Considered to be one of the most controversial novels of all time, “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie certainly pushes the boundaries of religious belief.

 The controversy for Rushdie’s novel was so high that in 1989 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran ordered a Fatwa [a formal ruling on Islamic law. In this case a hit] on Rushdie. Whoever would kill him would be rewarded. Not only is this book controversial, but it is also a very important and well done critique of organized religion. 

I feel that it is more important than ever to read works that challenge topics like organized religion. In August of this year, church burning riots occurred in Pakistan over two Christians allegedly desecrating the Quran making it even more pressing to push boundaries of institutions of power so that people will no longer be afraid of them.

This book is considered very controversial due to the depictions of the Islamic prophet Mohammad, who in the book is called Mahound, which are considered by many Muslims to be blasphemous. The depictions as well as the title of the book itself is a reference to a disputed revelation of Mohammad that was given to him by Satan and accidently was in the Quran for a short time. This revelation allowed the worship of three pre Islamic Meccan goddesses: Allat, Uzza and Manat as well as Allah. Mohammad later says that Satan gave him the revelation and not the angel Gibreel. This depiction is in a dream sequence in the novel.

The plot of the novel focuses on two Indian actors: Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. The two actors plummet towards the English Channel on an airplane that was blown up by terrorists. Miraculously, Farishta is transformed into the Archangel Gibreel and Chamcha is transformed into Satan. Chamcha is taken by immigration officers and Farishta does not help him.

The center of controversy surrounding the book is the dream sequences that take place in the schizophrenic mind of Farishta. These dream sequences question religion, in particular Islam. 

The questioning of religion comes from how religious leaders will often try to remove facts from the lay people in order to push a primitive agenda. One of the dream sequences focuses on a character named the Imam, who wages war against history and is a satirical depiction of Khomeini.

Rushdie wrote, “History is a deviation from the Path, knowledge is a delusion, because the sum of knowledge was complete on the day Al-Lah finished his revelation to Mahound.”

The overtly religious attack on true history, science and morals is blatantly seen for everyone, sadly even in the modern day. Rushdie’s quote captures perfectly just how religious extremists view and go after what society should hold dearly.

The Imam claims to be revealing this from the Archangel Gibreel, who is actively disagreeing with him. Another character from this sequence named Ayesha claims that Gibreel wants her to lead a pilgrimage on foot to Mecca in order to cure someone from cancer. Ayesha claims that the Arabian Sea will part in order for the pilgrims to make their journey. However, the sea does not part and most of the pilgrims die.

The Islamic prophet Ibrahim is also insulted for abandoning his wife Hagar and his son Ismail in the desert. Rushdie points out how pilgrims who go to the Zamzam well, a well that holds miraculous water in Islam, often do so to remember Ibrahim instead of Hagar. Rushdie points out how pilgrims hypocritically don’t go to the Zamzam well for Hagar’s honor, even though she is the one who asked Allah to make the Zamzam water appear, but go for the honor of Ibrahim, who left her in the desert. 

Rushdie wrote, “So Hagar survived; but why now do the pilgrims congregate? To celebrate her survival? No, no. They are celebrating the honour done the valley by the visit of, you’ve guessed it, Ibrahim. In that loving consort’s name, they gather, worship and, above all, spend.”

This passage was very fascinating and probably my favorite in the whole book. Not only does it bring up the sexist views that organized religions often bring up in treating Ibrahim as holy and ignoring Hagar, but also how religious leaders can take advantage of lay people by getting them to spend money on the Zamzam water, which is claimed to be miraculous, on their pilgrimage. 

On Aug. 12, 2022 Rushdie was sadly stabbed in New York. He survived, but lost an eye. The attack reminded me of the Jan. 7, 2015 shooting at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for their depiction of Mohammad in cartoons. No one should be killed or injured over a work of fiction, which is why I commend Rushdie for pushing societal boundaries. Stories like his need to be told and boundaries need to be broken so that we will not live in fear of violent radicals. I can not recommend this book enough, it is fantastic.

Nico Brazill can be contacted at

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