Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” was published in 1988, so it will be unfamiliar to most of my readers. They may recall that the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (decree) for Mr. Rushdie’s death because of the book’s alleged blasphemies against Muhammad’s family. But the Satanic verses themselves predate Mr. Rushdie’s work by 14 centuries. They are to be found in the Qur’an in Sura an-Najm 53:19-22.
“Have you thought of al-Lāt and al-‘Uzzá and Manāt, the third, the other? These are the exalted cranes whose intercession is hoped for.”
Al-Lāt, al-‘Uzzá, and Manāt were three goddesses who were worshiped in the Kaaba and elsewhere in Arabia before the revelation of the Qur’an. Here they are compared to “exalted” or high-flying cranes. According to the legends of pre-Islamic Arabia cranes were birds with many virtues and their appearance was always thought to be a good omen. But there is another passage in the Qur'an which says:
“What! For you the males and for Him the females! That indeed is an unfair division.”
In other words, if the goddesses are considered to be Allah’s daughters then He has the inferior portion, for only male children are valuable. Whatever we think about this attitude, we are told that Muhammad did not receive the Satanic verses from Jibril. Instead they were supposedly inspired by Satan when the Prophet experienced a moment of weakness during the relentless persecution that his followers endured. Given the intense and unceasing emphasis of the Qur’an upon the oneness of God and His sole authority in heaven we would be very surprised indeed if the “goddess verses” (if I might call them that) were not eventually repudiated.
The three goddesses or “daughters” of Allah do not seem to be evil, disreputable, or repulsive in any way when approached as though they were deities in an ordinary polytheism. In fact, they resemble the triple goddess worshiped by the followers of Wicca---we find in them a maiden, a mother, and a crone or wise woman. Al-‘Uzzá is Venus or the maiden, al-Lāt is the Earth or mother, and Manāt may be Mercury or Saturn and is the wise woman. If anything in them seems bad or unhealthy to us now it is surely because we have seen them only through the lenses of religious intolerance. During the short period of time when the “goddess verses” were accepted as legitimate peace prevailed in Mecca. But of course, one should not purchase peace at the price of truth.
It was while I pondered the three goddesses and their fate---to disappear in obscurity---that I realized that the intolerance that seems to many of us to be a villain in this story was not considered a bad thing at the time. When Islam began it was not only the monotheistic faith of Abraham that inspired intolerance. In Mecca the advocates of many gods were staunchly intolerant. In fact, intolerance by another name like “zeal” or even “devotion” was one of the primary virtues of the religious era that ended in the 17th and 18th centuries in the West, and may soon end in the Muslim world if Islam loses its authority in the face of science. But look again---a 20th century "religion" called Communism may soon inspire more intolerance.
Intolerance was good "back in the day"---it was an infallible sign of devotion. Tolerance only gained the strength to speak out against intolerance because of the unceasing labors of men like Voltaire. Religions and philosophies that did not promise anything more than a release from excessive suffering were the most tolerant, while movements that promised happiness and love were the most intolerant. That is the mystery that the writers on unexplained mysteries should attempt to understand.
Below: The three Arabian goddesses. Lions accompany a goddess both in the West (Kybele or Cybele) and in the East (Durga).