Why is Salman Rushdie’s evocation of the Satanic Verses episode the cause of intense and persistent hatred and violence?

On August 12, 2022, the New York police reported the following facts:

“A suspect rushed onto the stage (of an amphitheater) and attacked Rushdie and an interviewer. Rushdie suffered an apparent neck injury after being stabbed and was airlifted to hospital by helicopter. His condition is not yet known. »

In order to understand this criminal obsession, it is worth remembering the following.

In 1988, the publication of « Satanic Verses », Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel, provoked a wave of hatred and threats against him. On February 14, 1989, a death sentence was even decreed by Ayatollah Khomeini, which took the form of a fatwa.

Rightly, the media will continue to relay reactions of indignation and support for the author, declaiming the legitimate attachment of the modern world to freedom of expression, condemning this return to the inquisition and the crime of lese- majesty.

However, the media noise will produce a regrettable side effect resulting in a renunciation of any attempt to explain this radical and violent stiffening of certain religious authorities.

Seventeen years later, a similar phenomenon will occur when a Danish newspaper publishes cartoons of Muhammad. The reactions in the Muslim world will be numerous, hateful and violent. The heads of the twelve designers will even be put at a price by a Pakistani extremist group.

The publication by Charlie Hebdo of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad in 2006 once again triggered violent reactions, and years later, the dramatic events that we know.

During these media highlights, no academic or specialist in the Arab world was invited to answer these questions:

Why is the irreverence towards Muhammad at the origin of such violent and criminal reactions?

What is the image of the arab prophet in the Muslim world?

What are the dogmatic issues of downgrading the image of the arab prophet?

How can the cold and calculated reactions of certain religious authorities be explained?

For example, the importance of the dogmas of infallibility and impeccability of the arab prophet supported by tradition against the letter of the Koran was never mentioned.

Today, it is probable that few political decision-makers have ever been informed that any attack on the dogma of the infallibility of the arab prophet constitutes, for the Islamic legal structure, in the current state of the dominant dogmatics, a real threat of collapse.

To undestand the theological issues related to the image of Muhammad and the status of the verses of the Koran is an absolute necessity for anyone who does not wish to be reduced to a partial understanding of contemporary phenomena related to Islam.

Our goal is to sensitize all those who are interested in Islam and in particular in political Islam, students, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, political decision-makers, specialists in radicalization and/or de- radicalization, to dogmatic issues.

As a preliminary and for the attention of the layman, we will briefly explain why tradition has always tried to impose a certain interpretation of the episode called « satanic verses ».

Then, we will explain why, any questioning of the dogma of perfection of the prophet and/or his infallibility is likely, taking into account the dominant interpretation of the sacred texts, to undermine the foundations of all the legal systems of Muslim countries that at least partially incorporate Sharia into state laws and therefore generate violence.

The episode of the so-called « satanic » verses and the dogmatic defense of the image of Muhammad

So that everyone understands the issue attached to the image of Mohammed, a historical reminder is necessary.

At the beginning of his preaching, Muhammad finds himself confronted with the disbelief and resistance of the most powerful Meccan tribe, the Quraysh who, at the beginning of Muhammad’s preaching, refuse to follow his call and will even force him to leave the Mecca and to go into exile in Medina.

The Koran says of the Meccan period, bears the traces of this conflict:

« Are we going to abandon our deities for a mad poet » (Quraysh tribe speaking)

In the initial message that Muhammad delivers to the inhabitants of Mecca, there is the affirmation of the uniqueness of God and the rejection of polytheism.

For the members of the powerful Meccan tribe of the Quraysch, accepting the preaching of Muhammad as a whole meant renouncing the worship of three goddesses who were familiar to them and represented a source of income. For them to give up these female deities was not possible.

Faced with this difficulty, Muhammad yields to compromise and justifies the worship of the three female divinities, thus hoping to rally his Meccan listeners.

Thus, an inner propensity to compromise incites him to justify the worship of the goddesses Allat, al-‘Uzza and Manat.

A tradition reported in particular by Al-Tabari, known under the name of « narrative of the cranes », corresponding to the verses following verses 19 and 20 of sura 53, tends to accredit the idea that these verses would be authentic, initially integrated in the Koran, but would have been extracted from it later.

Even if these verses no longer appear in the current editions of the Koran, the great orientalist Régis Blachère integrates them into his French version and translates them as follows: « These are the sublime goddesses / and their intercession is certainly desired ». (Muhammad speaking about these female deities)

The object of the offense is therefore just here.

Mohammed yielded to a compromise that sacrifices the principle of strict monotheism.

Realizing that this accommodating posture goes against the strict monotheism he professed, Muhammad realized his mistake and reconsidered his words.

Finally to repair this dogmatic catastrophe, tradition invented the idea that the devil himself deposited these verses on the tongue of Muhammad.

The dogmatic problem that resulted and still results from this presumably historical fact was/is the following:

To affirm or suggest that Muhammad could have failed, even if he was able to pull himself together, undermines the principles of infallibility and impeccability of the prophet purposely developed by tradition, being specified that these principles are the basis of Sharia.

Another embarrassing consequence: the idea that Muhammad himself is the author of certain verses.

If Muhammad is the creator of certain verses, how to distinguish the word of God from the word of a man?

Aware of this theological catastrophe, the tradition was very embarrassed and, at first, invented the idea that the devil had insidiously inspired Muhammad admitting that Satan himself tried to dictate to Muhammad a heretical teaching, before finally extracting these Quran verses.

Verse 52 of sura 22, of a metatextual nature, most likely refers to these so-called “satanic” verses:

“We did not send before you any Messenger or Prophet who did not recite [what was revealed to him] without the Devil trying to intervene [to sow doubt in the hearts of the people about ] of his recitation. Allah abrogates what the Devil suggests, and Allah strengthens His verses. Allah is Knowing and Wise. »

Verse 23 of sura 53 is later. It attributes to Muhammad an exact opposite view, namely that the three goddesses do not exist (“Allah has not sent down any proof about them”).

Verses thus neutralize other verses by resorting to a metalanguage and a self-referential dogmatic defense.

The highlighting of this historical reality by Salman Rushdie was at the origin of violent reactions on the part of certain religious authorities, supporters of a strict application of sharia.

Violent reactions ensued, notably for the reasons set out below.

The necessary attachment of the supporters of sharia to the dogmas of Muhammad’s infallibility and impeccability.

In the Muslim world, the person of Muhammad, the Prophet (Mahomet in French), is the object of an unequaled reverence.

As soon as the name of Muhammad is pronounced, it must be followed by this eulogical formula: “May the peace and blessing of God be upon him”.

One finds in the immense corpus constituted by the Hadith, a set of narrations reporting acts and words attributed to the Prophet and transmitted by chains of transmitters certified by tradition, a good number of stories, from which there emanates a perfume of wonder.

A cloud of miracles and perfection thus covers Muhammad’s life, despite his own declarations: « I am only a man like you. » (Surah 41 – Verse 6). Several times in the Koran, Muhammad claims and explains the fact of not performing miracles.

To the question « Why were not wonders sent down to him from his Lord? » , he answers: « Wonders are with Allah. I am only a very clear warner » (sura 29 – verse 50).

And yet tradition, drawing on the Hadith, continues to attribute all sorts of miracles to him.

The reader must understand that this insistence on the part of tradition to want to make Muhammad an infallible and impeccable being obeys an imperious dogmatic necessity.

In the same way that every good tree bears good fruit, the being of perfection necessarily produces perfect deeds and words.

However, the Sharia, literally « the way to respect the law of God », is based on the Sunna of the Prophet, that is to say his actions and his words as they emerge from the Koran, the Hadith and the Sira (biography of the Prophet).

Logically, it is because the words and acts of Muhammad are produced by a being of perfection that they are necessarily perfect and can therefore be used to found Sharia, ie Islamic law.

In other words, the perfection of the Prophet conditions the perfection of his deeds and his words, and the perfection of his deeds and his words conditions the perfection of the Sharia.

Undermining the image of the prophet certainly amounts in the mind of someone who calls himself a Muslim to attacking a familiar model which in his eyes embodies perfection, goodness and know-how, a model whose imitation is encouraged by Tradition.

But above all this is considered by the guardians of the dogma as an enterprise to undermine the foundations of Islamic law with the risk of collapse that is attached to it.

This is why powerful defense mechanisms come into play as soon as Muhammad’s image is tarnished.

During the episode of the publication of the « satanic verses » the foreign ulemas whose social prestige comes in particular from their knowledge of the sharia and the hadiths reacted very violently giving a kind of moral garantee for the muslims that could be tempted by deadly revenge.

Malika Zeghal, in her book « Guardians of Islam » (Presses de Sciences Po), reports that, during the trial of the assassins Faraj Fûda, an Egyptian writer, columnist and human rights activist assassinated on June 8, 1992 in Cairo , Sheikh Ghazâlî (1917-1996), theologian of Al Azhar distinguished by the prize of excellence of Pakistan and by the Prize of King Faisal, member of the first order of the Egyptian republic, who was cited by the defense, will accuse the essayist of apostasy, expressing himself thus: « He who publicly claims the non-application of the Shariah of God is an impious, an apostate, and it is a duty to kill him ».

By way of comparison, the stakes of the satanic verses are even more important since the recognition, even implicit, of the fallibility of Muhammad goes well beyond the non-application of the Shari’ah, since the admission of such a principle amounts to purely and simply destroying the foundations of the Shari’ah.

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