How an Indian Actor Became Prophet Muhammad’s Understudy
Gibreel Farishta, the alienated, deracinated Indian actor who’s fallen back to Earth after terrorists exploded his plane, is recuperating from the fall in one of his first bouts of psychotic delirium. He dreams “heavy-lidded towards visions of his angeling.” This is the beginning of the conjuring of Mahound, the character, based on the Prophet Muhammad, that Gibreel channels in his dreams. Keep in mind (it’s worth repeating again and again) that this is a fiction within a fiction, an intentional inversion not only of reality, but of the presumption that fiction should even be a reflection of reality:
The human condition, but what of the angelic? Halfway between Allahgod and homosap, did they ever doubt? They did: challenging God’s will one day they hid muttering beneath the Throne, daring to ask forbidden things: antiquestions. It is right that. Could it not be argued. Freedom, the old antiquest. He calmed them down, naturally, employing management skills à la god. Flattered them: you will be the instrument of my will on earth, of the salvationdamnation of man, all the usual etcetera. And hey presto, end of protest, on with the halos, back to work. Angels are easily pacified; turn them into instruments and they’ll play you a happy tune. Human beings are tougher nuts, can doubt anything, even the evidence of their own eyes. Of behind-their-own-eyes. Of whyatm as they sink heavy-lidded, transpires behind closed peepers… angels, they don’t have much in the way of a will. To will is to disagree; not to submit, to dissent.
I know; devil talk. Shaitan interrupting Gibreel.
[…] His name: a dream-name, changed by the vision. Pronounced correctly, it means he-for-whom-thanks-should-be-given, but he won’t answer to that here; nor, though he’s well aware of what they call him, to his nickname in Jahilia down below—he-who-goes-up-and-down-old-Coney. [Coney Mountain in Rushdie’s rendering is a pun on many levels, and a reference to Mount Hira, where Muhammad is supposed to have had his first Koranic “revelation.”] Here he is neither Mahomet nor MoeHammered; has adopted, instead, demon-tag the farangis hung around his neck. To turn insults into strengths, whigs, tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn; likewise, our mountain-climbing, prophet-motivated solitary is to be the medieval baby-frightener, the Devil’s synonym: Mhound.
That’s him. Mahound the businessman, climbing his hot mountain in the Hijaz. The mirage of a city shines below him in the sun.
The Satanic Verses Deal
The following passage relates the story of the so-called “deal” of the satanic verses, when Mohammed was offered by the elders of the Quraysh tribe that controlled Mecca to trade in a little bit of his monotheistic dogmatism in favor of accepting the intercession of three goddesses, Lat, Uzza and Manat. There is nothing offensive about the story in and of itself, in that it’s been debated, argued, documented and even accepted or rejected by various scholars, historians and clerics over the centuries. Some Muslims remain offended by the suggestion that the Prophet Muhammad would be involved in anything like a “deal,” or that his “revelations” would in any way have been influenced by Satan, as that deal is said to have been influenced.:
Mahound sits on the edge of the well and grins. “I’ve been offered a deal.” By Abu Simbel?Khalid shouts. Unthinkable. Refuse. Faithful Bilal admonishes him: Do not lecture the Messenger. Of course, he has refused. Salman the Persian asks: What sort of deal. Mahound smiles again. “Al least one of you wants to know.” […]
“If our great God could find it in his heart to concede—he used that word, concede—that three, only three of the three hundred and sixty idols in the house are worthy of worship…”
”There is no god but God!” Bilal shouts. And his fellows join in: “Ya Allah!” Mahound looks angry. “Will the faithful hear the Messenger?” They fall silent, scuffing their feet in the dust.
“He asks for Allah’s approval of Lat, Uzza and Manat. In return, he gives his guarantee that we will be tolerated, even officially recognized; as a mark of which I am to be elected to the council of Jahilia. That’s the offer.”
Describing the “Revelation” of the Satanic Verses
Rushdie, of course, doesn’t stop there. The following pages, among the most moving and shattering of the novel, describe Gibreel/Mahound/Mohammed as anguished, self-doubting, sometimes doubtful, possibly even calculating as he prepares to hear the revelation enabling the “deal” of the three goddesses—what would come to be known as the satanic verses:
O my vanity I am an arrogant man, is this weakness, is it just a dream of power? Must I betray myself for a seat on the council? Is this sensible and wise or is it hollow and self-loving? I don’t even know if the Grandee is sincere. Does he know? Perhaps not even he. I am weak and he’s strong, the offer gives him many ways of ruining me. But I, too, have much to gain. The souls of the city, of the world, surely they are worth three angels? Is Allah so unbending that he will not embrace three more to save the human race?—I don’t know anything. –Should God be proud or humble, majestic or simple, yielding or un-? What kind of idea is he? What kind am I
Rushdie then describes in equally moving detail the moment of revelation itself (“no, no, nothing like an epileptic fit, it can’t be explained away that easily”) culminating in the uttering of “the Words,” the verses later to be deemed satanic, though Rushdie cleverly doesn’t have Mahound speak them just then: Mahound’s eyes open wide, he’s seeing some kind of vision, staring at it, oh, that’s right, Gibreel remembers, me. He’s seeing me. My lips moving, being moved by. What, by whom? Don’t know, can’t say. Neverthelessm here they are, coming out of my mouth, up my throat, past my teeth: the Words.
Being God’s postman is no fun, yaar.
Butbutbut: God isn’t in this picture.
God knows whose postman I’ve been.