"Those Are The High Flying Claims"

M S M Saifullah, Qasim Iqbal, Mansur Ahmed & Muhammad Ghoniem

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

Last Modified: 23th August 1999

Assalamu-`alaikum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

We would like to discuss some of the claims of a Christian missionary concerning the so-called 'Satanic verses'. The gist of the missionary's argument is in the last paragraph, which we have divided into various points for the sake of refutation:

But, to repeat, Rushdie did not originate the satanic verses. Nor did Jews, Christians or other non-Muslims. The sources for the satanic verses, at-Tabari and Ibn Sa'd, are reputable Muslim sources for early Quranic commentary and Islamic history. Muslims today who simply dismiss the account of these writers as fabricated and unhistorical must at least answer the question why such reputable persons would fabricate it. The question is not new. But, it seems, a serious Muslim response is hard to find.

We agree that Salman Rushdie did not originate the so-called 'Satanic' verses. In the Islamic sources the whole saga is known as Hadith al-Gharaniq al-cUla; therefore neither are the Islamic sources responsible for such a theatrical title. Who then coined the term 'Satanic verses'? As the tradition of defamation against Islam demonstrates, it could only have been Christian missionaries. Indeed, it was an English missionary, the belligerent Sir William Muir, who fashioned the term 'Satanic verses'.[1]

The word Maometis means The number of the beast, i.e., 666, by which Muhammad(P) was known in the Middle Ages. The names Mahoun and Mahound refer to Muhammad(P), imagined by credulous Europeans to be a pagan God. These derogatory names were concocted by "love-thy-neighbor", "turn-thy-cheek" Christians who maintained an open policy of defamation against Islam and Muhammad(P)  throughout the Middle Ages. Apparently, this policy still exists today, though in a more sophisticated apparatus.

Now let us address the statements from the Christian missionary:

The sources for the satanic verses, at-Tabari and Ibn Sa'd, are reputable Muslim sources for early Quranic commentary and Islamic history.

Where do Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (d. 310/923) and Ibn Sa'd claim to be the sources of the so-called 'Satanic verses'? It is precisely the opposite. They have only transmitted the story as it was transmitted to them. Al-Tabari mentions the so-called 'Satanic verses' story[2] in his Tarikh as well as an important set of statements in the introduction of his book, which states:

Let him who examines this book of mine know that I have relied, as regards everything I mention therein which I stipulate to be described by me, solely upon what has been transmitted to me by way of reports which I cite therein and traditions which I ascribe to their narrators, to the exclusion of what may be apprehended by rational argument or deduced by the human mind, except in very few cases. This is because knowledge of the reports of men of the past and of contemporaneous views of men of the present do not reach the one who has not witnessed them nor lived in their times except through the accounts of reporters and the transmission of transmitters, to the exclusion of rational deduction and mental inference. Hence, if I mention in this book a report about some men of the past, which the reader of listener finds objectionable or worthy of censure because he can see no aspect of truth nor any factual substance therein, let him know that this is not to be attributed to us but to those who transmitted it to us and we have merely passed this on as it has been passed on to us.[3]

Thus, al-Tabari faithfully displayed these accounts in the exact manner through which he received them. Can he then be held liable if any objectionable accounts should arise? To translate this into laymen's terms, al-Tabari has simply refused accountability by avoiding the task of historical criticism. Therefore, any spurious accounts are not to be attributed to him.

This would not be difficult to understand, given the fact that the so-called 'Satanic verses' were transmitted from al-Waqidi to Ibn Sa'd. Ibn Sa'd (d. 230/845), who was the secretary of al-Waqidi (d. 207/823), also assumed the role of a mere transmitter by citing the text and its isnad. Concerning the two historians, al-Waqidi and Ibn Sa'd, the contemporary scholar, Tarif Khalidi, says:

For it is clear that Waqidi is in fact the senior partner. Ibn Sa'd, known of course as 'katib al-Waqidi', was a secretary-editor of his master and of the materials he had assembled and then amplified.[4]

In other words, neither al-Waqidi nor Ibn Sa'd were eye-witnesses to the revelation of 'Satanic verses'; they were simply the transmitters.

It is also worthwhile to mention that:

... Waqidi was attacked for loose isnad usage by strict practitioners of Hadith...[5]

Claiming that the issue of so-called 'Satanic verses' incident is true just because al-Tabari or Ibn Sa'd mentioned them amounts to a deliberate distortion of the facts.

Now we will address the issue of why Muslims today simply dismiss the account mentioned by these two writers. To begin with, Muslims exegetes in the past have dismissed these accounts, too. This is not something new. Michael Fischer and Mehdi Abedi, writing on the issue of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses as well as the Islamic account of the so-called 'Satanic' verses, say (and notice their curious argument):

The story that Muhammad could have used the Satanic suggestion is rejected by almost all exegetes, but the fact that the story persists as a subject of exegetes' discussions is testimony to the reality of the temptation both for Muhammad and for later Muslims in their own struggles with such "Babylons" as London, New York, Paris, or Hamburg.[6]

Since the story is rejected by almost all the exegetes, are the Muslims not justified in dismissing the account related to the so-called 'Satanic verses'?

One is also tempted to add the research done by Orientalists like John Burton, who instead of parroting Muir and Watt, concluded with an original argument:

There existed therefore a compelling theoretical motive for the invention of these infamous hadiths. If it be felt that this has now been demonstrated, there should be no further difficulty in suggesting that those hadiths have no historical basis.[7]

From here, let us move on to the Muslim argument against the so-called 'Satanic' verses.

2. 'Satanic' Verses & The Muslim Argument

In this section, we will examine the Christian missionary's complaint:

But, it seems, a serious Muslim response is hard to find.

One really wonders if this missionary has even read any literature, both modern as well as old, on this subject. We have seen above that according to Michael Fischer and Mehdi Abedi almost all the Islamic exegetes have rejected the story of so-called 'Satanic' verses. They have not just rejected it without giving their reasons! In the modern literature, there is a copious amount of work done by Muslims dealing with the 'Satanic verses'. Notable among them are the two books of Abu A'la Mawdudi Tahfim al-Qur'an (1972) and Sirat-i Sarwar-i 'Alam (1979), which critically examines all the aspects of the story and evaluates the writings of early Muslim scholars on this subject quite thoroughly. One is also tempted to mention the works of Sayyid Qutb (Fi Zilal al-Qur'an) and M. H. Haykal (The Life Of Muhammad). Zakaria Bashier, in his book, The Makkan Crucible, deals with the issue quite thoroughly.[8] Also mentioned in Appendix 2 in his book is an article The 'Satanic' Verses And The Orientalists (A Note On The Authenticity Of The So-Called Satanic Verses).[9] This is a revised version of the article that was published in the journal, Hamdard Islamicus. We reproduce the article below with minor modifications.

Al-Tabari, Ibn Sa'd and some other Muslim writers have mentioned (though they vary considerably in the matters of detail) that Prophet Muhammad(P), under Satanic inspiration added two verses to Surah an-Najm [53], which are as follows:

These are the high-flying ones, whose intercession is to be hoped for!

The Prophet(P), it is alleged, recited these along with other verses of Surah an-Najm in the prayer. The idolators of Makkah who were present in the Ka'bah at that time joined him in the prayer because he praised their deities and thus won their hearts. The story afterwards reached Abyssinia where the Muslims, persecuted by the Makkan infidels, had earlier migrated and many of them returned to Makkah under the impression that the disbelievers no longer opposed the Prophet(P) and the Islamic movement. The story also says that the angel Gabriel came to the Prophet(P) the same evening and told him about the mistake he had committed by reciting verses which were never revealed to him. This naturally worried the Prophet(P) and made him apprehensive. 'Admonishing' the Prophet(P), God revealed the following verses of Surah al-Isra' which read:

And their purpose was to tempt thee away from that which We had revealed unto thee, to substitute in our name something quite different; (in that case), 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. In that case We should have made thee taste an equal portion (of punishment) in this life, and an equal portion in death: and moreover thou wouldst have found none to help thee against Us! [Qur'an 17:73-75]

This made the Prophet(P) feel very guilty until God revealed the following consoling verse of Surah al-Hajj:

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, and Allah will confirm (and establish) His Signs: for Allah is full of Knowledge and Wisdom. [Qur'an 22:52]

This is the gist of the story mentioned by al-Tabari and some other writers that has been used by the Christian missionaries. The story would, among other things, imply that the Prophet(P) and his Companions(R) took the 'Satanic' verses as a true revelation from God, otherwise nobody would have accepted them.

Let us now examine the story and its contents in the light of internal and external evidence and evaluate it on the basis of criteria of historical criticism. In doing so, first of all one has to find out the chronological sequence in the story and establish whether or not all its details relate to one period and are interconnected. Special attention should be devoted to determining the periods of revelation of the three verses mentioned in the report, which will validate or falsify the episode.

It can easily be gleaned from the story that the incident of reciting the 'Satanic' verses and the consequent prostration of the disbelievers in the Ka'bah happened after the first batch of Muslims had migrated to Abyssinia. This migration, according to all the reliable sources, occurred in the month of Rajab of the fifth year of the Prophetic call or about eight years before the Hijrah to Madinah. Therefore, the incident must have happened close to this date and not long after the migration to Abyssinia.

The verses of Surah al-Isra' (17:73-5) which were revealed, according to the story, to 'admonish' the Prophet(P) for allegedly reciting the 'Satanic' verses, in fact were not revealed until after the event of the Mi'raj. The Mi'raj or the Ascent of the Prophet(P), according to historical sources, occurred in the tenth or eleventh year of the Prophetic call, i.e., two or three years before the Hijrah to Madinah. If this is so, then it implies that the 'Satanic' verses were not detected or for some reason no mention was made about the alleged interpolation of the verses for five or six years and only afterwards was the Prophet(P) admonished for it. Can any sensible person believe that the interpolation occurs today, while the admonition takes place six years later and the abrogation of the interpolated verses is publicly announced after nine years. The relevant verse of Surah al-Hajj (22:52) according to the commentators of the Qur'an was revealed in the first year of Hijrah, i.e., about eight to nine years after the incident and about two and a half years after the so-called admonition of the Prophet(P) (17:73-5). Can anybody who knows about the Qur'an, its history and revelation, understand and explain how the incident of interpolation was allowed to be tolerated for six years and also why the offensive 'verses' were not abrogated until after nine years?

The implication of this argument is that since the abrogating verses were revealed nine years after the original event, that would mean that for nine years Muslims had been asking Lat, Manat and Uzza for intercession! In other words outright idolatry resulting from compromised monotheistic beliefs. It is therefore quite pretentious to suggest any historicity in the notion that Muslims had been asking Lat, Manat and Uzza for intercession over the span of almost a decade.

Watt's theory is that

... the earliest versions do not specify how long afterwards this (abrogation) happened; the probability is that it was weeks or even months.[10]

is nothing but a hypothesis. Had he investigated the chronology of the three revelations relative to the story, he could not possibly have missed the facts related above.

Let us now turn to some internal evidence. It has been said in the story that the 'Satanic' interpolation occurred in Surah an-Najm (53:19) which delighted the idolators present in the Ka'bah and as a gesture of friendship and good-will, they all bowed down with the Prophet(P). In order to comment on the story it would seem necessary to read the verses in the Qur'an, adding the alleged 'Satanic' verses, and find out what is actually meant to be conveyed here. It would read as follows.

Have ye seen Lat and 'Uzza, And another, the third (goddess), Manat? [These are the high-flying ones, whose intercession is to be hoped for!] What! for you the male sex, and for Him, the female? Behold, such would be indeed a division most unfair! hese are nothing but names which ye have devised,- ye and your fathers,- for which Allah has sent down no authority (whatever). They follow nothing but conjecture and what their own souls desire!- Even though there has already come to them Guidance from their Lord! [Qur'an 53:19-23]

If one reads the bold part of the alleged Satanic verses quoted above, one fails to understand how God on the one hand is praising the deities and on the other hand discrediting them by using the subsequent phrases quoted above. It is also difficult to see how the Quraysh leaders drew the conclusion from this chapter that Muhammad(P) as making a conciliatory move and was adopting a policy of give and take.

Drawing the conclusions from various reports connected with the story, Watt suggests that

... at one time Muhammad must have publicly recited the Satanic verses as part of the Qur'an; it is unthinkable that the story could have been invented later by Muslims or foisted upon them by non-Muslims. Secondly, at some later time Muhammad announced that these verses were not really part of the Qur'an and should be replaced by others of a vastly different import.[11]

Watt's suggestion that Muhammad(P) replaced the 'Satanic' verses with some others of a vastly different import is pure speculation. If one takes the 'Satanic' verses to be true, it would imply that the verses to be found in 53:19f. were not revealed in the same period. Watt's suggestion also implies that Muhammad(P) and his followers read the 'Satanic' verses in place of or in addition to the verses found in the Qur'an for 'weeks and even months' and that when Muhammad(P) later realized that these verses could not be correct, then the true version and continuation of the passage was revealed to him. This supposition is again pure speculation and is not based on any historical data. The story which we have summarized in the beginning suggests that Muhammad(P) did not realize his fault until God admonished him six years later and that the matter was rectified perhaps another two and a half years after. In the meantime the Muslims were supposedly asking Allat, Manat and Uzza for intercession! Had the genuine state of affairs truly been this ridiculous, it would have been impossible for Muhammad(P) to have maintained such a loyal following.

It is obvious that Watt and other Orientalists accept part of the story and reject the related parts along with their destructive implications, apparently because they are unable to find any link or sequence. Had there been any element of truth in the story, it could have caused a great scandal against Islam and the Prophet(P) and every detail of this scandal must have found its place in the hadith literature. Why is the authentic hadith collection conspicuously silent about the scandalous part of the story? Does it not lead to the conclusion, contrary to the established fact, that hadith literature itself is very defective as it failed to record such an important event which led the Prophet(P) and his Companions(R) to read 'Satanic' verses for weeks, months or perhaps even years without realizing the error, all the while asking for the intercession of Lat, Manat and Uzza? In fact, al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, Nasa'i and Ahmad b. Hanbal all record the story, but only to the extent that was true. They all mention that the Prophet(P) did recite Surah an-Najm and that, at the end when he prostrated, the idolaters present were so overawed that they also joined him in prostration. These leading Muhaddithun do not mention the blasphemous story which other sources have recorded.

3. Conclusions

It is quite clear that the nature of the story is absurd and it cannot stand the external and internal criticism. It is even clearer from the Qur'an that it is not possible for the Prophet(P) to accept anything in the Qur'an from any external source. If this is so, then how can one take seriously, let alone believe in the so-called story of the 'Satanic' revelation? This is why the leading traditionalists and the exegetes in Islam have regarded this story as malicious and without foundation.

It is unfortunate that an eminent historian like al-Tabari mentioned this story in his Tarikh al-Umam wal-Muluk and did not make any comment on its authenticity except to mention that he had faithfully transmitted whatever he received. Although there is great advantage in such a methodology (See reference 2 above) there are also risks. Unscrupulous people, i.e., the Christian missionaries, may take advantage of this and try to concoct something as they indeed did in the fabrication of the malicious story of the 'Satanic' verses.

The fact that al-Tabari, Ibn Sa'd and others have recorded this story in their works does not prove that the story itself is true. The missionary entertains a challenge to the Muslims:

Muslims today who simply dismiss the account of these writers as fabricated and unhistorical must at least answer the question why such reputable persons would fabricate it. The question is not new. But, it seems, a serious Muslim response is hard to find.

What the fellow is desperately pleading for is the source of the story. We have already witnessed that neither al-Tabari nor Ibn Sa'd is responsible for producing these stories. While the missionary himself conveniently attributes the accounts of al-Tabari and Ibn Sa'd with historical legitimacy, at least with regards to this particular incident, he is directing a sort of challenge to the Muslims who reject the historicity of the account. Thus, if the Muslims, not to mention Orientalists, dismiss the story as having no historical basis, then the missionary demands to know where the story came from, i.e. who is the individual responsible for concocting such an outlandish story. Somehow, he feels as though this is an uncomfortable question. However, an answer to this silly challenge is, what does it matter what the source is of such an absurd rumour? Rumours with even the most powerful effects of credulity have rarely seen their source discovered. Yet, we are not aware of any Muslims that actually believe the aforementioned story, and this position is cogently justified on the grounds of rigorous historical criticism. However, episodes of fabulous rumors followed by a credulous following are quite common outside the history of Islam. For example, it was rumoured that Jesus(P) traveled to India. It was rumoured that St. Matthew actually wrote the Gospel According to St. Matthew. It was rumoured that Islamic fundamentalists were responsible for the Oklahoma bombing. It was rumoured that UFOs visited Roswell, New Mexico. However, just because we do not know the individuals responsible for these rumours, does this mean that the rumours are true? Is the absence of an identified source of these rumours supposed to be construed as some sort of threat? The naïve implications of this method of inquiry should bring shame upon anybody who entertains them.

Finally, in light of the above, it can quite effortlessly be concluded that the Christian missionaries' attempt to answer to the inimitability of the Qur'an, by building upon the poor scholarship of a fellow missionary, is thus nothing other than a product of gross ignorance and sheer tomfoolery.

And Allah knows best!

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   Islamic Awareness Polemics "Those Are The High Flying Claims"


[1] Z. Bashier, The Makkan Crucible, 1991 (Revised Edition), The Islamic Foundation, p. 185 (See footnote 9).

[2] Abu Ja`far Muhammad bin Jarir al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Tabari: Tarikh al-Umam wal-Muluk, 1997, Volume I, Dar al-Kutub al-'Ilmiyyah, Beirut (Lebanon), p. 550.

[3] Ibid., p. 13.

[4] T. Khalidi, Arabic Historical Thought In The Classical Period, 1994, Cambridge University Press, p. 47.

[5] Ibid., p. 48.

[6] M. M. J. Fischer & M. Abedi, "Bombay Talkies, The Word And The World: Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses", Cultural Anthropology, 1990, Washington, Volume 5, No. 2, p. 127.

[7] J. Burton, "Those Are The High-Flying Cranes", Journal Of Semitic Studies, 1970, Volume 15, No. 2, p. 265.

[8] Z. Bashier, The Makkan Crucible, Op Cit., pp. 171-176.

[9] Ibid., p. 223.

[10] W. M. Watt, Muhammad At Mecca, 1960, Oxford University Press, p. 103.

[11] Ibid.

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