Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Satanic Choices: Poetry and Prophecy in Rushdie's Novel

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Satanic Choices: Poetry and Prophecy in Rushdie's Novel

Article excerpt

That such an episode could actually have been mentioned and treated by ancient Muslim authors whose authority is not doubted merely proves that at the heart of the foundation of Islam, what we have here called the textual question, that of divine-human "construction"... had already been settled satisfactorily for that time. In fact, great debates took place on the subject;... the Mu'tazilites went so far as to deny the uncreated origin of the Koran.... What can be said is that this text was at one and the same time human, all-too-human, as well as divine--at times excessively divine.

Fethi Benslama 84-85

In one of the shorter dream narratives in The Satanic Verses, Gibreel Farishta dreams of an imam in exile and his spokesman Bilal. The imam's life is guided by only one desire: to return to his homeland and effect the revolution that will deliver his people to the divine expanse of eternity and liberate them from the chains of historical time. The imam says: "Human beings who turn away from God lose love, and certainty, and also the sense of His boundless time, that encompasses past, present and future; the time-less time, that has no need to move" (214). His contempt for his archenemy, the Empress Ayesha, is expressed in similar terms:

She is nothing: a tick, or tock. She looks in her mirror every day and is terrorized by the idea of age, of time passing. Thus she is the prisoner of her own nature; she, too, is in the chains of Time. After the revolution there will be no clocks; we'll smash the lot. (214)

The greatest enemy of the imam, we learn, is not Ayesha but history itself. "We will unmake the veil of history," says Bilal, "and when it is unraveled, we will see Paradise standing there, in all its glory and light" (210-211).

The imam's desire succinctly expresses what is perhaps essential to the idea of the sacred in most cultures: the sacred resists history; it resists temporality itself. Insofar as the sacred belongs to the realm of the transcendent, it relies on positing a radical and hierarchical difference between the timeless and the temporal: the temporal always derives from, or veils, the timeless. [1] Thus, as opposed to the unchanging purity or the self-existent nature of the timeless, history is illusion--the illusion of change and decay, life and death, progress and destruction. But perhaps history is also perceived as illusory insofar as it presents itself as an inconclusive narrative that can be endlessly interrogated: the meaning it yields wavers and shifts, a fickle flame. A susceptibility to narrative as such, however, does not distinguish the historical from the sacred, for the idea of the sacred may also be presented as a narrative--as it is, for example, in the Koran. But such texts differ from other narrativ es not only because they are believed to be revealed rather than humanly written but also because they appear to carry an incorruptible kernel of significance. They wish to establish the same relationship with all their readers: a relationship, one might say, of submission--the dictionary translation of the Arabic word islam.

The Satanic Verses seeks to negotiate a relationship with such an idea of the sacred. On the one hand, it presents the sacred as a space that resists both history and textuality--the indeterminacy of meaning. On the other hand, it also questions this idea of the sacred by suggesting that such a trope might itself be a historical and literary creation. The sections of the novel that narrate Gibreel Farishta's dreams of being transformed into his namesake, the angel Gabriel, represent this complexity most vividly, although other sections, staged in a less apparitional context, also engage with the world of belief. Farishta's dreams cast doubt on what one might call the apparatus of institutional religion: the link between God and His messenger, the integrity of the prophet, the absolute uniqueness of divine speech. …

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