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Excerpt, pp. 77-84
from The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, the Ayatollah, and the West

Any number of examples, by non-Muslims and Muslims alike [are offensive to Muslim sensibilities but did not lead to riots]. Take the 1983 novel by Richard Grenier, The Marrakesh One-Two, which contains passages no less blasphemous than those in The Satanic Verses. Grenier has the would-be Hollywood producer of a film about the Prophet Muhammad vent his views:

Mohammed struck me as a kind of a gamey figure for a religious leader, I mean for a man God spoke to personally. I didn't know what to make of him really, sort of a blend of Saint Teresa of Avila, Jane Addams of Hull House, William the Conqueror, and Casanova. . . . When he has his midlife crisis Mohammed gets the Call, and has visions, and goes into a trance and Allah dictates all these Suras [chapters] to him, which together make up the Koran. And either Mohammed is plagiarizing the Bible like mad and is a hysterical plagiarist or it's one hell of a coincidence. . . . He's always praying to Allah for guidance and if Mohammed really wants something bad enough you get the impression Allah is going to tell him it's okay. I mean Allah can't seem to say no to him.[1]

Although Grenier did receive some late-night callers whispering "Death to the enemies of Allah," no governments banned his book or called for his murder.

As for scholarship, nothing could challenge Islam more completely than two books published in 1977. John Wansbrough's Quranic Studies makes the following points about the Qur'an: that it was written by many human hands (and not by God); that the compilation took place over a period lasting perhaps as long as three and a half centuries (rather than twenty-two years); that the authors drew on many cultural traditions, especially the Jewish; and that Muhammad was merely a prophet figure—real or imaginary, it hardly matters—who had nothing at all to do with the composition of the Qur'an (rather than being its sole source).[2]

Drawing on Wansbrough's efforts, Hagarism, a historical study by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, ignores information on Muhammad and the Qur'an deriving from the standard sources—the Arabic literary accounts. Instead, the authors rely entirely on Aramaic, Armenian, Coptic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Syriac sources, as well as Arabic papyri, coins and inscriptions. This re-examination leads Crone and Cook to turn the normal account of Islam's origins upside-down. In their version, Muhammad was not elevated "to the role of a scriptural prophet" until the year a.d. 700 or so, seventy years after his death;[3] and the Qur'an was compiled only under the auspices of al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the governor of Iraq in 694-714. To put it mildly, these assertions are at odds with what Muslims believe. Although Wansbrough, Crone and Cook raised a small tempest in academic circles, their books, with the implied charge that Islam was a fraud from the first, were altogether ignored by Muslims.

Muslims themselves have written books in Arabic, Turkish and Persian that challenged Islam more than The Satanic Verses. Indeed, Islamic society has traditionally tolerated some blasphemy. To take three examples, the renowned poet, Abu Nuwas (who died about 813), specialized in writing about wine and pederasty, and boasted of writing about virtually everything that displeases God. Al-Mutannabi (915-55) wrote of "droplets sweeter on the lips than the declaration that God is one."[4] Similarly, Abu'l-'Ala al-Ma'arri (973-1058) penned some very daring statements:

Although your mouths hymn Allah One and Peerless,
Your hearts and souls from that ye owe Him shrink.
I swear your Torah gives no light to lead us,
If there 'tis found that wine is lawful drink.[5]

Ironically, therefore, the charge that Muslims are acting "medieval" misses the point; in fact, they are not medieval enough.

Modern books challenging Islam can be found for sale in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world,, and some of them have become best sellers. Indeed, they constitute what Khalid Durבn calls the Muslim "tradition of free thinking,"[6] a tradition that historically was especially strong in Iran. With regard to Turkey, Ismail Nacar, a specialist on the subject, observed that "there are native Salman Rushdies in Turkey. There is no need to look for them outside the country."[7]

In the Arabic-speaking countries, Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi, the Libyan leader, provided a remarkable instance of sustained public blasphemy. He changed the Islamic calendar so that it begins in 632, the year Muhammad died, instead of the standard date of 622, the year he moved to Medina. Like Mahmud Muhammad Taha, he held that Islamic law governs only the private sphere, touching on such matters as personal morality and the afterlife, but offers no guidance in public matters. Qadhdhafi then replaced many of the Islamic laws with his own precepts, published in The Green Book. He ridiculed pilgrims to Mecca as "guileless and foolish," rejected as invalid reports about Muhammad's life (whose authority in Islam is second only to the Qur'an), criticized the Prophet Muhammad, and even expressed doubts about the veracity of the Qur'an's contents.

By the mid-1970s, Qadhdhafi saw himself almost as a new prophet, so he felt free to denigrate the Prophet Muhammad: "What has Muhammad done that I have not? It is I who liberated you [Libyans] and gave you international standing."[8] To Oriana Fallaci, an Italian interviewer, Qadhdhafi characterized The Green Book as a new scripture:

Qadhdhafi: The Green Book is the guide to the emancipation of man. The Green Book is the gospel. The new gospel. The gospel of the new era, the era of the masses. . . .

Fallaci: Well, then, you're a kind of messiah. The new messiah.

Qadhdhafi: I don't see myself in those terms. But the Green Book is the new gospel, I repeat. In your gospels it's written "In the beginning there was the word." The Green Book is the word. One of its words can destroy the world. Or save it . . . My word. One word and the whole world could blow up.[9]

Qadhdhafi also funded an American-based Jesus movement, the Children of God. In return, the group acknowledged him as a messianic figure and described him as "one of God's chosen ones . . . the only world leader who is talking in the name of God, and . . . chosen by God to be a world leader."[10] In short, by the late-1970s, Qadhdhafi's Islam bore little relation to the mainstream religion.

Qadhdhafi's singular views did not go unnoticed. In November 1980, the Supreme Council of the Ulema of Saudi Arabia considered Qadhdhafi's notions about Islam and labeled him a "deviator from the principles of Islam and the brotherhood of Believers." It condemned his "perjury and lies" and accused him of striving "to abrogate the Shari'a [sacred law of Islam]." Declaring Qadhdhafi "to be completely anti-Islamic," it recommended combating his ideas and ostracizing him from Islamic activities.[11] dropped other eg But the condemnations stopped there. No government banned Qadhdhafi's writings or called for his death. Quite the contrary, the Saudis later buried the hatchet, and the Iranians joined with him in a political alliance.

Obviously, Qadhdhafi's position as a head of state makes him a special case, but his prominence and influence should have made him more, not less, subject to criticism. Islamic law requires that the apostate who publicly broadcasts his actions and beliefs, and therefore can do more harm to Islamic beliefs, be punished more urgently than the one who acts in private. A king, a religious leader or a novelist therefore receives special attention. Along these lines, the Iranian authorities justified the harshness of their actions against Rushdie on the grounds that public acts are far more threatening to the faith.

There is a fundamental difference between crimes committed in secret and those done in public and prejudicial to public sentiments, codes, and beliefs. The retribution for committing sins in secret may be limited in scale and the act ignored or even pardoned. Yet the public violation of the divine laws is very serious and calls for severe punishment.[12]

The twenty-year near-silence about Qadhdhafi makes the quick response to Rushdie appear unpredictable, even capricious.

In the Persian language too, blasphemous writings are available on the subject of Muhammad and the Qur'an. For example, when an Iranian exile, the pseudonymous Dr. Roushangar, asked, "Is the God of Muhammad deceitful and trick-playing, or is he loving and compassionate?" he implied directly that it was Muhammad who wrote the Qur'an.[13] "Allah was one of the greatest idolas of the pre-Islamic period. In taking over Allah for Islam, Muhammad insisted that Allah had no sons and daughters, but he established as one of the principals of Islam the corporeality of djinns." But one of the most extraordinary examples in Persian, a case worth looking at in some depth, is the widely-distributed book by the intellectual 'Ali Dashti, Twenty Three Years (the title refers to the period of Muhammad's prophecy).[14] Dashti submits Muhammad's entire career to a close and critical inspection, and comes up with some exceedingly blasphemous conclusions.

On the question of the origins of the Qur'an, Dashti takes a somewhat different tack from Rushdie. He notes that Muhammad held the proof of the Qur'an's divine inspiration in the book's miraculous quality. Muslims universally consider two features of the Qur'an miraculous: its eloquence and its subject matter. Dashti challenges this view, holding that it "clearly stems from zealous faith rather than impartial study."

On the matter of eloquence, he finds more than one hundred mistakes in language, including errors in grammar, wrong vocabulary, and "confusion between the two speakers, God and Muhammad." As for content, Dashti argues that the Qur'an "contains nothing new." Its precepts are "self-evident," while its stories derive from Jewish and Christian lore. The notion of abrogating verses of the Qur'an strikes Dashti as an almost dead giveaway for its human composition—for if God is perfect, then how can He make mistakes which later need to be corrected? "This incongruity can only be explained as the product of an inextricable confusion between God and Muhammad. . . . The verses of the Qur'an are outpourings from both parts of his personality." This last sentence virtually states that Muhammad made up the Qur'an. Nor can he hide surprise at finding "illusions and irrational ideas . . . in a book deemed to be God's word." Dashti suggests the obvious: it is not that God shares the beliefs of seventh-century Arabians, but that these beliefs "were spread and perpetuated by the Prophet Muhammad's utterances. Finally, Dashti comes right out and says what is on his mind: "The Lord who made observance of ancient Arab lunar time-reckoning compulsory everywhere and for ever must have been either a local Arabian god or the Prophet Muhammad."

Dashti has other criticisms of the Qur'an. He finds it amazing that a moral code intended for all time includes in it so many verses addressed only to Muhammad -- and that many of those had to do with issues arising from the "astonishing range" of his marital privileges. Verses dealing with God's ideas about punishment leave Dashti appalled: "Reading these verses makes the hair stand on end."

Looking beyond the Qur'an, Dashti condemns many aspects of Muhammad's behavior. The prophet relied on "every sort of expedient . . . regardless of consistency with the spiritual and moral precepts" he was teaching. In some cases, killings motivated by Muhammad's boastfulness or his personal grudge "were passed off as services to Islam." About ninety percent of those professing Islam by the time of Muhammad's death in a.d. 632 did so "from either fear or expediency." Looking ahead a few years to the Arab conquests, the quest for booty was "an important factor in the implantation of Islam and consolidation of the Muslim community." Indeed, "the history of Islam is indisputably a record of violence and power-seizure."

Despite these passages, and many more, Dashti's book was sold in Iran, in the Persian language, for some time after the Iranian revolution. Although Dashti lived in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini never issued a fatwa against Dashti. It is therefore entirely not true, as Iranian parliamentarians wrote in a letter to Khomeini, that Rushdie's insults "are unprecedented since the inception of Islam."[15] A review of these other examples of blasphemy shows, rather, that it fits into a long tradition of criticism from within; and Rushdie's work was far from being the most critical of that tradition.

The most extraordinary example of Muslim free thinking came from the pen of none other than Rushdie's tormentor, Ayatollah Khomeini. Very soon after issuing his edict, Khomeini composed a poem which read:

I have become imprisoned, O beloved, by the mole on your lip!
I saw your ailing eyes and became ill through love.
Delivered from self, I beat the drum of "I am the Real!"
Like Hallaj, I became a customer for the top of the gallows.[16]
Heartache for the beloved has thrown so many sparks into my soul
That I have been driven to despair and become the talk of the bazaar.
Open the door of the tavern and let us go there day and night,
For I am sick and tired of the mosque and seminary.
I have torn off the garb of asceticism and hypocrisy,
Putting on the cloak of the tavern-haunting shaykh and becoming aware.
The city preacher has so tormented me with his advice
That I have sought aid from the breath of the wine-drenched profligate.
Leave me alone to remember the idol-temple,
I who have been awakened by the hand of the tavern's idol.[17]

Although experts quickly pointed out that allusions to lovers and taverns were strictly allegorical, the fact remained that the seemingly puritanical ruler of Iran had also indulged in some obviously profane and un-Islamic sentiments.

[1] Richard Grenier, The Marrakesh One-Two (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), pp. 5-7. The movie Ishtar is loosely based on the story in The Marrakesh One-Two.
[2] John Wansbrough, Quranic Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977). It is noteworthy that Wansbrough's index does not even list the name Muhammad.
[3] Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1977), pp. 18, 29.
[4] "Verses Composed in the Poet's Youth," in A.J. Arberry, Arabic Poetry: A Primer for Students (Cambridge, Eng.: At the University Press, 1965), pp. 18-19.
[5] R. A. Nicholson, Translations of Eastern Poetry and Prose (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), p. 110.
[6] Khalid Durבn, "Fiktion oder Provokation? Auch Rushdie steht in einer Tradition," Schweizer Monatshefte, May 1989, p. 357.
[7] Milliyet, March 8, 1989. 15 Mar, 44
[8] Jeune Afrique, November 22, 1978.
[9] Oriana Fallaci, "`Iranians are our Brothers': An Interview with Col Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya" The New York Times Magazine, December 16, 1979.
[10] Events, January 12, 1979.
[11] Majallat Rabitat al-`Alam al-Islami, December 1980.
[12] Editorial, Tehran Times, February 16, 1989. 24 Feb, 70
[13] Dr. Roushangar (pseud.), Bazshinasi-e Qur'an (San Francisco: Pars, 1985), pp. 205, 308-09.
[14] `Ali Dashti, Bist o Seh Sal (Beirut, 1974). Trans. F.R.C. Bagley, Twenty Three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammad (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985).
[15] Radio Tehran, February 22, 1989. 23 Feb, 49
[16] Hallaj was executed in 922 for announcing "I am the Real" (by which he seemed to imply, "I am God"). This statement has outraged pious Muslims ever since.
[17] The New Republic, September 4, 1989.


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