Sympathy for the Devil: The Narrator’s Argument in The Satanic Verses
“Please allow me to introduce myself, / I’m a man of wealth and taste, / I’ve been around for a long, long year / Stolen many man’s soul and faith / … / Pleased to meet you / Hope you guess my name” sings the gravelly voice of Mick Jagger at the beginning of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” After admitting responsibility for the temptation and death of Christ, the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his family, and the German Blitzkrieg of World War II, the narrator argues that all humans contain a mixture of good and evil, and that even he, the narrator, should receive some sympathy. He sings, “Just as every cop is a criminal / And all the sinners, Saints / As heads is tails, / Just call me Lucifer…”
Unlike Jagger’s Lucifer, the narrator of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses never explicitly reveals his identity. Most of the novel is narrated in a multiple third-person style, in which the narrator follows various different characters, and has access to all of their thoughts and everything they perceive. However, the narrator periodically inserts himself into the story, in a series of very short passages that are written in the first person. In these passages, the narrator not-so-subtly hints that he is the devil himself, Satan. This changes the tone of the entire novel. The devil is the complete opposite of an objective narrator; traditionally, he cannot be trusted. In the New Testament, he even goes so far as to tempt Jesus, the son of God, to suicide: “Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…’” In the Koran, the devil, when cast down, says, “I will surely make all fair seeming to them on the earth; I will surely beguile them all,” and the Koran says of those who are beguiled, “And verily, Hell is the promise for them one and all.” In these holy texts, the devil is not to be believed; he seeks the downfall of humanity. This reputation casts doubt upon everything that the narrator of The Satanic Verses says. Moreover, it suggests that the narrator of the novel has an agenda in telling this particular story.
Satan, the narrator of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, through the story of the novel, and especially through a comparison of himself with his double, Saladin, is trying to prove to his human readers that he deserves redemption. This is not an easy task – this Satan must overcome the reputation he has gained through centuries of religious texts and literature and even pop songs such as Jagger’s. Satan does this by orchestrating the action of the novel, and, through the figure of Saladin Chamcha, who resembles Satan both in name and, temporarily, in visage, the narrator argues that even those who commit truly evil acts should be able to redeem themselves.
Although the narrator never names himself directly, it is suggested from the very beginning of the book that he is the Devil. The first thing the narrator does to bring himself into the story is to raise the question of his identity. He asks, “Who am I? Who else is there?” This might suggest that the narrator could be God, or Allah, himself. However, this is revealed to be untrue. Only a few pages later, the narrator says, “I know the truth, obviously. I watched the whole thing. As to omnipresence and potence, I’m making no claims at present, but I can manage this much, I hope… Who am I? Let’s put it this way: who has the best tunes?” (10). According to the online notes for the novel, this is “an allusion to a reply of John Wesley when he was reproached for setting his hymns to popular tunes to the effect that the Devil shouldn’t have all the best tunes.” The allusion might work both ways; however, even without the obscure reference, the passage clearly insinuates that the narrator is Satanic – God would certainly be able to make claims to omnipotence.
In the third section of The Satanic Verses it is made even clearer that the narrator is Satan. He says:
“Higher Powers had taken an interest [in Saladin and Gibreel], it should have been obvious to them both, and such Powers (I am, of course, speaking of myself) have a mischievous, almost a wanton attitude to tumbling flies. And another thing, let’s be clear: great falls change people. You think they fell a long way? In the matter of tumbles, I yield pride of place to no personage, whether mortal or im-. From clouds to ashes, down the chimney you might say, from heavenlight to hellfire … under the stress of a long plunge, I was saying, mutations are to be expected, not all of them random. Unnatural selections (133).
The narrator is acknowledging the connection between Gibreel and Saladin’s fall from the exploding Bostan and Satan’s fall from Heaven in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton’s epic poem begins with Satan in Hell, after “Him the Almighty Power / Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky / With hideous ruin and combustion down / To bottomless perdition…” Satan’s appearance is changed by his fall, although not drastically at first, “he above the rest / In shape and gesture proudly eminent / Stood like a tow’r; his form had yet not lost / All her original brightness.” Satan is indeed a higher power, and the greatest of the fallen archangels; in his rebellion he fell the farthest. By claiming “In the matter of tumbles, I yield pride of place to no personage,” the narrator of Rushdie’s novel is slyly admitting that he is the Devil himself.
The question then arises as to whether, in the world of The Satanic Verses, the devil can also be God. When “God” appears sitting on Gibreel’s bed, Farishta asks, “‘Who are you?’ … ‘Ooparvala,’ the apparition answered. ‘The Fellow Upstairs.’ ‘How do I know you’re not the other One,’ Gibreel asked craftily, ‘Neechayvala, the Guy from Underneath?’” (318). To answer the question, Gibreel’s visitor creates a massive storm and says, “Whether We be multiform, plural, representing the union-by-hybridization of such opposites as Oopar and Neechay, or whether We be pure, stark, extreme, will not be resolved here” (319). This passage suggests that God and Satan may be one and the same. But the apparition does not definitively answer the question of his nature, as Rekha Merchant points out to Gibreel, saying, “I wouldn’t trust that Deity of yours either, if I were you, … he hinted as much himself, fudging the answer to your Oopar-Neechay question like he did” (323). Rekha tries to tell Gibreel that the Devil and God are one being, but she is lying. She says,
This notion of separation of functions, light versus dark, evil versus good, may be straightforward enough in Islam O, children of Adam, let not the Devil seduce you, … but go back a bit and you see that it’s a pretty recent fabrication. Amos, eighth century BC, asks: “shall there be evil in a city and the Lord hath not dine it?” … It isn’t until the Book of Chronicles, merely the fourth century BC, that the word shaitan is used to mean a being, and not only an attribute of God. (323)
Rekha’s point is a strong one, and she isn’t alone in making this point. Early in the 2nd Century CE, a philosopher named Valentius established a school that speculated that “the origin of darkness, and thereby of the dualistic rift of being” was located “within the godhead itself.” However, I would argue that Merchant’s argument, although based in the real doctrine of certain religions, is ultimately false. We already know that Rekha is a demonic spirit; as Gibreel falls from the Bostan at the beginning of the novel, she says to him that she comes from “Hell, because that’s where you sent me” (8). Because she is demonic, nothing she says can be trusted. But the Rekha who makes the point about the separation of functions is not the true Rekha; Gibreel realizes that the “speech was one of which the ‘real’ Rekha would plainly have been incapable” (323). This Rekha, the apparition, is an entity designed to test Gibreel. Shortly after her speech on the nature of good and evil, he realizes she is false, and says, “It’s a trick. There is no God but God. You are neither the Entity nor Its adversary, but only some caterwauling mist. No compromises” (335). Rekha vanishes, defeated along with her lies.
Yet Rekha’s argument still seems to have potency because the narrator himself, when he appeared to Gibreel, claimed to be God. It is eventually revealed that the “Deity” who visited Gibreel on Alleluia’s bed was indeed the narrator of the novel. He admits it, saying:
I’m saying nothing. Don’t ask me to clear things up one way or the other; the time of revelations is long gone. The rules of Creation are pretty clear: you set things up, you make them thus and so, and then you let them roll. Where’s the pleasure if you’re always intervening to give hints, change the rules, fix the fights? Well, I’ve been pretty self-controlled up to this point and I don’t plan to spoil things now. Don’t think I haven’t wanted to butt in; I have, plenty of times. And once, it’s true, I did. I sat on Alleluia Cone’s bed and spoke to the superstar, Gibreel. Ooparvala or Neechayvala, he wanted to know, and I didn’t enlighten him; I certainly don’t intend to blab to this confused Chamcha instead. I’m leaving now. (408-9)
In this passage, the narrator, like Rekha, tries to suggest that he is God as well as Satan, but he never takes credit for creation, and this narrator has a penchant for bragging about all of his deeds, from the metamorphoses of Saladin and Gibreel to the above apparition. When the narrator says he “didn’t enlighten” Gibreel, he means that he lied to him – the apparition said that it was from Heaven, and he was not; he was from Hell.
The narrator is not God, he is Satan, the Devil, Lucifer, by any name God’s adversary. The narrator cannot be God, because in his opening statements, he admits that he is not omnipotent or omnipresent, and presumably not omniscient either. These traits would certainly be present in the one true God. With his “I’m making no claims at present,” the narrator hints that he, Satan, the angel who would be but is not God, still desires these things. In Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, if there is a single God that is opposed to the Devil, he never shows himself. The narrator says, “From the beginning men used God to justify the unjustifiable. Small wonder, then, that women have turned to me” (95).
The narrator could have told the story of Gibreel and Saladin without revealing his identity; he chooses not to. Satan chooses to almost confront his readers with his identity, challenging us to believe him despite his reputation. In the Gospel, Jesus describes the devil, saying, “He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Milton’s Satan says, “For only in destroying I find ease / To my relentless thoughts…” Rushdie’s Satan does not deny any of these accusations – instead he tries to overcome his past through a simple inductive argument: if a human being, who rejects his father and commits unspeakable acts, can receive forgiveness from those he has harmed, why should the Devil not be given that same redemption? To make this argument, he takes the charismatic and likeable Saladin Chamcha, turns him into a monster, and lets us watch as the world allows Saladin to atone for his misdeeds.
Saladin begins the novel as a likeable and understandable figure. He is first described, when falling from the exploding Bostan, as “buttony, pursed Mr Saladin Chamcha” (4), a description which, although not exactly flattering, is certainly easier to identify with than Gibreel, who is gyrating and singing almost unintelligibly as he falls. The narrator constantly emphasizes Saladin’s humanity in extraordinarily physical terms; when he lands safely on the ground, “Saladin Chamcha coughed, spluttered, opened his eyes, and, as befitted a new-born babe, burst into foolish tears” (10). Saladin’s childhood, although privileged, managed to evoke pity in the reader. When the ten-year old Salahuddin loses the “fabulous hoard” (35) of the found wallet, when he imagines his “dream-city, ellowen deeowen … London” (37), when the thirteen-year-old Chamchawala is molested on the rocks outside of his house, we sympathize and identify with him in an extremely visceral way. Saladin never disgusts us like the womanizing, halitosis-infected Gibreel. Saladin’s loves, revealed to us in the seventh book, allow us to understand the very essence of his being: “Culture, city, wife; and a fourth and final love, of which he had spoken to nobody: the love of a dream… his imagined son” (400). We understand Saladin; we know and see in ourselves his hopes and dreams.
Of course, even before he is transformed into a satanic form, Saladin is not perfect. He is married, and claims to love his wife, but he “went to bed with Zeeny Vakil within forty-eight hours of arriving in Bombay” (51). But perhaps what is most alienating about Saladin is his rejection of his past. The narrator admits that this can be seen as odious, saying, “A man who sets out to make himself up is taking on the Creator’s role, according to one way of seeing things; he’s unnatural, a blasphemer, an abomination of abominations.” But even this is not really despicable, Satan goes on to say immediately, “From another angle, you could see pathos in him, heroism in his struggle, in his willingness to risk: not all mutants survive. Or consider him sociopolitically: most migrants learn” (49). Saladin’s faults, although not insignificant, are understandable; he is not a strange and disgusting Bollywood idol like Gibreel.
Even before he transforms, Saladin shares several traits with Satan. Both Satan and Saladin reject their fathers. Satan, rebelling against his God, created such strife that he was cast out of heaven: “And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” In Milton, the faithful angel Abdiel reminds Satan, “As by his Word the mighty Father made / All things, ev’n thee,” and Satan responds, “Doctrine which we would know whence learnt: who saw / When this creation was? Remember’st thou / Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being? We know no time when we were not as now.” Satan denies that his father is responsible for him, and in doing so, is cast out of heaven.
Saladin’s rejection of his father comes in a different form. At first, Saladin distances himself from his father. He rejects his father’s second wife without meeting her, obtains British citizenship, becomes an actor, directly against his father’s wishes, and eventually stops communicating with his father. But then, when he first returns to India, instead of denying the importance of his father in his life, Saladin blames all of his faults on his father:
Of what did the son accuse the father? Of everything: espionage on child-self, rainbow-pot-stealing, exile. Of turning him into what he might not have become. Of making-a-man of. Of what-will-I-tell-my-friends. Of irreparable sunderings and offensive forgiveness… Above all, of magic-lampism, of being an open-sesamist. Everything had come easy to him, charm, women, wealth, power, position. Rub, poof, genie, wish, at once master, hey presto. He was a father who had promised, and then withheld, a magic lamp. (69).
Saladin, after his attempt to escape his father, now tries to blame his life upon Changez Chamchawala. Changez, years earlier, had loved his son infinitely, in his own way. He had sent his son to England for the best education possible. Before the plane took off, Changez made a superstitious motion that Saladin would later repeat when flying, “trying not to let his son see him doing it, [Changez] crossed two pairs of fingers on each hand, and rotated both his thumbs” (41). I see this as a prayer for safety; Changez seemed afraid of the dangers of flying and wanted to protect himself and his son however he could. Changez cared, above all else, for his son’s safety and growth into a man. Forcing Saladin to pay for the first time in London was intended as a life lesson that would benefit the young man for the rest of his life. But because of Saladin’s continued rebellion, Changez is eventually forced to sever his ties to his son. “Face it, mister:” he says, “I don’t explain you any more” (69). Like God, Changez is forced to cast away his brightest star.
Once he returns to England from India, fallen from his father’s grace, Saladin begins to resemble the Devil physically. He becomes hairy, his feet turn into hooves, he develops horns that grow “both thicker and longer, twirling themselves into fanciful arabesques” (275), he sprouts a thick beard, a tail, and a permanent, giant erection. His breath becomes as foul as Gibreel’s had been. In the final stages of his physical transformation, he grows to massive height, and “smoke began to issue from [his] pores” (294); he breathes fire. However, the real change comes when Saladin acknowledges the evil that exists within him.
In the first half of the book, even when he divorces himself from his father and from his country, even when he is cheating on his wife, Saladin is, in his own way, trying to do the right thing, whether for himself, or for some concept of “the good.” He genuinely believes that England is better than India; this motivates his denial of his earlier self. But when his form has finally changed completely into that of a devil, he also acknowledges that many of his impulses are evil. The narrator says of Saladin, “I am, he accepted, that I am. Submission” (289). Saladin admits that evil does lurk in his heart, and makes the decision to act upon that evil by revenging himself upon Gibreel; the narrator comments, “who should the Devil blame but the Archangel, Gibreel?” (294). This passage is very similar to Satan’s sentiment in Paradise Lost, “So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, / Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost; / Evil be thou my good.” Saladin also sounds very much like Shakespeare’s greatest villain, Iago, who says of his commander Othello, “I follow him to serve my turn upon him… / …I am not what I am.” Saladin, like Iago and Satan, has completely fallen from grace, and in this moment is restored to his human form, because he has learned that, even as a man, he contains evil.
Once Saladin has completed his descent by admitting his own evil impulses, he seeks a way to injure Gibreel. Saladin believes that he wants to revenge himself on Gibreel for, “his treason at Rosa Diamond’s house; his silence, nothing more” (427). The narrator, though, claims that Saladin’s true motives go beyond revenge. Satan says:
Let’s rather say an even harder thing: that evil may not be as far beneath our surfaces as we like to say it is. That, in fact, we fall towards it naturally, that is, not against our natures. And that Saladin Chamcha set out to destroy Gibreel Farishta because, finally, it proved so easy to do; the true appeal of evil being the seductive ease with which one may embark upon that road. (427).
At first, Saladin is not sure what exactly he wants to do to Gibreel. At Billy Battuta’s lavish party, he approaches Gibreel, looking for some way to attack him. All Chamcha does, at this point, is to tell Gibreel how Pamela became pregnant, “‘Congratulate her lover,’ Saladin thickly raged. ‘My old friend, Jumpy Joshi. Now there, I admit it, is a man. Women go wild, it seems. God knows why. They want his goddamn babies and they don’t even wait to ask his leave” (429). Saladin unwittingly excites the jealousy of Gibreel; after Saladin points out Jumpy, Gibreel chases down the unfortunate karate instructor and knocks him cold with an oar. The first time Saladin propels another towards an evil act it is unintentional, but it teaches him Gibreel’s weakness, and begins his journey down the path to becoming an Iago. As he “grows closer” to Gibreel, Saladin more thoroughly understands Farishta’s insane jealousy, and how to capitalize upon it. He thinks, “You poor bastard, … you really are going off your wretched head at a rate of knots. Don’t imagine that means I’ll let you off” (436).
Having discovered his enemy’s weakness, Saladin begins to attack Gibreel. He starts small, making an offhand comment about Allie: “She’s certainly a very attractive woman” (438). Gibreel’s response, a glance full of rage, tells Saladin that he has chosen the right Achilles’ Heel to attack. Saladin’s later attempts to incite Gibreel’s jealousy become more and more insidious, cruel, and unforgivable. The narrator even says, “There is the moment before evil; then the moment of; then the time after, when the step has been taken, and each subsequent stride becomes progressively easier” (438-9). Chamcha tells Farishta the story of Strindberg’s wife, who left him because he was too jealous, and then watches as Gibreel verbally abuses his lover. Then, Saladin finally begins to make phone calls to Gibreel and Alleluia. He calls the lovers, using his thousand-and-one voices to raise Gibreel’s jealousy past the boiling point. Saladin becomes a poet, speaking his lines to Gibreel with the voice of a child, creating a new set of Satanic Verses:
I like coffee, I like tea,
I like things you do with me.
Tell her that.
***Rosy apple, lemon tart
Here’s the name of my sweetheart.
***Roses are red, violets are blue,
Sugar never tasted as sweet as you.
Pass it on.
***When she’s down at Waterloo
She don’t wear no yes she do
When she’s up at Leicester Square
She don’t wear no underwear;
Sis! Boom! Bah!
Rah! Rah! Rah!
***Violets are blue, roses are red,
I’ve got her right here in my bed.
Goodbye, sucker. (444-6).
With these verses, Saladin completes his metamorphosis into a demon, although his outward form remains human. He destroys Gibreel’s sanity, causing Farishta to commit an “Unforgivable Act” upon Allie. Gibreel does not smother Allie as Othello killed Desdemona; he is much more cruel, destroying her past in the form of all her miniature Everests, including the priceless one made by her guide. Ironically, the first person Alleluia calls to find sympathy and tell of her break from Gibreel is her false friend and destroyer, Saladin.
Saladin has ruined Gibreel utterly, he has abandoned the good, he has become a new Iago, a new Satan, but very soon thereafter he is forgiven, both by his discarded father and the man he has destroyed. As London burns, Gibreel races through the city with his trumpet Azraeel, breathing fire upon people and buildings. He sees Saladin, whom he has discovered to be the author of his fall from Alleluia’s grace, trapped underneath a fallen beam in the Shaandaar Caf, surrounded by flames. Gibreel could leave the fallen Chamcha to die, but he:
lets fall his trumpet; stoops, frees Saladin from the prison of the fallen beam; and lifts him in his arms… Gibreel Farishta steps quickly forward, bearing Saladin along the path of forgiveness into the hot night air; so that on a night when the city is at war, a night heavy with enmity and rage, there is this small redeeming victory for love. (468).
Chamcha receives news of his father’s impending death, and, instead of ignoring the passing of the father he chose to reject, decides “it was imperative that he reach Bombay before Changez left it for good” (511). Salahuddin discovers that he has “recovered from the past” (515), from his evil. Changez forgives his son; Salahuddin shaves his father’s face. He carries the weak old man to the bathroom; his father says, “you get the lamp, after all” (529). Salahuddin inherits from his father the magic lamp that is grace and salvation, “He took the lamp from its shelf and sat at Changez’s desk. Taking a handkerchief from his pocket, he rubbed briskly: once, twice, thrice. The lights all went on at once. Zeenat Vakil entered the room” (533). When Gibreel confronts Salahuddin at the end of the novel, Chamchawala is truly repentant; facing death at the hands of a gun, he thinks, “he was going to die for his verses, but could not find it in himself to call the death-sentence unjust” (546). Gibreel, once an angel, commits suicide, Salahuddin, once the devil Saladin, rediscovers the love of his father, finds new love, and is given a new lease on life. He learns that “in spite of all his wrong-doing, weakness, guilt in spite of his humanity he was getting another chance” (547).
The narrator tells the story of Saladin Chamcha to raise a specific question: does Saladin deserve redemption? There is no way that any reader with a heart can say no. Certainly, Saladin’s evil destroys the greatest love affair in the book, and results in the deaths of Gibreel, Sisodia, and Alleluia. But because he seeks redemption, because he admits his fallibility, we do not begrudge him his salvation. Saladin does not end like Iago, the demi-devil whose last words are “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word.”
The narrator is making a subtle argument through the action of the novel: if Saladin deserves a second chance, then perhaps all those who commit evil should be allowed to redeem themselves. The narrator may be Satan, he certainly has fallen from heaven, but he is not the Satan of the Bible, the Koran, or even of Milton. The traditional Satan does not seek redemption, or readmittance into heaven he seeks to mar God’s works on Earth, and, “wills the Bad, and always works the Good” (417). This narrator is not that Satan. He does not seek to destroy God’s creatures, men, simply to change them, to argue through them for his own redemption. His is not deductive; the Devil cannot prove that he deserves to be saved. It is an inductive argument, an argument by examples; if Saladin, as evil as the devil himself, can be saved, why not the Devil himself? Saladin has discovered that “even the most unforgivable crime of being one’s father could be forgiven, after all, in the end” (513). Can Satan forgive his father?
There is a major flaw in the narrator’s argument: Satan is a higher power, a fallen archangel; Saladin is human. Saladin is saved because of and in spite of his humanity, a quality that the narrator tells us repeatedly that he does not possess. This point would seem to suggest that the Devil, once an angel who should have known better than humans not to fall into evil, does not deserve redemption. But even against this point, Satan acquits himself. Throughout his tale, the narrator displays a very human understanding of true emotion whether the love of Alleluia Cone and Gibreel Farishta, Rosa Diamond and Martin de la Cruz, Jumpy Joshi and Pamela Lovelace, or especially, Salahuddin and Changez Chamchawala. This Satan understands the transcendence of climbing Everest and of sex, the overwhelming emotion and charisma of Ayesha, the butterfly girl, the unbreakable bond between father and son. The narrator made me cry with his tale of Changez’s funeral, “The grave. Salahuddin climbs down into it, stands at the head end, the gravedigger at the foot. Changez Chamchawala is lowered down. The weight of my father’s head, lying in my hand. I laid it down; to rest. The world, somebody wrote, is the place we prove real by dying in it” (533). No heartless demon could be capable of such affecting prose.
Satan succeeds. He wins, through Saladin, redemption, or at least understanding, in our eyes. The third set of Satanic Verses revealed by the novel is the narrator’s verses. Paradoxically, these Verses are the novel, all 547 pages. These verses do not destroy, like Saladin’s, they create, and allow us to forgive. And it is heartbreaking that, for the narrator, there is no forgiveness from his father, the ever-silent God, who never speaks once in the novel, never offers his fallen angel-son forgiveness, a magic lamp, or even sympathy.
Brians, Paul. Notes on Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988). Online at
Jagger, Mick and Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones). “Sympathy for the Devil,” Beggar’s Banquet. London/Decca Records: 1968.
Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion. Boston, Bacon Press: 1958.
The Koran. Transl. J. M. Rodwell. London, Guernsey Press Co: 1983.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Scott Elledge. New York, W.W. Norton & Company: 1993.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Ed. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger. New York, Oxford University Press: 1977.
Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York, Viking: 1988.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. From The Tragedies. Ed. Peter Alexander. New York, The Heritage Press: 1958.
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