Most people associate “the Satanic verses” with the notorious novel by Salman Rushdie. In 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie for writing this book — and this death sentence has been perpetually reaffirmed by Iranian leaders, though no assassin has yet carried it out.
But Rushdie did not invent the “Satanic verses.” The term actually refers to an incident, recorded in Islamic tradition and referred to in sura 53, in which Satan, not Allah, spoke through Muhammad’s mouth. The verses that the devil gave to the Prophet of Islam have been known thereafter as “the Satanic verses.”
According to Muhammad’s biographer Ibn Ishaq, in a section of his biography preserved by Tabari, “the apostle was anxious for the welfare of his people” — the pagan Quraysh — and “longed for a way to attract them.” However, ultimately it was the leaders of the Quraysh who came to him with an offer. They would give him wives and money, and even make him their king — if he would in turn accept their condition. “This is what we will give you, Muhammad, so desist from reviling our gods and do not speak evilly of them. If you will not do so, we offer you one means which will be to your advantage and to ours.”
“What is it?” asked Muhammad.
“You will worship our gods, al-Lat and al-Uzza, for a year, and we shall worship your god for a year.”
After initially rejecting the offer, Muhammad received a revelation saying that it was legitimate for Muslims to pray to al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat, the three goddesses favored by the pagan Quraysh, as intercessors before Allah. The Quraysh were elated, and prostrated themselves before Allah along with Muhammad and the Muslims after Muhammad finished reciting the new revelation. Ibn Ishaq recounts:
Then the people dispersed and Quraysh went out, delighted at what had been said about their gods, saying, “Muhammad has spoken of our gods in splendid fashion. He alleged in what he read that they are the exalted Gharaniq whose intercession is approved.”
The Gharaniq were high-flying cranes. Muhammad meant that they were near Allah’s throne, and that it was legitimate for Muslims to pray to al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat as intercessors before Allah.
Word traveled quickly among the Muslims: “the Quraysh have accepted Islam.” Since peace seemed to be at hand, some of the Muslims who had earlier fled to Abyssinia for their safety began to return. But one principal player in the drama was not at all pleased: the angel Gabriel, the one whose appearance to Muhammad had given birth to Islam. He came to Muhammad and said: “What have you done, Muhammad? You have read to these people something I did not bring you from God and you have said what He did not say to you.”
Muhammad began to realize just how severely he had compromised his monotheistic message: “I have fabricated things against God and have imputed to Him words which He has not spoken.” He “was bitterly grieved and was greatly in fear” of Allah for having allowed his message to be adulterated by Satan. But Allah reassured him: “Never did We send a messenger or a prophet before thee, but, when he framed a desire, Satan threw some vanity into his desire: but Allah will cancel anything vain that Satan throws in, and Allah will confirm and establish His Signs” (Qur’an 22:52). Allah, says Ibn Ishaq, thereby “relieved his prophet’s grief, and made him feel safe from his fears.” He also sent down a new revelation to replace Satan’s words about al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat in sura 53, repeating the scorn that the Qur’an has elsewhere for the idea that Allah would have daughters while earthly men have sons (vv. 19-23).
Not surprisingly, Muhammad’s about-face only inflamed tensions with the Quraysh all the more. Ibn Ishaq recalls that the polytheists began to use this episode against him:
When the annulment of what Satan had put upon the Prophet’s tongue came from God, Quraysh said: “Muhammad has repented of what he said about the position of your gods with Allah, altered it and brought something else.” Now those two words which Satan had put upon the apostle’s tongue were in the mouth of every polytheist and they became more violently hostile to the Muslims and the apostle’s followers.
The Satanic verses incident has naturally caused Muslims acute embarrassment for centuries. Indeed, it casts a shadow over the veracity of Muhammad’s entire claim to be a prophet. After all, if Satan could put words into Muhammad’s mouth once, and make him think they were revelations from Allah, who is to say that Satan did not use Muhammad as his mouthpiece on other occasions? Thus Islamic scholars, apologists, and historians have attacked the Satanic verses with particular ferocity. Muhammad Husayn Haykal argues in his Life of Muhammad that the incident never happened at all, and indeed could not have happened, for after all, Muhammad is a prophet:
This story arrested the attention of the western Orientalists who took it as true and repeated it ad nauseam”…It is a story whose incoherence is evident upon the least scrutiny. It contradicts the infallibility of every prophet in conveying the message of his Lord.
He marvels that even some Muslim scholars take it to be true. And its roots in the traditional sources are firm. It is hard to see how and why such a story would have been fabricated and accepted as authentic by such pious Muslims as Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Sa’d, and Tabari, as well as by the later Qur’anic commentator Zamakhshari (1074-1143), who is unlikely to have recounted it if he did not trust the sources, if it were not authentic. Here, as in many other areas, the witness of the early Islamic sources is compelling. Those who would wish away the Satanic verses cannot get around the fact that these elements of Muhammad’s life were not the inventions of his enemies, but were passed along by men who believed he was indeed the Prophet of Allah.
Besides this oblique reference to the Satanic verses incident, the Meccan sura 53 contains an account of two of Muhammad’s visions of the angel Gabriel, along with a challenge to the unbelievers to disprove the authenticity of those visions (vv. 1-18). Then after the denial of the three goddesses (vv. 19-23), Allah explains that unbelievers give the angels female names (v. 28) and that Muhammad should shun them (vv. 29-30).
Allah follows this with a discourse on the differing outcomes of belief and unbelief. Allah will forgive those who avoid major sins (v. 32), but the one who turns back after embracing Islam (vv. 33-34) ignores what was told to Moses (v. 36) and Abraham (v. 37) — that no one will intercede for anyone else on the Day of Judgment (v. 38) and everyone will receive their just deserts (v. 39). Allah controls everything (vv. 43-49) and destroyed earlier populations of unbelievers (vv. 50-54). People then should heed Muhammad’s warning, for the Judgment is coming soon (vv. 55-62).
(Revised June 2016)