Two Years, Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights, book review: The novelist tackles Islamic fundamentalism – with mixed results

Salman Rushdie's new novel is a futuristic tale of good versus evil that reads like a personal revenge fantasy, writes Hassan Mahamdallie
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In Salman Rushdie's latest novel a great storm envelopes New York. So begins the "the strangeness", which is only brought to an end by an epic battle of Marvel-films proportions and the triumph of the forces of light and good over the forces of darkness and evil.

On the side of good is the Lightning Princess, the good jinn Dunia (her name means "The World"), and the many half-jinn, half-human descendants of her magical sexual union with the 12th-century Andalucian philosopher Ibn Rushd.On the other side are the evil jinn guided by Ibn Rushd's great intellectual rival, the intolerant Persian theologian al-Ghazali. They are led by the Grand Ifrit Zumurrud, who draws his earthly legions from the land of A in thrall to "a murderous gang of ignoramuses who called themselves the Swots". Just like our real-world Taliban, they exercise "the art of forbidding things".

Zumurrud aims to conquer the world of man and establish an evil global jinn sultanate. Fear is spread by a zombie army of "parasite jinns"– who take over human hosts and manifest themselves as "executioner jinn parasites stoning women to death" and "suicide-bomber jinn parasites".

The book's title signposts us to the One Thousand and One Nights stories. However, Rushdie's style, digressions and pop-culture and literary references, moves us far away from the beauty of the stripped-down storytelling of the classical fables. The book-jacket's blurb invites us to expect something "Satirical and bawdy, full of cunning and folly, rivalries and betrayals, kismet and karma, rapture and redemption". That may be what the publisher desired, but that is not what Rushdie has written. Overall, the novel makes for a rather disquieting read and the feeling of having glimpsed someone's personal revenge fantasy.

The good guys are made from bits of Rushdie's self-image, his post-fatwa persecution and his well-known views on the nature of religion, Islamist terrorism, secularism, freedom of speech and so on. The bad guys are ugly photo-fits for Bin Laden, Isis, barbarism, obscurantism, irrationality, bearded stupid preachers, misogynist inadequates and all those who have it coming to them.

The jinn (in Rushdie's bawdy world) have incredible sex a dozen times a day. This delight is contrasted with those mortals who practise "extreme violence… terrorism". Terrorism "was always of particular attraction to male individuals who were either virgins or unable to find sexual partners … when hopeless young men were provided with loving... or at the very least willing sexual partners, they lost interest in suicide belts, bombs and the virgins of heaven". This curious notion, described by Pankaj Mishra as the "genitals-centric analysis of radical Islam" has fixated Rushdie, Amis, Christopher Hitchens and, of course, Boris Johnson. Surely then, the government instead of seizing their passports should be parachuting legions of willing jihadi brides into the Isis caliphate, accompanied by Tornado jets skywriting "Make Luv not War Bro's. lol."

The novel may serve to exorcise some of the author's demons, but is it, even with magical-realist trickery and name-play thrown in, enough to sustain the reader? If you can buy into the binary – Enlightenment good, Islamic fundamentalism bad, rationalism good, faith in the supernatural dumb – you may feel some warmth generated by a flush of moral superiority. However, you should still feel short-changed that the author has squeezed out most of the ambiguities, contradictions and unexpected elements from the central intellectual debate. Yet, it is in this complexity that truths resides.

Al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD) wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers, a savage attack on scholars whom he accused of elevating philosophy over theology and reason over revelation. In time Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 AD) replied with The Incoherence of the Incoherence, generally regarded as a demolition of al-Ghazali. Rushdie sketches all this out. But then in his eagerness to mould the 12th-century figure into a Rushdian martyr, he jettisons history and context. Rushdie tells us that towards the end of his life Ibn Rushd was "formally discredited and disgraced on account of his liberal ideas". But Ibn Rushd was not a "liberal". The dangerous idea he articulated was given to posterity and the Enlightenment, it was not an expression of his social and political outlook. He was, after all, from a rich family that was part of the Andalucian Caliph's inner circle. If anything he was an elitist. There is scant evidence that his "liberal ideas" as Rushdie has it, angered the "Berber fanatics" who Isis-like "were spreading like a pestilence across Arab Spain". The Caliph himself was a Berber.

As Rushdie says, Ibn Rushd was banished by the Caliph for two years and his books burned, but the main reason why is not clear to us. (Rushdie also gets his dates wrong when he tells us Ibn Rushd's exile was lifted after the Caliph's victory over the Castilians at the Battle of Alarcos. Ibn Rushd's exile and Alarcos happened in the same year, 1195).

What Rushdie withholds is that in his lifetime al-Ghazali also had his texts burned and banned, with possession punishable by death. Who were the ruling dynasty? The "pestilential Berber" Almoravids. In Baghdad 300 years earlier, theologians suspected of not being rational enough had to undergo the Mihna or "testing". Those who failed were tortured and imprisoned by the Abbasid Caliph. Why? Because even in al-Ghazali's time philosophy and rational inquiry was the dominant system of thought in the centres of Islam. The dispute between Ibn Rushd and al-Ghazali symbolises an epochal struggle for social and political ascendency that raged across the Muslim world for centuries.

In his novel Rushdie tartly observes that an art installation exhibited by one of his unsympathetic characters "was impressive if only for the powers of persuasion required to make it happen at all". There is some merit in that.