Good and Evil in ‘The Satanic Verses’ by Salman Rushdie

How does Rushdie Represent Good and Evil in The Satanic Verses?

“The just,” Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics, “is something human.”[1] For Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses, good and evil are something human. Rushdie gives a dialogic representation of good and evil, especially of the latter; each character (including the nebulous narrator) identifies different people, ideas, and institutions as “evil.” Although one could say that this multiplicity of voices supports moral relativism, it accomplishes something slightly different: Rushdie’s dialogic representation of evil grounds “good” and “evil” in the psychology of particular human beings, encouraging his readers to understand other human beings before judging their actions or beliefs as good or evil.

Dialogism and Evil

All the characters in The Satanic Verses employ their equal and unique voices to declare their own views of good and evil. Since the
omniscient, unidentified narrator[2] speaks to the reader throughout the story as a character, the novel presents no single authoritative voice. “I’m saying nothing,” the narrator says. “Don’t ask me to clear things up one way or the other; the time of revelations is long gone.”[3] Here the narrator refuses to impose his or her perspective on the story. Since the novel lacks an authoritative voice, all the characters’ differing opinions on good and evil carry equal weight; thus, the novel lacks an absolute standard of good and evil. What one can gather from the different characters’ statements is that good and evil are human things, not divine. For instance, several characters associate “evil” with a particular culture: the Imam defines “evil”
as “foreignness”[4] and Hind calls London “a demon city.”[5] Other characters condemn ideologies and institutions as evil: Sufyan,[6] Jumpy,[7] and Mishal and Anahita[8] reject the British government that oppresses Asian immigrants; and Sisodia
censures Indian religious beliefs and practices.[9] Others denounce certain people as evil: Salman attributes evil actions to
Mahound,[10] and Mrs. Qureishi calls her son-in-law “a woman hitter” and a “devil.”[11] Each of these voices present evil as a human phenomenon, not as something supernatural. A few characters such as Ayesha[12] and Mahound[13] attribute evil actions to spiritual figures. Hence, while the novel presents no absolute standard for good and evil, the majority of voices in this democratic novel declare good and evil to be a human phenomena, identifiable in human institutions, ideas, and hearts.

 Saladin’s Story: Evil and the Human Psyche

When Saladin is transformed into a satyr, people don't see him as a kindly pan-flautist like this satyr, but as a monster.

More specifically, the plot reveals that evil is grounded in human nature and psychology, as shown by Saladin’s story: his transformation into a “demon”[14] and his crime against Gibreel and Allie stem directly from his childhood in India and relationship with his father. Saladin—who pursues his idea of “the good,”[15] that is, Englishness—finds himself morphed into a living representation of his idea of “evil.” As India is filled with “rubble, litter, noise,” and “disorder”[16]; so Saladin-satyr is “loud, stench, hideous, outsize, grotesque.”[17] The old Indian pedophile’s “fleshbone”[18] is even mirrored by Saladin-satyr’s “phallus, greatly enlarged and embarrassingly erect.”[19] Saladin becomes a caricature of his father: Changez is tall,[20] so Saladin grows “to a height of over eight feet”[21]; Changez is domineering and cruel,[22] so Saladin gains remarkable “Powers[23]; Changez is superstitious,[24] so Saladin asks a “Moroccan priest” for help regaining his human form.[25]
Tellingly, Saladin snaps at his father before his transformation, “Whatever I am, father dear….I owe it all to you.”[26]
Thus, when Saladin appears to be “the incarnation of evil,”[27] he does not embody a universal absolute evil, but the particular evils that have traumatized his psyche.

Throughout the novel’s middle, Saladin-satyr struggles with his transformation and with human nature and evil. Saladin initially thinks that his metamorphosis has fundamentally changed his being: “He chose Lucretius over Ovid. The inconstant soul…A being going through life can become so other to himself as to be another.”[28] After incorrectly deciding that his “essence” has completely changed,[29] Saladin revises his view—he has not truly changed at all, since man is essentially evil: “Why demons, when man himself is a demon?”[30] Saladin comes close to an accurate understanding of his psyche when he
recollects Niccolò Machiavelli’s life: although the Florentine politician sacrificed everything to fight for democracy and freedom, his name has become “a synonym for evil.”[31] One may call Machiavelli an “evil” traitor and sycophant because he worked for
the tyrannical Medici, but by doing so, one forgets that Machiavelli’s actions stemmed from a particular political and personal situation.

Saladin does not understand the full significance of his Machiavelli allusion until after he has betrayed Gibreel and Allie. Rushdie brackets Saladin’s wicked deeds with references to Shakespeare’s Othello,[32] aligning Gibreel and Saladin with Othello and Iago. According to Professor Wormersley, Iago does not trap Othello with his schemes; rather, “Iago and Othello create a world
together” that inevitably leads to tragedy.[33] This reading of Othello does not interpret Iago as “pure evil” and instead thinks of Iago as a psychologically complex human. Gibreel and Saladin reflect this view of Othello: Gibreel’s “maw of the black hole”[34]
parallels Saladin’s “new, dark world”[35]; both choose to take “the left-hand path”;[36]  the narrator calls the two men “conjoined
opposites.”[37] Hence, if Saladin is Iago, then Saladin has not completely transformed into “the incarnation of
evil” as he thinks.[38] Instead, Saladin’s wicked actions simply stem from his very human psyche. Although Saladin has regained his human form, his scheme to destroy Gibreel and Allie’s relationship shows he has inherited his father’s deceitful cruelty. As Changez’s theft of the wallet showed an infantile lust for control, so Saladin’s phone calls to Gibreel and Allie are an “infernal, childlike evil.”[39] Like Iago’s treacherous acts, Saladin’s betrayal does not confirm him as absolutely evil, but rather merely human: “His humanity is sufficient form and explanation for his deed.”[40]  Saladin—like Machiavelli and Mohammed[41]—is
not a supernaturally evil figure; he is human, and must be judged accordingly.

Niccolo Machiavelli wrote 'The Prince,' in which he infamously appears to support tyranny, after his family was banished and he was tortured by a tyrant.

After his crimes, Saladin comes to understand human evil by reconciling with his father and confronting Gibreel. Saladin returns to India to visit his father, who has been transformed by cancer. As Saladin’s metamorphosis did not fundamentally change his soul,
but only emphasized already-existing evil aspects of his psyche; so Changez’ cancer has not abrogated his self, but only abolished the evil aspects of his character: the cancer “stripped him of his faults, of all that had been domineering, tyrannical, and cruel in him, so that the mischievous, loving and brilliant man beneath lay exposed, once again, for all to see.”[42] While Saladin has always envisioned his father as absolutely evil, he now understands that Changez is only a human with human flaws. Moreover, Changez’s
death teaches Saladin that evil is inherent to human nature: after witnessing “the dawning of a terror”[43]
on his father’s face as he dies, Saladin wonders, “‘Why the horror?”[44] By using the word
“horror,” Rushdie alludes to Kurtz’s last words in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness: “‘The horror! The
horror!”[45] The dying Kurtz comprehends with terror the depravity of human nature; in The Satanic Verses, the dying Changez and his son reach the same realization—evil is human.

Saladin’s confrontation with Gibreel cements his new understanding of human evil. After Gibreel murders Allie and Sisodia, Saladin recognizes his guilt: “he was going to die for his verses, but could not find it in himself to call the
death-sentence unjust.”[46] This statement indicates that Saladin has realized two things: First, he
understands that his transformation into a satyr did not mark a fundamental change in his identity[47]—Saladin,
a human, was already evil—and thus he is morally responsible for betraying Gibreel. Second, Saladin can empathize with Gibreel’s mental instability, even though Gibreel betrayed him: Saladin, seeing from Gibreel’s point of view,
feels “oddly detached from events. –Like Gibreel when the sickness came.”[48] Having learned from his father’s illness and death that humans are inherently evil, but not completely evil, Saladin can judge Gibreel’s “evil” actions
appropriately. Saladin can “no longer believe in fairy-tales”—he can no longer blame his and Gibreel’s evil deeds on supernatural forces, as he knows that evil is human.


Rushdie’s novel presents a bleak view of humanity—the qualification that man is not completely evil does little to brighten
the statement that evil itself is human. Moreover, The Satanic Verses explicitly critiques Muslim theology, questioning its distinctions between good and evil in a way that unsettles any religious person in the postmodern era. If one is disheartened by Rushdie’s depiction of human nature, religion, and good and evil, one must note the final page of the novel: “It seemed to him [Saladin] that in spite of all his wrong-doing, weakness, guilt—in spite of his humanity—he was getting another chance.”[49] Like Saladin, Rushdie’s readers have been unnerved by their journey to a new perspective on evil and humanity; yet like Saladin, one has been given an opportunity to approach others with empathy and humility, knowing that everyone is merely human.

[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Terence Irwin (Indianaoplis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999),

[2] Rushdie never reveals his narrator’s identity, but one may infer that the narrator is a supernatural figure, due to his or her omniscience about the story’s spiritual aspects. Yet it remains unclear if the narrator is a demon (perhaps even Satan, as seen on
page 95) or an angel (perhaps even Allah, as seen on page 423). Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (New York: Random
House, 1988).

[3] Ibid., 423.

[4] Rushdie, 212.

[5] Ibid., 258.

[6] Ibid., 261.

[7] Ibid., 426.

[8] Ibid., 253, 267, 272, 292,

[9] Ibid., 533.

[10] Ibid., 376.

[11] Ibid., 240.

[12] Ibid., 498.

[13] Ibid., 125-6.

[14] Ibid., 294.

[15] Rushdie, 265.

[16] Ibid., 55.

[17] Ibid., 298.

[18] Ibid., 38.

[19] Ibid., 163.

[20] Ibid., 36.

[21] Ibid., 300.

[22] Changez takes the wallet Saladin finds only to force thirteen-year-old Saladin to use it to pay for his father to live lazily in London (Rushdie, 37-44).

[23] Ibid., 298.

[24] Ibid., 41.

[25] Ibid., 251.

[26] Ibid., 46.

[27] Ibid., 265.

[28] Rushdie, 297.

[29] Ibid., 285.

[30] Ibid., 422.

[31] Ibid., 415.

[32] Ibid., 439, 481.

[33] Professor Wormersley, “Othello” (presented at the “Shakespeare’s Tragedies” lecture series at Oxford University, 25 January

[34] Rushdie, 479.

[35] Rushdie, 433.

[36] Ibid. 362, 433.

[37] Ibid., 441.

[38] Ibid., 265.

[39] Ibid., 459.

[40] Ibid., 481.

[41] Ibid., 415.

[42] Ibid., 538.

[43] Rushdie, 545.

[44] Ibid., 546.

[45] Joseph Conrad, “The Heart of Darkness,” Heart of Darkness and Selections from The Congo Diary, (New York:
The Modern Library, 1999), 86.

[46] Rushdie, 560.

[47] Ibid., 265-6.

[48] Ibid., 560.

[49] Rushdie, 561.


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