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What are the satanic verses?

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The satanic verses are two lines in the Quran that, according to some versions of Muslim history, Muhammad spoke under the direction of Satan rather than Allah. Some early Muslim sources record that Muhammad admitted that Surah (“Chapter”) 53, verses 21–22 of the Quran, as they originally read, were the result of a satanic trick that he thought was a genuine revelation from Allah. If this tradition is true, Muhammad’s position as a true prophet would be in dispute because he had been deceived by Satan.

The background behind the satanic verses is that, early on, the number of Muhammad’s followers was growing slowly, and he was in conflict with Arabs. In order to ease the conflict, he received the following revelation:

Surah 53:19–20:

“So have you considered al-Lat and al-'Uzza?
And Manat, the third [goddess]—the other one?”

Al-Lat, al-'Uzza, and Manat were three pagan Arab deities.

Following Surah 53:20, the devil interjected his own words onto Muhammad’s tongue, and the result was Surah 53:21–22 (the “satanic” version):

“These are the exalted cranes [intermediaries]
Whose intercession is to be hoped for!”

According to these verses, the three pagan deities are recognized to be legitimate, and Muhammad can seek their intercession on his behalf. By Muhammad recognizing these Arab deities, he was able to ease tensions with the Arabs. Later, he explained what looked like a lapse into polytheism by saying that Satan had tricked him. He also said that the angel Gabriel came to him and told him that occasionally Satan fools even true prophets. At the time, this explained how an error was introduced into the Quran. Later, this admission was seen to be damaging to Muhammad’s character, so the verses were changed altogether, and the story of his confession was squelched. This is documented in early Muslim sources still available today, although Muslim apologists also point out that there are earlier biographies of Muhammad that do not record this story.

The following passage is from one early source (AD 915) that does record it:

“When [the pagan] Quraysh heard this, they rejoiced and were happy and delighted at the way in which he spoke of their gods, and they listened to him, while the Muslims, having complete trust in their prophet in respect of the messages which he brought from God, did not suspect him of error, illusion, or mistake. When he came to the prostration, having completed the surah, he prostrated himself and the Muslims did likewise, following their prophet, trusting in the message which he had brought and following his example. Those polytheists of the Quraysh and others who were in the mosque likewise prostrated themselves because of the reference to their gods which they had heard, so that there was no one in the mosque, believer or unbeliever, who did not prostrate himself. The one exception was al-Walid b. al-Mughirah, who was a very old man and could not prostrate himself; but he took a handful of soil from the valley in his hand and bowed over that. Then they all dispersed from the mosque. The Quraysh left delighted by the mention of their gods which they had heard, saying, ‘Muhammad has mentioned our gods in the most favorable way possible, stating in his recitation that they are the high flying cranes and that their intercession is received with approval’” (The History of al-Tabari, Vol. VI: Muhammad at Mecca, trans. by W. Montgomery Watt and M. V. McDonald, State University of New York Press, 1988, pp. 108–109).

A thorough evaluation of the evidence for and against the satanic verses is beyond the scope of this article.

The Satanic Verses is also a 1988 novel by British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie. The title itself was offensive to Muslims, and the novel was said to be loosely based on the life of Muhammad and includes a number of terms and concepts that are also offensive to Muslims. As a result, the Ayatollah Khomeini, then supreme leader of Iran, issued a fatwa ordering the death of Rushdie, and for a while he had to go into hiding. Attempts were made on his life, and bookstores that sold the book were also targeted for violence. Subsequently, Rushdie apologized for offending Muslims; however, the apology was rejected. Although the furor has subsided and Rushdie has been able to move about freely and has published more books, the fatwa has never been rescinded.

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This page last updated: March 22, 2024