What Are Satanic Verses?

Satanic Verses refer to words of “satanic suggestion” which the Islamic Prophet Muhammad is said to have mistaken for divine revelation. The alleged verses can be read in biographies of Muhammad by al-Wāqidī, Ibn Sa’d and Ibn Ishaq, and the tafsir of al-Tabarī.

Most Muslim scholars reject the historicity of the incident on the basis of the theological doctrine of isma (prophetic infallibility i.e., divine protection of Muhammad from mistakes) and their weak isnads (chains of transmission). Orientalist scholars on the other hand have largely accepted the historicity, citing the implausibility of early Muslim biographers fabricating a story so unflattering about their prophet.

The first use of the expression is attributed to Sir William Muir in 1858.

See also: Ismah

Basic narrative

See the complete text of Tabarī’s account below:

There are numerous accounts reporting the alleged incident, which differ in the construction and detail of the narrative, but they may be broadly collated to produce a basic account. The different versions of the story are all traceable to one single narrator Muhammad ibn Ka’b, who was two generations removed from biographer Ibn Ishaq. In its essential form, the story reports that Muhammad longed to convert his kinsmen and neighbors of Mecca to Islam. As he was reciting these verses of Sūrat an-Najm, considered a revelation from the angel Gabriel,

Have you thought of al-Lāt and al-‘Uzzá
and Manāt, the third, the other?
(Sura 53, 19–20)

Satan tempted him to utter the following line:

These are the exalted gharāniq, whose intercession is hoped for. (In Arabic تلك الغرانيق العلى وإن شفاعتهن لترتجى.)

Allāt, al-‘Uzzā and Manāt were three goddesses worshipped by the Meccans. Discerning the meaning of “gharāniq” is difficult, as it is a hapax legomenon (i.e. only used once in the text). Commentators wrote that it meant the cranes. The Arabic word does generally mean a “crane” – appearing in the singular as ghirnīq, ghurnūq, ghirnawq and ghurnayq, and the word has cousin forms in other words for birds, including “raven, crow” and “eagle”.

According to Muslim orthodoxy, the actual account of events holds that a group of some of the chiefs of the Quraish (the tribe of Makkah polytheists persecuting the Muslims) happened to be passing by as The Prophet was reciting verses from the Qur’an. It moved their hearts so much, that they instantly fell down on their faces in prostration, and bore witness it was from Allah alone. Then some of their peers happened by, and began to accost them and threaten them, and made them feel ashamed, so they denied what had happened, and said that they only fell down in prostration, because The Prophet gave a concession allowing for them to keep their idol worship yet still be Muslim.

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Reception in Muslim exegesis

Early Islam

The Satanic Verses incident is reported in the tafsir and the sira-maghazi literature dating from the first two centuries of Islam and is reported in the respective tafsīr corpuses transmitted from almost every Qur’anic commentator of note in the first two centuries of the hijra. According to Ibn Taymiyyah: “The early Islamic Scholars (Salaf) collectively considered the Verses of Cranes in accordance with Quran. And from the later coming scholars (Khalaf), who followed the opinion of the early scholars, they say that these traditions have been recorded with an authentic chain of narration and it is impossible to deny them, and Quran is itself testifying it.” The earliest biography of Muhammad, Ibn Ishaq (761–767) is lost but his collection of traditions survives mainly in two sources: Ibn Hisham (833) and al-Tabari (915). The story appears in al-Tabari, who includes Ibn Ishaq in the chain of transmission, but not in Ibn Hisham, who admits in the preface of his text that he omitted matters from Ibn Ishaq’s biography that “would distress certain people”. Ibn Sa’d and Al-Waqidi, two other early biographers of Muhammad relate the story. Scholars such as Uri Rubin and Shahab Ahmed and Guillaume hold that the report was in Ibn Ishaq, while Alford T. Welch holds the report has not been presumably present in the Ibn Ishaq.

Later medieval period

Due to its unreliable chain of narration, the tradition of the Satanic Verses never made it into any of the canonical hadith compilations (though see below for possible truncated versions of the incident that did). The reference and exegesis about the Verses appear in early histories. In addition to appearing in Tabarī’s Tafsīr, it is used in the tafsīrs of Muqātil, ‘Abdu r-Razzāq and Ibn Kathir as well as the naskh of Abu Ja‘far an-Nahhās, the asbāb collection of Wāhidī and even the late-medieval as-Suyūtī’s compilation al-Durr al-Manthūr fil-Tafsīr bil-Mathūr.

Objections to the incident were raised as early as the fourth Islamic century, such as in the work of an-Nahhās and continued to be raised throughout later generations by scholars such as Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 1157), Fakhr ad-Din Razi (1220) as well as al-Qurtubi (1285). The most comprehensive argument presented against the factuality of the incident came in Qadi Iyad’s ash-Shifa‘. The incident was discounted on two main bases. The first was that the incident contradicted the doctrine of isma‘, the divine protection of Muhammad from mistakes. The second was that the descriptions of the chain of transmission extant since that period are not complete and sound (sahih). Ibn Kathir points out in his commentary that the various isnads available to him by which the story was transmitted were almost all mursal, or without a companion of Muhammad in their chain. Uri Rubin asserts that there exists a complete version of the isnad continuing to ibn ‘Abbās, but this only survives in a few sources. He claims that the name of ibn ‘Abbās was part of the original isnad, and was removed so that the incident could be deprived of its sahih isnad and discredited.

Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi commenting on Surah 22:52 in his Tafsir al-Kabir stated that the “people of verification” declared the story as an outright fabrication, citing supporting arguments from the Qur’an, Sunnah and reason. He then reported that the preeminent Muhaddith Ibn Khuzaymah said: “it is an invention of the heretics” when once asked about it. Al-Razi also recorded that al-Bayhaqi stated that the narration of the story was unreliable because its narrators were of questionable integrity.

Those scholars who acknowledged the historicity of the incident apparently had a different method for the assessment of reports than that which has become standard Islamic methodology. For example, Ibn Taymiyyah took the position that since tafsir and sira-maghazi reports were commonly transmitted by incomplete isnads, these reports should not be assessed according to the completeness of the chains but rather on the basis of recurrent transmission of common meaning between reports.

Al-Qurtubi (al-Jāmi’ li ahkām al-Qur’ān) dismisses all these variants in favor of the explanation that once Sūra al-Najm was safely revealed the basic events of the incident (or rumors of them) “were now permitted to occur to identify those of his followers who would accept Muhammad’s explanation of the blasphemous imposture” (JSS 15, pp. 254–255).

While Ibn Hajar al-Asqallani wrote: “All the chains of this narration are weak, except of Said Ibn Jubayr. And when one incident is reported from many different chains, then it means there is something real in this incident. Moreover, this incident has also been narrated through 2 Mursal (where the chain goes up to Successer i.e. Tabai) traditions, whose chains of narration are authentic according to the standards of Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim. The first one is what Tabari recorded from Younus bin Yazid, he from Ibn Shahab that Abu Bakr Ibn Abdul Rehman narrated to me. While second one which Tabari recorded from Mutabar bin Sulayman and Hammad bin Salama, and they from Dawud bin Abi Hind, and he from Abu Aliya … Ibn Arabi and Qadhi Ayyad say there is no proof of this incident, but contrary to their claim when one incident comes through a different chain of narrations, then it means that this incident is real. While there are not only multiple chains of narrations about this incident but also 3 of them are authentic while 2 of them are Mursal narrations.”

Modern Islamic scholarship

While the authors of the tafsir texts during the first two centuries of the Islamic era do not seem to have regarded the tradition as in any way inauspicious or unflattering to Muhammad, it seems to have been universally rejected by at least the 13th century, and most modern Muslims likewise see the tradition as problematic, in the sense that it is viewed as “profoundly heretical because, by allowing for the intercession of the three pagan female deities, they eroded the authority and omnipotence of Allah. But they also hold… damaging implications in regard to the revelation as a whole, for Muhammad’s revelation appears to have been based on his desire to soften the threat to the deities of the people.” Different responses have developed concerning the account.

All modern Muslim scholars have rejected the story. Arguments for rejection are found in Muhammad Abduh’s article “Masʾalat al-gharānīq wa-tafsīr al-āyāt”, Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s “Hayat Muhammad”, Sayyid Qutb’s “Fi Zilal al-Quran” (1965), Abul Ala Maududi’s “Tafhim al-Quran” and Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani’s “Nasb al-majānīq li-nasf al-gharānīq”.

Haykal points out the many forms and versions of the story and their inconsistencies and argues that “the contextual flow of Surah ‘al Najm’ does not allow at all the inclusion of such verses as the story claims”. Haykal quotes Muhammad Abduh who pointed out that the “Arabs have nowhere described their gods in such terms as ‘al gharaniq’. Neither in their poetry nor in their speeches or traditions do we find their gods or goddesses described in such terms. Rather, the word ‘al ghurnuq’ or ‘al gharniq’ was the name of a black or white water bird, sometimes given figuratively to the handsome blond youth.” Lastly, Haykal argues that the story is inconsistent with Muhammad’s personal life and is completely against the spirit of the Islamic message.

Aqa Mahdi Puya has said that these fake verses were shouted out by the Meccans to make it look like it was Muhammad who said it; he writes:

Some pagans and hypocrites planned secretly to recite words praising idolatry alongside the recitation of the Holy Prophet, while he was praying, in such a way that the people would think as if they were recited by him. Once when the Holy Prophet was reciting verses 19 and 20 of Najm one of the pagans recited: “Tilkal gharani-ul ula wa inna shafa-atahuma laturja”-(These are the lofty (idols), verily their intercession is sought after.) As soon as this was recited the conspirators shouted in delight to make the people believe that it was the Holy Prophet who said these words. Here, the Quran is stating the general pattern the enemies of the messengers of Allah followed when they were positively convinced that the people were paying attention to the teachings of the messengers of Allah and sincerely believing in them. They would mix their false doctrines with the original teachings so as to make the divine message a bundle of contradictions. This kind of satanic insertions are referred to in thus verse, and it is supported by Ha Mim: 26. It is sheer blasphemy to say that satanic forces can influence the messengers of Allah.

Historicity debate

Since William Muir, the historicity of this episode has been largely accepted by orientalists. Some orientalists, however, argued against the historic authenticity of these verses on various grounds.

William Montgomery Watt and Alfred Guillaume claim that stories of the event were true based upon the implausibility of Muslims fabricating a story so unflattering to their prophet: “Muhammad must have publicly recited the satanic verses as part of the Qur’ān; it is unthinkable that the story could have been invented by Muslims, or foisted upon them by non-Muslims.” Trude Ehlert, in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, finds Watt’s reason to be insufficient, stating “The story in its present form (as related by al-Ṭabarī, al-Wāḳidī, and Ibn Saʿd) cannot be accepted as historical for a variety of reasons”.

Regarding this argument, Shahab Ahmed in the Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān counters that “the widespread acceptance of the incident by early Muslims suggests, however, that they did not view the incident as inauspicious and that they would presumably not have, on this basis at least, been adverse to inventing it.” Similarly, Alford T. Welch, in the Encyclopaedia of Islam, argues that the “implausibility” argument alone is insufficient to guarantee the tradition’s authenticity. He says that the story in its present form is certainly a later, exegetical fabrication despite the fact that there could be some historical basis for the story.

Welch states that the story falsely claims that the chapter 53:1–20 and the end of the chapter are a unity, and that the date for the verse 22:52 is later than 53:21–7 and almost certainly belongs to the Medinan period. Several other details in the setting of the story, such as the mosque and the sajda, do not belong to the Meccan phase of Muhammad’s career. Welch also points out that the story was not mentioned in Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad. He says that the above analysis does not rule out “the possibility of some historical kernel behind the story.” One such possibility, Welch says, is that the story is of a historical telescoping nature: “that a situation that was known by Muhammad’s contemporaries to have lasted for a long period of time later came to be encapsulated in a story that restricts his acceptance of intercession through these goddesses to a brief period of time and places the responsibility for this departure from a strict monotheism on Satan.”

John Burton argued for its fictitiousness based upon a demonstration of its actual utility to certain elements of the Muslim community – namely, those legal exegetes seeking an “occasion of revelation” for eradicative modes of abrogation. Burton supports his theory by the fact that Tabari does not discuss the story in his exegesis of verse 53:20, but rather in 22:52. Burton further notes that different versions of the story are all traceable to one single narrator Muhammad ibn Ka’b, two generations removed from Ibn Ishaq, but not contemporary with the event. G.R. Hawting writes that the satanic verses incident would not serve to justify or exemplify a theory that God reveals something and later replaces it himself with another true revelation. Burton, in his rejection of the authenticity of the story, sided with Leone Caetani, who wrote that the story was to be rejected not only on the basis of isnad, but because “had these hadiths even a degree of historical basis, Muhammad’s reported conduct on this occasion would have given the lie to the whole of his previous prophetic activity.”

Maxime Rodinson finds that it may reasonably be accepted as true “because the makers of Muslim tradition would never have invented a story with such damaging implications for the revelation as a whole.” He writes the following on the genesis of the verses: “Obviously Muhammad’s unconscious had suggested to him a formula which provided a practical road to unanimity.” Rodinson writes that this concession, however, diminished the threat of the Last Judgment by enabling the three goddesses to intercede for sinners and save them from eternal damnation. Further, it diminished Muhammad’s own authority by giving the priests of Uzza, Manat, and Allat the ability to pronounce oracles contradicting his message. Disparagement from Christians and Jews, who pointed out that he was reverting to his pagan beginnings, combined with opposition and indignation from his own followers influenced him to recant his revelation. However, in doing so he denounced the gods of Mecca as lesser spirits or mere names, cast off everything related to the traditional religion as the work of pagans and unbelievers, and consigned the Meccan’s pious ancestors and relatives to Hell. This was the final break with the Quraysh.

Fred Halliday states that rather than having damaging implications, the story is a cautionary tale, the point of which is “not to malign God but to point up the frailty of human beings,” and that even a prophet may be misled by shaytan — though ultimately shaytan is unsuccessful.

Since John Wansbrough’s contributions to the field in the early 1970s, though, scholars have become much more attentive to the emergent nature of early Islam, and less willing to accept back-projected claims of continuity:

To those who see the tradition as constantly evolving and supplying answers to question that it itself has raised, the argument that there would be no reason to develop and transmit material which seems derogatory of the Prophet or of Islam is too simple. For one thing, ideas about what is derogatory may change over time. We know that the doctrine of the Prophet’s infallibility and impeccability (the doctrine regarding his ‘isma) emerged only slowly. For another, material which we now find in the biography of the Prophet originated in various circumstances to meet various needs and one has to understand why material exists before one can make a judgment about its basis in fact…

In Rubin’s recent contribution to the debate, questions of historicity are completely eschewed in favor of an examination of internal textual dynamics and what they reveal about early medieval Islam. Rubin claims to have located the genesis of many prophetic traditions and that they show an early Muslim desire to prove to other scriptures “that Muhammad did indeed belong to the same exclusive predestined chain of prophets in whom the Jews and the Christians believed. He alleges that the Muslims had to establish the story of Muhammad’s life on the same literary patterns as were used in the vitae of the other prophets”. The incident of the Satanic Verses, according to him, conforms to the common theme of persecution followed by isolation of the prophet-figure.

As the story was adapted to include Qur’ānic material (Q.22:50, Q.53, Q.17:73-74), the idea of satanic temptation was claimed to have been added, heightening its inherent drama as well as incorporating additional Biblical motifs (cf. the Temptation of Christ). Rubin gives his attention to the narratological exigencies which may have shaped early sīra material, as opposed to the more commonly considered ones of dogma, sect, and political/dynastic faction. Given the consensus that “the most archaic layer of the biography, [is] that of the stories of the kussās [i.e. popular story-tellers]” (SīraEI²), this may prove a fruitful line of inquiry.

The Encyclopedia of Islam claims that, although there could be some historical basis for the story, in its present form it is certainly a later, exegetical fabrication. Sūra LIII, 1-20 and the end of the sūra are not a unity, as is claimed by the story; XXII, 52, is later than LIII, 21-7, and is almost certainly Medinan (see Bell, Trans., 316, 322); and several details of the story- the mosque, the sajda, and others not mentioned in the short summary above- do not belong to the Meccan phase.

Rubin also claimed that the supposed temporary control taken by Satan over Muhammad made such traditions unacceptable to early hadith compilers, which he believed to be a unique case in which a group of traditions are rejected only after being subject to Qur’anic models, and as a direct result of this adjustment.

Related traditions

Several related traditions exist, some adapted to Qur’ānic material, some not. One version, appearing in Tabarī’s Tafsīr and attributed to Urwah ibn Zubayr (d. 713), preserves the basic narrative but with no mention of satanic temptation. Muhammad is persecuted by the Meccans after attacking their idols, during which time a group of Muslims seeks refuge in Abyssinia. After the cessation of this first round of persecution (fitna) they return home, but soon a second round begins. No compelling reason is provided for the caesura of persecution, though, unlike in the incident of the satanic verses, where it is the (temporary) fruit of Muhammad’s accommodation to Meccan polytheism. Another version attributed to ‘Urwa has only one round of fitna, which begins after Muhammad has converted the entire population of Mecca so that the Muslims are too numerous to perform ritual prostration (sūjud) altogether. This somewhat parallels the Muslims and mushrikūn prostrating themselves together after Muhammad’s first, allegedly satanically infected, recitation of Sūra al-Najm, in which the efficacy of the three pagan goddesses is acknowledged (Rubin, pp. 157–158).

The image of Muslims and pagans prostrating themselves together in prayer in turn links the story of the satanic verses to very abbreviated sūjud al-Qur’ān (i.e. prostration when reciting the Qur’ān) traditions found in the authoritative mussanaf hadīth collections, including the Sunni canonical ones of Bukhāri and Tirmidhī. Rubin claims that apparently “the allusion to the participation of the mushrikūn emphasises how overwhelming and intense the effect of this sūra was on those attending”. The traditions actually state that all cognizant creatures took part in it, humans as well as jinns.

Rubin further argues that this is inherently illogical without the Satanic Verses in the recitation, given that in the accepted version of verses Q.53:19-23, the pagans’ goddesses are attacked. The majority of traditions relating to prostration at the end of Sūra al-Najm solve this by either removing all mention of the mushrikūn, or else transforming the attempt of an old Meccan to participate (who, instead of bowing to the ground, puts dirt to his forehead proclaiming “This is sufficient for me”) into an act of mockery. Some traditions even describe his eventual comeuppance, saying he is later killed at the battle of Badr. [2] Thus, according to Rubin, “the story of the single polytheist who raised a handful of dirt to his forehead… [in]… attempt of an old disabled man to participate in Muhammad’s sūjud… in… a sarcastic act of an enemy of Muhammad wishing to dishonor the Islamic prayer”. And “traditions which originally related the dramatic story of temptation became a sterilized anecdote providing prophetic precedent for a ritual practice”.

Tabarī’s account

An extensive account of the incident is found in al-Tabāri’s history, the Ta’rīkh (Vol. I) (circa 915 CE):

The prophet was eager for the welfare of his people, desiring to win them to him by any means he could. It has been reported that he longed for a way to win them, and part of what he did to that end is what Ibn Humayd told me, from Salama, from Muhammad ibn Ishaq, from Yazīd ibn Ziyād al-Madanī, from Muhammad ibn Ka’b al-Qurazī:

When the prophet saw his people turning away from him, and was tormented by their distancing themselves from what he had brought to them from God, he longed in himself for something to come to him from God which would draw him close to them. With his love for his people and his eagerness for them, it would gladden him if some of the hard things he had found in dealing with them could be alleviated. He pondered this in himself, longed for it, and desired it.

Then God sent down the revelation. ‘By the star when it sets! Your companion has not erred or gone astray, and does not speak from mere fancy…’ [Q.53:1] When he reached God’s words, “Have you seen al-Lāt and al-‘Uzzā and Manāt, the third, the other?’ [Q.53:19-20] Satan cast upon his tongue, because of what he had pondered in himself and longed to bring to his people, ‘These are the high-flying cranes and their intercession is to be hoped for.’

When Quraysh heard that, they rejoiced. What he had said about their gods pleased and delighted them, and they gave ear to him. The Believers trusted in their prophet with respect to what he brought them from their Lord: they did not suspect any slip, delusion or error. When he came to the prostration and finished the chapter, he prostrated and the Muslims followed their prophet in it, having faith in what he brought them and obeying his command. Those mushrikūnof Quraysh and others who were in the mosque also prostrated on account of what they had heard him say about their gods. In the whole mosque there was no believer or kāfir who did not prostrate. Only al-Walīd bin al-Mughīra, who was an aged shaykh and could not make prostration, scooped up in his hand some of the soil from the valley of Mecca [and pressed it to his forehead]. Then everybody dispersed from the mosque.

Quraysh went out and were delighted by what they had heard of the way in which he spoke of their gods. They were saying, ‘Muhammad has referred to our gods most favourably. In what he has recited he said that they are “high-flying cranes whose intercession is to be hoped for”.’

Those followers of the Prophet who had emigrated to the land of Abyssinia heard about the affair of the prostration, and it was reported to them that Quraysh had accepted Islam. Some men among them decided to return while others remained behind.

Gabriel came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Muhammad, what have you done! You have recited to the people something which I have not brought you from God, and you have spoken what He did not say to you.’

At that the Prophet was mightily saddened and greatly feared God. But God, of His mercy, sent him a revelation, comforting him and diminishing the magnitude of what had happened. God told him that there had never been a previous prophet or apostle who had longed just as Muhammad had longed, and desired just as Muhammad had desired, but that Satan had cast into his longing just as he had cast onto the tongue of Muhammad. But God abrogates what Satan has cast, and puts His verses in proper order. That is, ‘you are just like other prophets and apostles.’

And God revealed: ‘We never sent any apostle or prophet before you but that, when he longed, Satan cast into his longing. But God abrogates what Satan casts in, and then God puts His verses in proper order, for God is all-knowing and wise.’ [Q.22:52]

So God drove out the sadness from His prophet and gave him security against what he feared. He abrogated what Satan had cast upon his tongue in referring to their gods: ‘They are the high-flying cranes whose intercession is accepted [sic]’. [Replacing those words with] the words of God when Allāt, al-‘Uzzā and Manāt the third, the other are mentioned: ‘Should you have males and He females [as offspring]! That, indeed, would be an unfair division. They are only names which you and your fathers have given them’… as far as ‘As many as are the angels in heaven, their intercession shall be of no avail unless after God has permitted it to whom He pleases and accepts’ [Q.53:21-26]- meaning, how can the intercession of their gods be of any avail with Him?

When there had come from God the words which abrogated what Satan had cast on to the tongue of His prophet, Quraysh said, ‘Muhammad has gone back on what he said about the status of our gods relative to God, changed it and brought something else’, for the two phrases which Satan had cast on to the tongue of the Prophet had found a place in the mouth of every polytheist. They, therefore, increased in their evil and in their oppression of everyone among them who had accepted Islam and followed the Prophet.

The band of the Prophet’s followers who had left the land of Abyssinia on account of the report that the people of Mecca had accepted Islam when they prostrated together with the Prophet drew near. But when they approached Mecca they heard that the talk about the acceptance of Islam by the people of Mecca was wrong. Therefore, they only entered Mecca in secret or after having obtained a promise of protection.

Among those of them who came to Mecca at that time and remained there until emigrating to Medina and taking part in the battle of Badr alongside Muhammad there was, from the family of ‘Abd Shams b. Abd Manāf b. Qussayy, ‘Uthmān b. ‘Affān together with his wife Ruqayya the daughter of the Prophet. Abū Hudhayfa b. ‘Utba with his wife Shal bint Suhayl, and another group with them, numbering together 33 men.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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