Embracing Islam

Patrick Parrinder

  • Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 by Salman Rushdie
    Granta, 432 pp, £17.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 14 014224 X

‘Our lives teach us who we are,’ Salman Rushdie observed in one of three widely-read and somewhat contradictory statements of faith that he published last year. These are now reprinted at the end of Imaginary Homelands, a compendious collection of book reviews, cultural critiques and political essays written over the last ten years and, for the most part, in much less fraught circumstances. Inevitably one’s reading of the volume is dominated by the fact that it is by the author of The Satanic Verses, a book which has brought down more vilification on its author’s head than any other text in the history of the novel. In February 1990, after a year spent in hiding under the protection of the British Security forces, Rushdie’s essay ‘In Good Faith’ reiterated his stance as a secular man, a man without religion, and one who was ‘not a Muslim’. Then last December he published a three-page declaration: ‘Why I have embraced Islam’.

Rushdie’s religious change of heart is, of course, a matter for his own conscience. As a public act, however, it is clearly meant to invite a response. Together with his decision not to permit further translations or a paperback edition of The Satanic Verses, it must surely help to resolve the painful impasse in which he found himself after the widespread Muslim demonstrations against his novel. Whether the Ayatollah Khomeini’s crazy fatwa against him can be lifted is another matter.

Since the controversy erupted, Rushdie has several times appealed to the good sense of the British Muslim community, speaking, for example, of the furore over The Satanic Verses as a ‘family quarrel’. (The family quarrel also shows some of the characteristics of the family romance, as we shall see.) His return to the Islamic fold ought to ease the immediate political and religious crisis. What it leaves unsolved, and perhaps even exacerbates, are the literary problems involved in understanding and forming a judgment about The Satanic Verses. Throughout the storm unleashed by the novel’s publication it is remarkable how seldom its literary merits have been addressed. The Ayatollah and his henchmen made a virtue out of their failure, inability or outright refusal to read the book for which they professed so much hatred. As for those Western intellectuals critical of Rushdie, we need only recall the Oxford professor of philosophy who entered the lists without conceding any obligation to take account of the novelist’s contention that his work had been tragically and wilfully misread.

The six Muslim scholars who met Rushdie on Christmas Eve 1990 to ratify his religious conversion seem, however, to have been convinced that The Satanic Verses had been misunderstood. Other Muslims, such as the anonymous author of a lengthy analysis of the novel that was recently circulated to university English departments, have arrived at the same conclusion. Unfortunately, the notion that Rushdie’s intended meaning has been overlooked, and that his detractors are therefore incompetent textual readers, is itself problematic for modern literary theorists. Rushdie has to shoulder the authorial responsibility (though it should be remembered that his publishers and booksellers have also been the target of actual or threatened terrorist attacks), but what he cannot claim, so these theorists would argue, is the authority to decide his own text’s meanings. He is left at the mercy of others’ misreadings – or, indeed, non-readings.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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