Study Guide

The Satanic Verses

by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses Themes

Social Concerns / Themes

The Satanic Verses has a convoluted plot, or perhaps it is better to describe the novel as having a complex main framing plot which allows Rushdie to include a number of subplots or embedded stories. The main plot concerns the coming together and falling apart of Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. Both of them are Indian actors, but whereas Gibreel has become a superstar in his country by playing the role of gods in "theologicals," or films based on religious subjects, Saladin has had less spectacular success in England by lending his voice to television commercials and a situation comedy called The Aliens Show. The two men meet under extraordinary circumstances: they are on an Air-India jumbo jet which is taken over and then blown apart by Canadian Sikh terrorists. Their fates are conjoined as they miraculously survive the crash and fall down on an English beach. But if they manage to escape death, both Saladin and Gibreel undergo a weird transformation as they descend: Gibreel has a halo around his head and fancies himself an angel who will blow the trumpet of doom while Saladin is metamorphosed into a goat, complete with horns, legs, and hoofs. In his altered state, Gibreel spends most of his time having visions and exhibiting the symptoms of a paranoid schizophrenic. Saladin, however, is captured by police on the lookout for illegal immigrants, despite the years he has spent in England and his attempt to become an Englishman. Since at the moment of his arrest, Gibreel refuses to identify him, Saladin finds himself with twin goals: to regain his human identity and to take revenge on Gibreel for failing to stand by him. Soon Saladin finds himself in Brickhall, an Asian ghetto in London, where he becomes something of a cause celebre. Ultimately, Saladin does manage to destroy Gibreel through devilish cunning. Paradoxically, however, Saladin is not condemned for his part in the death of Gibreel. In fact, at the end of the novel Saladin positively grows in humanity as he rediscovers the power of love when he visits India to be at the bedside of his dying father.

The subplots of The Satanic Verses have to do with the visions Gibreel has after his fall. In a few of these dreams, cast in the "epic" style of Indian "theologicals," he revisions the founding days of a religion that is unmistakably Islam. Gibreel dreams thus of the episode of The Satanic Verses, a controversial event in the early history of Islam, when according to some disputed sources, the prophet Muhammad (here renamed Mahound), is misled for a while by the devil into compromising with the polytheists of Mecca (here Jahilia) but recovers in time to reassert the oneness of God and reject the temptations of Satan.

In another of these episodes, the scribe Salman and the poet-satirist Baal reveal the disillusion of some after Mahound has set himself up as a lawgiver. Salman, for instance, retells the story about his attempt to corrupt the sacred words dictated to him by Mahound as the messenger of God. Two other of Gibreel's dreams that constitute the subplots of the novel are also "theological" in nature, but are taken from recent history. One of them is the portrait of an obsessive religious leader in exile, strikingly similar to the Ayatollah Khomeni in London awaiting the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The other religious tale based on a recent event is the haunting story of a visionary butterfly-eating girl called Ayesha who, Pied-Piper-like, leads almost everyone in an Indian village to the Arabian Sea, which she is convinced will part and take them to Mecca, the holiest city of Islam.

...

(The entire section is 1476 words.)

The Satanic Verses Themes

Good and Evil

The Satanic Verses touches on a great variety of political, cultural, abstract, and theoretical themes. Many of its most central ideas relate to philosophical and religious notions of good and evil. The narrator tends to view the plot as an epic battle between Gibreel, the angel of good, and Saladin, the devil of evil. Rushdie reinforces this framework by giving these characters their supernatural qualities.

Good and evil in the epic battle between Gibreel and Saladin often refer to two main areas: national/ethnic identity and religious faith. Gibreel’s status as an angel is closely related to his crisis of faith, and his transformation begins shortly after he develops the conviction that God does not exist. Meanwhile, Saladin’s metamorphosis into the devil is inextricable from his quest to assimilate entirely into British culture and his association with oppressed Asian and African immigrants in England. Like the other magically deformed creatures who escape from the hospital, Saladin assumes his devilish shape because English racism has transformed him with its “power of description.” Why exactly Gibreel embodies good, while Saladin embodies evil, is never made entirely or explicitly clear, and as the reader rapidly becomes aware, notions of good and evil are hopelessly jumbled by the end of the first chapter.

Countless other situations also take the form of a fight, or confrontation, between good and evil ideas, labeled as such for a variety of reasons including religious faith, political persuasions, racial identities, and positions of power. In Gibreel’s dream world (where prophets battle non-believers, pagans and poets), in the volatile political context of 1980s London (where immigrants are demonized, oppressed, and harassed), and in the lives of the many supporting characters (in which, for example, lovers such as Allie and Pamela are variously idealized and degraded), there is often an interplay and battle between notions of good and evil, or of the demonic and the angelic. In all of these situations, the novel strongly...

(The entire section is 863 words.)