THE SATANIC VERSES - THE STORY OF THE CRANES
By Samuel Green
The Satanic Verses refer to an event in Muhammad's life which Muslim scholars call The Story of the Cranes. It is a time when Muhammad recited, as part of the Qur’an, that the polytheistic gods of Mecca were valid. Some time after saying this he withdrew these verses from the Qur'an and said they were inspired by Satan.
This event is recorded and accepted as authentic by the earliest Islamic biographers: Ibn Ishaq and Ibn Sa'd. It was a standard part of how the early Muslims told the life of Muhammad. Al-Tabari records several accounts of the event, Ibn Taymiyyah accepts it as authentic, and Imam al-Bukhari gives a highly truncated version of the event. However, Orthodox Islam now rejects the event.
In this article we examine the Satanic Verses by doing the following:
READING AN ACCOUNT OF THE SATANIC VERSES FOR YOURSELF
The following is the account of the Satanic Verses as recorded by Ibn Ishaq. This is the earliest extant account of the event. Ibn Ishaq is regarded as the father of the sirat (biographical literature) of Muhammad's life.
Of all the above mentioned early biographers, the biography written by Ibn Ishaq was the most renowned and highly documented ... Undoubtedly, Ibn Ishaq's book was and will continue to be a major reference for readers of the Prophet's (pbuh) biography. No one plunged into the life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), without referring to Ibn Ishaq's book as a major source of information. (`Abdus-Salam M. Harun, Sirat ibn Hisham - Biography of the Prophet, Cairo, Egypt: Al-Falah Foundation for Translation, Publication & Distribution, 1421/2000, pp. VII-VIII.)
After the account I will give a summary.
The Satanic Verses
Now the apostle was anxious for the welfare of his people [the Quraysh], wishing to attract them as far as he could. It has been mentioned that he longed for a way to attract them, and the method he adopted is what Ibn Hamid told me that Salama said M. b. Ishaq told him from Yazid b. Ziyad of Medina from M. b. Ka`b al-Qurazi: When the apostle saw that his people turned their backs on him and he was pained by their estrangement from what he brought them from God he longed that there should come to him from God a message that would reconcile his people to him. Because of his love for his people and his anxiety over them it would delight him if the obstacle that made his task so difficult could be removed; so that he meditated on the project and longed for it and it was dear to him. Then God sent down "By the star when it sets your comrade errs not and is not deceived, he speaks not from his own desire,"[Q. 53:1-3] and when he reached His words "Have you thought of al-Lat and al-`Uzza and Manat the third, the others"[Q. 53:19-20], Satan, when he was meditating upon it, and desiring to bring it (sc. reconciliation) to his people, put upon his tongue "these are the exalted Gharaniq [a high flying crane] whose intercession is approved". When the Quraysh heard that, they were delighted and greatly pleased at the way in which he spoke of their gods and they listened to him; while the believers were holding that what their prophet brought from their Lord was true, not suspecting a mistake or a vain desire or slip, and when he reached the prostration and the end of the Sura in which he prostrated himself the Muslims prostrated themselves when their prophet prostrated confirming what he brought and obeying his command, and the polytheists of the Quraysh and others who were in the mosque prostrated when they heard the mention of their gods, so that everyone in the mosque believer and unbeliever prostrated, except al-Walid b. al-Mughira who was an old man who could not do so, so he took a handful of dirt from the valley and bent over it. Then the people dispersed and the Quraysh went out, delighted at what had been said about their gods, saying, "Muhammad has spoken of our gods in splendid fashion. He alleged in what he read that they are the exalted Gharaniq whose intercession is approved".
The news reached the prophet's companions who were in Abyssinia, it being reported that the Quraysh had accepted Islam, so some men started to return while others remained behind. Then [the angel] Gabriel came to the apostle and said , "What have you done, Muhammad? You have read to these people something I did not bring you from God and you have said what He did not say to you." The apostle was bitterly grieved and was greatly in fear of God. So God sent down (a revelation), for he was merciful to him comforting him and making light of the affair and telling him that every prophet and apostle before him desired as he desired and wanted what he wanted and Satan interjected something into his desires as he had on his tongue. So God annulled what Satan had suggested and God established His verses i.e. you are just like the prophets and apostles. Then God sent down: "We have not sent a prophet or apostle before you but when he longed Satan cast suggestions into his longing. But God will annul what Satan has suggested. Then God will establish his verses, God being knowing and wise"[Q. 22:52]. Thus God relieved his prophet's grief, and made him feel safe from his fears and annulled what Satan had suggested in the words used above about their gods by his revelation "Are yours the males and His the females? That were indeed an unfair division" (i.e. most unjust); "they are nothing by names which your fathers gave them" as far as the words "to whom he pleases and accepts"[Q. 53:21-26], i.e. how can the intercession of their gods avail with Him?
When the annulment of what Satan had put upon the prophet's tongue came from God, Quraysh said: "Muhammad has repented of what he said about the position of your gods with Allah, altered it and brought something else." Now those two words which Satan had put upon the apostle's tongue were in the mouth of every polytheist and they became more violently hostile to the Muslims and the apostle's followers. Meanwhile those of his companions who had left Abyssinia when they heard that the people of Mecca had accepted Islam when they prostrated themselves with the apostle, heard when they approached Mecca that the report was false and none came into the town without the promise of protection or secretly. (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, translated as, The Life of Muhammad, (translator: A. Guillaume), Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 165-167)
THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE SATANIC VERSES
Shahab Ahmed is the main Islamic scholar in this area. He summarizes his research as follows:
The Satanic verses incident constituted a standard element in the historical memory of the Muslim community in the first 150 years of Islam, and was recorded by almost all prominent scholars working in the fields of tafsir and sirah-Maghazi. (Shahab Ahmed, The Satanic Verses Incident in the Memory of the Early Muslim Community - An Analysis of the Early Riwayahs and their Isnads, A dissertation presented at Princeton University, 1999, p. i)
[We have] repeatedly dated the reports of the Satanic Verses incident to the late 1st and early 2nd centuries; in other words, to what seems to have been the earliest period of systematic collection and organization of historical memory materials in the Muslim community. As regards the discourses of which these reports formed a part, we have found that all the reports were transmitted by late 1st/early 2nd century sirah-maghazi and tafsir scholars (Shahab Ahmed, 1999, p. 258)
The Satanic verses were being transmitted in almost every important intellectual centre in the Dar al-Islam: Madinah, Mecca, Basrah, Kufah, Baghdad, Missisah, Rayy, Balkh, Samarqand, San'a', Fustat and Qayrawan. (Shahab Ahmed, 1999, p. 260)
The Satanic verses incident is narrated in numerous reports (between 18 and 25, depending on how one reckons an independent riwayah) scattered in the sirah nabawiyyah and tafsir literature originating in the first two centuries of Islam. The indications are that the incident formed a fairly standard element in the historical memory of the early Muslim community regarding the life of its founder. (Shahab Ahmed, Ibn Taymiyyah and the Satanic Verses, Studia Islamica, no. 87, 1998, p. 70)
We could also consider what historians call the criteria of embarrassment. The criteria of embarrassment says that the devoted followers of a person are unlikely to invent a story that would embarrass or shame that person. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the early Muslims would invent a story about Muhammad compromising his monotheism and reciting the words of Satan. Therefore, there is overwhelming evidence that the Satanic Verses are a real historical event; it is beyond reasonable doubt.
However, Orthodox Islam now rejects the account and claims it is not authentic. Various reasons are given and The Study Qur’an lists five of them, and Shahab Ahmed offers his own suggestion. We will now consider these reasons, and then consider how the later Islamic doctrine of prophetic infallibility influences the Orthodox assessment of the event.
1. Contradictory Accounts
This argument says that the Satanic Verses are not authentic because while there may be many early independent accounts, these accounts are all contradictory with no clear picture of what happened. This shows it is unreliable. However, this claim is simply false. All of the accounts have the same basic elements and confirm and compliment each other. Read Ibn Sa'd independent account below to see this for yourself, or, read all of the accounts in Shahab Ahmed's 1999 or 2017 work.
ACCOUNT OF THE CAUSES OF THE RETURN OF THE COMPANIONS OF THE PROPHET, FROM ABYSSINIA
Muhammad Ibn Umar informed us; he said: Yunus Ibn Muhammad Ibn Fudalah al-Azfari related to me on the authority of his father (second chain) he (Ibn Sa'd) said: Kathir Ibn Zayd related to me on the authority of al-Muttalib Ibn Abd Allah Ibn Hantab; they said: The apostle of Allah had seen his people departing from him. He was one day sitting alone when he expressed a desire: I wish, Allah had not revealed to me anything distasteful to them. Then the apostle of Allah, approached them (Quraysh) and got close to them, and they also came near to him. One day he was sitting in their assembly near the Ka'bah, and he recited: "By the Star when it setteth"[Q. 53:1], till he reached, "Have ye thought upon Al-Uzza and Manat, the third, the other".[Q. 53:19-20] Satan made him repeat these two phrases: "These idols are high and their intercession is expected". The apostle of Allah repeated them, and he went on reciting the whole surah and then fell in prostration, and the people also fell in prostration with him. Al-Walid Ibn al-Mughirah, who was an old man and could not prostrate, took a handful of dust to his forehead and prostrated on it. It is said: Abu Uhayhah Sa'id Ibn al-As, being an old man took dust and prostrated on it. Some people say: It was al-Walid who took the dust; others say: It was Abu Uhayhah; while other say: Both did it. They were pleased with what the apostle of Allah had uttered. They said: We know that Allah gives life and causes death. He creates and gives us provisions, but our deities will intercede with Him, and in what you have assigned to them, we are with you. These words pricked the apostle of Allah. He was sitting in his house and when it was evening, Gabriel came to him and revised the surah. Then Gabriel said: Did I bring these two phrases? The apostle of Allah said: I ascribed to Allah, what He had not said. Then Allah revealed to him: "And they indeed strove hard to beguile you (Muhammad) away from that which We have inspired you, that you should invent other than it against Us; and then would they have accepted you as a friend. And if We had not made you wholly firm you might almost have inclined to them a little, Then had We made you taste a double (punishment) of living and a double (punishment) of dying then had you found no helper against Us."[Q. 17:73-75]
Muhammad Ibn Umar informed us; he said: Muhammad Ibn Abd Allah related to me on the authority of al-Zuhri, he on the authority of Abu Bakr Ibn Abd al-Rahman Ibn al-Harith Ibn Hisham; he said: This prostration became know to people till the news reached Abyssinia and the Companions of the apostle of Allah that the people of Makkah fell in protraction and joined Islam including al-Walid. Ibn al-Mughirah and Abu Uhayhah who prostrated behind the prophet. The people said: When such persons have joined Islam, who else remains in Makkah? They said: Our relatives are dear to us. So they returned. Where they were at a distance of one hour's walk from Makkah, they confronted some horsemen of Kinanah. They inquired about the Quraysh and their affairs. The horse men said: Muhammad spoke well of their deities, so they followed him but then they turned apostate. He began to abuse their gods and they began to harm him. We left them in this struggle. They discussed that they should return to Abyssinia; but then they said: We have reached here, so let us enter (the town), see the Quraysh and visit our families and then return. (Ibn Sa'd, Kitab Al-Tabaqat Al-Kabir, (translator: S. Moinul Haq) New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, no date, vol. 1, pp. 236-239.)
2. It is out of character.
This argument says that the Satanic Verses are something that Muhammad would not do because it would be out of character for him to do this. However, this is false because there are other examples of Muhammad doing this. Firstly, consider this hadith.
Narrated Al-Bara: There was revealed: "Not equal are those believers who sit (at home) and those who strive and fight in the Cause of Allah." (Q. 4:95) The Prophet said, "Call Zaid for me and let him bring the board, the inkpot and the scapula bone." Then he said, "Write: Not equal are those Believers who sit ...", and at that time 'Amr bin Um Maktum, the blind man was sitting behind the Prophet. He said, "O Allah's Apostle! What is your order for me (as regards the above Verse) as I am a blind man?" So, instead of the above verse, the following verse was revealed: "Not equal are those believers who sit (at home) except those who are disabled and those who strive and fight in the cause of Allah." (Q. 4:95) (Sahih al-Bukhari 4990; vol 6, bk 61, no 512)
This account clearly records the trial and revision of verse 4:95 from its initial to final form. This type of modification is exactly what happened in the account of the Satanic Verses. Therefore, the Satanic Verses are consistent with how Muhammad composed the Qur'an.
For other examples see:
Sahih al-Bukhari 1917; vol 3, bk 31, no 141
Sahih al-Bukhari 2801; vol 4, bk 52, no 57
Sahih al-Bukhari 4765; vol 6, bk 60, no 288
In fact, Muhammad modified or deleted so many verses that it made people doubt he was a genuine prophet and the issue had to be dealt with in the Qur'an:
And when We exchange a verse in the place of another verse - and God knows very well what he is sending down - they say [to Muhammad], "You are a mere forger!" (Qur'an 16:101)
Secondly, it is consistent with how Muhammad's desires and wishes shaped the content of the Qur’an.
Narrated Al-Bara: The Prophet prayed facing Bait-ulMaqdis (i.e. Jerusalem) for sixteen or seventeen months but he wished that his Qibla would be the Ka'ba (at Mecca). So Allah Revealed (2.144) and he offered 'Asr prayers (in his Mosque facing Ka'ba at Mecca) and some people prayed with him. ... (Sahih al-Bukhari 4486; vol 6, bk 60, no 13)
Narrated Aisha: ... I said (to the Prophet), "I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires." (Sahih al-Bukhari 4788; vol 6, bk 60, no 311)
Thirdly, it is consistent with Muhammad incorporating as much of the Meccan religion into Islam to make it easy for the Meccans.
Narrated Zaid bin Aslam from his father who said: "Umar bin Al-Khattab addressed the Corner (Black Stone) saying, 'By Allah! I know that you are a stone and can neither benefit nor harm. Had I not seen the Prophet touching (and kissing) you, I would never have touched (and kissed) you.' Then he kissed it and said, 'There is no reason for us to do Ramal (in Tawaf) except that we wanted to show off before the pagans, and now Allah has destroyed them.' 'Umar added, '(Nevertheless), the Prophet did that and we do not want to leave it (i.e. Ramal).'" (Sahih al-Bukhari 1605; vol 2, bk 26, no 675)
Thus, the Satanic Verse are consistent with Muhammad's accepted behaviour.
3. Chronology with Sura 17 and 22
This argument says that the references to verses 17:73-75 and 22:52 as being revealed during the Satanic Verses do not match with the chronology of these verses as they are found in the Qur'an today, and therefore the incident is historically impossible.
However, this is not a valid reason because the Qur'an is not chronological either in sura order or sura composition. As we have seen, Muhammad composed the suras of the Qur'an. He would 'receive' verses in different situations and in time these would be brought together to form suras. Therefore, a sura in the Qur'an may be a mixture of verses from different times. Therefore, verses that may have originated, or been developed, during the Satanic Verses incident could easily find their way into other suras of the Qur'an.
4. Satan doesn’t have this type of power over a prophet.
This argument says that Satan does not have power to make a prophet behave this way, and so when the Satanic Verses account says that Muhammad was influenced by Satan, this is just impossible.
However, Satan does have this power according to the Qur'an! Consider Satan and Adam: Adam is a prophet (Q. 2:37). Adam listened to Satan, Adam acted on what Satan said, and then repented (Q. 7:20-22, 20:120-121). This is consistent with the event of the Satanic Verses where Muhammad listened to Satan and acted upon what he heard and then repents. (Also see: 6:112, 17:73-75, 22:52, 29:38, 59:16)
5. Unreliable Chains of Narration
The chain of narration, isnad, is the list of names of those who have passed on the story. This argument claims that the chains of narration for the Satanic Verses are faulty, and therefore the accounts are to be doubted. However, judging the reliability of a chain is highly subjective. We see this all the time as different Muslim groups accept and reject hadiths depending upon their preferred narrators and the doctrine of their school. For instance, Imam Bukhari's collection of hadith is called sahih (trustworthy), yet, many Muslim scholars do not accept all of these 'sahih' hadiths.
Or consider the isnad for the Qur’an. The most popular Qur'an is according to the narration of Imam Hafs, however, Imam Muslim, the famous collector of hadith, said that Hafs was unreliable.
As for those, who are, entirely or mostly doubtful, in the sight of the men of tradition, we would not be concerned with (mentioning and) directing their narrations, such as Abdullah Ibn Al-Miswar: Abut Ja’far Al-Mada’ini, Amr Ibn Khalid, Abd Al-Quddus Ash-Shami, Muhammad Ibn Sa’id Al-Masloob, Ghaiyyath Ibn Ibrahim, Sulaiman Ibn Amr [Hafs]: Abu Dawood An-Nakh’i, and their fellows, who have been accused or inventing the forged traditions and creating the false news. (Al-Imam Muslim Ben Al-Hajaj Al-Naysaburi, Sahih Muslim – The authentic hadiths of Muslim, Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Al-Kotob Al-Ilmiyah, 2005 A.D.-1426H, p. 10)
Yet, even though Hafs is classified as unreliable by the main collectors of hadith this does not stop Muslims using the narration of the Qur'an from this man.
Secondly, significant Islamic scholars say the chains are acceptable.
Ibn Taymiyyah, against the majoritarian opinion of the scholars of his day, accepted the historicity of the Satanic verses as something wholly consonant with Muhammad's status and mission as the Messenger of God. He asserted that belief in the incident was the position of the early Muslims, the salaf, and thus the original and authentic truth. (Shahab Ahmed, Ibn Taymiyyah and the Satanic Verses, 1998, p. 122)
Ibn Hajar, a recognized authority on traditions insists on the truth of this report and says, "As we have mentioned above, three of its chains of narrators satisfy the conditions requisite for an authentic report." (Allama Shibli Nu'mani, Sirat Un Nabi, (translated by M. Tayyib Bakhsh Budayuni), Lahore, Pakistan: Kazi Publications, vol. 1, 1979, p. 214)
6. If the early Muslims were not embarrassed by this event then they may have invented it.
This argument comes from Shahab Ahmed himself, and says that since the early Muslims did not find the event objectionable they may have invented the story. However, this argument is just speculation on a number of fronts: Maybe they did find it objectionable but because of their love for Muhammad they did not speak against it? Muslims do this today. Secondly, we do not have evidence that it was invented, in fact, the evidence is that it is authentic. Therefore, it remains unlikely that the early Muslims, who loved Muhammad, would invent a story of him compromising his monotheism.
WHY ORTHODOX ISLAM REJECTS THE SATANIC VERSES
The reason why Orthodox Islam rejects the Satanic Verses is not due to lack of historical evidence, instead, it is because in the later centuries of Islam a doctrine developed which said that prophets are protected by God and cannot sin.
Among the doctrines that emerged from the mid-2nd/8th century onwards was that of 'ismat al-anbiya', literally "the protection of the Prophets", meaning God's Protection of them from sin and error. (Shahab Ahmed, 1998, p. 70)
As this teaching took hold it changed the way most Islamic scholars judged which hadiths were authentic. Now, an account (hadith) would be rejected if it recorded Muhammad doing something that was thought to be inappropriate for a prophet. For example, consider how these later Islamic scholars treat the Satanic Verses.
As we saw, Ibn Ishaq wrote one of the early accounts of the Satanic verses. One of his students was ibn Hisham. Ibn Hisham wrote his own account of Muhammad’s life and he explains his methodology.
God willing I shall begin this book ... (of) the prophet's biography and omitting some of the things which Ibn Ishaq has recorded in this book ... things which it is disgraceful to discuss; matters which would distress certain people ... (“Ibn Hisham’s Notes” in Ibn Ishaq, Life of Muhammad, p. 691)
Ibn Hisham states his method very clearly: he will not pass on material that is disgraceful or would distress certain people, and so when we read Ibn Hisham's biography there is no mention of the Satanic Verses.
We see this attitude again with Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi. He gives various reasons for why a hadith should be rejected. One of which is:
Traditions containing such remarks of the Prophet as may not be a part of his prophetic vocation, or such expressions as are clearly unsuitable for him, should be rejected. (Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi, Hadith Literature - Its Origin, Development & Special Features, 2008, p. 114)
That is, if a hadith records something that is considered unsuitable for Muhammad, then the hadith is to be rejected. This is appalling and a terrible way to do history. We should listen to the historical evidence and not reject it simply because it does not fit into our view of Muhammad.
Let’s look a Imam Bukhari’s version of the Satanic Verses and see what he has done with the account.
Narrated Ibn Abbas: The Prophet prostrated while reciting An-Najm [sura 53] and with him prostrated the Muslims, the pagans, the jinns, and all human beings. (Sahih al-Bukhari 1071; vol 2, bk 19, no 177)
You can see here that Imam Bukhari has completely sanitized the account. He still records that Muhammad was reciting sura 53, and that everyone joined him in worship, but he completely removes what Muhammad said that made the Meccans join him in worship. Imam Bukhari has edited the history to improve Muhammad, and we see Muslims do this all the time: In Martin Lings famous biography, Muhammad - his life based on the earliest sources, Lings ignores the earliest sources and leaves out the Satanic Verses. Again, in the famous movie, The Message - The Story of Islam, starring Anthony Quinn, it leaves out the Satanic Verses, and Muslim leaders continue to do this today in the booklets and leaflets they publish, and in how they present Muhammad to the public. Muslim leaders want Muhammad to be righteous and so they edit history to make him appear this way.
THE MUSLIM DESIRE FOR A RIGHTEOUS MAN
As we have seen, Orthodox Islam does not reject the Satanic Verses because of contradiction, character, chronology, the power of Satan, or unreliable sources, it rejects them because it wants Muhammad to be perfect. It wants him to be reliable. It wants him to be the perfect model for us, who can lead us to God. I can understand why Muslims feel this way. I too want there to be a man we can rely on, a faithful, reliable leader who does not fail. The problem is, Muhammad is not this man. Muhammad is a person like us. I fail, you fail, Muhammad failed. Yes, Muhammad did preach monotheism, but as we have seen, he didn’t always practice what he preached. This is something we all do. Muhammad is not perfect, he needed forgiveness like everyone else.
So know [Muhammad] that there is no god save Allah, and ask forgiveness for your sin and for believing men and believing women. (Qur'an 47:19)
If you put your hope in Muhammad you will not be satisfied. If you put your hope in Muhammad you will need to ignore the history of his life and invent a new Muhammad that you find acceptable. But if you put your faith in Jesus you will be satisfied.
On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus stood up and cried out, "If anyone is thirsty, he should come to Me and drink! The one who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him." (John 7:37)
Only Jesus never sinned. Only Jesus practised what he preached. And through Jesus God has perfected our humanity. Jesus is the perfect servant of God, the perfect messiah, the perfect priest, the perfect sacrifice. Our desire for perfection before God can only come through Jesus. You are invited to read a gospel about him for yourself and discover what God has done for you.
WATCH A DEBATE
 Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah, (translator: A. Guillaume), Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 165-167.
 Ibn Sa'ad, Kitab Al-Tabaqat Al-Kabir, vol. 1, pp. 236-239.
 Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. vi, "Muhammad at Mecca", pp. 107-113.
 Shahab Ahmed, "Ibn Taymiyyah and the Satanic Verses", Studia Islamica, no. 87, 1998, pp. 67-124.
 Sahih al-Bukhari 1071; vol 2, bk 19, no 177
 Seyyed Hossein Nasr (ed.), et al., The Study Quran, New York, NY: HarperOne, 2015, pp. 841-845 & 1292.
 Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi, Hadith Literature - Its Origin, Development & Special Features Cambridge, U.K.: The Islamic Texts Society, 1993, p. 114.
 Shahab Ahmed, 1999, p. 283.
 Also see, Shahab Ahmed, Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam U.S.A: Harvard University Press, 2017.