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The Grammar of the Idols
Salman Rushdie’s “The Prophet’s Hair” reflects on religious practice and worship as a number of people cross paths with a sacred relic that has been stolen from their mosque. A vial, containing a strand of hair from Muhammad, is recovered by Hashim only to incite chaos and suffering amongst the nonbelievers that it encounters. It can be easily argued that this interpretation is the basis of the story’s message. However, the assumption that the idolatry of the relic is the sole destructive force in the story overlooks another possibility. The second idol woven into the text is money. A grammatical analysis of “The Prophet’s Hair” reveals that money, not the relic, acts as the destructive force driving the plot as it transforms from normative grammar and redefines itself in varying parts of speech.
Grammatically both idols are nouns, but the ability for money to transform into an adjective and verb suggests that its power extends beyond that of the relic. The relic appears primarily as a noun. The first introduction to this idol claims that Hashim “noticed a small vial” (2856). The use of the word “vial” as a descriptor for the relic is repeated numerous time throughout the text. In addition to “vial” the relic is referred to as “a cylinder of tinted glass” and “hair” (2857). The relic is most commonly referred to as either “relic,” “hair,” or “vial.” The most creative interpretation of the idol is the speaker’s choice to refer to it as “treasure” at two points in the text (2857, 2860). The word treasure, though more elaborate than the other words used to call upon the idol of the relic, remains a noun. Even then, this noun contains a double meaning. A treasure, though specified as the relic in the story, is traditionally an object of great monetary value.
Furthermore, the idol of money is presented often as a noun, but unlike the stagnant nature of the relic, also takes form as an adjective. In phrases such as “the story of the rich idiot”, monetary value is implored as a descriptor for a type of person (2854). Though the person being described as a fool, the adjective being used to define the fool is inherently rooted in wealth. Here, like many other instances in the text, money is the controlling force for interpretation of people, places, ideas, and things. The nouns of the narrative are engulfed in monetary descriptors. Even those lacking funds are defined by the their relation to money. In one instance men are described as “hired thugs” (2859). The employment of these men – their financial ties to society and Hashim – is the crucial element of identification. If not “hired” these men, as “thugs,” could be untrustworthy or a threat to Hashim. Instead, the narrator chooses to employ money as the descriptor in order to better define the role and relationship of the men involved in the scene. Again, this usage of money as an adjective plays an important part in developing and defining the plotline.
Complimenting the nature of money as an adjective, the usage of money as a verb deepens the grammatical expansion of the idol in contrast to the easily defined relic as a noun. Huma, the moneylender’s daughter, inquires, “Where may I hire a thief?” (2854). This question poses money as a verb manifested in the word “hire.” To employ a person suggests that a monetary exchange for goods or services will be provided. Therefore, money is the action, the force that drives narrative movement in the story. Huma also states that her father “will pay no ransom” when she addresses the thieves in unfamiliar surroundings (2854). Money is revealed in a form of the verb “pay” multiple times in the text. The constant presence of the idol in this verb form reaffirms the idol’s unfaltering and active role in the lives of the characters and the results of their actions. The idol of money is presented as an overpowering and comprehensive force in its nature as noun, adjective, and verb. On the other hand, the idol of the relic remains a constant noun, an object outside of the actions and definitions that the characters take on.
A deeper understanding of the particular grammatical categories that each idol as a noun assumes reveals the dynamic behavior of money versus the static nature of the relic. When presented as a noun the relic can always be categorized as a thing. The words “vial,” “relic,” and “hair” remain nouns that are objects that can be observed and held. It is something both measurable and physically apparent. As such, the object cannot shift or change in anyway; rather it remains the same despite changes in environment. In contrast to the static interpretation of the relic as an idol, money transcends expectation and explores identification as a person and idea in addition to being a thing or object. The very first mention of money is presented as an idea rather than an object. Atta, Huma’s brother, is identified with “an unmistakable sheen of wealth.” The word “wealth” is a noun that is categorized as an idea. This is repeated in the text along with mentions of “worth” and “fortune,” also ideas. A noun as an object is clearly defined and stagnant, while ideas can transform societies, grow or diminish, and change by perspective. Ideas cannot be neatly categorized or concretely limited the way that relic as a noun object is. Money’s ability to embrace the role of an idea, as well as an object, gives it limitless power and influence over the text, characters, and conclusions.
Additionally, money is presented as a noun that can be classified as a person. Words synonymous with money or clarified by their relationship to money replace the actual names of men in the narrative. The presence of the idol of money as a noun indicative of persons suggests that money is much more dangerous or influential when compared to the nonexistence of the language of the relic to replace personas entirely. Hashim, Sin, and characters that never receive a formal name are identified by and referred to as their respective occupations or ways of acquiring financial status. The noun money takes form as a person when Hashim is simply called “the moneylender” (2856). Likewise, Sin is referred to as “Thief of Thieves” or more simply “the burglar” (2861). In both cases, characters are named by their relationship to money and involvement in financial matters. The idol of money is so deeply ingrained in society that proper nouns like birth names are replaced by references to the idol that the society worships: money. Ironically, the relic itself is a hair from the head of Mohammad, a person. Despite this fact the usage of the word relic and those that accompany it are never used as poignant or solitary references to people. The act of referring to an entire person through the language of an idol would suggest that the force is truly dangerous as it transcends the root of humanity. In contrast to this dangerous state, the idol of the relic abandons its confines as a noun only to be replaced by a pronoun. When not appearing directly as a specified object noun, phrases, such as “having found it” use the pronoun “it” to refer back to the idol (2857). By replacing the actual noun with a pronoun the significance of the object itself is completely diminished. A destructive idol could not be so carelessly dismissed or obscured. The relic loses its place as an idol in the application of it as a pronoun instead of a noun. Any power or danger that the relic may have wielded in the text of the story is dismissed, just as the word was by the usage of a pronoun.
The influence of the versatile grammatical structure of money is apparent in the specifics of the narrative, while the less indulgent relic idol, like its grammar, may take a back seat to destruction. As the grammar suggests, money can be identified as people, places, things, ideas, actions, and more. Currency is so deeply enveloped in the narrative that even the characters are blind to its power. Atta, Huma, and their mother assume that the relic, as a concrete noun and object to identify with, is the source of the problems that they face. However, a closer look reveals that money is the root for their downfall. Hashim operates by the idol of money. He identifies himself as the moneylender, a person form of the noun of the idol. He even takes action to exchange money for services, which allows money to become a verb. Money is also the object of his desire. For Hashim, money is a noun as a person, idea, and thing. Additionally, money becomes a verb, and consequently an adjective. This idol is literally his motivating factor and only venue in which to make decisions. His greed causes him to keep the vial. In return the man finds himself reflecting on faith and corruption. He finally recognizes that money, at least as an object, is defiling his goodness. In an attempt to disband from the constructs of society and undo the harm that money installed the man is driven to insanity and his family falls apart. In a last attempt to protect his money he accidently kills his daughter and, stricken with grief, commits suicide. This is only one example of the many in which money is the motivating factor and inevitable destructive force in the narrative.
Clearly, as the grammar implies, money as an idol is far more dangerous than the relic as an idol. The relic remains classified as a noun, something to be picked up and moved about by the force of others. The only abandonment of this grammatical structure to the idol is when the noun is dismissed altogether and replaced by a general pronoun. In contrast, money as an idol takes form in many different grammatical areas. Money has the transcendent ability to take on many categories. This power and representation of the idol is a dangerous one. The influence of money goes unnoticed by the readers and characters alike, only further perpetuating the danger of money’s destructive force in society. Salman Rushdie eloquently weaves the two idols into his short story “The Prophet’s Hair” only to reveal in grammatical study that money trumps religious relics in danger and destruction.
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