The Satanic Verses is the fourth and perhaps the most controversial and acclaimed novel by Salman Rushdie, based and inspired in part by the life of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. It is the magical realist tale of two Indian actors of Indian Muslim background, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha.
Gibreel had a tough early life and as a teenager, he started working as a delivery boy. After the death of his parents, he moved in with a foster family, who helped him to become an actor in Bombay. Recently he had a bout with mental illness and though he recovered, he lost his faith in God. Shortly after his recovery, he met and fell in love with Alleluia Cone, an English mountain climber. But, due to this affair, his former lover Rekha Merchant committed suicide in deep frustration and her ghost haunted Gibreel for the rest of the novel. Though his affair with Alleluia was brief, it inspired him to follow her to London to start a new life.
The other protagonist of the novel, Salahuddin Chamchawala, grew up in Bombay, was molested by an older man, when he was a kid and had a troubled relationship with his father, Changez Chamchawala. The gap between the father and the son widened, when his father remarried. Since his early years, he had the dream of moving to London and his dream came true when his father sent him to a London boarding school. After completing his University life in London, Salahuddin became a voice actor and shortened his name to Saladin Chamcha, for commercial reasons. During that time he married Pamela Lovelace, a beautiful but troubled white woman. He returned to India to perform in a George Bernard Shaw play and during that time, started an affair with one of his old flames, Zeeny Vaki. He also became friendly with Zeeny’s friends, George Miranda and Bhupen Gandhi, who were active in left-wing politics. However, just before leaving back to London, Saladin breaks up with Zeeny, as he felt she was too sympathetic to his father, Changez.
As Gibreel and Saladin were returning from India, their London-bound plane was hijacked by a group of four Sikh nationalists. They landed in the heart of a desert and held the passengers hostage for a long stretch of 111 days. Eventually, they took off. However, during the last leg of the flight, there was an altercation among the anarchists and they accidently detonated their bomb and the plane exploded over the English Channel.
Nevertheless, both the protagonists survived miraculously and they were magically transformed. The character and physical characteristics of the archangel Gabriel (Jibrail) was imposed on Farishta and he gained a halo, while Saladin became the Satan with a pair of horns. This transformation symbolizes the constant metamorphosis of life and the manifestations of good and bad. As he was helplessly falling from the ill fated plane, Gabriel had an elaborate vision involving a figure like Muhammad (named Mahound) and the vision introduces the Jahilia subplot, which is said to be a retelling of the revisionist early history of Islam.
Eventually, both of them were washed up on the English coast and a senile old woman, Rosa Diamond, took them to her home. However, they were spotted by someone, who found them crawling out of the water and reported to the police. As the police arrived to arrest Saladin, he started to turn into a goat, but the police did pay any heed to Gibreel. Saladin desperately requested Gibreel to help him from the police, but he did nothing to rescue Saladin.
Saladin, the goat-man was beaten and injured by the police, who refused to believe that he is a British citizen. He was admitted to a hospital, where the physiotherapist and the other inmates were also transformed into animals, due to the prejudice they faced from white English people. They all escaped the hospital together at a time and Saladin went back to his apartment. In the mean time, Saladin’s wife, Pamela, was having an affair with Saladin’s old friend and rival, Jumpy Joshi. However, despite their romantic rivalry, Jumpy hides goat-man Saladin at the hotel owned by one of his neighbours, the Sufyans. There he came to know that he had lost his job as a voice actor on a television show about aliens. Eventually, he grew too big to stay with the Sufyans and was shifted in the basement of a nightclub. Saladin spent that night consumed with deep hatred for Gibreel, whom he blamed for all of his problems. His rage transformed Saladin back into a human.
On the other side, while Gibreel was busy to rekindle his affair with Alleluia, he had the vision of an angel, who instructed him to leave his lady-love and spread the words of God throughout London. Gibreel tried, failed miserably and became so much frustrated that he desperately walked into the oncoming traffic to draw public attention. He was hit by the car of S.S.Sisodia, who proposed to produce a comeback film for Gibreel. He also took him to Alleluia and together they took him to be treated for schizophrenia. While he was recovering, Sisodia offered him the role of the angel Gibreel. For the promotion of the film, Gibreel agreed to headline a dance show in London. However, as he appeared, the audience rushed the stage and Gibreel started to float up into the air and finally disappeared magically. When he woke up, he found himself back at the doorstep of Alleluia.
Saladin’s wife Pamela was impregnated by Jumpy Joshi and Saladin was attracted by Mishal, a daughter of Sfyan, who once gave him shelter. But, he felt a burning sensation in his forehead and visualized the angel Azraeel, Gibreel’s deputy, coming down to give him a bad blow. The omen made Saladin feel that the accident had changed him and accordingly he decided to surrender to evil and kill Gibreel.
Saladin visited Gibreel several times, but could never quite bring himself to commit the murder. On one such visit, Gibreel told Saladin explicitly in details about his sexual encounters with Alleluia and Saladin used that intimate information in mischievous calls to Gibreel, which made him believe about Alleluia’s infidelity. The tactic succeeded, resulting in Gibreel's mental illness, and he left Alleluia.In the meantime, John Maslama remained strict to the idea that Gibreel is the archangel and he sold Gibreel a trumpet that Gibreel named Azraeel.
Suddenly, Saladin got word that his father is in death bed. He immediately returned to India and tenderly took care of him. After his death, Saladin became impressed by the man's courage. He changed his name back to Salahuddin Chamchawala and started to see his old mates. Even, he attended a communist demonstration, something he would never have done before.
Gibreel also returned to India after making his two films, both of which flopped. Sisodia brought Alleluia to Gibreel’s house and tried to reconcile them, with the hope that a happy love life would help him to regain his box office magnetism. But, as those mischievous calls of Saladin were still torturing his soul, he brutally killed both of them. He then went to Saladin, confessed his crime and killed himself.
The title of the novel by Salman Rushdie refers to a particular group of Quranic verses that are related to three Pagan goddess of Mecca: Allat, Uzza and Manat. The part of the story of the novel, which deals with those verses, was based on the accounts from the early historians. The novel consists of a story within a story. The main plot is set with a series of surrealistic or hallucinatory illusions, or half-magic dream vision narratives and those narratives are linked with some sequences, which are criticised as offensive to Muslims. Particularly, one of these sequences that has been profoundly criticised as offensive to Muslims and insult to Islam, is the transformed re-narration of the life of Muhammad in Mecca, who is described as ‘Mahound’ or the ‘Messenger’ in the novel.
As the novel provoked great controversy in the Muslim community, the government of India banned imports of the novel on 5 October 1988, two weeks before the Committee of Action London Mosque (CALM) waged a campaign against the novel. CALM also demanded that Penguin apologize to Muslims and stop publication of the book in the United States. They demanded that all copies of the book be destroyed with immediate effect. However, their demand was rejected. Subsequently, the novel was banned in South Africa and Pakistan and within a week, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Sudan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Qatar. On 14 February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, the then Supreme leader of Iran, issued a ‘Fatwa’ calling for Rushdie's head. Rushdie was placed under police protection by the UK government and he could avoid any direct assault.