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Satanic Verses: Rafiq Zakaria’s open letter to Salman Rushdie published in 1988

By Rafiq Zakaria


23 October, 1988


Rafiq Zakaria, Islamic scholar and well-known congressman, vigorously defends Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to ban The Satanic Verses in this open letter to its author Salman Rushdie published in The Illustrated Weekly Of India, 23 October, 1988.




I have read with interest your open letter to our Prime Minister Mr Rajiv Gandhi, in which you have pleaded for a review of the ban on your book The Satanic Verses.


You have made fun of the fact that the order was issued by the finance ministry. Well, your information is half-baked. It was reported in the press that the decision was taken by the entire cabinet; but as the ban is to be executed by the customs, which falls under the finance ministry, no other ministry could have issued it.


This aside, it is for Rajiv Gandhi to reply to your letter: he may ignore it as most heads of government do.


I am not one of those, who has not read your book. I have, and am interested to know from you the replies to some questions, as I feel they may help me to understand you better and also for you to plead your case more effectively. We, in India. are ever so worried about communal violence, which erupts on the slightest pretext, we cannot allow a writer, whatever be his motive, to provoke it.


You say in your letter to Mr Gandhi that you ‘strongly deny’ that your book is ‘a direct attack on Islam’. Further, that ‘the section of the book in question .... deals with a prophet who is not called Muhammad’.


I have read your book. Like you, I have also been a student of Islam. Your statements, therefore, surprise me. I feel you are going back on your own objective just to get the ban lifted. Maybe I am wrong. I will, therefore, appreciate if you will clarify your position by replying openly to the following questions:


1. What is the significance of the title of your book The Satanic Verses? Has it not some historical connection? Do not the verses which refer to the three goddesses, condemned as Satanic and repudiated by Allah, the same as your reference to them in your novel? Your words are so clear that no other inference seems possible: “These verses are banished from the true recitation, al-qur’an. New verses are thundered in their place.” “Shall He have daughters and you sons?” Mahound recites. “That would be a fine division!” “These are but names you have dreamed of, you and your fathers. Allah vests no authority in them.”


2. Is Jahilia not the same word as used in Muslim annals for “the era of ignorance”—Jahilia means ignorance—the era before the advent of Islam? Your description is so apt:

“The city of Jahilia is built entirely of sand, its structures formed of the desert whence it rises. It is a sight to wonder at: walled, four-gated, the whole of it a miracle worked by its citizens, who have learned the trick of transforming the fine white dune-sand of those forsaken parts—the very stuff of inconstancy—the quintessence of unsettlement, shifting, treachery, lack-of-form—and have turned it, by alchemy, into the fabric of their newly invented permanence. These people are a mere three or four generations removed from their nomadic past, when they were as rootless as the dunes, or rather rooted in the knowledge that the journeying itself was home.”


3. Whom had you in mind when you delineated the character of Mahound? Do your descriptions of his various activities not fit those of the Prophet Muhammad? I can quote passage after passage to show the coincidence, but it will be too lengthy; moreover most of them are so offensive that I shudder to reproduce them.


4. From where have you drawn the names of the three goddesses: Lat, Uzza and Manat? They are certainly not the products of your imagination? No one reading about them in your book can think otherwise.


5. Is Hamza not the same as Prophet Muhammad’s uncle of the same name? And are his encounters with Hind, as depicted by you, not representative of what happened in the early annals of Islam?


6. Is Abu Simbel in your novel not a reflection of Abu Sufiyan, the inveterate enemy of the Prophet? And Hind, whom you characterise so graphically, not his wife?


7. Is Salman—your namesake—called Persian in your book, not the same as Salman Farsi, a companion of the Prophet?


8. Is Bilal not the first Muezzin of Islam, whom you describe as “the slave Bilal, the one Mahound freed, an enormous black monster, this one, with a voice to match his voice”?


9. Is Zamzam, referred to in your novel, not the well held sacred by Muslims? Here is your description: “The city’s water comes from underground streams and springs..., next to the House of the Black Stone.”


10. Does the description of the “Black Stone” in your novel not fit that of Ka’aba? Here are your words: “The graves of Ismail and his mother Hagar the Egyptian lie by the north-west face of the House of the Black Stone, in an enclosure surrounded by a low wall.”


These are some of the coincidences; there are many others. You, unlike most authors, have not mentioned that the characters in your novels do not bear any resemblance to persons living or dead. Can you, with your hand on your heart, say that they really don’t resemble the characters and situations in the life of the Prophet of Islam. And if they do. what should the authorities do to control a likely occurrence which you as well as I know may disturb the tranquillity of the land.


I have not referred to your section on Ayesha; I found it rather confusing, where you have cleverly mixed fact with fiction. This does not apply, I feel, to your section on Mahound, which represents, to use your own words” the result of five years of work on Islam, which has been central to my life’. Apart from the Muslim politicians, whom you mention in your open letter to Mr Gandhi, you will be surprised that some of our best intellectuals-both writers and poets—have come out against you: they are J P Dixit, Nissim Ezekiel, Jean Kalgutkar, Vrinda Nabar, Vaskar Nandy, V Raman and Ashim Roy. In a letter to The Indian Post they refer to your statement that you knew Islam best and that was why you had talked about it and observe: ‘How does he ''talk”about this religion? Its founder is named Mahound. Rushdie has not invented this name. This was the name given to the Prophet Mohammed by his European detractors as a term of abuse (‘Ma’ from ‘Mahomet’ added to ‘hound’) and used frequently in various European eschatologies as a creature belonging to the lowest depths of Hell, as the Devil himself.’


After analysing your treatment further, they summarise your approach thus:


How has Rushdie treated the other pillars of Islamic faith? Ayesha, the youngest wife of the Prophet and the one who is regarded as one of the highest authorities of the Traditions is shown as “clad only in butterflies, leading an entire village, lemming-like into the Arabian Sea”. The Ka’aba, regarded by the Muslims as the only consecrated spot on earth, is treated no better. Disguised as the “Tent of Black Stone called Ten Curtains”, it has twelve prostitutes with names of the twelve wives of Mahound to add ''the tempting spices of profanity”. These “tempting spices” were apparently necessary to increase the number of pilgrims. Then what else remains of the basic core of the Islamic faith? The prophet is the Devil, the law-givers are sexual perverts, and the Ka’aba and the Haj examples of depravity and greed. The Koran is of course only a collection of satanic verses.


The signatories conclude:


‘We, the undersigned, are all non-Muslims. We are, therefore, obviously not subscribers to the Islamic faith. We believe that any critique of that faith has to be restrained, reasoned and full of the spirit of respecting diverse cultures and faiths. India’s unity and harmony demands it. It is for such harmony and unity that we demand that the ban on this book be not lifted.’ What have you to say, Mr Rushdie, to these friends who are no friends of Mr Rajiv Gandhi and are known upholders of freedom of expression?


Lastly, as one born to Muslim parents and brought up, I think, under Islamic traditions, may I ask you whether you honestly believe that your book will not upset Muslims. Mr Khushwant Singh, who holds you in high esteem, advised your publisher, Penguins, against its publication as he felt that it would injure the religious feelings of Muslims and may disturb the law and order situation. Mr Zamir Ansari, Penguins’s representative in India, confirmed this to me though he said a confidential advice sought by Penguins should not have been publicised by Mr Singh. But that is another matter. The fact remains that Mr Singh is no friend of the Government of India—in fact he is one of its most bitter critics—and his opinion has been unequivocal. So is that of Mr M V Kamath, an eminent journalist, who never finds anything right with Mr Rajiv Gandhi. He said that Mr Rushdie’s book is full of ‘despicable ideas’. If Nehru was alive he would have banned it.


I ask you in the same manner as you have asked Mr Gandhi, our prime minister, whether you consider this ban as really uncalled for, in view of the danger that many persons in public life feel it poses to communal harmony and peace in India. Is democracy a licence to do or undo anything by anyone or everyone?


Some idealists in the past might have dreamt of it; but is it really practical?


May I also remind you that it was Lord Macaulay who incorporated the need for such a ban in our legal system to prevent disorder; it is not Mr Rajiv Gandhi’s invention. Mr Soli Sorabjee, whose legal eminence is undisputed, has argued against the ban; but he is a poor judge of public reaction. That is why,like his mentor Mr Nani Palkhivala, he wanted to be in politics but gave up the idea. The Times of India, in its editorial, has answered both you and him effectively:


‘No, dear Rushdie, we do not wish to build a repressive India. On the contrary we are trying our best to build a liberal India where we can all breathe freely. But in order to build such an India, we have to preserve the India that exists. That may not be a pretty India. But this is the only India we possess.'


Do not pontificate, Mr Rushdie; be logical and face the facts. Answer your critics if you can.


Yours truly,


Rafiq Zakaria


Source: The Illustrated Weekly of India