The Promise of the Magic Lamp: Submission and Sacrifice in The Satanic Verses
In The Satanic Verses, it seems that no relationship is a relationship between equals. Everyone is paired with an opposite: dominant and submissive, god and worshipper, angel and devil, faithful and adulterous. This inequality creates toxic, even dangerous situations, in which one person sacrifices much for the sake of someone else, or for the sake of religion, with nothing in return. Salman Rushdie plays with notions of faith and faithfulness to critique the concept of sacrifice in both religion and in personal relationships. Through both subverting the idea of blood sacrifice and portraying toxic relationships, Rushdie suggests that religion itself can be a toxic relationship, when a person gives up everything for a promise of a future they have no reason to believe in. This idea is epitomized by “the promise of the magic lamp,” and so I will begin with that, a part of the character Saladin Chamcha’s backstory.
When Saladin was growing up, his father was a formidable presence in his life. He is described as always spying on him or coming up right behind him, even ripping off Saladin’s bedsheet in the middle of the night to “reveal the shameful penis in the clutching, red hand (36).” The father is omniscient, omnipresent, and seemingly omnipotent to young Saladin, much like a god. In fact, he is described as “more godlike to his infant son than any Allah,” and a “profane deity (49).” When Saladin finds a wallet filled with British money, his father, sure enough, is there to snatch it away. To add to the father’s cruel nature, on a bookshelf in his study is a “magic lamp,” just like something out of A Thousand and One Nights. But of course he does not permit his son to rub it in the hope of letting a genie out. He does promise, however, that one day Saladin will come to possess it for himself. This “promise of the magic lamp” convinces the young Saladin that “one day his troubles would end and his innermost desires would be gratified, and all he had to do was wait it out (37).” This presents a structure that one sees time and time again throughout reading the novel: Someone desires something, but is unable to get it. In the meantime they suffer and are punished. They hold onto the hope that in the end they will get what they desire. This pattern, found throughout many different storylines in the novel, is a critique on faith that Rushdie is trying to make.
Saladin is not the only character with faith in something that may or may not cause all his troubles to end. Outside of this father-son relationship, the novel is full of romantic relationships and other interpersonal relationships that follow the same pattern, a pattern that is clearly toxic, even abusive. Religion, too, follows a similar structure in the novel. The “promise of the magic lamp” is depicted as similar to the “promise of the afterlife.” Characters place their faith in something that may or may not come after they die, and this faith becomes detrimental to the life that they have. Rushdie’s critique of blind faith in religion, especially Islamic extremism, is apparent even in the word he chooses to call it. Rather than calling it “Islam” in the Jahilia sections of the book, which feature the life of Mahound, or Muhammad, and his founding of the religion, Rushdie calls it by its literal English translation: Submission. This is a conscious choice on his part, meant to highlight the fact that Islam, one of the world’s dominant religions, literally means submission, a word that suggests its followers must allow themselves to be dominated, to surrender to the will of something or someone else. Of course, to submit to something is not always a bad thing—it encourages humility and can remind someone that they are only human. But taken to an extreme, submission can be deadly. The Supreme Leader of Iran at the time Rushdie wrote this book, Ayatollah Khomeini (coincidentally the same man who issued the fatwa against him), said, “What could be better in the service of Islam and the noble Islamic nation than to drink the beverage of martyrdom and proudly meet God (Hatina 123)?” With powerful religious leaders so accepting of the notion of martyrdom and suicide, it is no wonder that suicide attacks in radical Islam were, and still are, such an issue.
Submission means to give up something to someone else, and when a person has faith in an afterlife guaranteed to them if they become martyrs, then they might give up their lives and/or the lives of others in order to do so. The concept of self-sacrifice for the sake of religious faith is an extreme version of the magic lamp idea, a magic lamp worth dying for. This is seen in The Satanic Verses on a number of occasions. “Martyrdom is a privilege,” says Tavleen, the woman who hijacks the plane and goes on to blow it up midair. “We shall be like stars; like the sun (88).” This is an example of faith turned toxic. Tavleen has no evidence that murder and suicide will bring her to heaven, but she firmly believes in it. What she says at that moment certainly echoes Khomeini’s words above. When she kills the first hostage, she used the word “sacrifice,” and Rushdie emphasizes the use of that particular word (87). To sacrifice is to give something to a god in the hopes of gaining something in return. But it is not exactly an even trade—someone gives a sacrifice and then waits for their reward, hoping it will come. They “wait it out,” like Saladin for the magic lamp. The word calls to mind ancient rituals on the stairs of temples, blood being spilled for the sake of a good harvest. But this example is a thoroughly modern one, meant to show that the concept of blood sacrifice is not obsolete. It is done with a gun to the head rather than a dagger to the heart, but the idea is the same. Later, Tavleen sacrifices herself to her god, taking her fellow hijackers and the passengers on the plane with her.
Rushdie includes another example of a kind of blood sacrifice involving many people in the sections of the novel about Ayesha, whose rhetoric, like that used by Tavleen and Khomeini and found often in religious texts, advocates martyrdom. “Everything will be required of us, and everything will be given to us also (232)” becomes her refrain. She repeats it often until she has an entire village following her on a pilgrimage to the depths of the Arabian Sea. Rushdie complicates the concept of blind faith here—it is not entirely blind. The villagers have some sound reason to put their faith in Ayesha. Hers is a seemingly holy presence: wherever she goes she is followed by a mass of butterflies, the insects so drawn to her that they clothe her naked body. She also correctly diagnoses Mishal Saeed’s breast cancer (240). These are both valid reasons for the villagers to think she is some kind of prophet. However, when she promises that the sea will part for them just as it did for the Israelites fleeing Egypt, the villagers instead are drowned. By providing an example of faith that isn’t totally unwarranted, Rushdie shows that his critique is not faith itself, but the willingness to sacrifice everything for it. The fact that they believe in Ayesha as a prophet is not the issue here; in fact it is shown as a positive thing when Mishal first discovers she has cancer. The issue is the complete submission of self to this faith. As Frans Ilkka Mäyrä writes, “Rushdie’s text … does not address the total opposite of religious faith, it is not indifferent or unsympathetic towards the religious tradition. Instead, it articulates a middle ground between secularism and religiosity by exploring the religious elements with an involved but critical attitude.” When the villagers enter the water, “none of them reappear … not a single gasping head or thrashing arm (517).” To go far enough into the ocean after its unwillingness to part that the people drown, without so much as a struggle, is the most shocking part of the Ayesha story.
It should be noted that Rushdie is not depicting Islam exclusively as a dangerous kind of faith; his critique is of any extreme sacrifice to any extreme religion. As Meir Hatina and Meir Litvak write in their book Martyrdom and Sacrifice in Islam, “The idea and ideal of martyrdom for the sake of one’s beliefs has been viewed in most religions as the epitome of devotion to God (3).” They go on to explain the evolution of the concept of martyrdom in Islam, which has its roots in the other two Abrahamic religions; all three faiths have a history of being taken too far. Rushdie illustrates as well that martyrdom is not exclusive to religious faith. The novel portrays a number of martyrs within their personal relationships. Toxic relationships run rampant throughout The Satanic Verses, featuring inequalities of godlike proportions. Notable examples are the relationships women have with Gibreel. It is not insignificant that Gibreel had no luck whatsoever with women until he started acting in the roles of deities. Until he did, in fact, he “failed to kiss a single woman on the mouth (23).” As soon as he is cast as an elephant-headed god, however, he starts having sex with so many women that he cannot keep track of their names. Plenty of these women even want him to keep the elephant mask on while they make love (25). This is problematic, especially within a patriarchal religious culture, in that it shows women as wanting to give themselves to a godlike figure. Gibreel becomes their religion. Though he is abusive, unfaithful, and uncaring, they love him anyway and remain faithful to him. While Gibreel falls from the airplane, he has a vision of one of his lovers, Rekha, who killed herself because of heartbreak by falling from a skyscraper, calling to mind a fall from God. In the vision, Rekha says: “but afterwards you punished, you used it as your excuse to leave, your cloud to hide behind … now that I am dead I have forgotten how to forgive. I curse you, my Gibreel, may your life be Hell. Hell, because that’s where you sent me (8).” This quotation requires close analysis. First, by describing him as “punishing” and hiding in a cloud, it cements the idea that Gibreel is like a god to her, and she his worshipper. As long as she was alive, her faith was in him. She always had the hope of him returning to her, until the moment when he falls in love with Alleluia Cone: Gibreel’s version of a deity-like lover. It is then that she begins to doubt the power of her love for him, the idea that he will ever return just because she continually gives of herself for him. Doubt, as Rushdie points out, is the opposite of faith (94). Only when she dies and has no hope at all left for a future with him is she able to confront him and stop forgiving him. She is in Hell, not Heaven, which is significant. She chose Hell over life without Gibreel, making an unusual kind of martyr of herself, not out of faith but out of losing faith. However, it is the faith she put in Gibreel in the first place that led to her despair and suicide. “Everybody always forgave you … you got away with murder … God’s gift … (26)” she accuses him.
Gibreel is successful in being a godlike figure to women because he has the attitude that he is God’s gift to the world. This is what makes women give so easily to him. In The Satanic Verses, a person becomes godlike when what someone gives to them becomes a kind of sacrifice—sacrifice being, again, something that is given out of a false hope of getting anything in return.Saladin, the other main character in the novel, also has his share of toxic relationships, though he is often on the worshipping end of them, rather than the godlike one. Faith and faithfulness are inherently intertwined when it comes to his relationships. He is faithful to someone until he loses faith in them. Returning to the relationship with his father, when he goes to London he complies with his father’s request to pay all his bills for him. When he decides to become an actor against his father’s will, however, his father takes away Saladin’s hope of ever getting the magic lamp, saying he will never inherit it “now that you have your own bad djinni (48).” This is the thing that destroys their relationship until his father is on his deathbed. Saladin seems to replace this relationship with another toxic one, a rather unequal one with Pamela Lovelace. Though she does not love him, he pursues her, “need[ing] her so badly, to reassure himself of his own existence (50).” Though he tries his best to have faith in a “happy future” for them—a new promise of a magic lamp—he begins to doubt. This lack of faith leads to infidelity. Immediately afterwards he sleeps with Zeeny. Saladin eventually does inherit the lamp by the end of the novel, and when he rubs it, Zeeny appears; her name does in fact sound like genie, of course. But the lamp has more in store than that. Gibreel arrives at Saladin’s house after going on a killing spree, and when he rubs the lamp he finds inside of it a gun, shoots himself, and “is free (561).” The lamp that Saladin believed in so much ends up causing him trouble in the end, leaving a bloody body and police knocking at the door of his apartment.
Rushdie, through his narrative, combines religious extremism with romantic extremism, and extreme faith in all kinds of relationships. Whether one’s faith is in God, or in another person, Rushdie illustrates the problems that arise when one submits to that faith entirely. A healthy balance in faith is the key that Rushdie seems to suggest, a balance that is nowhere found within the novel. Instead, Rushdie depicts people who give up everything for nothing, a sacrifice that is sure to generate grim situations, from unfaithfulness in marriage to religious suicide attacks.
Beers, William. Women and Sacrifice: Male Narcissism and the Psychology of Religion. Wayne State University Press, 1992. .Hatina, Meir and Meir Litvak. Martyrdom and Sacrifice in Islam: Theological, Political, and Social Contexts. I.B. Tauris, 2017. Mäyrä, Frans Ilkka. “The Satanic Verses and the Demonic Text.” 2005.Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. Henry Holt, 1988.
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