The Satanic Verses Analysis

  • The Satanic Verses jumps around in time and space, following the lives of its heroes, Gibreel and Saladin, while pursuing various subplots and dream sequences. Gibreel's religious visions are given considerable space in the novel and comprise some of the most interesting and controversial passages, including one in which the prophet Mahound is killed by a devil called Al-Lat.
  • Salman Rushdie's depiction of the prophet Muhammad has often been called blasphemous and has resulted in a great deal of controversy. In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. This fatwa was later lifted by the new Iranian government in 1998, ten years after the novel's publication.
  • Rushdie utilizes religious iconography in his descriptions of his characters. Gibreel's halo is a subverted symbol that would otherwise represent holiness but here seems ironic and misplaced. Saladin is given the cloven hooves and goat-like features of a devil. Rushdie also alludes to the story of Moses parting the Red Sea when the character Ayesha convinces her fellow villagers that the Arabian Sea will part for them. 


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

While The Satanic Verses received only the customary mix of enthusiastic and tepid reviews after its British publication in 1988, the American issue in early 1989 created an international cause celebre. Some rumbles, it is true, had been heard earlier, when the book was banned in various Islamic countries, but in February of 1989 Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini of Iran sentenced Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy and urged faithful Muslims to execute him. This announcement and its aftermath dominated news accounts the world over. Thus a novel, which few had read, and its author, whose name not many would have recognized earlier, set astir a controversy often more characterized by political and religious implications than literary ones. Muslims at home and abroad staged demonstrations that too often turned into riots and brought about deaths. Copies of the book were burned, American and British publishers and bookstores intimidated, diplomatic relations shaken. Rushdie went into hiding. Major world writers and others, appalled by such a threat, staged readings of the novel, wrote endless articles, and formed counterdemonstrations. All the while demand for The Satanic Verses soared.

Although public interest in the affair gradually diminished, the eventual fate of the book—and its author—may not be settled for some time to come. The yet-to-be-commuted sentence of death will certainly continue to haunt Rushdie, who was at the height of his literary career when The Satanic Verses appeared. Moreover, such furor cannot but obfuscate critical judgment on the book’s artistic qualities, for will it be possible ever to divorce the fiction from the reality that now colors it? As well, the non-Islamic reader should remain sensitive to how the novelistic handling of the Prophet and the Koran must have affected devout Muslims when they read the book—or even those who merely heard about the offending passages, or perhaps read them out of context. Schooled in freedom of expression and benumbed by literary Christ figures along with irreverent allusions to Christian theology, those outside Islamic belief find it difficult to comprehend so much power being invested in the word.

These extrinsic considerations notwithstanding, The Satanic Verses, when viewed as it was intended, as a work of fiction, is an impressive achievement: complex in its plot and original in its characterization, fantastic in the telling, rich in texture and style, and essentially religious in its treatment of spiritual desolation. Rushdie’s novel was chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Best Books of 1989. Critics have observed correctly that The Satanic Verses is not easy to read, and would never on its own have gained popular success. This is not to say that the work’s intricate design and elaborate execution of that plan fail, but it does demand much from the reader.

Conceived in absurdity, the action gets under way when the two major characters, Gibreel and Saladin, fall from an exploding airplane that had been hijacked earlier. After cavorting through the heavens, they land in a remote part of England. Once safe on the ground, Gibreel, a noted screen star from Bombay, discovers that a halo has formed above his head. At this point, he starts to assume an air of holiness and to think of himself as a latter- day archangel Gabriel, charged to save humankind from its sinful folly. In contrast, his companion Saladin gradually turns into a hairy, hoofed, and horned monster. An Indian immigrant long resident in England, Saladin specializes in behind-the-scenes narration for London broadcasting studios. Neither a man with his own identity—one an actor who had made his name playing Hindu holy figures, the other an unseen imitator of foreign voices—the two survivors engage in a series of adventures, some on a seemingly realistic level, others merging into fantasy and dream states. Their past lives also unfold, including their mutual experience aboard the hijacked jet. At times their paths intersect as they move back and forth between India and England. Throughout they encounter a wide spectrum of characters—Britons, Indians, immigrants in London—who represent all conditions of modern men and women, even while they emerge as clearly defined characters in their own right.

Within this intricately constructed tale of contemporary life, Gibreel dreams stories set in ancient times, some of which seem to suggest aspects of Islamic theology and history. It is these passages that, justifiably or not, many Muslim readers consider...

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Even-numbered (early seventh century) chapters

(Great Characters in Literature)

Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel (ah-BEW SIHM-behl), the leader of the seventh century Jahilia (pre-Islamic Arabia), who appears to Farishta in a dream in which Abu attempts to bargain with Mahound, offering to accept the new monotheism if Mahound will grant divine status to three local goddesses.


Mahound (mah-HEWND), a pejorative Christian variation of Mohammad, who appears in Farishta’s dream in which Farishta, disguised as an angel, counsels him to accept Abu Simbel’s offer. Mahound finally concludes, however, that the concession is the work of the satanic Shaitan and the revelatory verses are satanic in origin. Mahound completes his conquest of Jahilia, ordering the closing of the brothel and the execution of its prostitutes.


Ayesha (i-EE-shah), a young woman who leads a group of pilgrims to the sea and finally to Mecca. An angel had told her that the sea would part. When it failed to do so, several of the pilgrims drowned.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Bostan. Fictional Air India flight from Bombay to London that is blown up by Sikh terrorists over the English coastline. This airplane, named after one of the Islamic gardens of paradise, is the novel’s opening setting, acting as a metaphor for the migrants’ movement between cultures. With the onset of the hijacking, the flight gradually loses its empirical reality, launching Gibreel and Chamcha into a world of illusion. The journey initiates their metamorphoses into their angelic and demoniac incarnations, which solidify in the home of Rosa Diamond, an octogenarian Englishwoman who repeatedly sees the specters of Norman invaders from nine hundred years earlier. These two locations mark the main characters’ entry into England in their metamorphosed states as desirable and undesirable immigrants.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city has two distinct faces in the novel. Superficially, it is the capital of British culture and civilization, the dream destination of immigrants from former colonies. As an educated, financially secure immigrant, Chamcha sees London as prosperous and accommodating, a place where he is accepted as a proper Englishman with an English wife, a successful career in television, and a mansion in Notting Hill. This rosy veneer, however, belies the city’s dark underside, characterized by racial discrimination and police brutality.

When Chamcha lands in England following the plane explosion, penniless and unable to prove his British citizenship, he finds the nation transformed into a horrible fantasy, “some counterfeit zone, rotten borough, altered state.” In this negative aspect of London, immigrants are literally transformed into animals and demons, tortured by officials, incarcerated, and forced to flee at night into a hellish underworld. The immigrant community, centered in the racially diverse neighborhood called Brickhall, modeled on the real London suburb of Brixton, lives with fear, intimidation, and poverty. The Shandaar Café in Brickhall, where Chamcha is concealed after his metamorphosis into a devil, symbolizes both the vitality of the immigrant community and its exploitation by outsiders and by its own members. In the Brickhall disco Club Hot Wax, immigrants vent their frustration against their oppressors by melting wax effigies of English politicians, especially Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

While Gibreel does not experience the immigrant’s nightmare version of London, his perception of the city mirrors his disintegrating sense of...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Britain in the 1980s

Rushdie was living in London when he wrote The Satanic Verses, and 1980s London is also...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Magic Realism

The literary device of “magic realism,” or the use of supernatural elements within an otherwise...

(The entire section is 359 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As in Midnight's Children (1981) and Shame (1983), Rushdie resorts to a variety of narrative techniques to present his story....

(The entire section is 211 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1980s: Margaret Thatcher, known for her inflexible, conservative beliefs, is prime minister of Britain.

Today: Tony...

(The entire section is 218 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research the events following the publication of The Satanic Verses. Then, discuss some of the things the episode reveals about the...

(The entire section is 249 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Rushdie alludes throughout the novel to numerous fictional works, leaving no doubt about the genealogy of The Satanic Verses. The 9th...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Midnight’s Children (1981) is Rushdie’s compelling novel about Indian history and identity. Focusing on the story of Saleem Sinai,...

(The entire section is 151 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Parrinder, Patrick, “Let’s Get the Hell Out of Here,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 17,...

(The entire section is 256 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Brennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Discusses both the strengths and weaknesses of Rushdie’s cosmopolitanism and the ways in which his fiction draws on Third World materials but does not adequately represent Third World concerns.

Harrison, James. Salman Rushdie. New York: Twayne, 1992. A good general introduction to Rushdie; separate chapters on the novels, Rushdie’s biography, and India.

MacDonogh, Steve, ed. The Rushdie Letters: Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Write. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. In...

(The entire section is 188 words.)