Note: This article is a discussion of the satanic verses in the context of Islamic history. It is not a discussion of Salman Rushdie's novel by the same name.
Before the advent of the prophet Muhammad and Islam, the people of the Arab Peninsula worshiped hundreds of deities, as illustrated by the 360 idols (one for each day) rimming the Ka’aba in pre-Islamic Mecca. Islam’s rejection of paganism in favor of shahada, or profession of faith in a single God, would become one of the five pillars of the new religion.
Muhammad’s Monotheism vs. the Quraysh’s Paganism
Monotheism represented a radical break with the Peninsula’s centuries-old paganism. It also represented a frontal assault on the authority of the Quraysh, the powerful, wealthy tribe into which Muhammad was born. The Quraysh dominated Meccan politics and considered itself the custodian of the Kaaba and its idols: The site had been the destination of pilgrims for centuries. Pilgrims, then as now, meant profits to whoever controlled the Kaaba. For the Quraysh, who derived their wealth from trading all over what’s known today as the Middle East, the Kaaba was a source of prestige, authority and money. They did not appreciate anyone suggesting that they should tinker with, let alone completely upend, a winning formula. They also feared what Romans feared, if their plethora of gods were scored: cataclysmic retribution from on high.
Yet that’s just what Muhammad told the Quraysh to do: Abandon paganism and embrace the "one true God." For that, Muhammad risked being booted out of the tribe—and out of Mecca, two devastating blows to Muhammad personally and politically. Without a tribe’s protection in 7th century Arabia, an individual (or his followers) were extremely vulnerable to predators, who could act against them without fear of retribution. Muhammad and his followers would eventually defeat the Quraysh, but he attempted on several occasions to convert it rather than defeat it.
The “satanic verses” are part of that history.
The Origin and Purpose of the Satanic Verses
According to Islamic historians Ibn Saad and Abu Ja’far Muhammad al-Tabari, Muhammad was genuinely interested in finding a compromise that would end the rift between his people and the Quraysh. The Quraysh, for their part, had sent out trail balloon: Give the Quraysh a sign that you’d be willing to compromise on your absolute monotheism. That could open the way to a solution.
And so Muhammad, the Islamic historians say, once heard a "revelation" that three goddesses worshipped by the Quraysh — al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat — could be revered and worshipped. Word spread to the Quraysh. To the tribe leaders, Muhammad’s allowance was taken as a concession that the three goddesses had equal billing with God in the Quran. And if the Prophet was willing to worship the three goddesses, then all could be well again between Muhammad and the Quraysh, who’d be willing to pray with Muslims and open Mecca’s doors to them again.
This verse was uttered by Muhammad as a “revelation” and appears in the Koran, in Sura 53:
Have you thought on Al-Lat and Al-Uzza, and on Manat, the third other?And this is the verses that do not appear in the Koran, but which Muhammad was believed to have uttered as part of his “revelation” that sought compromise with the Quraysh, referring as they did to the three godesses:
These are the exalted birds whose intercession is approved.Those verses were a revelation to the Quraysh. “Because the Quran appeared to have endorsed the piety of their fathers and to have abandoned its monotheistic message,” Karen Armstrong wrote in Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, the Quraysh “no longer saw Islam as a sacrilegious threat that could bring a catastrophe on the people of Mecca.” They embraced Muhammad’s religion and prepared to welcome him back into the fold.
Muhammad Rejects the Satanic Verses
But before the Quraysh had time to act on the perceivec compromise, Muhammad himself, the story goes, came to his senses, judged the verses approving the intercession of the “exalted birds” to have been inspired by Satan, and rejected them with a new revelation:
They are but names which you and your fathers have invented: God has vested no authority in them. The unbelievers follow but vain conjectures and the whims of their own souls, although the guidance of their Lord has long since come to them.And that was that. The satanic verses about the “exalted birds” were expunged from the Koran and never again acknowledged as having ever been part of the Koran, the implication being that if Muhammad could not distinguish between the voice of God and the voice of Satan, he could not be much of a Prophet after all.
Most Muslims consider the entire story of the satanic verses apocryphal. By excising it entirely from Islamic history, or casting it as a concoction by infidels or disbelievers, two considerable problems are avoided: The notion of Muhammad as a politician willing to make deals (as opposed to a warrior intent on prevailing through faith in God and the sword) is discarded. So is the possibility that Muhammad could have failed to distinguish between the voice of God and the voice of satan.