Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Comparative Study: ISLAM & SIKHI Part 2

"The Satanic Verses" - Satan tempts Muhammad

Salman Rushdie's publication of "The Satanic Verses" was one of the biggest Islam-related headlines of the last two decades. But the mass outpouring of anti-Rushdie sentiment that took place was remarkable in that it completely overlooked the most important fact of Rushdie's book; namely, that the tale of the "Satanic verses" (ie. Qur'anic verses which temporarily accepted some of the pagan goddesses of Mecca, but which were later denied as having been inspired by Satan), was completely based on the work of al-Tabari, a Muslim biographer of the Prophet. Analysis of the historical account of al-Tabari makes possible a fuller understanding of both Satan and prophecy in Islam.

Firstly, we should look at the historical account itself, narrated by the famous Muslim historian, al-Tabari:

When the Messenger of God saw how his tribe turned their backs on him and was
grieved to see them shunning the message he had brought to them from God, he
longed in his soul that something would come to him from God which would
reconcile him with his tribe. With his love for his tribe and his eagerness for
their welfare it would have delighted him if some of the difficulties which they
made for him could have been smoothed out, and he debated with himself and
fervently desired such an outcome. Then God revealed: "By the Star when it
sets...", and when he came to the words: "Have you considered El-Lat and
El-'Uzza and Manat the third, the other?", Satan cast onto his tongue, because
of his inner debates, and what he desired to bring to his people, the words,
"Those are the high-flying cranes; verily their intercession is accepted with
approval"... Then Gabriel came to the Messenger of God and said, "Muhammad, what
have you done? You have recited to the people that which I did not bring you
from God, and you have said that which was not said to you." Then the Messenger
of God was much greived and feared God greatly, but God sent down a revelation
to him (Qur'an 22:52), for He was merciful to him... (The History of al-Tabari,
translated by W. M. Watt and M. V. McDonald, vol. 6, page 108, 109)

The accuracy of this account is difficult to judge from historical accounts alone. The earliest biography of the Prophet was that of Ibn Ishaq, but it has not survived as an independent manuscript. However, two of the main biographies of the Prophet which do survive, those of Ibn Hisham and al-Tabari, both claim to be based upon copies of Ibn Ishaq's work which the authors had in their posesssion. But while al-Tabari's biography includes the above "Satanic verses" episode, Ibn Hisham's does not. Western scholars have all sided with al-Tabari, believing that it would have been impossible for him to insert such a controversial episode had it not been commonly accepted knowledge at the time; Muslims have sided with Ibn Hisham and denied the whole event, with the notable exception of the famous Pakistani scholar, Fazlur Rahman, whose views will be considered shortly. Now let us look at the verses which al-Tabari cites as having replaced the "Satanic verses":

Have you considered El-Lat and El-'Uzza and Manat the third, the other?... They
are naught but names yourselves have named, and your fathers; God has sent down
no authority touching them... How many an angel is there in the heavens whose
intercession avails not anything, save after that God gives leave to whomsoever
He wills, and is well-pleased. Those who do not believe in the world to come
name the angels with the names of females. (Qur'an 53:20-29)

So there is no trace left in the Qur'an of any compromise on the three Meccan goddesses. The real issue of this incident is that the Prophet gave in to temptation and altered the original verses himself to arrive at a version acceptable to the Meccans. The episode is fundamentally about the Prophet's moral failure, and Satan enters the picture only later, by way of a Qur'anic revelation which seems to be tailored to address the "Satanic verses" episode, and which thus provides more evidence for the truth of Tabari's account:

We sent not ever any Messenger or Prophet before thee, but that Satan cast into
his fancy, when he was fancying; but God annuls what Satan casts, then God
confirms His signs - surely, God is All-knowing, All-wise - that He may make
what Satan casts a trial for those in whose hearts is sickness... (Qur'an

The Qur'an provides even more evidence to back up al-Tabari's narrative if we consider that verses dealing with "abrogation" of verses by others may in fact be dealing with the "Satanic verses" episode.

And for whatever verse We abrogate or cast into oblivion, We bring a better
or the like of it; knowest thou not that God is powerful over everything?
(Qur'an 2:100)

An interesting thing about al-Tabari's account is his assertion that Satan cast the false verses into the Prophet's mind "because of his inner debates". Such an interpretation of the event is in agreement with an understanding of Satan as a personification of tendencies to sinfulness. The Qur'an provides a further justification for a psychological rather than literal interpretation of Satan by identifying him as a "jinn":

And when We said to the angels, 'Bow yourselves to Adam'; so they bowed
themselves, save Iblis; he was one of the jinn, and committed ungodliness
against his Lord's command. (Qur'an 18:50).

"Jinn" is in fact a pre-Islamic word for an unseen being which can speak to people and even make them irrational (hence the Arabic word for madness is majnoon, literally "acted upon by jinn"). Satan/Iblis is then the irrational urge which arose out of the Prophet's human weakness and his desperation to compromise with the Meccans, and drove him to insert the "Satanic verses" into the revelation. One of the most eminent of Muslim scholars of the 20th century, Fazlur Rahman, found no difficulty in accepting the truth of the "Satanic verses" incident in the light of the Qur'an's repeated assertion that Messengers were only human, and hence fallible.

But whatever fears or thoughts - or even gestures - of compromise the Prophet might make, they were soon "abrogated" or "erased" by God, as verse 22:52 makes clear. The well-known story that after mentioning the pagan goddesses once (53:19-20), the Prophet described them as "exalted swans whose intercession [with God] is to be hoped for"... only to abrogate these words in 53:21-23, is perfectly intelligible, for this incident occurred at a time of great trial and persecution of his followers, whom he had ordered to emigrate temporarily to Abyssinia. There are other indications that certain verses were replaced by others: 2:106, 13:39, 16:101... For the Qur'an, it is neither strange nor out of tune nor blameworthy for a prophet that he is not always consistent as a human. It is nevertheless as a human that he becomes an example for mankind, for his average level of conduct is still so high that is is a worthy model for mankind... there is abundant evidence in the Qur'an that while the Prophet did at times wish that developments would take a certain turn, God's Revelation went a different way: "Do not move your tongue with [ie., ahead of] the Revelation, hastily anticipating it. It is upon Us to bring it together and to recite it - so that when We recite it, let you follow its recitation." (75:16-19) (Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes in the Qur'an, pages 88-90).

Why have conservative Muslims largely refused to discuss al-Tabari's account of the "Satanic verses"? The simple reason seems to be that it presents a messy picture of the Prophet as fallible, and a Qur'an capable of being temporarily distorted by his human inclinations to win over his tribe. More importantly, the immense body of Islamic Law is based upon the reports (Hadith) of the Prophet's life and teachings. However, if even the Qur'an, which is held to be pure divine revelation, was subject to the fallibility of the Prophet, then the Hadith are even more so, since they are explicitly his words and not God's. The Qur'anic verses regarding abrogation can in fact be seen as a divine guarantee of the revelation; in spite of the fallibility of the prophet, God ensures the correctness of the Qur'an by replacing incorrect verses. However, there is no such guarantee of abrogation for the Hadith. Conservatives find such questioning of the Hadith and Islamic Law to be unacceptable.

So why all the fuss about Rushdie's book? Would al-Tabari himself be eligible for a death sentence if he were alive today, even though in his own time the question never arose? The answer possibly has less to do with al-Tabari and more to do with the injured pride of Ayatollah Khomeini, who proclaimed the death sentence upon Rushdie. Unfortunately, Rushdie's book was banned in most Muslim countries, so most Muslims never got a chance to read his vicious satire of Khomeini as a mullah who literally rides to power seated on the back of the angel Gabriel. If in fact it was simply Khomeini's annoyance at Rushdie's parody that brought on the death sentence, Muslims around the world have been pawns in an unfortunate contest of egos.

Extracts taken from:

Part 2

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