The Satanic Verses

December 2020

Overview: There had been a deep longing on Muhammad’s part to see the regeneration of his people through his message but he had fallen miserably short of it. The conversion of forty or fifty souls ill compensated for the bitter alienation of the whole community. His heart was vexed and his spirit chafed, by the violent opposition of the most respected and influential chiefs. Sad and dispirited, the Prophet longed for reconciliation, and considered how it could be effected, this gave entrance to the famous Satanic verses.

Outline: Muhammad had sent a small small group of his early converts to Abyssinia as they were being persecuted but notwithstanding the hospitable reception at the court of Negus, the Abyssinian refugees again returned to Mecca. Their return is linked with one of the strangest episodes in the life of Muhammad. Hishami contents himself with saying that they returned because news had reached them of the conversion of the Qurraish but Al-Waqidi and At-Tabarl narrate a story which outlines the matter of the Satanic Verses.

On a certain day the chief men of Mecca, assembled in a group beside the Ka‘aba to discuss, as was their custom, the affairs of the city. Muhammad appeared and seating himself by them in a friendly manner, began to recite in their hearing Sura An-Najm. The chapter opens with a description of Gabriel and then there unfolds a vision of that angel, at which certain heavenly mysteries were revealed.

Words of compromise

As he continued the devil suggested to Muhammad an expression of thoughts which had long possessed his soul; and put into his mouth words of reconciliation and compromise such as he had been yearning that Allah might send unto his people, namely: “These are exalted females, And verily their intercession is to be hoped for.” The Qurraish were astonished and delighted with this acknowledgement of their deities; and as Muhammad wound up the sura with these closing words: “So fall you down in prostration to Allah and worship Him” the whole assembly prostrated themselves with one accord on the ground and worshipped. Walid alone, unable from the infirmities of age to bow down, took a handful of earth and worshipped, pressing it to his forehead (Sahih Al-Bukhari Volume 6 Number 386). All the people were pleased at that which Muhammad had spoken, as it was basically a repitition of a pagan chorus which expressed the local belief that these three godesses, Al-Lat, Al-Uzza and Manat, were the daughters of Allah and would intercede for them. They began to say: “Now we know that it is the Lord alone that giveth life and taketh it away, that createth and supporteth. And as for these our goddesses, they make intercession with Him for us; wherefore, as thou hast conceded unto them a portion, we are content to follow thee.” But their words disquieted Muhammad, and he retired to his house.

Withdrawal of Satanic verses

In the evening Gabriel visited him; and the Prophet (as he often did) recited the sura to him. Gabriel said: What is this that thou hast done? Thou hast repeated before the people words that I never gave unto thee. So Muhammad grieved greatly and said, I have spoken of Allah that which He hath not said. But the Allah comforted him and restored his confidence, and cancelled the verse, and revealed the true reading of it, (i.e. as it now stands) namely: “Have ye seen Lat and ‘Uzza, and another, the third (goddess), Manat? What! for you the male sex, and for Him, the female? Behold, such would be indeed a division most unfair! These are nothing but names which ye have devised, ye and your fathers” (An-Najm 53: 19-23)

Now when the Qurraish heard this, they spoke among themselves, saying: Muhammad hath repented his favourable mention, of the rank of our goddesses with the Lord. He hath changed the same, and brought other words instead. So they increased their malice and began to persecute the faithful with still greater severity.

The Satanic Verses founded on fact

Previously, pious Muslims scandalised at the lapse of their Prophet into so flagrant a concession, would reject the whole story. But the authorities are too strong to be impugned. It is hardly possible to conceive how the tale, if not in some shape or other founded in truth, could ever have been invented. The stubborn fact remains, and is by all admitted, that the first refugees did return about this time from Abyssinia; and that they returned in consequence of a rumour that Mecca was converted. To this fact the narrative of Al-Waqidi, At-Tabari and Ibn Sa’d Kitabal-Tabaqat al-Kabir Vol 1 p.237) afford the only intelligible clue. The incident was recorded by Ibn Ishaq, the most famous of the biographers, but has been expunged in the later recension Sirat Rasulullah of Ibn Hisham. An ancient manuscript discovered in the Qaraawiyin Mosque at Fez in Morroco entitled Kitab al-Maghazi (Book of the Campaigns) contains lectures given by Ibn Ishaq and the story is included in it.

The most reowned traditionist Al-Bukhari supports the story : “Narrated Ibn Abbas: The Prophet performed a prostration when he finished reciting Surat an-Najm, and all the Muslims and pagans and Jinns and humans being prostrated along with him (Al-Bukhari Volume 6 Number 385). It is hard to see how the unanimous spirit of devotion was achieved apart from Muhammad’s concession.

Analysis of the circumstances

The circumstances may be conceived of like this: In their present mind the Qurraish would never abandon their idols which centred on the Ka’aba. If, however they would acknowledge Allah as the the one true God and look to the idols as only symbolical of the angels, what harm would result from their continuance? Incredible as the concession may appear and irreconcilable with his first principles Muhammad acceded to it, and consented to maintain the heathen deities as representatives of heavenly beings whose intercession was to be hoped for with the Deity. If Muhammad stipulated any safeguards against the abuses of idolatry, no trace of them can be now discovered. We only know that the arrangement, of whatever nature, gave satisfaction to the chiefs and people, and produced a temporary union. But Muhammad was not long in perceiving the inconsistency into which he had been betrayed. The people worshipped images, and not Allah. No reasoning on his part or no assurance from them, could disguise the annoying fact that idolatry was as gross and prevalent as ever.

His only safety now lay in disowning the concession. The devil had deceived him. The words of compromise had no part of the divine faith received from Allah through his heavenly messenger. The lapse was thus atoned for. The heretical verses spoken under delusion were cancelled, and others revealed instead, denying the existence of female angels such as Lat and Uzza, and denouncing idolatry with a sentence of irrevocable condemnation. From now on the Prophet wages mortal strife with images and their supporters. His system gathers itself up into a pure and stern theism.

Al-Hajj 22:52-53a states: “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” The great Muslim commentator on the Quran, Zamakhshari, openly interpreted Al-Hajj 22:52-53 as referring to the occasion when Satan had substituted something in accordance with Muhammad’s own wishes. At-Tabari plainly stated that this verse was revealed to Muhammad immediately after his lapse and Tafsir Al-Jalalyn tells us that Muhammad was consoled by the passage.

However short his fall, Muhammad, retained a keen sense of his disgrace, and of the danger which, lay in parleying with his adversaries. In Al-Isra 17:73,74 Muhammad is told that his enemies had wanted to distract him from Allah’s revelations by substituting in his name something else which, had he fallen for it, would have made him their friend, but Allah strengthened him and stopped him from inclining to their wishes: “And their purpose was to tempt thee away from that which We had revealed unto thee, to substitute in our name something quite different; behold! they would certainly have made thee (their) friend! And had We not given thee strength, thou wouldst nearly have inclined to them a little” – Ibn Sa’d states that these verses were revealed to Muhammad immediately after the incident of the Satanic Verses (Kitabal-Tabaqat al-Kabir Vol 1 p.237).

Muhammad’s position injured by the lapse

But although Muhammad may have completely re-established his own convictions, and regained the confidence of his adherents, there is little doubt that the concession to idolatry, followed by a recantation so sudden and peremptory, seriously weakened his position with the people at large. They would not readily credit the excuse, that words of error had been ‘cast by the devil into the mouth of Muhammad.’ If the Quran were in truth His oracle, Muhammad would never be reduced to the petty shift of retracting as a mistake what had once been given forth as a message from heaven. The Qurraish laughed to scorn the futile endeavour of the Prophet to effect a compromise which should draw them away from idolatry.

Never again did Muhammad give way to any inclination to question the unity of Allah and to this extent he emegres from the whole affair with at least some credit.

Message4Muslims 2015

Acknowledgements ‘Muhammad the Prophet of Islam’ – John Gilchrist

‘Life of Muhammad’ – Sir William Muir