Born in Mumbai and educated in the United Kingdom, Salman Rushdie is the author of ten novels, including The Enchantress of Florence and The Satanic Verses, as well as essays, short stories, and criticism. His novel, Midnight’s Children, was awarded the Booker Prize in 1981 and was chosen in a “Best of the Bookers” reader poll as the favorite choice in the Prize’s history.
Below is an edited transcript from the public discussion Rushdie had with Gauri Viswanathan, Class of 1933 Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, on the occasion of the launch of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life.
Gauri Viswanthan: It’s a real pleasure to be here with you, Salman. Thank you for joining us in the launch of the institute and I want very much to thank Nick Dirks and Mark Taylor for inviting me to be a part of this conversation. Salman, your novels team with stories within stories that get at different levels of religious experience, and you often turn to myth, miracles, and magic to reflect on that experience. Let me begin by asking a simple question not about religion and the imagination, the title of this session, but about religion as imagination. If, as could be argued, conceptualizing an unseen power inherently involves human imaginings of the divine, what does the literary imagination add? Or what work does it do that is different from the religious imagination? Do you see yourself trying to recover, through literature, the impulses of a religious imagination before it freezes into theology, before experience turns into a theological, ethical construct?
Salman Rushdie: Well, the first thing to say is that all literature began as sacred literature. That is to say, the beginnings of writings are religious, that the oldest written material that we have is all the product of one or another religious experience. It’s a long time, if you look at the history of literature, before literature separates itself from that articulation of religion. So there is something profound in the origins that link them.
The other thing is that religious language has had such a powerful effect, I think, on all of us, whether we are religious or not, that there aren’t words to express some things except religious words. For instance, if you think about a word like the soul, what does that mean if you are not a religious person? I don’t believe in an afterlife or a heaven or a hell and so on, and yet I feel that when I use that word it has some meaning. What could that meaning possibly be? There isn’t a secular word for that feeling that we are not only flesh and blood, that there is, as Arthur Koestler, said “a ghost in the machine.” Whether you are religious or not, you feel obliged to use language that has been shaped by religion in order to express things that may not have a religious purpose. So that’s a constant battle. But I think you are right to say that I’m not interested in devotion, and in that sense I’m not interested in writing books that express anything other than inter-human devotion, which is temporary.
Viswanathan: At the same time, I’ve read several writings of yours where you talk about both the beauty and the terror of religion, the ability of religion to inspire profound feelings of great beauty and majesty as well as to incite great bloodshed.
Rushdie: Yeah, I was being polite.
Viswanathan: But I remember that you wrote this very evocative passage — I think this was when you were in King’s College. You had gone to give a talk and you spoke about the architecture . . .
Rushdie: Yes, that’s true. You know, I grew up as a student looking out of my window at King’s College chapel, and it’s hard not to believe in the capacity of religion to create beauty when King’s College chapel is outside your window, this exquisite thing. Then I was asked to speak there, and one of the things that I thought would never happen to me in my life is that I would deliver the sermon in King’s College chapel. There are moments when your life surprises you.
And I have to tell you, apropos of nothing, I learned from doing that why priests speak the way they do. It’s because of the echo. They said to me, “You know, it’s 92 feet high, it’s stone, there is no carpet, and if you speak in an ordinary speaking voice then your echo comes back at you and no one can hear a word you are saying. And—so you have to—speak—like this. You have to say—what you have to say—in this way. And suddenly you understand how preachers do it, and it’s because of the echo. There is a metaphor lurking in there somewhere.
Viswanathan: So do you see something about aesthetics that does have that religious sensibility?
Rushdie: Yeah, what I’m saying is, I think there are different ways of getting there. It’s quite clear that religion has inspired people to create things of incredible beauty and also that people of no religion have created things of incredible beauty. So there is nothing intrinsic about religion that makes it the way of getting there, but it is a way of getting there. I think it’s true that you can listen to great religious music, for example, you can look at icon painting, you can read Milton or Blake, and you can easily see the power of religious belief to create or to help to create beauty. And for me the great, the most useful thing has been the power of religion to create very strong metaphors. I’ve gone back often to what I call dead religions, what’s more commonly called mythology. But remember that the great Greek myths were once the religion of Greece, and Roman mythology was once the religion of Rome. It had all the apparatus of priests and anathemas and so on to defend it. Now that it doesn’t have that, we can simply look at it as text and, of course, you find in these stories astonishing amounts of meaning compressed into very, very small amounts of words.
When I was writing The Ground Beneath Her Feet, for example, I was studying the Orpheus myth. Now, you can express the whole story of Orpheus and Eurydice in less then 100 words. It doesn’t really require more than 5 or 6, what, 10 sentences maybe, and yet the amount of complexity pushed into that very small story is almost inexhaustible. You have this very complex examination of the relationship between love, art, and death, and you can turn it this way and that way. You can say that this story tells us — shows us — the power of art inspired by love to overcome death. Or, if you are feeling more pessimistic, it can show us the power of death to destroy love, even when love is guided by art.
There isn’t a single reading; there are many readings. That’s something that living religions also have in common. There is not a single way of reading the text; there are very rich and complex ways of reading these texts. If you’re in the text business, you’re very interested to see how much power can be concentrated in how little in these ancient works. So it’s been very important for me to examine that.
Viswanathan: In fact, The Ground Beneath Her Feet is the novel I wanted to talk about a little bit. You have pairs of contrasting characters in this novel such as the ultra-rationalist Sir Darius and the miracle-chasing wife, Lady Spenta. For Sir Darius, every intellectual effort begins with the death of the gods and he seeks out a secular origin prior to all religion, whereas his wife searches for enchantment.And in The Enchantress of Florence, your most recent novel, you have Akbar as a modern man who questions the existence of God and presides over spirited debates in the tent of the new worship between competing philosophical schools. Yet the same rationalist skeptic has created his imaginary Queen Jodha, and he lives in a world steeped in magic and miracles. So I wanted to ask you how you reconcile these two images co-habiting the same world, these super-rationalist figures, who are highly skeptical and who privilege human effort over religion and yet, at the same time, are encompassed by this world of miracles and magic.
Rushdie: Yeah, I don’t reconcile them. That’s the thing: I just allow them go on arguing inside me as well as outside. It’s true that if you are involved in the making of imaginative writing there is a powerful argument implicit in what you are doing against pure rationalism, because what you are doing often is not reasonable. The way in which a story is created or an imaginative piece comes to life, there is a mystery in it, and you can’t deny that is so. There is a bit of me — I guess the bit of me that is sitting here — that is quite rationalistic. I would argue, not unconventionally, that religion comes after reason and that, actually, religious texts were invented by people and that gods, indeed, were invented by human beings in order to answer the two great questions of life, “Where do we come from?” and “How should we live?” It seems as if every religion is based on an attempt to answer those questions, the question of origin and the question of ethics.
I would say, and I have often said, that I don’t need religion to answer either of those questions. Because, on the question of origins, the one thing you can say about every religion ever invented is that they are wrong. The world was not created in six days by a sky god who rested on the seventh; the world was not created by the churning of primal material in a giant pot; the world was not created by the sparks unleashed by the friction of the udders of a gigantic cow against the boulders of a bottomless chasm. All these things might be pretty, but they are not true. And so it seems to me that religion just has nothing to say on the question of origins. And on the question on ethics, it seems to me that whenever religion has got into the driving seat on that question, what happens is inquisition and oppression.
So it seems to me not just uninteresting, but not valuable to turn to religion. I don’t want the answers to come from some priest. I would prefer them to come from this, from the process of debate and argument and the kind of thing for which this institute has been set up. Actually, the first thing you accept in that situation is that there are no answers. There isn’t an answer; there is only the debate. The debate itself is the thing from which flows the ethical life. So that is what I would say, and that is what I think. But when I’m writing, something weird happens, and the result is these books which clearly do contain a large amount of what you would call supernaturalism. I find that as a writer I need that in order to explain the world I am writing about. As a person I don’t need it, but as a writer I do. So that tension is just there. I can’t reconcile it, it is just so.
Viswanathan: I’m very interested in what you just said now about debate and argument as being part of the formation of religion. I remember in an earlier conversation we had, when we talked about The Satanic Verses, you said that you were attempting to depict the convulsions that take place at the birth of any new religion, which you described as a history often marked by discord and disagreement. You had said, and I quote, “There are scenes in The Satanic Verses in which the early religion is persecuted and early members of the religion are verbally and physically abused by the mob in the city now called Mecca, and some of that abuse is there in the novel and some of these sentences were taken out as my abusive view of Islam.” Then you ask, “If you’re going to make a portrayal of the attacks on a new born faith, how can you do it without showing the attackers doing the attacking? If then those attacks are made into your view, it is a distortion.”
So I think your observation about religious debates of the past being turned into contemporary heresies goes right to the heart of the problem that those writing religious histories have, of always having to contend with mainstream accounts. Your effort, as far as I can tell, has been to depict alternative histories, with stories and traditions not represented in mainstream history. So it raises a very important point about the difficulties of representing religious debates when those arguments might have been effaced from the historical record or exist only as fragments, leaving traces on various textual traditions, which are then reconstituted as sacred traditions. In bringing that suppressed religious history of dissent, disagreement, and disputation back to the forefront of our consciousness, do you think that writers almost inevitably end up participating in those debates? Or do you think a reasonable distance can be maintained? What you said in that earlier conversation was that what you were trying to do in depicting the early history of Islam was turned into your heretical pronouncement, and you were trying to emphasize that distinction.
Rushdie: Yeah, I think that it ought to be possible simply to say, “This is something like what might have happened at the beginning, at the birth of this religion.” It ought to be possible to say that, neutrally, without seeming to be on one side or another. Clearly, what happened in the case of The Satanic Verses was that there was an assumption that I was on one side rather than the other and that, therefore, my meaning should be found in the hostility rather than in the defense. It’s a shame that’s what happened, but it is what happened. I think, on the whole, it must be possible in any open society to discuss openly how things happen. I think it’s a great shame in the world of Islam that so much interesting contemporary scholarship about the origins of Islam is not acceptable. And the reason it’s not acceptable is because of the insistence on the divine origin of the text.
Now, if you insist that the text is the uncreated word of God, then presumably the social and economic conditions of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century after Christ are not important, because God operates on a larger canvas than that. If, however, you are willing to historicize the text and to look at its creation as an event inside history rather than above history, then immediately what we know about the history of the period opens up and illuminates the text. I think one of the scholarly tragedies, right now, is that it’s not really acceptable to do this inside much of the Muslim world.
To give just one example, in the Qur’an, the Bible stories are strangely varied from the versions that exist in the Old and New Testaments so that in the chapter of the Qur’an called Miriam, which is about the birth of Christ, Christ is born in an oasis in a desert under a palm tree. Now, the reason for this is clear. Allow me to historicize for a moment: The prophet did not begin to prophesy until he was over 40 years old, and before that he had a long period as a traveling merchant, a very successful one. On those journeys, at oases and at way stations he would have met the only Christians who were present in the Arabian Peninsula at the time, who were Nestorian Christians. And Nestorian Christianity made local variations, local adaptations of Bible stories, so, in fact, the story about Christ being born under a palm tree in an oasis is a Nestorian story. It existed in the Nestorian tradition before the Qur’an, and the version in the Qur’an is more or less identical to that. So immediately you can see that this version arrives the way it does in this text because of the life experience of this man. But this is something you can’t say because it negates the divine origin of the text.
So this is the problem that is faced. I’ll answer your question about whether one can approach this neutrally, whether one can simply say, “This is probably what happened.” Even that statement now becomes embattled, because there is already an explanation of how these things happened, and if you try to diverge from that explanation you are seen as the bad guy. I have often spoken about Ibn Rush’d; maybe I should slightly rehearse that again, because I am not really called Rushdie. My father made up the name. My grandfather was called Muhammadin Halifid Elvi because he came from Delhi, but my father decided that was too much of a mouthful and so he invented Rushdie. The reason he invented it was because he was an admirer of the philosopher Ibn Rush’d, known to the West as Averroës. And I grew up with this accidental message, or this message in a bottle, from my father, which was contained in my surname. So, at a certain point, I had to find out about Ibn Rush’d, and it’s very interesting that he was one of the people who, in the twelfth century, tried to fight the literalist interpretation of the Qur’an and did so with great brilliance and scholarship and, as we can now see from the history of the world, lost that battle. But one of the arguments he made I have always found to be very beautiful, and so I offer it.
He said that if you look at the Judeo-Christian definition of God, it differs from the Muslim definition in one important particular, which is that the Jews and Christians say that man was created by God in his own image. What that sentence clearly suggests is that there is some relationship between the nature of man and the nature of God, created in his own image. Islam says the opposite, that God has no human qualities. In fact, it suggests that it would demean God to suggest that He had anything as minor as a human quality. He has divine qualities. And so Ibn Rush’d argued that language, also, is a human quality, and, therefore, it was unreasonable to expect or suggest that God spoke Arabic, because God presumably spoke “God.” As a result, even if you believe the story literally, when the archangel appears on the mountain and delivers the message to the prophet, he, understanding it in Arabic, is already making an active interpretation. He is already taking something which arrives in non-linguistic form and is understanding it linguistically — something which arrives as a divine message which he is transforming into human comprehension.
So it was argued that if the original act of receiving the text is already an act of interpretation, then further interpretation is clearly legitimate. That was his attempt, I think probably the most brilliant attempt, to destroy the power of literalism from inside the text, and from inside what is already said and accepted. Well, that didn’t work, unfortunately, though I wouldn’t mind having another go. Because it is true, and it is very sad, that of all the great world religions, this is the one which is born entirely inside recorded history. We really know what was happening at the time, and so it’s the one that can be studied as an event inside history, as a economic, social, cultural, political, world historic event. It’s actually not difficult to see the ways the conditions of the time impinge upon the Qur’an as a text and help to shape it, and it’s a tragedy that you’re not allowed to do that. I guess I tried to do that and there were people who disapproved.
Viswanathan: Then, would you say, that literature is probably one of the most effective mediums for historicizing religion, especially for its early formations, one which can, as you say, put the spotlight on religion as recorded history?
Rushdie: Well, it’s a way of getting people to read it. More people read novels than scholarly texts. I’m sorry to say that in this room, but it’s true. Of course, a lot of this would not have been possible had it not been for very, very detailed scholarship of a sort that is never going to be a mass-market event, but we can steal it, use it, profit by it.
Viswanathan: Let’s look at Akbar, one of the major figure in your last novel, The Enchantress of Florence. Would you see the historical presence of competing beliefs as a model for experiments with intellectual and religious pluralism, such as the one Akbar created with this tent of new worship?
Rushdie: Well, he’s attractive, isn’t he? Because he had this open-mindedness on the subject of religion. I don’t know that it was complete openness; it was more pantheism than open-mindedness, more of a belief that all religions were ways of worshiping the same god, described and named differently, but essentially the same. And, as you know, he tried to invent a religion which expressed that idea, the so-called “ Din-i-llahi,” and it didn’t catch on. People in the end preferred their differences to the idea of unity, and I think that’s one of the poignancies about the project of Akbar. The so called Ibadat Khana, the house of worship, the place of debate . . .
Viswanathan: But its not even a house, it’s a tent.
Rushdie: Well, I made that up.
Viswanathan: But that’s what’s so interesting in this little conceit that you have.
Rushdie: Well, what interests me is that. If you read the story, the history of Akbar and this place the Ibadat Khana, the chamber where all these philosophies met everyday in debate, it’s clear that it was a very important place in the court. And yet in what remains of Fatehpur Sikri, the capital city, nobody knows where it was. The building is lost, and nobody has any idea of where in the site it might have been. It’s very strange that a building which was clearly so important in the life of the court should have vanished without leaving a trace. So from that I just decided, well, maybe it was never a permanent building in the first place. The Mughals were incredible tent makers. They made very elaborate multi-story tents, and, in fact, you can say that the architecture of the Mughal period is a rendering in stone of some of the principles of the tent makers and that the architecture in some ways derives from the tent making. So I thought, maybe it’s a tent, and then I thought, maybe that’s kind of appropriate because ideas are not permanent. Ideas are things in flux, and they move and shift and you can pick them up here and put them down over there, so maybe a tent is the right place to discuss ideas.
Viswanathan: Is Akbar an ideal for you in any ways?
Rushdie: No. I worry about the idealization of Akbar because I think that a lot of that is backwards projection. We want to have a liberal, tolerant, almost kind of democratic man in the sixteenth century, but he was a despot, Akbar, and he was not interested in not being a despot. He was a man jealous of his power and he exercised it. I think the thing I was interested to write about was that conflict in him, between the self that was disputatious and open minded and the other self that didn’t want anybody to argue with him. You can’t understand him simply as one or the other. The thing that is colossally important about him is that he tried so hard to break down the barriers between the peoples of India, the barriers created by their different belief systems. I think that it is a heroic action, and it was followed by his son and his grandson. Jahangir, Shah Jahan, the next two emperors, essentially followed that project. Then after that came Aurangzeb who did a great deal to unmake the project. But, yes, I think it’s admirable.
But there are limits to it. There is a story that pre-exists, which I didn’t make up. It’s a legend, but it’s a legend that I thought was interesting because it shows the possible limits of such a project. The story is that the court musician, Dansen, created this raaga, which was the raaga of fire, and sang it so beautifully that his skin began to burn and, at the end of the music, there were actually burns on his body. So Akbar said to him, “Go home and rest and get well.” He came from the city of Gwalior, so he went back to Gwalior to rest and recover. In Gwalior he met these two girls called Tana and Riri who were famous for the beauty of their singing. They sang to him the Megh Malhar, the song of the rain, and the rain fell and it was magic rain and it washed away his burns. The emperors, hearing this story, astonished, invited these girls to the court so that he could celebrate them. And in the girls’ family there was a conversation, and the problem was that these were Hindu girls from a Hindu family and they did not wish to go to the court of a Muslim king. Yet they felt that if they were to refuse to go, then the king would be angry and there would be reprisals against their family, and so on. They didn’t know how to say yes, and they didn’t know how to say no, and so they committed suicide.
And it just struck me, if you were that kind of king, if you were the kind of king who believed that the borders between religions could be broken down and that people could all live together in mutual understanding, what a shock it must be to discover that there are people who would sooner die, sooner die than buy into that project. And it seemed to me that that was the limit of it. That’s why I’m saying it’s not idealistic. Here’s a project, but there are limitations to the project. There are people who will not do that, and we have to recognize that and see why that is and what comes out of that.
Viswanathan: Well, I think it’s very interesting, the position that you are taking about the idealization of Akbar, because there is certainly one strand of thought, especially in India, that holds Akbar as this proto-secular, syncretic figure.
Rushdie: Yeah, and some of that is true.
Viswanathan: Yeah, in fact, I was thinking of Armartya Sen’s book The Argumentative Indian, where he makes the strong claim that the diffusion of argumentative traditions in Indian life, cutting across social classes and shaping the Indian social world and culture, has helped to make heterodoxy the natural state of affairs in India, and even goes so far as to link it to the development of democracy. Would you go in that direction?
Rushdie: Far be it for me to argue with Armartya Sen, but why not? Look, Amartya uses Ashoka and Akbar as early examples of the development of a kind of Indian intellectual tradition which he espouses and values, which he offers as intrinsically Indian tradition — not something imported from outside. The idea that this kind of open, disputatious, secularist principle can be discovered from inside the Indian tradition rather than from outside, it is, of course, important, and I would not disagree with him about that. But the problem with selecting a couple of exemplars and saying this is what the Indian tradition comes from immediately makes one want to say that there are opposite exemplars. Why is it Akbar who is the model and not Aurangzeb? Why is it that the 50 years of tolerance of the reign of Akbar should be the model rather than the 50 years of oppression and violence of the reign of Aurangzeb only 3 kings down the line?
Ashoka and Akbar were both enormously impressive figures and it’s perfectly right to try to derive from them, if you like, an Indian tradition that one would want to have. The reason why I resist doing only that is that there is also a counter-tradition, a tradition of Muslim oppression of Hindus and Hindu oppression of Muslims, and the unwillingness of those two sides to compromise or get along. That’s part, unfortunately, of the tradition too. And that’s not just about India; that’s true anywhere you look. You can find models as shining examples in the past to say that these are the people to look to see where the present comes from, and where the future should come from, but you always have to recognize that there is a counter-example. Certainly, if you are writing novels, it’s very difficult to be only on one side of the fence. You have to be on both sides of the fence. You have to give the devil the best tunes.
Viswanathan: Well, with this vision, Akbar’s vision of new intellectual and religious pluralism that you depict, it’s very dispiriting to reach the end of the novel and see that vision disintegrate. There are these very powerful lines. In fact, I’m going to just quote . . .
Rushdie: You are going to give away the end of the novel?
Viswanathan: No, I’m not giving away. I think history has already given away the end of the novel, but:
“Once he has gone, all he thought, all he had worked to make his philosophy and way of being, all that would evaporate like water. The future would not be what he hoped for but a dry, hostile, antagonistic place, where people would survive as best as they could and hate their neighbors and smash their places of worship and kill one another once again in the renewed heat of the great quarrel he had sought to end forever, the quarrel over God. In the future, it was harshness not civilization that would rule.”
It’s an extremely bleak sense of the very possibility that Akbar had worked so hard to achieve in his life.
Rushdie: Yeah, sorry about that. It is bleak. It is bleak, but, you know, look at the world we live in. Look at it! I don’t want to be singing some happy song while people are slitting each others throats and throwing bombs at each other all over the place. Just look at it. I mean, what is this? We live in a harsh world. We don’t live in this world of tolerance and happiness and music and dance. We live in a world of death and bombs and destruction and hatred and distrust, etc., etc. As President Bollinger was saying, I hope that something on Tuesday can change that — and I believe that maybe something happened that will change that — but it’s difficult to live at this moment in the history of the world and be an optimist. It’s difficult.
Viswanathan: Do you think there is some kind of perfect order? Some perfect world which resists even being represented through your imagination?
Rushdie: No, I have no utopian tendencies.
Viswanathan: But you do have a sense of alternative political futures.
Rushdie: That’s what I’m saying. I believe in the argument, and if you are by nature satirical in your imagination it’s always easy to see what you don’t like. I am good at seeing what I don’t like. Much, much harder to work out what you do like and often you can be wrong about the things you think you do like. I mean lets hope we are not, this week, because this week I do feel optimistic. It’s an odd feeling, one that I am not familiar with. Actually, the worst thing I can say is that the last time I felt a little bit like this was after the election of Tony Blair, and look what happened. So I am just hoping this isn’t a rerun of that story. I don’t think it is.
Viswanathan: Well, maybe I can take you back to your more bleak outlook on life.
Rushdie: Yes, let’s be bleak! I like that.
Viswanathan: Shalimar the Clown . . .
Rushdie: Bleak House . . .
Viswanathan: Shalimar the Clown offers a terrifying glimpse into a world of religious extremism that preys on minds and hearts tortured by longing and betrayal in order to serve its own violent purposes. Yet, in your hauntingly lyrical evocation of Kashmir, the counterpoint to religious extremism is not necessarily secularism — at least that’s what I think — but religion restored to a more expansive and more inclusive practice.
Rushdie: Exactly. I remember, and I think many people my age who have any knowledge not just of India but of other parts of the Muslim world can remember, another idea of Islam, one that had more or less nothing to do with what walks around the world calling itself Islam nowadays, one in which it was O.K. to argue about things and to talk freely and to live at peace with other people and so on. It wasn’t perfect because none of us are perfect, but it was possible.
I remember my parents’ generation. I remember growing up in that world of people who were in many cases devout Muslims. My grandfather went on the Hajj to Mecca. He said his prayers five times a day every day of his life, and his children and his grandchildren, being grandchildren, would make horrible fun of him and ask him why he spent so much time with his bottom higher than his head. And, instead of getting cross with us, he would laugh at us and encourage us to come and have a talk about it. I remember the Sufi Islam of Kashmir, the way in which that Islam was affected by its contiguity with Hinduism, and the way in which the Hinduism of Kashmir was affected by its proximity to that Islam, so that, for instance, as I said somewhere in the novel, in Kashmir you have these little shrines of Sufi saints all over the place and people would stop and make offerings. Well, as a Muslim you’re not supposed to worship anyone but the one God; you’re not supposed to go and do puja at the shrine of Sufi saints. Yet that’s what everybody would do, and, interestingly, even the Hindus would do it. Hindu truck drivers would stop by the road and put a flower or offering at the shrine of a Muslim Sufi saint.
That’s something interesting and rich, I think, that developed in Kashmir; this composite culture that was neither completely Hindu nor completely Muslim, and for a while it worked, and now it has been destroyed. I think the loss of it is a thing to grieve over, not only in Kashmir, but in many places of the Muslim world. I’m old enough to remember what places like Beirut were like in the 1950s and 60s. They were great cosmopolitan cities, great seats of culture. And to see the way that has been destroyed leads one to say there may be many things for which one can blame the United States, but the self-destruction of Muslim culture by other Muslims is a self inflicted wound, and it is a grievous wound. In that novel I tried to write about that other, to my mind, more beautiful approach to the world. You’re right that the answer to religion is not no religion, but another way of thinking about religion, another way of being in the religion.
Viswanathan: Engaging with the richer currents of religion?
Rushdie: One of the characters in The Enchantress of Florence is asked by Akbar, just before he has his head chopped off, what his idea of paradise is, since he is on his way there. He says that in paradise the words “religion” and “argument” mean the same thing and that there is no suppression in religion. This reminds me of the very great line in the first paragraph of Saul Bellow’s novel, The Adventures of Augie Marsh. He says, “there is no fineness or accuracy in suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.” That openness to ideas is something which I don’t think should be seen as being antithetical to religion. You only have to look at Jesuit argument. I went to speak at Yeshiva College last year, and I had a very hard time because they’re all trained in disputation. So there I was with a thousand students, sort of embryonic rabbis whose entire discipline was to tear apart the argument of the person next door. God, it was difficult. I’m not going there again.
Viswanathan: Well then maybe you can confirm or deny something I had read somewhere, that you actually enjoy speaking to religious audiences?
Rushdie: Did I say that? I wasn’t telling the truth.
Viswanathan: But if I can just stay on Shalimar a little bit longer. The social ostracism and violent death of Boonyi, your central female character in that book, I think are among the most memorable parts of the novel. In fact, I think they are among the most memorable passages I have read anywhere among your work. You wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece in December 2005, and I quote, “Multiculturalism has all too often become mere cultural relativism under cover of which much that is reactionary and oppressive, of women, for example, can be justified.” You referred to a couple of notorious recent cases of women, Imrana in India and Mukhtar Mai in Pakistan, women who were very brutally victimized, but the object of your critique in this article is not just the religious authorities and judicial systems that defer to them in India and Pakistan but also the international community that refuses to get involved, saying, “Oh, that’s their culture, and that has to be respected even if it offends us.”
So, this question of relativism is a very interesting one in your work. It seems to work for you when it comes to resisting the notion of a single origin from which all things and beings derive, but you draw the line on relativism when it becomes a way of saying that cultural difference cancels out a single standard of justice. I think the question of these women becomes an extremely important one in this discussion. Obviously, this is a very difficult question, not difficult in answering but maybe more difficult in framing the argument against relativism without appearing to reinstate a single standard of values that represents some kind of universal, which, too, at another level, you might want to resist.
Rushdie: Well, O.K., I don’t know how unfashionable this is, but I think there are universals. I think there are things that are universally true, and I think there are such things as universal rights. The reason I think it is not culturally specific. The argument made by relativists is that it is culturally specific to argue that there are universals. I think there are other ways of approaching it. One way of approaching it is to say that there are things which are essential to our nature as human beings wherever in the world we come from, and — to go back to what I was saying about Ibn Rush’d — one of those essential characteristics that we all share is the characteristic of language, of speech, what Steven Pinker calls the language instinct. We learn English, we learn language, because we are hard-wired to learn language. Our DNA is such that it enables us to learn this very complicated thing without any clues. So we are a language animal, we are an animal that has always from the beginning used language in order to understand itself and in order to define and shape the kind of creature that it is. If you begin to restrict, limit, forbid, circumscribe the ways language can be used, you are committing an offense which is not culturally specific. You are committing an existential offense. It is an offense against the nature of the animal that we are.
We are the language animal, and we have to be allowed to use language to understand ourselves. Therefore, to defend the freedom of language as a universal human right seems to me justifiable not by appeal to this or that cultural tradition, but simply to the biology of the beast. This is the thing that we are. You take language away from the human beings, you take humanity away from them. So it seems to me that it is possible, in this way, to argue for the universality of certain rights. We are a dreaming animal. We live very richly through the things that we imagine. Were it not for the capacity of imagination, there would be very little progress in human existence. You have to imagine a wheel before you can make a wheel; you have to imagine the hyperlink before you can construct the hyperlink. First you dream it, and then you make it so. All through human history imagination precedes reality, and things move constantly through the border between imagination and reality. What starts as a dream becomes reality. So, again, to start restricting our ability to dream and vision, and to tell us that there are things we can dream about and other things that are bad dreams that we must not have, is a crime against humanity.
It’s not about whether you are Muslim, or Christian, or Chinese, or American. It’s about the kind of creature that we all are and have always been. That’s why I think that there are such things as universals, because we are remarkably alike. I forget, because I’m not a scientist, what the figure is, but there is some ridiculously high quantity of our genetic code that is common to all human beings. There is two or three percent variation that accounts for all this diversity. We are much more the same than we are not. If that is true, then there must be things which apply to all of us.
I think relativism is the dangerous death of liberalism. If you will justify anything that anybody does because it comes from their tradition, it means you abdicate your moral sense; you cease to be a moral being. “Oh yes, let them kill novelists because it is what they do. We personally don’t kill novelists, but if it’s their way then they must kill novelists.” For some reason I feel an objection to that position.
In the article you mention, which talks about the oppression of women, if you were to take religion away as the justification, nobody would tolerate that for a minute. The kind of limitations that women have been placed under, the crimes committed against women in the name of religion, are so profound and yet somehow people don’t get as agitated about them as if the same thing had been committed by someone who wasn’t using God as the reason. Well, that seems like nonsense to me.
That’s why I’m saying that to be tolerant and open and argumentative doesn’t mean that you don’t have a moral sense. You still have moral responsibility. You still have to make choices. You still have to say, “This is right; that is wrong.” Female circumcision, wrong! I don’t care what mullah says so. Death of a novelist is usually wrong, although in some cases one could make exceptions. I promised not to talk about Dan Brown. . . .
Viswanathan: Well, I think that’s an excellent place to end. Salman has very graciously agreed to accept questions from the audience.
Audience Member 1: Yes, thank you. I really enjoyed your remarks, but I just felt like I needed to challenge you on that last part. Are you in fact saying that men oppress women because of religion? Because of God?
Rushdie: No, I’m saying that often they use it to justify their oppression.
Audience Member 1: Yes, because my impression was that every religion justifies it, in which case it can hardly be the religion.
Rushdie: The example I was giving in that article was of a case in North India a couple of years ago, when a women was raped by her father-in-law. This was a Muslim woman, all parties, wife, husband, father-in-law, all Muslim, and the local Islamic seminary decreed that because this had happened she was now to be considered unclean to her husband and he should therefore divorce her. The husband and wife appeared to genuinely love each other and not wish to be divorced, and yet enormous social pressure was put on them to divorce, for this religious reason. In that case, the secular system did rather well, it arrested the father-in-law, tried him, found him guilty, and sent him to jail. But in spite of that, and in spite of it being quite clear that she had in no way consented to this act, the religious authorities maintained that she was now somehow dirty, soiled goods. It struck me that it was a kind of obscenity to use ideology to justify such a thing.
Audience Member 1: But is it, perhaps, also an example of a male-dominated religion using religion to rationalize what are actually more biological masculine behaviors?
Audience Member 1: I don’t want to blame the religion necessarily.
Rushdie: I look forward to the creation of the female-dominated religion.
Audience Member 2: I’m just wondering about your comment that relativism is the death of liberalism, because I’m surprised that you think liberalism itself is a coherent entity, a coherent idea. You say that we have to draw the line at things like female circumcision, that that’s clearly wrong. But you have to invoke some sort of timeless, incontrovertible standard that no one could question in order for liberalism to gain the kind of coherence it wants to have. It seems to me that there is no argument you can make against the person who disagrees with you that female circumcision is wrong. If they ask why it is wrong, then you’re eventually going to end up in a kind of regress circularity. It seems to me that liberalism just pretends to be tolerant when actually it is intolerant. I’m not saying there is any alternative, but you’re actually invoking intolerance. We should be intolerant towards female circumcision, or whatever else. We should be intolerant towards the murder of authors.
Rushdie: Well, this is the question that President Bollinger asked at the very beginning: Where are the limits of tolerance? Maybe violence and its justification by an appeal to a religious authority is a point at which you could place a limit on tolerance. You know, this is a question-and-answer session, and it would take a longer conversation to thrash this out, but I hear what you’re saying. It’s not a coherent philosophy, liberalism. But in its essence it believes itself to be an approach of openness and tolerance towards the world, and yet that can lead it to accept actions which are oppressive. The longer conversation, we can have another time.
Audience Member 3: Thank you, Mr. Rushdie, for being here. Do you think your wide readership and status as a writer is due in part to your oppression and therefore your writing has had greater power because of what you have faced? How do you reconcile that? Would you have preferred to be in a place where you may not have been oppressed, but perhaps lose power as a writer?
Audience Member 3: So there’s no doubt? Is there a balance? Obviously, you had to go through some pretty terrible events.
Rushdie: Lots of writers are oppressed. Whether their work continues to be interesting or not, in the end, has to do with the work and not the oppression. Oppression can bring you some short-term attention, but it does not bring you long-term attention. There are a lot of people now who don’t remember the attack on The Satanic Verses, or who can’t if they were too young. It happened twenty years ago, and to anybody under thirty it must feel like ancient history. I don’t think they were drawn towards my books because I was famously oppressed. Actually, I was doing just find before then and would have been quite happy, thank you very much, to chug along at that level, having my books translated into forty languages and selling millions of copies. You know, that was fine.
But then, you’re right there was a kind of spike of attention that happened around 1989, but it’s long gone. I think that if any of this stuff that I’ve done continues to be of interest, including The Satanic Verses, by the way, in the end it will have to be in terms of the text itself. The rest of it is just a passing thing. But if you’re asking me whether I’d rather it hadn’t happened, then yes, I’d rather it hadn’t happened. On the whole, if you could in your life possibly avoid being sentenced to death by the tyrannical leader of a foreign power, who then sends international mercenaries after you to carry out the sentence, I would on the whole recommend it.
Audience Member 4: I wanted to pursue the issue of tolerance a little bit more. I wonder if tolerance, being the European concept that it is, with roots in the war between religions in the 1500s, is tolerant enough as a concept? Related to that, whether, when we discuss religion versus secularism, religion is another term, another concept, that is fundamentally a Latin one and whether we are exporting, just by talking about religion universally, a criterion of unification of languages and traditions that is violent in and of itself?
Rushdie: No. You see, I’m sorry to appear to criticize the terms of your question, but I think that those of us who come from the country of Mahatma Gandhi would question whether the idea of tolerance was a Western idea. In fact, as you know, one of his wittier remarks was when he was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he replied, he thought it would be a good idea.
Audience Member 4: Well, one could speak of hospitality instead of tolerance.
Rushdie: Well, to put it in non-theoretical terms, the desire of human beings to get along with each other is not culturally specific. The desire of human beings to be able to put up with their neighbors even if they play the radio too loud or pick their noses, is something which, in the end, we all kind of feel. I think we try to get along with each other, and I feel that’s a thing that does not have to do with culture. It’s a thing that we have to do everyday; we try to get along with people next door even if they’re not like us. All this is sort of elevating that to a much grander scale. I do think there is a perfectly non-culturally specific idea of tolerance which can be used in this context. I’m not a theoretical person; if you want philosophy apply elsewhere. I make things up. So I can tell you what I believe, but why would you trust me? I’m a novelist. So I think I’ll just leave it there.
Audience Member 5: I think this question may be a little on the philosophical side, but I’ll ask it anyway. You stated that, in religion, there’s nothing inherent that inspires beauty, because there are people that are non-religious who can create beauty. Likewise, I was wondering if you would apply this to the case of evil, so that you have obviously people inspired by religion who do evil things, but there are also people who are not inspired by religion and they do evil things. In that case, there is nothing specific to religion that would inspire humans to evil. So I just wanted to see if your statement on beauty could also be applied to evil.
Rushdie: Yes, of course, certainly. Absolutely, yes.
Audience Member 6: I have a very basic question related to Satanic Verses. Gibreel Farishta is a character who lives in delusions and, in the end, he turns very self-destructive. He commits suicide, but in the real world, including the world of Prophet Mohammed, prophets or any self-proclaimed prophets don’t commit suicide. They are not self destructive; they actually benefit from their delusions. How do you explain that?
Rushdie: I can think of at least one suicidal prophet, Jim Jones, but I agree it’s a minority. One of the reasons I wrote that book was that I did not find it very easy to understand the Messianic cast of mind. The way I try to understand things is to find a way of telling a story about them, and get inside the people and try and see how I can make them behave in a way that’s credible to me. That’s why I tried to do it in that book. Well, a lot of prophets, of course, don’t have time to commit suicide because other people kill them. They crucify them upside-down or the right-way-up and so on, so there is that. It’s a short career, usually. Very few prophets need old age pensions. I mean Moses, Abraham, these are exceptions. On the whole, they just get killed, because, in the end, no one can stand them. So, does that answer your question?
Audience Member 6: Well, not really, because self-proclaimed prophets like Osho and others, they own a lot of wealth, they become celebrities . . .
Rushdie: That’s true. I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking at the exalted level of Rajneesh; I was thinking more of Jesus Christ, the slightly less significant prophet. No, I don’t have a theoretical answer, but I think it is true that there is something that is genuine which is the mystical experience. When I say genuine, I mean, subjectively genuine.
If you look at accounts given by mystics of the nature of their experience, they’re very, very similar. If you look at what the prophet Mohammed is reported as having said about the nature of receiving the prophecy in the Hadith of the Prophet, its remarkably similar to what you would find in the accounts of Saint John the Divine or Joan of Arc. There clearly is a phenomenon, which we call revelation, which happens to certain numbers of people and clearly is a very powerful thing for those people to experience. And it fuels, in some of them, a desire to promulgate that, to send that outwards. Other mystics remain in-turned; there isn’t a kind of proselytization desire, but sometimes there is a desire to go out and preach. I guess the profundity of the experience is such that it fuels that drive for a lifetime. I mean, the character in my novel is insane, and far be it for me to suggest that that was true of other prophets (or if I did, I would suggest it at another time). What I mean is, it’s not relevant to this conversation. I think it’s just that whatever that thing is that happens in the human mind, that creates the experience of enlightenment, or revelation, whatever you want to call it. It’s clearly a very profound experience, and it gives people the fuel which often carries them through a lifetime. Maybe that’s why they don’t kill themselves, but, speaking as someone to whom this has not happened, I am unable to authoritatively answer your question.
Audience Member 7: You mentioned that at the time of your grandfather there was more Sufistic kind of practicing going on in Kashmir and probably all of South Asia, India and Pakistan. So I wanted to tell you the good new that it still happens and the number of people going to shrines is increasing rapidly. There is no decrease in that. Secondly, when you speak of the open mindedness of Akbar, don’t you think that Akbar was a great politician who knew that without the support of the Hindus, especially the Rajputs, he could not establish his kingdom in India, and so he kept marrying girls from Rajput families because he wanted to do that? Would you call that open mindedness or more the shrewdness of a politician?
Rushdie: I don’t deny that he was a very shrewd ruler who knew how to, as you say, make alliances and so on. But, remember, this is not by any means the first Muslim kingdom in Indian. There were Muslim kingdoms in India for a couple of centuries before the Mughals. None of the others had ever tried to rule in this way. To give just the most obvious example, this thing called the Jizya tax was a tax imposed on non-Muslims, and so there was a communally unfair taxation system where a non-Muslim paid more taxes then a Muslim did. One of the first things that Akbar did was to abolish the Jizya tax and make people equal under the law.
Of course, there is an element of politics in it, as there would be for any ruler, anytime, anywhere.You have to make the calculation about whether it would play, whether it would work, whether in the end it would benefit you or not benefit you to act in a certain way. But it was a very original idea of Akbar’s to try to rule by consensus rather than by oppression. It’s an unusual thing given the family he comes from. This is the direct bloodline of Genghis Khan and of Timur, who came to Delhi and killed 50,000 people. These are his direct ancestors. He himself was illiterate with a childhood of enormous brutality all around him and great personal risk in much of his childhood. He comes to the throne at the age of only 14 and decides he doesn’t want to rule like that. It’s an extraordinary thing that a man of that background would become a ruler of that kind. It would have been much more likely that he be another kind of ruler; that’s the tradition he came from. So that’s why he is an interesting figure: because there was a transformation there, and, in a way, you couldn’t believe that man would be that kind of king. So I don’t think there is a contradiction. I think you can be the politician and, if you like, the philosopher. He was a kind of philosopher king, which is in itself a deep contradiction in terms. He was that oxymoron.
Audience Member 8: You speak of the “AND” as though it’s a memory and something of the past, celebrating Islam “AND” Hinduism, celebrating secularism “AND” religion. I am wondering if you have any recommendations for the ways educators and writers can move beyond “tolerance” and return to the honoring and celebration of diversity of thought and truths?
Rushdie: Well, the bee in my bonnet is the one that I talked about earlier, which is historical context. I am a historian insofar as I have any academic discipline at all. Actually, what I have is academic indiscipline, but that was my degree subject. I think that unless you put things in a historical context you can’t understand what they are. To me, it’s a great loss to Muslims in the Muslim world that they cannot historicize the birth of the philosophy or the religion by which they live. So I think that would be what I would recommend: Teach the context, not just the text. It is very important to teach the context and then you begin to see why the world is what it is, why ideas are what they are, why they took the path they took rather than another path.
Audience Member 9: Thank you so much for coming. If you don’t mind: What do you live for?
Rushdie: What do I live for? Dinner.