Thursday, July 05, 2007

Non-Comp. Lit.

In a recent Christopher Hitchens article about the inadvisability of trying to satisfy the rage of particularly vile Islamic supremacists (thanks for that necessary bit of advice, there!), the professional controversialist writes something exceedingly bizarre.

He's discussing outrage prompted by Salman Rushdie's recent knighthood when he pens the following sentences:
In front of me is a copy of this week's Economist, which states that Rushdie's 1989 death warrant was "punishment for the book's unflattering depiction of the Prophet Muhammad."

There is no direct depiction of the prophet in this work of fiction, and the reverie about his many wives occurs in the dream of a madman (emphasis added).
I'll start off by stating that I in no way support the fatwa against Rushdie and I see it as a crime against literature and, more importantly, against the human conscience. That said, the Economist doesn't get it quite right. Quoting from the actual text of the fatwa, Rushdie et. al. were condemned to die because the novel was "compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur'an." That, I think we can agree, casts a much wider net.

What really caught my attention was Hitchens' statement that there is "no direct depiction of the prophet in this work of fiction." There's no real way around it: this is just plain false. The Satanic Verses contains a long section that deals with Muhammad and the circumstances surrounding his reception and recitation of the Koran.

In the novel, Muhammad is alternatively called "Mahound" and "the Messenger", but it would be disingenuous in the utmost to claim that this character is not actually supposed to be Muhammad. In fact, "Mahound" was a name routinely used for Muhammad in medieval and later European writings. Since the novel deals in part with the relationship between Islam and Europe, this would be an altogether appropriate—even artful—use of the name.

The fact that Mahound/Messenger has the text of a holy scripture dictated to him in a cave by the Archangel Gabriel and has other experiences drawn directly from the life of Muhammad would seem to seal the deal.

Hitchens has always borne up as a literarily astute and well read author. How then can we explain this egregious error? Such a statement could only be made by someone who has either not actually read the work in question, or whose recall of its details is so sketchy as to be downright untrustworthy. I find both options extremely difficult to believe, but there it is in print for the whole world to see.

The only other possibility is that because these descriptions of Muhammad/Mahound are part of a madman's dream, Hitchens thinks this means Muhammad has not been depicted "directly", but rather obliquely. This explanation is almost too stupid to countenance and, in any regard, would certainly have been too subtle an argument for the ignorami who condemned Rushdie's book in the first place.

The lesson? Don't trust everything you read.

Unless you read it here.
Listed on BlogShares