The Satanic Verses Themes

  • Skepticism, miracles, and often blasphemous depictions of the prophet Muhammad make Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses one of the most controversial and conflicted novels about religion ever published. Its plot hinges entirely on the miraculous survival of its heroes Gibreel and Saladin, and yet Gibreel's religious visions appear to be the result of madness, not faith. Religious extremism, Rushdie suggests, only has negative effects on those it touches.
  • Gibreel and Saladin undergo miraculous transformations at the beginning of the novel. Gibreel is given a halo, whereas Saladin morphs into a devil. These physical transformations correspond to emotional and psychological changes in the characters, whose identities are forever altered by their strange experiences. Gibreel eventually loses his mind and kills his girlfriend before committing suicide.
  • In The Satanic Verses, romantic relationships rarely end well. After his transformation, Saladin returns home to find that his wife Pamela has been having an affair with Jumpy and is pregnant with his child. Gibreel has a passionate and doomed affair with Allie Cone. Four of these five lovers die by the end of the novel.

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.

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(The entire section is 1476 words.)