|By Jamal Muhsin|
April 8, 2006
jmuhsin [at] yahoo [dot] com
‘The Prophet’s Hair’, a short story by Salman Rushdie, called ‘a moral fable’ reveals much about Islam. The story was written in 1981 in which it was not controversial. In a different era ? namely after Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, when the fatwa was issued against him and recently when Muhammad’s cartoons have caused chaos and the world faces threats of Islam? it can be provoking. In this essay, I will be dealing with Islam and how it is pictured in the story. I think to get a good picture of it, one needs to look at Qur’an and compare some verses to the fictional manifestations in this story. Thus, I will be mentioning some verses from Qur’an that, I think, cohere with the fiction and the life of Hashim’s family and the main idea in the story. It is worth mentioning too that the incident of the stolen relic is a suggestion of the actual one in which the relic in Hazratbal mosque was stolen in the early 60’s of the twentieth century. Hazratbal is the most important and ‘holy’ mosque in Kashmir because, as it is said, it enshrines a strand of Prophet Muhammad’s beard? Mo-i-Muqaddas, which means ‘the holy hair’ in Persian language. This strand which is considered sacred and supposed to be worshiped is broadly satirised in ‘The Prophet's Hair’. The relic has wreaked havoc in the splendid charming valley of Kashmir.
At the very beginning of the story one is puzzled why young Atta is in ‘prone form’ and beautiful Huma’s face is ‘bruised’, and she and her mother had not ‘slept a wink from worrying’(2843). One wonders why Huma is ‘lying motionless amidst the funereally stunted winter blooms of the hopeful florist’ and Atta is ‘suffering terribly from exposure as well as a broken skull, entered a coma’ (2843). Being beaten and humiliated as we will see in the other episodes of the story, can be interpreted as the state of the members of many families in which Islam is dominant. It is not important whether Hashim was a Muslim believer (a moderate one) before finding the relic or not; what he does later is derived from Islam. So, being a moderate or so-called ‘fanatic’ or ‘fundamentalist’ alters neither the essence of Islam, or the verses of Qur’an, nor the misery that the ‘holy hair’ brings to Hashim’s family.
After Hashim finds the relic, he begins to behave like a typical Muslim and apply Islam Shari’a. Although Hashim does not take the vial for the sake of the relic, he is magically and miraculously affected by it. He speaks with himself:
the Prophet would have disapproved mightily of this relic-worship. He abhorred the idea of being deified! So, by keeping this hair from its distracted devotees, I perform? do I not? ? a finer service that I would by returning it! Naturally, I don’t want it for its religious value… I’m a man of world, of this world. I see it purely as a secular object of great rarity and blinding beauty. In short, it’s the silver vial I desire, more than the hair. (2846)He says that he does not take care about its religious value and only sees it as a ‘secular object’ but ‘the holy hair’, just like Moses’ rod, made him ‘looked swollen, distended. His eyes bulged […], they were red-rimmed, and his knuckles were white’. (2847) Furthermore, ‘He seemed to be on the point of bursting! […], under the influence of the misappropriated relic, he had filled up with spectral fluid which might at any moment ooze uncontrollably from his every bodily opening’. (2847)
As soon as this change happens, he acts like a Muslim father and husband. Now, the necessity of quoting some verses from Qur’an seems to be inevitable here. Hashim tells his wife that ‘far from being the principal beneficiary of his will, she would receive no more than the eighth portion which was her due under Islamic law.’ (2847) This is an application of Qur’an: ‘[…] And they shall have a fourth of that which you leave, if you have no child; but if you have a child, then they shall have an eighth of that which you leave […]’ He accuses Huma of ‘lasciviousness, because she went around the city barefaced, which was unseemly for any good Muslim girl to do. She should, he commanded, enter purdah forthwith.’ (2847) This is apparently a mirror of Qur’an: ‘And stay in your houses with dignity, and do not show off yourselves like the showing off the former days of ignorance […]’ (Al-Ahzab 33, 34, 414) or: ‘And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they disclose not their natural and artificial beauty except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms […]’. (Al-Nur, 24, 32, 341). Another verse can be linked to this issue is: ‘O children of Adam! We have indeed sent down to you raiment to cover your shame, and to be an elegant dress; but the raiment of righteousness? that is the best. That is one of the Signs of Allah, that they may remember.’ (Al-A’raf, 7, 27, 142). Hashim is not only suggesting an Islamic dress or making her follow the Islamic disciplines but also imposing that on her, as we see later when he issues an ultimatum to expel her from the house because she resists. Hashim becomes a regular prayer and ‘[…] forced his family to rise, wash and say their prayers. From then on, he began to pray five times daily for the first time in his life, and his wife and children were obliged to do likewise.’ (2847-48) Burning all the other books except the Qur’an, he orders ‘each member of the family to read passages from this book for at least two hours per day’ (2848) because according to Qur’an, ‘This messenger of Ours believes in that which has been revealed to him from his Lord, and so do the believers: all of them believe in Allah, and His angels, and His Books […]. (Al-Baqarah, 2, 286, 46) Muhammad’s strand of beard has made Hashim a ‘good’ and ‘honest’ believer and, therefore, his family members, having no other way or choice, should follow the same belief.
But we see ‘worse to come’ as the narrator says. Although Hashim is doing something that contradicts Islam (usury), he makes use of Islamic means of punishments against one of the poor debtors who asks for giving him much time. Calling the debtor as a thief of others’ money, Hashim ‘tried to cut off the wretch’s right hand’ (2848). Here, he is like a ruler in Islam ordered to do his job: ‘And as for the man who steals and the woman who steals, cut off their hands in retribution of their offence as an exemplary punishment from Allah […].’ (Al-Ma’idah, 5, 39, 105). This is used ironically by Rushdie to affirm that the ‘discipline around’ the house is none but from Shari’a. There will surely be some ‘disciplines’:
Men are the Guardians over women because Allah has made some of them excel others, and because they (men) spend of their wealth. So virtuous women are those who are obedient, and guard the secrets of their husbands with Allah’s protection. And as for those on whose part you fear disobedience, admonish them and leave them alone in their beds, and chastise them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them […]. (Al-Nisa, 4, 35, 78)As we see, when the mother wants to ‘calm Hashim down, he struck her on the face with an open hand. Atta leapt to his mother’s defence and he, too, was sent flying.’ (2848). Moreover, the wife that cannot bear such harshness, but has to obey, ‘began a fit of hysterics which continued throughout that night and the following day, and which so provoked her husband that he threatened her with divorce’. (2848) This is the daily fate shown to women in Islam-ridden countries, as in Afghanistan under Taliban’s rule and nowadays Islamic rule too, Iran, Saudi Arabia…etc., to put aside Huma’s being disowned and being given ‘one week in which to pack her bags and go’. (2848) The answer to why this happens in the story as a stereotype of women’s status in those countries can be seen in the mentioned verses and many others from Qur’an.
Rushdie has ridiculed and satirised Islam in many ways, either by bringing these things I discussed or by giving some icons in the story. The word Sheikh means chief of a tribe or alike, and at the same time it is used for a high social and religious rank of a person. Sheikh Sin in ‘The Prophet’s Hair’ is not a man of Allah. This Sheikh is ‘The Thief of Thieves’ (2850) and a ‘professional burglar’. This irony simply mocks Islam and Islam’s symbols. As we see in the opening of the story that Atta is entering ‘the most wretched and disreputable part of the city’ (2843) and searching for a burglar to save them. What is also more satirical is that because of the disaster the ‘holy hair’ of Muhammad brings about to Hashim’s family, Huma seeks help from the thief of thieves who lives in an ‘ever darker and less public alleys’. (2844) Atta and Huma really want to get the relic out of their house seeing it the source of their misery. The thing considered as ‘holy’ is devastating and people are furious over it; the ‘crook’ has sought to be a rescuer. Another satiric tone is Atta’s speech. When he realizes that the cause of their disaster is the vial, he says to his ‘shock-numbed’ sister: ‘We are descending to gutter-level’. (2848) This implicitly means that Islam and Muhammad’s ‘holy hair’ disgraced and lowered them.
The relic will be enshrined again in its ‘appropriate’ place but after having destructed everything. When it came to Hashim’s house it brought the enormous catastrophe? the father, the son and the daughter all die and the mother is driven to madness and the Sheikh is shot dead. Sheikh Sin’s family seems to have got benefit from it, but it is ironically mentioned that when the four crippled sons have healed, they were ‘very properly furious, because the miracle had reduced their earning powers by 75 per cent, at the most conservative estimate; so they were ruined men’ (2852).
After The Satanic Verses and the fatwa against Rushdie, the significance of ‘The Prophet’s Hair’ emerged. I would like to pick out Fiona Richards’ point that after the fatwa in 1989, this story had been republished in a collection and then in 1994 in a compendium named East, West. She claims that ‘The Prophet’s Hair’ was a defiance of the Fatwa. She quotes Rushdie’s emphasis about that. I would like to quote it again from her article: ‘“The Prophet’s Hair” is the answer to the intimidation question. If I was being scared off writing about Islam it wouldn’t be in the collection, would it?’ This asserts that Rushdie undoubtedly criticizes Islam, and even mocks it in ‘The Prophet’s Hair’, since it is not sacred for him.
The storm ends, and the relic is eventually ‘authenticated’ by ‘the holiest men’ because it caused that entire miracle. Nonetheless, the question that remains is the sacredness of Islam. If we just imagine and suppose that the relic is stolen again and this time the police do not find another ‘Sheikh Sin’ to get it back, and rumours spread that it is a group that has taken it, what would then happen? It would happen what happened in 2002, an immense conflict among the Muslims and the Hindus over the speech of one of the MPs that the relic belongs to a holy Hindu man. The relic was not stolen but someone suspected its Islamic genuine origin and ‘questioned the authenticity of a holy Muslim relic’. ‘The Prophet’s Hair’ wants to give a message that no religion is sacred. I would conclude by Rushdie’s sentence that ‘To respect the sacred is to be paralysed by it’. This short story conducts readers to ‘iconoclasm’. One may claim that to let not the relic destroy Hashim’s family, or as an icon of the whole society, per say, one has to destroy the vial that enshrines the relic or ‘the holy hair’. Otherwise, one will be paralysed by the sacred images portrayed as taboos that cannot be broken. The story gives the perception that Islam is what essentially is and its values cannot be altered. It is pretty true that ‘The person who wants to modernize Islam is like that forgetful genius who wants to invent a machine in his/her garage, which can turn copper into gold!’
 M. H. Abrams, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th.ed, vol.2, p. 2843. Further quotations will be mentioned only by the number of the page.
 The Holy Qur’an, translated by Maulawi Sher Ali. Alnisa chapter, 4, verse 13, p.75. Further verses will be taken from the same version with mentioning the name and number of the chapter followed by the number of the verse and then the page.
 Fiona Richards, The Desecrated Shrine: Movable Icons and Literary Irreverence in Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Prophet’s Hair’, SOAS Literary Review (2), July 2000, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
 BBC News, MP faces trial in relic row
 Salman Rushdie, ‘Is nothing Sacred?’ Imaginary Homelands. (London: Granta Books, 1991), p.416.
 Mansoor Hekmat, ‘Islam is part of the “Lumpenism” in Society’. P.360
1. Hekmat, Mansoor. “Islam is part of the ‘Lumpenism’ in Society”. Mansoor Hekmat: Selected Works. London: Mansoor Hekmat Foundation, 2002. 356-60.
2. Rushdie, Salman “The Prophet’s Hair”, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. by M. H. Abraham and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed., vol.2. New York: Norton, 2000. 2842-52.
3. Rushdie, Slaman. “Is noting Sacred?” Imaginary Lands. Salman Rushdie. London: Granta Books, 1991. 415-429
4. The Holy Qur’an. Translated by The late Maulawi Sher ‘Ali. Pakistan, Rabwah: The Oriental and Religious Publishing Corporation Ltd., 1979.
5. SOAS Literary Review (2), July 2000, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
6. BBC News, MP faces trial in relic row.
[Editor's Note: The author of this essay, Jamal Muhsin, is currently studying for his Master's degree in English literature at the University of Oslo.]