NABIL YASIEN MOHAMED
THIRTY years since its initial publication, Shabbir Akhtar’s second edition (with an extensive additional preface) of Be Careful with Muhammad is as relevant as ever, if not more so. Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, published in 1988, opened the floodgates to mocking Muhammad (SAW) with the subsequent release of the Danish cartoons in 2005 and the Charlie Hebdo caricatures of Muhammad (SAW) in 2015.
Akhtar’s classic remains the most authoritative and persuasive critique of Rushdie’s literary terrorism, The Satanic Verses. He argues against the absolutism of free speech, and the necessity for responsible speech. In a lucid manner, Akhtar’s book comprehensively surveys and comments on the events which followed the publication of The Satanic Verses, from the Muslim protests, the book burning in Bradford, the Liberal inquisition on Muslim sentiment to Khomeini’s infamous fatwa to assassinate Salman Rushdie.
Why is the slander and vilification of Muhammad (SAW) such a sensitive and injurious matter to Muslims? Akhtar pertinently addresses this question in the opening chapter. He states that, unlike the imitation of Christ, the imitation of Muhammad (SAW) is a religious obligation upon all Muslims. Muhammad (SAW) represents the moral ideal upon which Muslims pattern their daily lives; to Muslims he is ‘not dead’ but ideologically alive. His model of righteousness is closely followed with utmost fervour and enthusiasm. Thus, ‘any attack on this holy pattern is already an attack on a Muslim’s own professed ideals,’ says Akhtar. This amounts to an injury more significant than a racial slur or libel, it is an attack on the moral exemplar for almost a quarter of the human race. Akhtar notes that, for Muslims, Islam is part of their identity much like race and gender; an assault on it is an assault on an inescapable part of one’s being.
Contenders against Rushdie are often criticised for not having actually read The Satanic Verses. In an objective manner, Akhtar does a thorough evaluation of the book, on its literary merit and contentious remarks. He states that the book is not just a work of fiction but its striking resemblance to actual events is a calculated attempt to recast Islamic history in a negative light and assassinate the character of Muhammad (SAW); whom Rushdie names Mahound, a derogatory name Christians used in the Middle Ages to refer to Muhammad (SAW) as the devil.
Akhtar clearly shows that any authentic Muslim, or even nominal, will rightfully be enraged by Rushdie’s malicious mockery and vicious slander of Muhammad (SAW). For instance, Akhtar states that The Satanic Verses, in crass and vulgar language, describes Mahound as an unscrupulous politician and drunkard. He also describes him as a debauched sensualist whose household is portrayed in pornographic imagery as a brothel. In the brothel, the prostitutes assume the names of Mahound’s wives. Akhtar is in no way averse to debate and legitimate historical criticism but draws the line at ‘scurrilous imaginative writing’.
In a balanced manner, Akhtar defends the principle of free speech but deems it immoral to, in its name, wage malevolent attacks on a religious tradition. He states that in mature liberal democracies, writers should indeed condemn evil and injustice without the fear of offending, however, they should not tolerate works that ridicule and demean established religious traditions. Akhtar states that the tension is not between freedom of speech versus censorship but disciplined criticism versus Western licence to ridicule and slander.
He also notes that freedom of speech is not absolute; laws against racial hatred, gender discrimination, libel, blasphemy (as in Britain), obscenity and sedition do exist. He thus advocates for state legislation to prohibit material such as The Satanic Verses to protect religious minorities and maintain social harmony. Thus, such laws will not protect the beliefs per se but ‘they protect the people who hold these beliefs against offence’.
What gave the Rushdie affair its momentum? Besides its actual hype (from the book burning to Khomeini’s fatwa), Akhtar alludes to a psychic clash of civilisations between Islam and the West; a perpetual tension that exists since the days of the Crusades; a Western animus against Islamic civilisation deeply embedded in its historical memory. Islam has always been an intellectual and political contender of the West, incessantly fringing on its borders. But now a contemporary fear exists of an ever-increasing Muslim presence in the heart of Europe.
Akhtar states that the expectation for Muslims to swallow and tolerate Rushdie’s literary terrorism is not just a campaign of free speech but cultural imperialism. It is the West that chooses the moral fashion. We dare not express our independence for literary taste, no matter how distasteful it may be. Our rejection of this very sentiment fuels the affair, and enrages the West. Akhtar remarks that it is this ideological battle that is the primary reason for the continuous defence to circulate a ‘relatively inferior piece of literature’.
Yes, inferior according to Akhtar on the basis of its ambiguity, historical inaccuracies, lack of integrity, flaccid character portrayals and not to mention its wanton inflammatory remarks. He states that it is hard to take Rushdie’s novel seriously as a work of art for it is evident that Rushdie’s intention was not disciplined criticism but unprincipled abuse.
Akhtar discusses the incident of the ‘satanic verses’ in Islamic history and its inauthenticity, though, provides a cursory glance of it and the opinions of classical Muslim scholars. A topic he does commendably discuss at length is apostasy in the Islamic tradition. In his discussion of apostasy, he recognises that it is punishable by death, though, it is synonymous to treason. He states that Islam values religious freedom (Quran 2:256, 109:6), however, if an act of apostasy is meant to undermine the Islamic political body or actively oppose the House of Islam, the death penalty is issued. He thus remarks that apostasy in and of itself (void of aggravated political and social implications) does not warrant capital punishment.
Akhtar discusses the broad approval of Khomeini’s fatwa by many Sunni scholars but doesn’t discuss the disapproval of it from other religious bodies or scholars. He comes across approvingly of Khomeini’s fatwa, theologically speaking, but doesn’t recommend implementing it outside the House of Islam. Instead, he recommends campaigning to obtain a state ban of the book.
Akhtar argues that in a multicultural society it is unwise to allow denigration and abuse for it leads to public disorder but also the marginalisation of minority groups. He states, ‘Muslims want to integrate but not to assimilate: they want to compromise on matters of fashion but not of principle.’ Akhtar shows that multiculturalism has failed in Britain. Muslims’ sacredly held convictions are clearly not taken seriously or respected. Akhtar states, ‘If society deteriorates – as societies can – there will be dire consequences for the defenceless Muslims.’
Akhtar is a voice of warning; more than thirty years ago he remarked, ‘Next time there are gas chambers in Europe, there is little doubt concerning who will be inside them.’ In the preface to the second edition, he remarks that this was no hyperbole for the world witnessed the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Europe shortly thereafter; setting the stage for the persecution of Muslims in other parts of the world, from the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar to the Uyghurs in China, among others.
Shabbir Akhtar’s book is original, persuasive and timely. More than thirty years after the Rushdie affair, Islamophobia is more rampant than ever. Akhtar’s book remains relevant to the debate on censorship and free speech, and without a doubt the best critique against The Satanic Verses and Salman Rushdie’s campaign against Islam. It is essential reading, deserving a place on everyone’s shelf.
- An abridged version of this article was published in the October 8, 2021 print edition of Muslim Views.