Minuscule: The Satanic Verses

Fourteen hundred years ago the city of Mecca was a crossroads of trade routes. As such it was prosperous, cosmopolitan, and culturally diverse. There were temples throughout the city to every sort of God or Goddess, so that any traveler might worship as was their way.

About this time a man began preaching in the city. He said that he had been spoken to by the One God, to whom every other god was a joke and every idol an affront. He said he wanted to close all the temples in Mecca, smash all the idols, and allow only his God to be venerated.

The elders of the city balked. But the proposals of this Muhammed (for that was the man’s name) became more and more popular with the people of the city. He and his followers were given trouble, but they persevered. The city as they knew it was being threatened by this man and the faith which his followers had in him.

So the city elders went to Muhammed. They said: we have hundreds of gods, hundreds of temples. You have one God. Let us compromise. Let us keep three gods – goddesses, in fact, winged goddesses of the desert skies – and in return we will get rid of all the others. You will have your purification, we will keep our faith, and we will all be satisfied.

Muhammed asked for time to think about their proposal. He went into the desert, up onto the mountain where he said that God gave him His messages. Here he “thought upon Al-Lat and Al’Uzza, and the other, Manat, the third,” for these were the names of the goddesses.

According to the Qur’an, he came back to the city and replied to the city elders: “What, for you males, and for Him females? Truly that is an unjust division!” (53:21-22).  And that was the end of that.

But there are stories, dating back to Muhammed’s lifetime, that things went differently. Scholars such as al-Waqidi, Katib ul-Waqidi, and (most particularly) al-Tabari, tell a story of something called The Satanic Verses.

Their story suggests that, at first, Muhammed agreed with the proposal that the city elders made, and was prepared to accept the three goddesses into his religion. Then, after some time had passed, he went back to the desert and returned with a changed mind: the three goddesses were out.

This is the only time when Muhammed is recorded to have changed his mind in such a way. After all, the words being given to him were the very words of God. How could he change them?

Muslim scholars have proposed various interpretations. The first is that Muhammed was in error: as the angel Gibreel was speaking to him the words of God, Muhammed heard them wrong, and had to wait to be corrected. The second was that Gibreel himself got the message wrong from God. Both of these are hard to swallow, especially as they would call into question the validity of other passages in the Qur’an – indeed, of the entire book.

Then there is the idea of Will. Some have suggested that Muhammed, so badly did he want to appease the elders and people of Mecca, willed Gibreel to speak words other than God’s. This suggestion is based on the idea that Muhammed was spiritually stronger than Gibreel, and could, quite unconsciously, draw forth from him (“Like sick,” Salman Rushdie said) whatever words he desired. Presumably God did not realize this might happen until it did, and afterwards hastily corrected the problem.

Finally there was talk of it being the fault of the devil. That one night, Gibreel was not the one speaking to Muhammed. Rather it was Iblis (for that was the name of Muhammed’s Satan), and he spoke deliberate lies into the prophet’s ears. This is certainly in line with Iblis’ character; perhaps his most common epithet is the whisperer. And then, as in the above example, either Gibreel or God figured out what had gone on; they corrected the record, and made sure it didn’t happen again.

This latter is the origin of the name Satanic Verses. It is the example most often cited by subsequent scholarship – and, perhaps, the first even example of a man-in-the-middle attack.

There is an alternative reading of these events, one which was not suggested by contemporary scholars. This theory presupposes that Muhammed, rather being a prophet of God, was just a man. Whether he was trying to enact religious reform or just lead a crusade, whether his motives were pure or impure by any standards, he was just a man. In that instance, the business of the Satanic Verses can be read as a political decision gone wrong – and then, afterwards, complications which arose as a result of Muhammed trying to fix it.

Muhammed went to the city elders. They asked him to compromise. Why did they do that? Perhaps they would have been happy with three gods. Or perhaps they knew that a religious reformer cannot compromise, especially when he claims to be hearing the Word Of God. To compromise is to admit that he himself has the power to approve compromises. Therefore he is fallible. Therefore his words are fallible. Therefore they are not the words of God. In asking Muhammed to accept these three Goddesses, they were trying to trick him into compromising his reformation, neutralizing his threat to the city, and to its gods.

After a time, Muhammed realized the trap he’d stepped into. He then worked to get out of it. Perhaps he suggested one or more of the above explanations as rationales for his behavior. Perhaps he declared one was true; perhaps he simply spoke of possibilities; perhaps he suggested other possibilities not recorded or considered since. Perhaps he believed truly in his work, and tried to figure out what had happened to him; perhaps he was a charlatan, and tried whatever tale he felt most expedient.

In either event, it both did and did not work. It did not work because he and his followers were expelled from Mecca, which kept all its gods and was quite happy to do so. It did work because, some years later, Muhammed conquered Mecca by the sword, smashed all the idols, closed all the temples, and demanded the people of the city pledge allegiance to his God – which they did, and do even to this day.

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~ by davekov on 7 May 2011.

One Response to “Minuscule: The Satanic Verses”

  1. ^Some of the Best of the Express^

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