Rushdie addresses the theme of reincarnation through methods both subtle and explicit. Obviously, reincarnation is central to the novel's primary conceit: the transformation of Gibreel and Saladin into an angel and a demon. However, there are also less blatant examples of characters being reborn or renewed. These include Alleluia, whose life changes for the better after she climbs Mount Everest, and Mishal Sufyan, who marries her lover and becomes a responsible adult after the deaths of her parents. Although these characters do not literally die, they each suffer a catastrophic event that leads them to personal revelation. Even Saladin's newfound maturity at the end of the novel can be considered an example of maturity; he changes his name and becomes a new person based on the lessons he has learned from his time as a demon. Overall, the novel is concerned with questions of identity and transformation, and suggests that a new identity usually requires the death of a previous one.
One of the most puzzling aspects of The Satanic Verses is its treatment of miracles. Rushdie generally demonstrates a deep skepticism of religion. However, there are numerous miracles in the story – the main characters transform; Ayesha controls butterflies; or the Londoners have dreams of Saladin as the Goatman. Although the narrator includes information that calls the miracles into question – for example, revealing that Gibreel is a diagnosed schizophrenic or that Ayesha hears the word of God through pop songs – he never fully discounts them. At the same time that Gibreel is mentally unwell, he is seen to levitate by several others. The reader is left to puzzle out whether the miracles are real or imagined, literal or metaphorical. This struggle, Rushdie suggests, is something that the faithful and the non-faithful alike must experience when trying to decide what they believe, especially in a world that has the potential for both marvels and banality.
Indian identity proves to be a fraught concept in The Satanic Verses, as each character grapples with its meaning. In some cases, Rushdie is straightforward and even academic in his exploration of Indian culture. One example is Zeeny Vakil's book, which analyzes Indian identity as a product of pastiche and appropriation. However, Saladin's struggle with his Indian identity is much more emotional and abstract. It means different things to him over the course of his lifetime, and its meaning is often bound up with personal events, like his molestation at the age of thirteen. Overall, the novel suggests that Indian identity is both an absolute quantity that can be considered intellectually, and an enigma whose meaning is unique for each individual. Further, it suggests that Indian identity - like any identity - cannot be understood as a binary construction (i.e. Indian or not Indian) but rather is to be understood in each individual as an amalgamation of history, culture, and personal experience.
Rushdie portrays many instances of exploitation, from the romantic to the geopolitical. Gibreel and Saladin both take advantage of others, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes by choice. Gibreel is both a perpetrator and a victim of interpersonal exploitation. He benefits from Alleluia's selfless love for him, while never truly trusting her; meanwhile, his producer Sisodia takes advantage of his mental illness to produce a profitable film. Saladin's experiences with exploitation often have geopolitical significance; for example, he takes advantage of the Sufyans' hospitality despite his private objections that they are 'not British.' Rushdie suggests that in a global world with such a complicated history, the human potential for exploitation is almost innate. Our struggle comes in recognizing this and deciding how to react to it.
Several times over the course of the novel, the narrator posits mental illness as an alternative explanation for seemingly supernatural phenomena. For instance, it is never entirely clear whether Gibreel actually becomes angelic, or if the changes are a product of his schizophrenia. Likewise, the Titlipur plot hinges on the ambiguity of whether Ayesha is a prophet or insane. Further, one character's potential insanity often affects many others - examples are the dreams Londoners have of the goat-man, or the way Mahound's visions change his world. By exploring mental illness this way, Rushdie suggests that dreams and delusions are as much a part of the human experience as real events are, and should be taken seriously. They often carry as much weight and profundity as more banal events.
Faith and doubt
The London, Jahilia, and Titlipur storylines all feature characters who wrestle with religious doubt. In each case, characters whom we might normally expect to be absolutely certain about their faith – like Mahound and Ayesha – instead have to deliberate and ponder over what they believe true. Secular characters similarly face the same struggle; Mirza Saeed, Gibreel, and Saladin must all rethink their atheism when faced with evidence of supernatural events. One common feature of these struggles is that the characters are never entirely certain, and they are thereby forced to take personal responsibility for their beliefs. Characters like Ayesha and the Imam – who are absolutely convinced of their correctness – inevitably grow corrupt because they have never experienced doubt. On the other hand, characters who doubt grow through their inner struggles. The novel suggests that each person has both angelic and satanic potential, and must forever struggle between them. Overall, Rushdie seems to suggest that religion is a powerful and difficult aspect of our lives and history, one that deserves and requires personal struggle.
Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses in a climate of British conservative backlash against immigrants – particularly against South Asian ones, who comprise one of the largest minority groups in England. The novel addresses racism as an unfortunate but inevitable part of the immigrant experience. This theme manifests in minor moments, such as Gibreel's encounters with an anti-immigrant pamphleteer, and in more major ones, like when Saladin is beaten by the police. Further, the novel's arguable climax is affected by a riot against perceived police racism. Rushdie is fairly explicit about this theme – he suggests that racism is what turns Saladin and other immigrants into animals, a commentary on prejudice's dehumanizing effect. Finally, this theme connects to many of the others by being another instance of the way people exploit one another along a binary construction, rather than trying to undersand the complicated personalities and histories of each individual.
The Satanic Verses Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Satanic Verses is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.