Seminar Paper, 2005
16 Pages, Grade: 1,0
1. Introduction page
2. Rushdie’s Deconstruction of the “East” and Questioning of the Inviolable: His Short Story “The Prophet’s Hair” page
3. Rushdie’s Deconstruction of the “West” and the Questioning of the Inviolable: His Short Story “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers” page
4. Conclusion page Works Cited page
Considering the title of Rushdie’s short story cycle East, West one question quickly evolves in the recipient’s mind: Does the comma in the title stand for a separator keeping apart two cultural blocks, namely an Eastern and a Western world, or can it also be considered as a linking bridge (Beck 357)?
However, after having read Rushdie’s colourful stories it becomes clear that he even goes far beyond this “bridge notion”. The author doesn’t only try to link or reconcile the two parts but he as a migrant between the two worlds plays ironically with the traditional images of Orient and Occident: By applying a huge variety of genre, styles, structures and techniques he finally deconstructs the traditional notions of the two entities. In doing so, Rushdie undermines the reader’s conventional assumptions about the East and West and makes clear that in recent times reality cannot be pressed into or described by such simple schemes any longer.
When Rushdie himself writes in his collection of critical essays Imaginary Homelands that “literature is, of all the arts, the one best suited to challenging absolutes of all kinds” (qtd. in Beck 356), this is exactly what it does in “East, West”. Nothing is “sacred” any longer, and thus most of the stories can be also considered as attempts to challenge and deconstruct sanctities of Eastern and Western culture (Beck 360).
In other words the author ironically criticizes absolutist notions and weak sides of the eastern and western systems. And by this critique and deconstruction of traditional images he makes clear that within the global village these two parts of the world are closely interrelated and cannot be considered as opposing entities. Thus, Rushdie goes beyond the common debates about whether there is a divide of the world into East and West or not.
However, as the short stories in East, West fulfil all more or less this deconstructive design on the one side and represent on the other side the richness and diversity of human life in the different parts of the world they naturally do not offer easy interpretations. Nevertheless, this term paper tries to examine how Rushdie criticizes and deconstructs the traditional notions and absolutes of the East and West and how he takes apart these artificial entities. The thesis that Salman Rushdie deconstructs the typical images and questions the inviolable both of the Orient and Occident and thus describes the world as a complex, interrelated system will be the paper’s central question. In this respect one “Eastern” story of his short story cycle East, West – “The Prophet’s Hair” – and one “Western story” – “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers”— will be considered. These analyses will then provide the basis for the conclusion.
The story “The Prophet’s Hair” is based on the disappearance of the Prophet Muhammad’s hair from the Hazrat Bal Mosque at Srinagar in 1963, and Rushdie playfully develops his own fictional story out of this incident. His deconstruction of eastern absolutes deals in this story mainly with the blind veneration of the Prophet Muhammad.
The wealthy moneylender Hashim is “not a godly man [but sets great store by] living honourably in the world” and asks – despite the injunctions of the Qur’an – interest rates of seventy per cent (Rushdie, East,West 43). His family is living a quite secular life, though with a Muslim background, as Huma the daughter doesn’t wear purdah, visits the cinema or the family doesn’t pray five times a day at first.
One morning, however, Hashim finds a famous relic of Prophet Muhammad’s hair und keeps it. This possession of the vial changes his behaviour thoroughly. He begins to force a deeply religious life upon his family and becomes himself a religious fanatic. Nevertheless, this change in life doesn’t lead to a moral improvement of Hashim’s conduct as he starts beating his wife and daughter and keeps being reckless to his debtors. The children’s ordering of Sheikh, the king of thieves, to steal the relic however leads to a vicious circle that tragically wipes out the whole family and also kills the thief. Only the four sons of Sheikh, who “with a parent’s absolutist love […] he made sure they were all provided with a lifelong source of high income […] by crippling them at birth […] so that they earned excellent money in the begging business” are wondrously healed but thus tragically reduced of their earning powers by 75 per cent (Rushdie, East, West 57).
Considering this short story, it firstly reminds the recipient of the miraculous events that use to happen in religious tales. Among deeply religious Muslims the power of the Prophet Muhammad is usually considered to be endless and inscrutable, yet in Rushdie’s story it leads to death and ruin. This sad ending seems thus to completely offend Muslim beliefs, as the veneration of Muhammad is at the very centre of Islam: “pious Sunnis […] had gone to great lengths to model their lives on that of the prophet, every detail of his life […] became […] the ideal for a whole civilisation” (Ruthwen 34). And Ruthven for example further points out that an assault on Muhammad’s “reputation [- like Rushdie does -] is perceived as an assault on the Muslim personality” (34).
However, that’s exactly what at first view seems to happen in “The Prophet’s Hair”: the recipient suddenly experiences that a blind orientation on Muhammad’s life and rules can lead – as in the case of Hashim the moneylender – to death and misery.
To understand this criticism and deconstruction of the mythical, religious image of the Orient and Islam one has perhaps to consider the story’s autobiographical background. Rushdie was born into a Muslim family in Bombay in 1947 and grew up in Karachi. He was later sent to Rugby, England in 1961. There he lost his faith, which left him with a “God-shaped hole inside” (Appignanesi, Maitland 2). His relationship with Islam was again heavily coined after the publication of his famous novel “Satanic Verses”, when this book was burned officially in the Islamic world and caused Ayatollah Khomeini and other mullahs to sentence a fatwah on Rushdie in 1989 with a promise of martyrdom for an assassin. The hiding of Rushdie from the religious fanatics that followed these reactions and the experience of religious fanatism and absolutism may have left its traces and thus also have entered Rushdie’s short story “The Prophet’s Hair”.
On a more holistic approach the text may be seen as deconstructing these notions of the East considering it only as a part of the world dominated by Islamic absolutes and ideology. Thus, Rushdie is destroying the image of the East dominated by the blind veneration of the prophet Muhammad and pointing out that the majority of Muslims doesn’t consider them to be fundamentalists at all. The reader begins again to realize that a single Islamic Umma, the world community of Muslims often described as the “East” by Western intellectuals, doesn’t exist any longer as Kemal Ataturk abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 (Ruthven 54).
Furthermore, Rushdie criticizes in “The Prophets Hair” as well as in many essays the demand of many people that “all religious beliefs […] be protected from criticism” and states that “it is absolutely wrong […] [of Muslims] to demand that their belief-system – that any system of belief or thought — should be immunized against criticism, irreverence, satire, even scornful disparagement” and that no way of censorship is ever needed (Rushdie, Non-Fiction 324). He also clearly expressed that “[…] the point is to defend people but not their ideas” and that one has to distinguish between the individual and his creed. Rushdie is deeply convinced that “democracy can only advance through the clash of ideas” (Rushdie, Non-Fiction 324). And these experiences and opinions of the author do clearly also stand at the heart of his short story “The Prophet’s Hair”.
The author ironically plays with Hashim’s radical shift in behaviour due to religious reasons. In doing so, Rushdie only once more shows that he is deeply convinced that “nothing is sacred” (qtd. in Beck 360) and that he encourages a vivid global discussion about values and beliefs. He often stated that “To respect the sacred is to be paralysed by it. The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks other ideas – Uncertainty, Progress, Change – into Crimes” (Rushdie, Non-Fiction 416).
In “The Prophet’s Hair”, Muhammad is taken to be the absolute model of Muslim life and sometimes already seen wizard-like, as perfect man with a great physical beauty and great powers. And that is exactly not what modern Islamic scholars point out how he is to be seen: as a human being and a prophet, but simply not god-like himself. Thus, as Beck puts it, the story does not challenge religion as such, but the “totemistic and ritualistic aspects of the cult surrounding Muhammad […] which the prophet himself would perhaps not have approved of” (362). Additionally, Rushdie seems to play with notions like freedom of speech, blasphemy and the role of religion in society. And he might in this respect criticize Islamic religious revivals as ways in which “religion is used to serve political ends” (Beck 362). Like Hashim in the story, who justifies his brutal behaviour by Islam, many fundamentalists and regimes in the Islamic world do so to justify their violating of human rights. In this way the story may be not about religion but about religion turned into a fetish and used for political ends (Beck 363).
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