The novel’s odd-numbered sections narrate the adventures of two popular Anglo-Indian actors, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, who (having survived the terrorist bombing of their airplane) attempt to resume normal life in modern London. The even- numbered sections concern an imaginary story about the Prophet Muhammad in the fictitious holy city of Jahilia and the apparently doomed mission of the prophetess Ayesha to lead Muslim Indian villagers on a pilgrimage to Mecca. The novel’s climax reveals a miraculous parting of the waters of the Arabian Sea and the subsequent apparent drowning of the pilgrims. However, it is possible that the entire sequence is part of a fantasy in one of the popular religious films (“theologicals”) that had made Gibreel an Indian film star.
It is possible that a few particularly vivid episodes in the novel inspired the fatwa against Rushdie. In the section titled “Mahound” (a profoundly offensive derisive name given to Muhammad in medieval English mystery plays), the devil—in the guise of the archangel Gibreel (or Gabriel), gives Muhammad the so-called “Satanic verses” in the Koran. (In anti- Islamic traditions, Muhammad inserted a contradictory passage in the Koran attesting the divinity of three local goddesses in order to secure a community’s conversion to Islam.) In another section, “Return to Jahilia,” the religious doubts of the scribe named Salman about Mahound and his wives leads the scribe to alter portions of the sacred text of the Koran. Perhaps equally offensive to Muslim readers, whores at a brothel called the Curtain each assume the identity of one of Muhammad’s wives, allowing their customers to act out blasphemous sexual fantasies. In the penultimate section of the novel, “The Parting of the Arabian Sea,” the pilgrims going to Mecca suffer from internal dissension and the hostility of a Hindu mob. When they wade in the waters and apparently drown, others claim to have seen the waters part miraculously.