwhy. Hamza stands back. ‘Nephew, this is no damn good,’ he snaps in his soldier’s bark. ‘When you come down from Coney there’s a brightness on you. Today it’s something dark.’
Mahound sits on the edge of the well and grins. ‘I’ve been offered a deal.’ By Abu Simbel? Khalid shouts. Unthinkable. Refuse. Faithful Bilal admonishes him: Do not lecture the Messenger. Of course, he has refused. Salman the Persian asks: What sort of deal. Mahound smiles again. ‘At least one of you wants to know.’
‘It’s a small matter,’ he begins again. ‘A grain of sand. Abu Simbel asks Allah to grant him one little favour.’ Hamza sees the exhaustion in him. As if he had been wrestling with a demon. The water-carrier is shouting: ‘Nothing! Not a jot!’ Hamza shuts him up.
‘If our great God could find it in his heart to concede – he used that word, concede – that three, only three of the three hundred and sixty idols in the house are worthy of worship . . .’
‘There is no god but God!’ Bilal shouts. And his fellows join in: ‘Ya Allah!’ Mahound looks angry. ‘Will the faithful hear the Messenger?’ They fall silent, scuffing their feet in the dust.
‘He asks for Allah’s approval of Lat, Uzza and Manat. In return, he gives his guarantee that we will be tolerated, even officially recognized; as a mark of which, I am to be elected to the council of Jahilia. That’s the offer.’
Salman the Persian says: ‘It’s a trap. If you go up Coney and come down with such a Message, he’ll ask, how could you make Gibreel provide just the right revelation? He’ll be able to call you a charlatan, a fake.’ Mahound shakes his head. ‘You know, Salman, that I have learned how to listen. This listening is not of the ordinary kind; it’s also a kind of asking. Often, when Gibreel comes, it’s as if he knows what’s in my heart. It feels to me, most times, as if he comes from within my heart: from within my deepest places, from my soul.’
‘Or it’s a different trap,’ Salman persists. ‘How long have we been reciting the creed you brought us? There is no god but God. What are we if we abandon it now? This weakens us, renders us absurd. We cease to be dangerous. Nobody will ever take us seriously again.’
Mahound laughs, genuinely amused. ‘Maybe you haven’t been here long enough,’ he says kindly. ‘Haven’t you noticed? The people do not take us seriously. Never more than fifty in the audience when I speak, and half of those are tourists. Don’t you read the lampoons that Baal pins up all over town?’ He recites:
Messenger, do please lend a
careful ear. Your monophilia,
your one one one, ain’t for Jahilia.
Return to sender.
‘They mock us everywhere, and you call us dangerous,’ he cried.
Now Hamza looks worried. ‘You never worried about their opinions before. Why now? Why after speaking to Simbel?’
Mahound shakes his head. ‘Sometimes I think I must make it easier for the people to believe.’
An uneasy silence covers the disciples; they exchange looks, shift their weight. Mahound cries out again. ‘You all know what has been happening. Our failure to win converts. The people will not give up their gods. They will not, not.’ He stands up, strides away from them, washes by himself on the far side of the Zamzam well, kneels to pray.
‘The people are sunk in darkness,’ says Bilal, unhappily. ‘But they will see. They will hear. God is one.’ Misery infects the four of them; even Hamza is brought low. Mahound has been shaken, and his followers quake.
He stands, bows, sighs, comes round to rejoin them. ‘Listen to me, all of you,’ he says, putting one arm around Bilal’s shoulders, the other around his uncle’s. ‘Listen: it is an interesting offer.’
Unembraced Khalid interrupts bitterly: ‘It is a tempting deal.’ The others look horrified. Hamza speaks very gently to the water-carrier. ‘Wasn’t it you, Khalid, who wanted to fight me just now because you wrongly assumed that, when I called the Messenger a man, I was really calling him a weakling? Now what? Is it my turn to challenge you to a fight?’
Mahound begs for peace. ‘If we quarrel, there’s no hope.’ He tries to raise the discussion to the theological level. ‘It is not suggested that Allah accept the three as his equals. Not even Lat. Only that they be given some sort of intermediary, lesser status.’
‘Like devils,’ Bilal bursts out.
‘No,’ Salman the Persian gets the point. ‘Like archangels. The Grandee’s a clever man.’ ‘Angels and devils,’ Mahound says. ‘Shaitan and Gibreel. We all, already, accept their existence, halfway between God and man. Abu Simbel asks that we admit just three more to this great company. Just three, and, he indicates, all Jahilia’s souls will be ours.’
‘And the House will be cleansed of statues?’ Salman asks. Mahound replies that this was not specified. Salman shakes his head. ‘This is being done to destroy you.’ And Bilal adds: ‘God cannot be four.’ And Khalid, close to tears: ‘Messenger, what are you saying? Lat, Manat, Uzza – they’re all females! For pity’s sake! Are we to have goddesses now? Those old cranes, herons, hags?’
Misery strain fatigue, etched deeply into the Prophet’s face. Which Hamza, like a soldier on a battlefield comforting a wounded friend, cups between his hands. ‘We can’t sort this out for you, nephew,’ he says. ‘Climb the mountain. Go ask Gibreel.’
In Jahilia they are waiting for Mahound by the well. Khalid the water-carrier, as ever the most impatient, runs off to the city gate to keep a look-out. Hamza, like all old soldiers accustomed to keeping his own company, squats down in the dust and plays a game with pebbles. There is no sense of urgency; sometimes he is away for days, even weeks. And today the city is all but deserted; everybody has gone to the great tents at the fairground to hear the poets compete. In the silence, there is only the noise of Hamza’s pebbles, and the gurgles of a pair of rock-doves, visitors from Mount Cone. Then they hear the running feet.
Khalid arrives, out of breath, looking unhappy. The Messenger has returned, but he isn’t coming to Zamzam. Now they are all on their feet, perplexed by this departure from established practice. Those who have been waiting with palm-fronds and steles ask Hamza: Then there will be no Message? But Khalid, still catching his breath, shakes his head. ‘I think there will be. He looks the way he does when the Word has been given. But he didn’t speak to me and walked towards the fairground instead.’
Hamza takes command, forestalling discussion, and leads the way. The disciples – about twenty have gathered – follow him to the fleshpots of the city, wearing expressions of pious disgust. Hamza alone seems to be looking forward to the fair.
Outside the tents of the Owners of the Dappled Camels they find Mahound, standing with his eyes closed, steeling himself to the task. They ask anxious questions; he doesn’t answer. After a few moments, he enters the poetry tent.
Inside the tent, the audience reacts to the arrival of the unpopular Prophet and his wretched followers with derision. But as Mahound walks forward, his eyes firmly closed, the boos and catcalls die away and a silence falls. Mahound does not open his eyes for an instant, but his steps are sure, and he reaches the stage without stumblings or collisions. He climbs the few steps up into the light; still his eyes stay shut. The assembled lyric poets, composers of assassination eulogies, narrative versifiers and satirists – Baal is here, of course – gaze with amusement, but also with a little unease, at the sleepwalking Mahound. In the crowd his disciples jostle for room. The scribes fight to be near him, to take down whatever he might say.
The Grandee Abu Simbel rests against bolsters on a silken carpet positioned beside the stage. With him, resplendent in golden Egyptian neckwear, is his wife Hind, that famous Grecian profile with the black hair that is as long as her body. Abu Simbel rises and calls to Mahound, ‘Welcome.’ He is all urbanity. ‘Welcome, Mahound, the seer, the kahin.’ It’s a public declaration of respect, and it impresses the assembled crowd. The Prophet’s disciples are no longer shoved aside, but allowed to pass. Bewildered, half-pleased, they come to the front. Mahound speaks without opening his eyes.
‘This is a gathering of many poets,’ he says clearly, ‘and I cannot claim to be one of them. But I am the Messenger, and I bring verses from a greater One than any here assembled.’
The audience is losing patience. Religion is for the temple; Jahilians and pilgrims alike are here for entertainment. Silence the fellow! Throw him out! – But Abu Simbel speaks again. ‘If your God has really spoken to you,’ he says, ‘then all the world must hear it.’ And in an instant the silence in the great tent is complete.
‘The Star,’ Mahound cries out, and the scribes begin to write.
‘In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful!
‘By the Pleiades when they set: Your companion is not in error; neither is he deviating. ‘Nor does he speak from his own desires. It is a revelation that has been revealed: one mighty in power has taught him.
‘He stood on the high horizon: the lord of strength. Then he came close, closer than the length of two bows, and revealed to his servant that which is revealed.
‘The servant’s heart was true when seeing what he saw. Do you, then, dare to question what was seen?
‘I saw him also at the lote-tree of the uttermost end, near which lies the Garden of Repose. When that tree was covered by its covering, my eye was not averted, neither did my gaze wander; and I saw some of the greatest signs of the Lord.’
At this point, without any trace of hesitation or doubt, he recites two further verses.
‘Have you thought upon Lat and Uzza, and Manat, the third, the other?’ – After the first verse. Hind gets to her feet; the Grandee of Jahilia is already standing very straight. And Mahound, with silenced eyes, recites: ‘They are the exalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed.’
As the noise – shouts, cheers, scandal, cries of devotion to the goddess Al-Lat – swells and bursts within the marquee, the already astonished congregation beholds the doubly sensational spectacle of the Grandee Abu Simbel placing his thumbs upon the lobes of his ears, fanning out the fingers of both hands and uttering in a loud voice the formula: ‘Allahu Akbar.’ After which he falls to his knees and presses a deliberate forehead to the ground. His wife. Hind, immediately follows his lead.
The water-carrier Khalid has remained by the open tent-flap throughout these events. Now he stares in horror as everyone gathered there, both the crowd in the tent and the overflow of men and women outside it, begins to kneel, row by row, the movement rippling outwards from Hind and the Grandee as though they were pebbles thrown into a lake; until the entire gathering, outside the tent as well as in, kneels bottom-in-air before the shuteye Prophet who has recognized the patron deities of the town. The Messenger himself remains standing, as if loth to join the assembly in its devotions. Bursting into tears, the water-carrier flees into the empty heart of the city of the sands. His teardrops, as he runs, burn holes in the earth, as if they contain some harsh corrosive acid.
Mahound remains motionless. No trace of moisture can be detected on the lashes of his unopened eyes.
At the end of his wrestling match with the Archangel Gibreel, the Prophet Mahound falls into his customary, exhausted, post-revelatory sleep, but on this occasion he revives more quickly than usual. When he comes to his senses in that high wilderness there is nobody to be seen, no winged creatures crouch on rocks, and he jumps to his feet, filled with the urgency of his news. ‘It was the Devil,’ he says aloud to the empty air, making it true by giving it voice. ‘The last time, it was Shaitan.’ This is what he has heard in his listening, that he has been tricked, that the Devil came to him in the guise of the archangel, so that the verses he memorized, the ones he recited in the poetry tent, were not the real thing but its diabolic opposite, not godly, but satanic. He returns to the city as quickly as he can, to expunge the foul verses that reek of brimstone and sulphur, to strike them from the record for ever and ever, so that they will survive in just one or two unreliable collections of old traditions and orthodox interpreters will try and unwrite their story, but Gibreel, hovering-watching from his highest camera angle, knows one small detail, just one tiny thing that’s a bit of a problem here, namely that it was me both times, baba, me first and second also me. From my mouth, both the statement and the repudiation, verses and converses, universes and reverses, the whole thing, and we all know how my mouth got worked.
‘First it was the Devil,’ Mahound mutters as he rushes to Jahilia. ‘But this time, the angel, no question. He wrestled me to the ground.’
Mahound, against his followers’ advice, returns to Jahilia, going straight to the House of the Black Stone. The disciples follow him in spite of their fear. A crowd gathers in the hope of further scandal or dismemberment or some such entertainment. Mahound does not disappoint them.
He stands in front of the statues of the Three and announces the abrogation of the verses which Shaitan whispered in his ear. These verses are banished from the true recitation, al-qur’an. New verses are thundered in their place.
‘Shall He have daughters and you sons?’ Mahound recites. ‘That would be a fine division!
‘These are but names you have dreamed of, you and your fathers. Allah vests no authority in them.’
Mahound, against his followers’ advice, returns to Jahilia, going straight to the House of the Black Stone. The disciples follow him in spite of their fear. A crowd gathers in the hope of further scandal or dismemberment or some such entertainment. Mahound does not disappoint them. He stands in front of the statues of the Three and announces the abrogation of the verses which Shaitan whispered in his ear. These verses are banished from the true recitation, al-qur’an. New verses are thundered in their place. ‘Shall He have daughters and you sons?’ Mahound recites. ‘That would be a fine division! ‘These are but names you have dreamed of, you and your fathers. Allah vests no authority in them.’
© Viking Press, 1988