Rushdie on Religion and the Imagination

Last Wednesday night, I had the chance to sit in on a fascinating conversation on “Religion and the Imagination” with Salman Rushdie. The author of Midnight’s Children [soon to be adapted for film by Deepa Mehta], The Satanic Verses, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and East, West was, of course, the perfect person to launch Columbia University’s newly founded Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life. The Institute’s mission is to “bring together scholars and students in various fields to reflect and respond to the issues brought about by the “resurgence of religion and, with it, religious and cultural intolerance and conflict [that] are emerging as powerful forces in the new century.” Rushdie2.jpg

Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Laureate in Literature, introduced Rushdie as someone who has been “fighting religious intolerance with humor, proving that we can fight moral seriousness with humor.”

The stage in Columbia’s always inspiring (and very crowded) Low Library Rotunda was set simply with two arm chairs–one for Rushdie, who was was all suited up, and the other for his “interviewer” Gauri Viswanathan, Professor of Religion and Comparative Literature, dressed as always, in a sari. The conversation was an intellectual one peppered with doses of Rushdie’s subtle (and sometimes pointed) humor and the topics of conversation ranged from everything to his relationship with religion and his hopes for robust religious debate to his thoughts on Obama’s win earlier that week.

“We don’t live in a world of drama, dance, and love… We live in a world of death, destruction, and bombs… I’m hoping something happened on Tuesday that will change that,” Rushdie said, referring to the election of Barack Obama. “I have no utopian tendencies. I’m good at seeing what I don’t like. But this week, I do feel optimistic,” Rushdie laughed. “It’s an odd feeling, one I’m not familiar with. The last time I felt like this was after the election of Tony Blair and look what happened!” Rushdie paused as the audience chuckled at his dark skepticism, then added, “ I hope it’s not that way this time. Actually … I don’t think it is.”

More on the evening’s highlights below the fold. Professor Viswanathan got the evening started by asking, “What does literary imagination add to religious imagination?”

“All literature began as sacred literature,” said Rushdie. “There aren’t words to express some things except religious words, for example, the ‘soul’. I don’t believe in an afterlife or heaven or hell, yet there isn’t a secular word for that feeling that we are not only flesh and blood. Whether you’re religious or not you may find yourself obliged to use language shaped by religion. … As Arthur Koestler wrote, “There’s a ghost in the machine.’”

What Rushdie says he has found most useful about religion is its power to create myth, which he does draw inspiration from in his writing. “The amount of complexity pushed into a small story” is what impresses him, he said, giving an example of how a single myth can be interpreted in so many different ways. This, according to him, is similar to what religions have in common; a single religious text can also be interpreted in myriad ways.

He went on to emphasize that though his books address religion, he is not, however, religious. “I am not interested in devotion. I’m not interested in writing books other than those that express inter-human devotion, which is temporary.”

Gods, the way he sees it, were invented by human beings to answer the two big questions of life: One, the question of origins: “Where do we come from?” Two, the question of ethics: “”How should we live?”

“I don’t need religion to answer those questions,” said Rushdie, proposing that religion has been wrong on both counts. “Regarding origins, I think you can say [they are all wrong.] The world was not created in six days and God rested on the seventh. It was not created in the churning of a giant pot. Or the sparks unleashed by the udders of a giant cow against the boulders of a a gigantic chasm. And regarding ‘how shall we live,’ I don’t want answers that come from some priest. … When religion gets in the driving seat, it becomes an inquisition. I would prefer that the answer to these big questions came from debates. The debate is the thing from which flows the ethical life.”

And, yet, Rushdie’s books have and do take on religion and ethics and the supernatural. How come? How does he square the two?

“Miracles, magic, imagination, they all argue inside me. I don’t reconcile them,” Rushdie laughed. “Creative writing is an implicit argument against pure rationalism. The way an imaginative piece comes to life is mysterious. The bit of me sitting here [in this hall] is rationalistic, but when I’m writing books, something weird happens; and the result is what you would call supernaturalism. As a person, I don’t need it. As a writer, I need it to explore the world. That tension, it’s just there. It’s just so.”

Later on that evening, Rushdie acknowledged that though he can’t quite explain it, he does believe in the “mystical experience” or the “phenomenon called revelation” that St. John the Divine and Joan of Arc experienced. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but it sounded to me like he was hinting that there may be a bit of revelation in the writing process as well.

Given the mission of Columbia’s new Institute, it was natural that the conversation should steer toward questions of conflict and religious extremism. Rushdie lamented the self-destructiveness within religions and praised the creation of Columbia’s Institute for its role in promoting healthy debate and discussion on the role of religion in public life. He talked about how his attempt to depict early convulsions of the birth of religion (namely Islam) in Satanic Verses was viewed as heretic.

“There is so much contemporary scholarship about the origins of Islam,” Rushdie said. “If you insist that the text is the uncreated word of God, then the social and economic conditions of the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century are unimportant, because God works on a broader canvas than that. If, however, you are willing to look at the text as an event inside the history of the period, it illuminates the text. And I think it’s a tragedy that it’s not really acceptable to do this inside the tradition.”

“It’s a great shame in the world of Islam that so much contemporary scholarship is not permitted because of the divine origin notion,” he said. “… because historicizing the text would really open up and illuminate it.”

During the course of the evening, Rushdie reminisced somewhat nostalgically about the Islam he knew as a youth. “I grew up in that world where people could still be devout Muslims (like my grandfather who prayed five times a day) and yet, we as children, could make fun of him, asking him why spent more time with his bottom up in the air than not … He’d get cross with us, but also laugh and invite us to debate with him.”

Something I didn’t know before this evening was that Rushdie is not really Salman Rushdie’s family name. His father invented it because he was an admirer of the philosopher Ibn-Rushdie.

From the Huffington Post, this passage captures (near-verbatim) the points that Rushdie made:

One of the reasons my name is Rushdie is that my father was an admirer of Ibn Rush’d, the 12th century Arab philosopher known as Averroes in the West. In his time, he was making the non-literalist case for interpreting the Koran.
One argument of his with which I’ve also had sympathy is this: In the Judeo-Christian idea, God created man in his own image and, therefore, they share some characteristics. By contrast, the Koran says God has no human characteristics. It would be demeaning God to say that. We are merely human. He is God.
Ibn Rush’d and others in his time argued that language, too, is a human characteristic. Therefore it is improper – in Koranic terms – to argue that God speaks Arabic or any other language. That God would speak at all would mean he has a mouth and human form. So, Ibn Rush’d said, if God doesn’t use human language, then the writing down of the Koran, as received in the human mind from the Angel Gabriel, is itself an act of interpretation. The original text is itself an act of interpretation. If that is so, then further interpretation of the Koran according to historical context, rather than literally, is quite legitimate.
In the 12th century, this argument was defeated. It needs to raised again in the 21st century.

“I wouldn’t mind having another go at that,” Rushdie told the audience, aligning himself closely with his 12th century namesake.

During the course of the evening, Rushdie mourned the loss of the “composite culture of Kashmir which used to be neither Muslim nor Hindu” and where members of both religions would stop by the same roadside altars to pay homage to Sufi saints. “It’s sad to see that gone,” he said. “The self-destruction of Muslim culture by other Muslims is a grievous wound.” (One audience member was quick to point out to Rushdie in the Q&A session that followed that Hindus and Muslims in India do both still pay homage to Sufi saints, even in Kashmir.)

Referring to the fatwa placed on him and the perception of his work as anti-Islamic, Rushdie argued, “Ideas shouldn’t be seen as being antithetical to argument,” pointing out the argumentative Jesuit tradition as an example. On another occasion, Rushdie has said, “All other major religions have gone through this process of questioning, but remain standing. An Islamic questioning might well undermine the radicals, but it won’t undermine Islam.”

“Relativism is the dangerous death of liberalism,” Rushdie said, calling himself a believer in universalism. “We human beings are more genetically the same than we are not so there are universal rights and culture or religion can’t be an excuse to say “Let them kill novelists because it’s what they do!”

“The answer to religion is not no religion but finding another way to be with religion,” he proposed, arguing for a world where “there is no suppression of religion.”

He thus supported his position:

“We are language animals and we have to be allowed to use language. This is a universal right. You take language away from human beings and you take humanity away. Similarly, we are dreaming animals who live richly through our imagination. You have to imagine the hyperlink before you can construct the hyperlink. You have to imagine the wheel before you can construct the wheel. What starts as a dream becomes a reality. To tell us there are dreams we can have and we can’t have is a crime against humanity.”

It was an inspiring and relevant evening, where Rushdie came across at times as an idealist who still dreams of pitching a tent where ideas can be discussed. “Ideas are not permanent so maybe a tent is a good place to discuss ideas,” he said at one point in the evening.

66 thoughts on “Rushdie on Religion and the Imagination

  1. summary of naravara: religion can be defined as anything. religion can definitionally posit unverifiable things because that’s its domain.

    i’d say more but it’s time for my daily pour from bertrand russell’s invisible teapot.

  2. 52 · godlybegook said

    summary of naravara: religion can be defined as anything. religion can definitionally posit unverifiable things because that’s its domain. i’d say more but it’s time for my daily pour from bertrand russell’s invisible teapot.

    Way to not pay attention to back where I actually offered up my definition of religion. Do you have something to add that isn’t trollbait?

    P.S. I just noticed your username. I’m going to assume good faith and guess you didn’t mean to include a racial slur against Vietnamese in there. But you should probably know. . . “Godly Be Gook” would be kind of offensive to Vietnamese people.

  3. Perhaps this discussion could benefit if there is a separation between “organized religion” and “personal belief in God”. I think these are two separate things. Most atheists seem to refute claims of a particular organized religion and then jump to the conclusion that any belief in God is ridiculous since a particular set of proposed beliefs are ridiculous. What if religion revised itself and came up with logical and consistent set of beliefs with each iteration (Hinduism comes to mind where Indra, Varuna are made lesser gods than Vishnu and then progressed to postulate the ultimate monotheistic Brahman)?

    I believe the “personal God” is essential coping mechanism in the face of uncertainty and really, most people become more religious only during a crisis. If someone is saying “Everything is certain in science”, I would know they are living in a pure science world. In messy real world, nothing is certain.

    I see only being agnostic as a reasonable position, since atheism assumes a closed world view, i.e, we know 100% (or close to 100%) of the universe, hence the probability of things “we don’t know” (or God) is next to zero. How about things we don’t know that we don’t know? Again, anything being claimed as 100% certain is a leap of faith. If someone really knows everything with certainty, please let me know where I could find you, I am really worried about economy :) .

  4. For a large majority of people, though, I think the organized aspects of a religion have an important role to play by creating a sense of community, inculcating values, establishing traditions, etc.

    The personal belief in God I would say is the single most important thing. But it is not the only thing.

    What is important, however, is to not treat “religion” as if it is one homogeneous, monolithic entity. Religious beliefs are types of beliefs pertaining to the meaning of life and the nature of ultimate reality. So it is not entirely appropriate to treat them all like they are the same thing. There are some religious beliefs that are more valid and consistent than others in the same way that there are some scientific theories that are more justified than others.

  5. seriously. can someone explain to me what was there before the big bang? if there was nothing then how can something come out of nothing? if there was something then the big bang isn’t the beginning, is it? if god created this then who created god? if god was always there couldn’t the world have always been there too, making god unnecessary?

    i don’t get it.

  6. the set of scientific laws that we have today is valid given {t–>t0} ( t0 = Existence of X). the term t0-tx is nothing. quantum mechanically there is a probability of everything within nothing, hence something or in fact everything can tunnel out from nothing. i am not good communicating but i know these stuff and i can enlist the equations. now My head hurts!!

  7. 53 · NaraVara said

    where I actually offered up my definition of religion.

    which defines away anything which you consider irrational or extreme as fringe?

    57 · Manju said

    seriously. can someone explain to me what was there before the big bang? if there was nothing then how can something come out of nothing? if there was something then the big bang isn’t the beginning, is it? if god created this then who created god? if god was always there couldn’t the world have always been there too, making god unnecessary? i don’t get it.

    i believe such arguments about definitional prestidigitation are deemed trollbait.

  8. 24 · NaraVara said

    What do the words “religion” and “science” mean to you?

    Back in 06, when SM hosted a very similar sets of arguments over the ramifications of Sam Harris’ endorsement of Jainism, my boy No Von Mises (where you been at, son?!) broke through the mist and pointed to a quote that sums up religion quite beautifully and effectively – at least for this metaphysical solipsist.

    As for a definition of God, I’m torn between Bulleh Shah and khoofia’s Silverstein-esque ditty.

  9. “…if god created this then who created god? if god was always there couldn’t the world have always been there too, making god unnecessary?

    i don’t get it.”

    That’s the mystery. That’s what it’s all about. Nobody gets it. I remember practically going crazy when I was about 8 trying to imagine eternity. You can’t.

  10. Jesus was the political mentor of the Christian world at his time, just as Muhammad, Buddha, Krishna, Guru Nanak, Lao Tze, and Confucius… to their respective groups.

    Today’s religions evolutionized through imitation that discards appraisal of the animals’ waves of the mind. Words are just viruses to the mind. It is pacify and clear of images, sound, words, perceptions of any kind in its original state, so dam! to all the informations. Confucius confused the total essence of the mind. Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, Buddha, Bahaiullah, Guru Nanak… was shooting about the bushes of fantasies. They were and are the corrupted software’s of thinking. They were the reformers of thoughts that descend to incessant troubled concepts. The animals been left without principle.

    Muhammad, a political mentor of the Muslim world, puts it in these words: “All creatures are like a family (Ayal) of God: and he loved the most those who are the most beneficent to ‘his family’.(Animal’s territotial defense)

    ‘God actually communicates with animals, as the following verse shows: And your Lord revealed to the bee: ‘make hives in the mountains and in the trees, and in (human) habitations’. (16:68) ( Merely THRUGH MY PERSEPTION)

    There is no religion, so forget about religions. There is no god, so why tak about god? I am The Creator of my own perceptions, fantasies, theology, thesis, hypothesis, dogmas, karmas and all sorts of ideas to defend the animals’ territory within the planet in my mind.

    Anyway, I admire Rushdie for his thoughts and animal’s words. He is a good Muslim’s clown of this age.

  11. “….Anyway, I admire Rushdie for his thoughts and animal’s words. He is a good Muslim’s clown of this age.”

    well that certainly ties things up neatly and coherently.

  12. hello, I HAVE MESSAGE FOR rushdi MALWOOUN, ONE DAY SOME ONE KILL HIM WITH VERY CRULITY FIRST HE WILL BE THIGHT HIM WITH ROAPS AND WILL THROUGH OUT HIS SKIN FROM HIS BODY AND WILL BE VIDEO WILL BE ISSUE TO THE WORLD, RUSHDI THINK ABOUT THAT ..HE WILL PICESES UR BODY IN LITTLE LITTLE PICES ALSO HE WILL THROUGH UR FLESH TO THE STREET DOGS.. UR DEAR ………..

  13. hello,jahanami I HAVE MESSAGE FOR Salman Rushdee MALWOOUN, ONE DAY SOME ONE KILL HIM WITH VERY CRULITY FIRST HE WILL BE THIGHT HIM WITH ROAPS AND WILL THROUGH OUT HIS SKIN FROM HIS BODY AND WILL BE VIDEO WILL BE ISSUE TO THE WORLD, RUSHDI THINK ABOUT THAT ..HE WILL PICESES UR BODY IN LITTLE LITTLE PICES ALSO HE WILL THROUGH UR FLESH TO THE STREET DOGS.. UR DEAD UR NO MORE ………..