The angel Israfil from the Aja’ib al-Makhluqat of al-Qazwini, Mamluk, period. Illustration in the British Museum

[The following is part six of a series on a lecture presented in the Hofstra Great Books Series on December 5, 1993. For part five, click here.].

Concluding Remarks

The most important part of any lecture, assuming one is not completely turned off in the first minute or two, is supposed to come after the words “in conclusion.” In conclusion. This means there must be a need to conclude something. Regarding the Quran as a great book, there is little need to conclude anything. The mere fact that this talk was scheduled and that you came shows that a sacred scripture commanding the attention of so many people on earth warrants consideration. Regarding how Muslims view the greatness of their Great Book, there is too much to conclude, too great a gap in experience, too challenging a call for empathy. Rather than try to tell you what the Quran is in a nutshell, I would simply ask that sometime soon you try reading it or at least a selection of excerpts. A good place to start is the superb translation of select texts by Michael Sells’ Approaching the Quran.

However, having raised the issue of The Satanic Verses in a lecture on the Quran, a final comment does need to be made. If I were to simply tell you that most Muslims approach their sacred book quite differently, as I see it, than others approach their scriptures, you would probably say “alright, so things are different, so they have a right and we have a right, so what?” Even if the statement of faith outlined in the fatiha or the line of reasoning articulated by a brilliant scholar like Ibn al-‘Arabi is instructive, you would probably still walk away tonight basically unchallenged and unchanged.

But listen to the following from The Satanic Verses: At one point Rushdie speaks through a shady character named “Baal” (a name not unfamiliar to Biblical enthusiasts), who proposed that the prostitutes in an underground “Jahilia” whorehouse pretend (for their customers) that they are the wives of the prophet; this at the time Mahound (the prophet) had returned in triumph to the holy city. Upon hearing this, one of the girls says in utter shock to Baal: “God. If they heard you say that they’d boil your balls in butter.” When Baal proceeded to lay out the plan for the madam, she responded: “It is very dangerous, but it could be damn good for business.” While I do not wholly subscribe to the theory that authors tend to write self-fulfilling novels, it seems quite clear to me that “they” did hear and that they are indeed mad enough to “boil his balls in butter.” The Ayyatollah Khomeni, who issued the fatwa for Rushdie’s death, in fact stated that what Rushdie wrote about the Prophet literally made his blood boil (quoted in Appignanesi and Maitland 1990:73). The whole thing has been very dangerous, and there is little doubt but that the controversy has been “damn good for business” in promoting Rushdie’s book.

The question that remains for me is why Rushdie — being brought up as a Muslim, even a backsliding one — did not realize what the reaction of his fellow Muslims would be (Baal was certainly not naive about how Mahound would respond to knowing whores were pretending to be his wives), or why Rushdie realized it but went ahead and did it anyway. To a certain extent Rushdie’s public presentation of his private doubt came at the wrong time — it was a convenient lightning rod at a time when anger against the West — understandable anger at that — needed to go somewhere.

But the key I think is found in the same passage (p. 380), where Rushdie comments: “Where there is no belief, there is no blasphemy.” In an interview ironically broadcast the same day in 1989 as Khomeini’s death warrant, Rushdie added: “Doubt, it seems to me, is the central condition of a human being in the 20th century” (quoted in Appignanesi and Maitland 1990:24). Here I think is the crux of the problem. We can readily identify with Rushdie on doubt as the norm in the secular as well as much of the sacred thinking of our West. We can read The Satanic Verses as an exercise in dealing with that doubt, one that Rushdie as an immigrant author in our backyard vigorously defends as viable even though it may be seen as blatant unbelief by his critics. But the problem is that Rushdie, at least up until a recent interview with David Frost, has never claimed not to have belief. He has simply admitted to doubt.

We must not confuse Rushdie’s doubt as a statement of unbelief simply because the characters in his novel do lose their faith. Were he not Muslim, were he someone who openly despised everything Islam stood for, it might be true that there was no blasphemy. Worse things have been said about Islam by infidels. It is precisely because he was born a Muslim, has never formally renounced his right to define Islam his own way, and steadfastly says to all who will listen “I believe” that many Muslims see Rushdie’s doubt as blasphemy and feel betrayed.

The issue is not what men seek to do to blasphemers in God’s name. No matter what the religion, they usually seek to do the wrong thing. And, I would argue, the issue is not really one of freedom of speech or literary license. Most Muslims do not feel that their own faith is threatened by the publication of The Satanic Verses, nor that non-believers will pick up this novel to learn about Islam. And make no doubt doubt it, many are angry simply because their clerics have told them to be so. If an assassin were, God forbid, to one day end Rushdie’s life, it would not be anyone who has read the disputed book. To me all of this says very little about Islam, because it is a political and social issue not a distinctively religious one.

Earlier I pointed out that a Muslim was not supposed to take a physical copy of the Quran into enemy territory. This was not out of fear that the infidels would not believe, or even that they would doubt. It was simply a logical extension of a view about revelation that differs substantially from Judaism and Christianity as these are defined in the mainstream today. While once upon a time playing with the scriptural revelations of the Torah or Bible would have elicited the same anger, sense of betrayal and even invitation for torture or death, we have come to terms with the need and even the value of doubt in our secular world. Not being a fervent “believer” myself, I would hardly choose otherwise. But I sense that we are also intolerant when it comes to religions which have not been replaced by secularized doubt. We in effect now worship doubt as only natural and perhaps even a way to test and refine religious faith.

Let me put it bluntly, what offends the West about Islam is that Muslims don’t seem to believe in doubt, or perhaps more accurately in making a public display of it. There is still no literary criticism of the Quran from within the Islamic context, no radical theology which concludes God must be dead, no worrisome fretting that one cannot believe in revelation and also be rational, although such thinking would seem inevitable. In a way what is offensive about Islam is that Muslims by and large seem rather comfortable with their religion, are able to adapt it to a wide variety of cultural contexts, and have never given up the belief — despite colonial domination of many Muslims countries by the secular West — that their revelation is in fact “better” than the ones we have long since relegated to the history of ideas.

As Muslims look at their great book, there is room to believe and there is room to not believe, but there is as yet little room for doubt in approaching the Quran. Where there is doubt, as Rushdie certainly has discovered by now, there lurks the no-win spectre of blasphemy.