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Fanaticism in “The Prophet’s Hair” by Rushdie Essay

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Updated: Jun 26th, 2021

Salman Rushdie is a renowned British writer of Indian origin who, while creating works rooted in an Indian setting, has contributed to the development of new literature styles worldwide. Born in 1947, on the cusp of Indian independence, he has created numerous works depicting India, in the post-colonial setting of which Rushdie investigates his own dual British-Indian identity. Rushdie remains acclaimed not just as an Indian English author but also in international literature, as “[he] played a ground-breaking role in new beginnings — the blending of history with fiction and magic” (Chaubey 10). With his work tackling numerous themes, focusing on his short story “The Prophet’s Hair” allows to discern the details of his work on a smaller scale. The narrative deals with an Indian Muslim family, who encounter a holy relic, and descend into madness, taking along with them the numerous people they contact over the course of the story. The fable-like story allows for a view into the author’s attitudes towards Islam, moralizing on the imminent dangers of fanaticism.

The story centers on the theft of a holy Muslim relic, which is characteristic of one of the main themes of postcolonial literature. Reimagining the past, creating different versions of it, states Maurer, is “the heart of early science fiction’s vision of history, especially colonial history” (5). Saturated with magical phenomena, which in The Prophets Hair are synonymous with religious miracles, Rushdie’s work artifices a version of events influenced by supernatural forces, written as natural (Jindal 654). The theme of malign miracles is prevalent, with those unworthy punished by marvelous occurrences, as the disabled beggars lose profit in their cure (Rushdie 14). The turn of the father, Hashim, to religion could also be a sort of miracle, with him being irreligious beforehand. He even states himself that “while he was not a godly man he set great store by ‘living honourably in the world’” (Rushdie 4). The introduction of the prophet’s hair changes him and even turns him to disowning his daughter for qualities he himself cultivated in her.

The miraculous occurrences influence the two women of the story, the daughter Huma and the unnamed widow of the Thief King, in different ways. A paper by Scott, studying another work of Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”, argues that the depiction of the women in Rushdie’s stories is not solely misogynistic representation (23). However, the fate of the women is characteristic of “Rushdie’s conception of despotic Islam [which] – in line with most strands of Islamophobic thought – hinges partly on the idea of its oppression of women“ (Perchard 10). Hama, previously chastised by her father for acting unseemly for a Muslim girl, dies by his hand in his descent into zealotry. The widow, on the other hand, is granted her sight back and is blessed with “spend[ing] her last days gazing once more upon the beauties of the valley of Kashmir” (Rushdie 15). The encouragement of actions goes not to the independent, thinking woman, but to one who cedes to her husband, and remains unnoticed by the storytelling at all.

All of the above points bring us to the depiction of Muslims in Rushdie’s work, his own experiences and thoughts on Islam, keeping in mind his Muslim upbringing. He depicts Western myths about Islam, with the father-turned-fanatic burning books, forcing his daughter to wear a purdah, and confessing to having a mistress as a way of self-absolution from sin (Ramone 100; Rushdie 4). In the end, the vial with the prophet’s hair has brought nothing but carnage and mass unrest, through the religious madness of the father destroying the lives of his and the thief’s family. This theme may be a take on the punishment of the unworthy, but considering the feelings of the author towards religion, Islam in particular, it seems but one facet of a greater topic. The introduction of the element Islamic zeal brings about the downfall of both, the family of Hashim and the Thief King, who before this had lived an unnaturally long life for his profession.

With the world’s modern-day stereotypes on Islam not having changed for the better since the first publication of the short story, it continues to pose as a warning sign to religious extremism. The secession of Pakistan from India on religious grounds, and the creation of two polarizing religions, namely Islam and Hinduism, had created a perilous time for followers of both denominations, depending on their location. With the knowledge of the worldview of the author, that the co-existence of creeds abates fanaticism, the short story focuses not on the punishment of the unworthy but the preachment of religious restraint. “The Prophet’s Hair” tries to admonish that temperance remains the best course of action in everyday life, leaving devout following to the holy men, but not to the ordinary people. Rushdie while creating an English-Indian work of literature at the core, attempts to demonstrate on an international scale the horrors of religious zeal, and the destruction it brings about.

Works Cited

Chaubey, Ajay K. The Literati, vol. 5, no. 1, 2015, pp. 9-17, Web.

Jindal, Madhu. International Journal of Applied Research, vol. 2, no. 3, 2016, pp. 651-655, Web.

Maurer, Yael. The Science Fiction Dimensions of Salman Rushdie. McFarland, 2014.

Perchard, Adam Glyn Kim. Diss. University of York, 2014. Web.

Ramone, Jenni. Salman Rushdie and Translation. Bloomsbury, 2013.

Rushdie, Salman. The Prophet’s Hair. Vintage, 2016, pp. 1-20.

Scott, Gemma. “Gender and the Indian Emergency: Representation of Women in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children.” Exploring Gender in the Literature of the Indian Diaspora, edited by Sandhya Rao Mehta, Cambridge Scholars, 2015, pp. 16-34.

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