Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Sir Salman Rushdie & Satanic Verses

Posted by NT Wrong on June 27, 2008

With the conferment of a knighthood on Sir Salman Rushdie on Wednesday June 25, 2008, it is time to remember the ‘satanic verses’ – which Muhammad claimed Satan originally tempted him to place in the Qur’an.

As the story goes, Allāt, al-‘Uzzā and Manāt were three Arabian goddesses, who were worshipped at Mecca before Muhammad took over. In an incident referred to as ‘the Gharaniq incident’, Muhammad wrote in one of the suras in his Qur’an (the 53rd; Al-Najm) that these goddesses could provide intercession. He was adopting the old monotheistic trick – rather than dismiss the other gods, it’s better to simply assimilate them into your new religion. But he later had a change of heart and claimed that these words had been inspired by Shaitan (Satan).

The so-called “satanic verses” follow the words “Have you thought of Allāt and al-‘Uzzā and Manāt the third, the other?” in vv. 19-20:

tilk al-gharaniq al-‘ula wa inna shafa’ata-hunna la-turtaja
(“these are exalted birds whose intercession is to be desired”).

Why did Muhammad later claim these verses were inspired by Shaitan? The conclusion on that seems to be that his monotheism was heightened later on in his life, and so the “satanic verses” needed to be erased. And they were erased. They don’t appear in copies of the Qur’an today. The story is most likely to be historically true, given the criterion of embarassment which would prevent a Muslim from inventing such a maligning story about Muhammad, and the inexplicability of a non-Muslim inventing the peculiarities of such a story.

The satanic verses provide a really interesting example of textual and theological development within the Qur’an. This is precisely the reason why Qur’an inerrantists try to deny the truth of the story. For those lamenting the pervasive influence of dogmatic theology on biblical studies, the world of Islamic scholarship is a whole different level of tendentious nonsense.

“Believers in the Prophet’s absolute infallibility deny the possibility of any occurrence inconsistent with that principle. They therefore treated the story as a fabrication and went so far as to excise the two sentences from the Qor’an. Nevertheless the evidence given in well-attested reports and in the interpretations of certain commentators makes it likely that the incident occurred. The two irreproachably pious authors of the Tafsir ol-Jalalayn consider it to have been the occasion of the revelation of verse 51 of sura 22 (ol-Hajj), which they interpret as a sort of divine consolation sent down to relieve the Prophet of the bitter remorse which he felt after his utterance of the two sentences … ”
– ‘Ali Dashti, Twenty-Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad, 32

Sura 22.51 probably refers to the original writing of the satanic verses, under what Muhammad would later claim was satanic inspiration, and its subsequent withdrawal later in Muhammad’s life:

“And We did not send before you any apostle or prophet, but when he desired, the Shaitan made a suggestion respecting his desire; but Allah annuls that which is cast”.

The Qur’an, like any other work of a person written over a period of two decades or so, demonstrates the changes and developments in its author’s opinions and ideas.

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