The Satanic Verses is Salman Rushdie's fourth novel, first published in 1988 and inspired in part by the life of Muhammad. As with his previous books, Rushdie relied heavily on contemporary events and persons to create the characters in his book. The character of the chief protagonist of The Satanic Verses is based on that of the Indian film star Amitabh Bachchan. The title refers to what are known as the satanic verses. According to the novel, Muhammad was tricked into revealing these verses as part of the Qur'an by Satan and he later retracted them, saying the angel Jibreel had told him to do so. The verses allow for prayers of intercession to be made to three Pagan Meccan goddesses: Allat, Uzza, and Manah. The part of the story that deals with the "satanic verses" in the book was based on the accounts of the historians al-Waqidi and al-Tabari.
In the United Kingdom, the book was well received among critics. It was a 1988 Booker Prize Finalist, eventually losing to Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, and won the Whitbread Award for novel of the year.
In the Muslim community, however, the novel caused great controversy for what many Muslims believed were blasphemous references. As the controversy spread, the book was banned in India and burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom. In mid-February 1989, following a violent riot against the book in Pakistan, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran and a Shi'a Muslim scholar, issued a fatwa calling on all good Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers, or to point him out to those who can kill him if they cannot themselves.
Following the fatwa, Rushdie was put under police protection by the British government. Despite a conciliatory statement by Iran in 1998, and Rushdie's declaration that he would stop living in hiding, the Iranian state news agency reported in 2006 that the fatwa will remain in place permanently since fatwas can only be rescinded by the person who first issued them and Ayatollah Khomeini is no longer alive.
As of early 2008 he has not been physically harmed, but others connected with the book have suffered violent attacks. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese language translator of the book, was stabbed to death on July 11, 1991; Ettore Capriolo, the Italian language translator, was seriously injured in a stabbing the same month; William Nygaard, the publisher in Norway, barely survived an attempted assassination in Oslo in October 1993, and Aziz Nesin, the Turkish language translator, was the intended target in the events that led to the Sivas massacre, which resulted in the deaths of 37 people.
At the beginning of the novel, both are trapped in a hijacked plane during a flight from India to Britain. The plane explodes over the English Channel, but the two are magically saved. In a miraculous transformation, Farishta takes on the personality of the archangel Gibreel, and Chamcha that of a devil. Farishta's transformation can be read on a realistic level as the symptom of the protagonist's developing Dissociative identity disorder.
After being found on the beach, Chamcha is taken into custody by the police, who suspect him of being an illegal immigrant, while Farishta looks on without intervening.
Both characters struggle to piece their broken lives back together. Farishta seeks and finds his lost love, the English mountaineer Allie Cone, but their relationship is overshadowed by his mental illness. Chamcha, having miraculously regained his human shape, wants to take revenge on Farishta for having forsaken him after their common fall from the hijacked plane. He does so by fostering Farishta's pathological jealousy and thus destroying his relationship with Allie. In another moment of crisis, Farishta realizes what Chamcha has done, but forgives him and even saves his life.
Both later return to India. Farishta, still suffering from his illness, kills Allie in another outbreak of jealousy and then commits suicide. Chamcha, who has found not only forgiveness from Farishta but also reconciliation with his estranged father and his own Indian identity, decides to remain in India.
Embedded in this story is a series of half-magic dream vision narratives, ascribed to the disturbed mind of Gibreel Farishta. They are linked together by many thematic details as well as by the common motifs of divine revelation, religious faith and fanaticism, and doubt as to whether any conception of God is rationally justifiable.
One of these sequences contains most of the elements that have been criticized as offensive to Muslims. It is a transformed re-narration of the life of the prophet Muhammad (called "Mahound" or "the Messenger" in the novel) in Mecca ("Jahilia"). At its centre is the episode of the Satanic Verses, in which the prophet first proclaims a revelation in favour of the old polytheistic deities, but later renounces this as an error induced by Shaitan. There are also two opponents of the "Messenger": a demonic heathen priestess, Hind, and an irreverent skeptic and satirical poet, Baal. When the prophet returns to the city in triumph, Baal goes into hiding in an underground brothel, where the prostitutes assume the identities of the prophet's wives. Also, one of the prophet's companions claims that he, doubting the "Messenger"'s authenticity, has subtly altered portions of the Qur'an as they were dictated to him.
The second sequence tells the story of Ayesha, an Indian peasant girl who claims to be receiving revelations from the Archangel Gibreel. She entices all her village community to embark on a foot pilgrimage to Mecca, claiming that they will be able to walk on foot across the Arabian Sea. The pilgrimage ends in a catastrophic climax as the believers all walk into the water and disappear, amid disturbingly conflicting testimonies from observers about whether they just drowned or were in fact miraculously able to cross the sea.
A third dream sequence presents the figure of a fanatic expatriate religious leader, the "Imam," set again in a late-20th-century setting. This figure is a transparent allusion to the life of Ayatollah Khomeini in his Parisian exile, but it is also linked through various recurrent narrative motifs to the figure of the "Messenger".
Overall, the book received favourable reviews from literature critics.
Timothy Brennan called the work "the most ambitious novel yet published to deal with the immigrant experience in Britain" that captures the immigrants dream-like disorientation and their process of "union-by-hybridization". The book is seen as "fundamentally a study in alienation."
Muhammd Mashuq ibn Ally wrote that "The Satanic Verses is about identity, alienation, rootlessness, brutality, compromise, and conformity. These concepts confront all migrants, disillusioned with both cultures: the one they are in and the one they join. Yet knowing they cannot live a life of anonymity, they mediate between them both. The Satanic Verses is a reflection of the author’s dilemmas." The work is an "albeit surreal, record of its own author's continuing identity crisis." Ally said that the book reveals the author ultimately as a victim, "the victim of nineteenth-century British colonialism." Rushdie himself spoke confirming this interpretation of his book saying that it was not about the Islamic faith "but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay." He has also said "It’s a novel which happened to contain a castigation of Western materialism. The tone is comic."
After The Satanic Verses controversy developed some scholars familiar with the book and the whole of Rushdie's work like M. D. Fletcher saw the reaction as ironic. Fletcher wrote "It is perhaps a relevant irony that some of the major expressions of hostility toward Rushdie came from those about whom and (in some sense) for whom he wrote." He said the manifestations of the controversy in Britain "embodied an anger arising in part from the frustrations of the migrant experience and generally reflected failures of multicultural integration, both significant Rushdie themes. Clearly, Rushdie's interests centrally include explorations of how migration heightens one's awareness that perceptions of reality are relative and fragile, and of the nature of religious faith and revelation, not to mention the political manipulation of religion. Rushdie's own assumptions about the importance of literature, which parallel in some sense the literal value accorded the written word in Islamic tradition. But Rushdie seems to have assumed that diverse communities and cultures share some degree of common moral ground on the basis of which dialogue can be pieced together, and it is perhaps for this reason that he underestimated the implacable nature of the hostility evoked by The Satanic Verses, even though a major theme of that novel is the dangerous nature of closed, absolutist belief systems."
Rushdie's influences have long been a point of interest to scholars examining his work and for The Satanic Verses Chandrabhanu Pattanayak noted the influence of William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (influences Rushdie admitted to). M. Keith Booker likened the book to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Al-'Azm noted the influence of François Rabelais' works on Rushdie and on The Satanic Verses in particular. Others have noted an influence of Indian classics such as the Mahabharata and the Arabic Arabian Nights.
Srinivas Aravamudan’s analysis of The Satanic Verses was perceived by other scholars as hailing the book as a proof "demonstrating the compatibility of postmodernism and post-colonialism in the one novel." Aravamudan himself stressed the satiric nature of the work and held that while it and Midnight's Children may appear to be more "comic epic", "clearly those works are highly satirical" in a similar vein of postmodern The Satanic Verses continued to exhibit Rushdie's penchant for organizing his work in terms of parallel stories. Within the book "there are major parallel stories, alternating dream and reality sequences, tied together by the recurring names of the characters in each; this provides intertexts within each novel which comment on the other stories." The Satanic Verses also exhibits Rushdie's common practice of using allusions in order to invoke connotative links. Within the book he referenced everything from mythology to "one-liners invoking recent popular culture" sometimes using several per page. Chapter VII was especially noted by for such usage.