Frequently in America today, radicalism of any type is viewed as wrong and even repugnant. People with strongly held beliefs, especially of the “fundamentalist” sort, are labeled as fanatics or religious zealots. For many Americans there are no spiritual absolutes, and thus those with firmly held sacred beliefs are viewed as spiritual bigots or religious racists.
This attitude is readily seen in recent cases involving Christians reacting to the movie The Last Temptation of Christ and Muslims reacting to Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses.1 For many, the Islamic uproar over The Satanic Verses is essentially no different from how Christians reacted to The Last Temptation of Christ. Time magazine’s February, 1989 cover story on Salman Rushdie states that “last year’s furor over the Martin Scorsese motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ demonstrated that Christians, particularly those who believe in the literal interpretation of Scripture, are similarly sensitive about fictional portrayal of the sacred, though their protest generally takes less violent forms” (emphasis added).2
Other leading journalists, news commentators, editorialists, and so on, have written similar critiques, all suggesting that the Muslim world’s fanatical response to The Satanic Verses was horrendous but essentially no different from “fundamentalist” Christians who objected to The Last Temptation of Christ. One commentator said that “before casting stones at our Islamic brothers, we should first take a look at our own country. If we’re honest we’ll cringe at what we see…there is a difference between the two situations, but it is only a matter of degree. In principle, both groups preach the same message: intolerance of views other than their own and a lack of understanding of the importance of free speech.”3
Such critiques are based, however, on an ignorance of the teachings of both Christianity and Islam. The ways in which Christians and Muslims reacted are fundamentally different, not just different in degree — and this fundamental difference stems from enormous disparities between the Christian and Muslim world views.
The real issue is not whether people should have strongly held beliefs but how they present these beliefs to those who do not share them, and — just as important — how they respond when their cherished beliefs are ridiculed and scorned. In this article, I will illustrate this point by exploring the vastly different world views of Christianity and Islam.
THE SATANIC VERSES AND MUSLIMS
Anyone even slightly conversant with the Islamic faith knows that the Muslim holds the Qur’an (Koran) to be fully the word of God (Allah), and likewise holds Muhammad in the highest esteem as God’s greatest prophet. For the Muslim, Muhammad — as the “Seal of the Prophets” — is the epitome of all virtue and honor (Qur’an 33:40).
Viking/Penguin Press, the publisher of The Satanic Verses, describes Salman Rushdie’s work as “an Arabian nights welter of interweaving fables, folk-tales, and fierce social commentary, in which the realistic melts into the fantastic and the past into the present….[exploring] some of the grand polarities of the ages — God and Satan, East and West, man and woman, as well as the blurred boundaries between good and evil.”4
What the publisher does not make clear, however, is that in this book Rushdie ridicules and attacks many of the most cherished tenets of the Islamic faith, all in the name of “literary art.” Rushdie states that his work “isn’t actually about Islam, but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay.”5 That may have been Rushdie’s original intention, but nonetheless the novel as it was actually written contains many passages that could only be extremely offensive to Muslims.
In The Satanic Verses, Muhammad is referred to as “Mahound,” traditionally a satanic version of Muhammad’s name given to him by medieval Christians. His character in the novel is flawed by vacillation, dishonesty, and lust. One example of this is a sequence where Salman (one of the leading fictional characters in the book) discusses Mahound’s moral failures: “Listen, I’m no gossip, Salman drunkenly confided, but after his wife’s death Mahound was no angel, you understand my meaning. But in Yathrib he almost met his match. Those women up there: they turned his beard half-white in a year. The point about our Prophet…is that he didn’t like his women to answer back, he went for mothers and daughters.”6
One of the most heinous passages for Muslims is the section dealing with “the satanic verses,” from which the novel takes its title. Here the prophet Mahound, tempted by the angel Gibreel (a not-too-subtle reference to the archangel Gabriel, whom Muslims believe dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad), makes a deal with his enemies to include in his holy book (the Qur’an) the worship of three of their goddesses alongside that of the one true God. Later Gibreel tells Mahound that this was a satanic deception, and Mahound orders the verses accepting these goddesses to be deleted from the text.
Elsewhere in the novel we find descriptions of the Qur’an’s wording as having been intentionally distorted; the patriarch Abraham as a “bastard”; and the historically revered person of Bilal as an “enormous black monster.” Additionally, the prostitutes in a brothel are given the names of Muhammad’s wives.
This last instance is particularly offensive to Muslims, who think of Muhammad’s wives as the “mothers of all believers.” This is analogous to the way Roman Catholics would be offended if Mary — whom they consider the mother of all believers through her Son — were compared in any way to a whore. To make matters worse, Rushdie names this brothel “Hijab” — the Arabic term for the way Muslim women modestly veil themselves in public. These are some of the main elements in Rushdie’s book condemned as blasphemous by Muslims.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST AND CHRISTIANS
Just as Muslims were offended by multiple features in The Satanic Verses, so Christians were offended by more than one aspect of The Last Temptation of Christ. Particular incidents and dialogue were offensive, but the entire world view and theology of both the book (by Nikos Kazantzakis) and the movie (directed by Martin Scorsese) were objectionable as well.
For many Christians, the most repugnant elements in the movie are those in the hallucination sequence in which Jesus, while suffering on the cross, envisions himself as having denied the road to Calvary and having lived a “normal” life instead. He visualizes himself as having married Mary Magdalene and having sexual relations with her. She then dies abruptly and he marries the other Mary, Martha’s sister. Later, when this Mary is out of the house, Jesus has an adulterous affair with Martha.
For obvious reasons, this sequence is deeply insulting and offensive to Christians. But the rest of the movie is little better, for the Jesus portrayed throughout is a fetid counterfeit of the biblical Jesus. At the very beginning, Jesus is depicted as a coward and traitor, working with the Romans by making crosses for their many crucifixions. Judas, a heroic and honorable figure in the film, castigates Jesus for this:
Judas: You’re a disgrace. Romans can’t find anybody else to make crosses, except for you. You do it. You’re worse than them! You’re a Jew killing Jews. You’re a coward! How will you ever pay for your sins?
Jesus: With my life, Judas. I don’t have anything else.
This rendition of Jesus as a sinner like any other man is a dominant theme in the movie. In different places, Jesus both confesses his sins and asks various people for forgiveness. In one scene, Jesus is in the desert with a group of ascetics, to whom he confesses: “I’m a liar, a hypocrite; I’m afraid of everything. I don’t ever tell the truth, I don’t have the courage….I don’t steal, I don’t fight, I don’t kill — not because I don’t want to — but because I’m afraid. I want to rebel against you, against everything, against God, but I’m afraid. You want to know who my mother and father is? You want to know who my God is? Fear! You look inside me and that’s all you’ll find.”
The Jesus of this movie is simply a man, someone chosen by God to become the Messiah, the Christ. He is not God, but slowly becomes divine by following God’s will. He is portrayed as a weak, mentally-tormented, sin-ridden person. This Jesus seems to teach universalism, that everyone will be saved. And he plots his own martyrdom with Judas, much against Judas’s wishes, so that he can become the Savior.
The historical Jesus — the Jesus of Scripture and of the Christian creeds — bears no resemblance to the sinful and cowardly Jesus of Martin Scorsese. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus did not become the Messiah or Christ; rather, He was the Christ from birth. Likewise, He did not become a Savior. The angelic proclamation was, “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11, NKJV).
The New Testament witnesses attest that Jesus is eternal God become a man to die and atone for our sins (John 1:1,14; 5:18; 8:56-58; 10:30-34; 20:28; Mark 2:1-11; Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 1:16-18; 2:9; Matt. 20:28; etc.). Jesus is described by all who knew Him as being perfect and sinless (1 Pet. 2:22; Heb. 4:15; 2 Cor. 5:21; John 8:46). Likewise, His entire life was devoted to the truth. Jesus said of Himself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Elsewhere, Jesus excoriates His enemies as following their father, the Devil, “for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44).
The mockery of Jesus which Scorsese offers is completely foreign to the pages of the New Testament, which is the only authentic source for knowledge of the subject. It is extremely affronting to the historical Christian faith, which worships Jesus as Lord and God!
Scorsese attempted to deflect criticism by issuing the following disclaimer at the beginning of the film: “This film is not based on the Gospels but is a fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.” However, this hardly assuages the personal feelings trampled on by the blatantly offensive and unhistorical representation given.
THE MUSLIM REACTION
In October of 1988 reaction against Rushdie’s book surfaced in India, which was the first nation to ban the book, followed closely by Pakistan, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. On February 12, 1989, six people were killed and 83 wounded in Pakistan when the police fired upon demonstrators protesting the publication of the book in the United States. The climax came on February 14 when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a “fatwa” (i.e., theological ruling) saying, in part:
I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of “The Satanic Verses,” a book which is against Islam, the prophet, and the Qur’an, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are hereby sentenced to death….I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult Islamic sanctity. Whoever is killed doing this will be regarded as a martyr and will go directly to heaven.7
During the next two days, Iranian clerics posted a bounty of more than $5 million for Rushdie’s death. Subsequent riots against Rushdie’s novel in India and Pakistan claimed the lives of fifteen more people, with an additional 140 wounded.
Most Westerners cannot understand why Muslims have displayed such an intense reaction to a book. By Western standards Rushdie did not do anything that would merit such a hostile, life-threatening response. The world view of Muslims, however, is much different than that of Westerners — and according to their world view, the actions of Rushdie do merit punishment.
In the West, the ingrained ideas of separation of religious and secular, church and public, and of individual freedom are foundational. Most Westerners separate their religious beliefs from their social and interpersonal relationships.
This is unthinkable to the Muslim. The Muslim world view does not compartmentalize and dichotomize the various areas of life. It is holistic: its beliefs are incorporated into every area of daily living. This is evidenced by the all-encompassing Islamic rules which regulate all aspects of daily life, including how one should dress, bathe, eat, and so on. The devout Muslim is called to prayer five times each day, an obligation assiduously obeyed. In sum, no part of the Muslim’s daily life is separate from his Islamic beliefs. Even the word “Muslim” means “one who submits” (to Allah).
Islamic religious control of government and society is expected and is a necessary part of Muslim “evangelism and discipleship.” Shar’iah (Arabic: “path, road”), or Islamic law, governs every facet of Muslim life. The Shar’iah recognizes six specific crimes with fixed punishments. Theft (except in cases of extreme poverty) is punishable by the cutting off of the hand or fingers of the thief. Adultery, as well as the false accusation of adultery, is punishable by stoning.8 The drinking of alcoholic beverages is punishable by 80 lashes from a whip in public. And finally, highway robbery and apostasy (including “blasphemy”) are punishable by the death penalty.9 Rushdie, who was raised as a Sunni Muslim in India, falls into the latter category.
As to the harshness of these punishments, Suzanne Haneef — author of What Everyone Should Know about Islam and Muslims — tells us that “the Islamic punishments, called in Arabic hudood, that is, the ‘limits’ imposed by God, are not in fact intended merely as penalties for a proven crime but as deterrents against further crime. As a result, in those societies in which the punishments prescribed by the Islamic Shar’iah are enforced, there is little or no crime, and citizens feel safe.”10
Compounding Rushdie’s “blasphemy/ apostasy” indictment is the fact that he is fully conversant with the beliefs and feelings of Muslims. Although he is a British citizen, he is not a Westerner ignorant of Islamic sensitivities and thought. He was fully aware that his book was mocking Islam and would offend Muslim believers.
Muslims Agree with the Death Sentence
Many Muslims, even in the West, concur with the death sentence passed on Rushdie by the now deceased Khomeini. For instance, Georges Sabagh — the director of UCLA’s Near East Studies Center — stated emphatically that in sentencing Rushdie to die, the Ayatollah Khomeini was “completely within his rights.”11 Muslim convert Yussef Islam, formerly popular singer Cat Stevens, likewise supports Khomeini’s edict: “If someone defames the prophet, then he must die.”12
Qur’an 5:36 demands swift “justice” against those who oppose Muhammad and Islam:
The Punishment of those
Who wage war against God
And His Apostle, and strive
With might and main
For mischief through the land
Is: execution, or crucifixion,
Or the cutting off of hands
And feet from opposite sides,
Or exile from the land.
Dr. Muzammil Husain Siddiqi, the Director of the Islamic Society of Orange County (California), and former Director of Islamic Affairs for the Muslim World League Office in New York, stated that this passage applies to any who are “mischief makers”13 — that is, any who attack or cause trouble against Islam.
Some Muslims Disagree
On the other hand, many Muslim leaders rejected Khomeini’s unqualified fatwa against Rushdie. The Shi’ite Muslims (constituting only about 10 percent of the worldwide Muslim population, but 90 percent of the Iranian Muslims) are usually much more aggressive and militant in their faith than the dominant sect, the Sunnites. Thus, there are differences between the groups on the appropriateness of the death sentence against Rushdie, a sentence which is still in effect today. Even among the Sunnites, however, there is an emerging consensus that Rushdie should at least be tried according to Islamic law, given a chance to repent, and then sentenced on that basis.
Sheik Abdelaziz Bin Abdallah Bin Baz, the most senior religious figure in Saudi Arabia, recently declared that Rushdie should be tried in absentia in an Islamic country for heretical behavior.14 Sheik Muhammad Hussam al Din, an Islamic theologian in Egypt, asserts that “blood must not be shed except after a trial, [in which the accused has been] given a chance to defend himself and repent.”15 A senior scholar (who declined to be identified by name) at Al Azhar Mosque in Egypt, the Sunni Muslim world’s leading center of Islamic thought and teaching, concurred: “In Islam there is no tradition of killing people without trying them.”16
In summary, while the Islamic reaction against Rushdie’s work seems fanatical and unjustifiable to Westerners (who distinguish the secular from the religious), Muslims not only see no separation between secular and religious, they also believe that they are the instruments for carrying out Allah’s justice. To Muslims, Rushdie deserves swift retribution, including (either without a trial or after a trial — if he does not repent) his execution.
THE CHRISTIAN REACTION
Because Westerners tend to dichotomize life into different realms or spheres, many people in our country have failed to understand and take seriously the real hurt and indignation devout Christians felt over The Last Temptation of Christ. They have denounced and scorned Christians who protested this movie. For them, the individual’s freedom of expression and speech overrides any hurt and offense suffered by others. In the critics’ readiness to condemn these Christians, they have grossly erred in comparing the Christian reaction to The Last Temptation of Christ with the Muslim reaction to The Satanic Verses. There is a fundamental difference between the two responses, based on fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam.
As we noted earlier, the Islamic faith justifies using force to coerce people to follow certain rules and regulations. These are not just civil laws but laws regarding morals and beliefs as well.
Christians, however, do not believe that the church is the instrument by which God judges and punishes the world. Instead, Christianity teaches that the world will be judged and punished according to how they treated Christ and His Church, not by His Church. Christians protested the movie by exhibiting a loving but uncompromising disposition to their opposers. The New Testament vociferously opposes any notion of personal retribution by God’s people. For example, Jesus declared: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-44). This message of radical love is foundational for the Christian. Elsewhere, the apostle Paul taught: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21; cf. 1 John 2:8-11; 4:20; 1 Cor. 13:7; Gal. 5:22; Matt. 5:38-39; etc.).
What the non-Christian often misunderstands about this, however, is that loving one’s neighbor does not necessarily mean becoming his or her “doormat.” Christians are commanded to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). It is perfectly consistent with love to peacefully protest such a travesty of truth as The Last Temptation of Christ. In fact, love for those whose souls could be poisoned by such a misrepresentation of the Savior requires some kind of response. But, the attitude in which one does this is all-important: “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24-25).
To compare the Muslim reaction to The Satanic Verses with the Christian reaction to The Last Temptation of Christ without noting the differences rooted in their basic beliefs is to demonstrate a lack of understanding of either religion. The differences between the two are not simply “a matter of degree” but are fundamental; Christianity and Islam are antithetical to each other in many essential respects.
We should understand the legitimacy of the Islamic disapproval of The Satanic Verses as something blasphemous to their religion. But there is a radical disparity between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of Muhammad, nowhere more clearly expressed than in the reactions to these two fictions.
It is not without reason that Muhammad is often depicted as the sword-wielding prophet, set out to conquer all enemies. The Qur’an commands the Muslim as follows:
Fight those who believe not
In God nor the Last Day,
Nor hold that forbidden
Which hath been forbidden
By God and His Apostle,
Nor acknowledge the Religion
Of Truth. (Qur’an 9:29)
In stark contrast, the ideal for the Christian is epitomized in the words of Jesus spoken as He was dying on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
We therefore may conclude that religious radicalism may be right in one instance and wrong in another. For the real issue is not how strongly one holds his or her beliefs, but how one presents those beliefs to others. The Christian is commanded to share his faith with others, but to do so with a spirit of radical love, of “meekness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15).
- Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (New York: Viking/Penguin Press, 1989).
- William E. Smith, “Hunted by an Angry Faith,” Time, 27 Feb. 1989, 32.
- “Last Temptation of Islam,” The (Fort Wayne) Journal-Gazette, 19 Feb. 1989, 6C.
- “The Satanic Verses,” News from Viking, 2.
- Salman Rushdie, “My Book Speaks for Itself,” The New York Times, 17 Feb. 1989, A39.
- Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, 366.
- Charles P. Wallace and Dan Fisher, “Khomeini Says Author of ‘Satanic Verses’ Should Be Killed,” Los Angeles Times, 15 Feb. 1989, part 1, 13.
- This is the traditional Islamic punishment for adultery. However, the Qur’an says the punishment should be 100 stripes from a whip (Qur’an 24:2).
- A recent Western example of this was the murder of a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl by her own brother in Los Angeles for falling away from Islam (cf. Peter H. King, “A Clash of Cultures — Girl Is Slain,” Los Angeles Times, 14 Oct. 1985, part 1, 1.
- Suzanne Haneef, What Everyone Should Know about Islam and Muslims (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1979), 117.
- Smith, 32.
- USA Today, 18 Feb. 1989, 4A.
- Handwritten comment on this and a number of other passages which this author possesses from Dr. Siddiqi. In this current case, however, Dr. Siddiqi has repudiated the threat of death against Rushdie.
- Youssef M. Ibrahim, “Saudi Muslim Weighs Rushdie Trial,” New York Times , 23 Feb. 1989, A15.
- Russell Watson, et al., “A Satanic Fury,” Newsweek, 27 Feb. 1989, 36. 16 Alan Cowell, “Clerics Challenge Rushdie Sentence,” New York Times, 18 Feb. 1989, A6.