Akeel Bilgrami

Akeel Bilgrami is an assistant professor of philosophy at Columbia University. His Belief and Meaning will be published by Blackwell later this year.

Islam and Reform

Akeel Bilgrami, 28 June 1990

It is not possible to write about Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, and the Muslim response to it, without writing about the nature and history of Islam, the lives and problems of the immigrant population of British Muslims, and the effects of Western colonialism and Cold War politics in parts of the world where there are large Muslim populations. Malise Ruthven’s book traverses a good deal of this larger canvas and has some useful and some, by now, familiar things to say. He brings out, writing of the Muslim reverence for Muhammad and the Quran, why Rushdie’s allegory goes straight for the jugular. By invoking a distinction (between the area of Islamic rule and the area of alien rule) crucial to Islamic law’s understanding of its own dominion, he explains why Khomeini’s death sentence was ultra vires. He argues that the source of the enraged Muslim response lies not merely in the perception that Rushdie has attacked their faith but also in the frustration and defensiveness felt by a people living in an increasingly Western-dominated and alien world, a people whose emotions were nurtured in a triumphalist period and whose response to failure has always been a call to struggle and to holy war. He has a lengthy analysis of the notion of izzat or honour, which he takes to be central to the mentality of Muslims, especially where, as in Britain and India, they are a minority; and he attributes to this the early response to Rushdie’s book among Indian Muslims. He also makes a genuine effort to enter the minds of Bradford Muslims, and concludes by raising the question of how much Rushdie himself must take the blame for the crisis generated by his book, answering cautiously that, at the very least, he showed bad judgment in writing the sort of novel he did. But it has to be said at the same time that Ruthven has let slip the chance to provide a deeper analysis. His book is disappointingly broad and impressionistic.

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