“The Prophet’s Hair” is a short story by Salman Rushdie from his 1994 collection East, West. It’s about a family that gets thrown into chaos when the father comes into possession of a sacred stolen relic. Here’s a summary of “The Prophet’s Hair.”
“The Prophet’s Hair” Summary
It’s a cold winter in Srinagar. A wealthy young man, Atta, goes to the most dangerous part of the city. Its denizens direct him deeper into the back alleys where two men steal the substantial sum of money he carries, and beat him nearly to death. At night, his body is taken to the embankment of a canal and left.
In the morning, a flower-vendor stops for Atta, who’s barely able to give his address. He rows Atta back to his large house. His mother and sister, Huma, who’s beautiful but bruised, receive them with horror. The vendor is tipped well for his service and silence. Atta falls into a coma.
The next evening, Huma visits the same dangerous part of the city as her elder brother. She wants to hire a thief. She has insured her safety by bringing no money or jewelry. Her father has disowned her, so he’ll pay no ransom. What’s more, she’s left a letter with her uncle, The Deputy Commissioner of Police, with a full account of her whereabouts.
She’s directed deep into the back alleys where an old blind woman leads her to a door. She follows a faint light to a low table, where a large, shadowy man sits. All requests for criminal work go through him. He wants the full details of the job. Huma wants to speak to the thief directly, saying he will be well compensated. She wants the most desperate and fearless man available.
A lantern is lit, revealing a giant, grey-haired man with a scar on his face in the shape of the letter sín. Huma recognizes him as the threatened bogeyman from her childhood—Sheikh Sín. He claims he’s the man for the job. Huma tells him the story.
Her father, Hashim, is a wealthy money lender who charges exorbitant interest. He’s not religious, but believes he lives honorably. He treats his clients with dignity, even the poor ones. Home life, with his wife and two grown children, is pleasant.
Six days ago while on his boat, Hashim found in the water an exquisite silver vial holding a pendant with a single hair. He returned home with it immediately. He knew it was the famous relic of the Prophet that was stolen yesterday from the Hazratbal mosque. The authorities are out in force looking. The thieves must have panicked and thrown it in the lake.
Hashim knew he should return it, but he’s a collector. He rationalized keeping it—the Prophet wouldn’t approve of this relic-worship and it’s a beautiful, rare item. He told only his son, Atta, who was unsettled but sworn to secrecy. Hashim sat gazing at the vial.
In the evening, a servant summons Hashim to supper. He’s still sitting in the same place. He looks different—his eyes and body are swollen and bulging. He needs help getting to the table.
“He seemed to be on the point of bursting! As though, under the influence of the misappropriated relic, he had filled up with some spectral fluid which might at any moment ooze uncontrollably from his every bodily opening.”
The family is horrified as Hashim spews terrible truths. He’s not happy with his wife, and she will only inherit an eighth portion, the minimum the law requires. He has a mistress and hires other women. He insults Atta’s intelligence, and accuses Huma of lasciviousness for having her face uncovered. He leaves his family shocked and crying and goes to lie down.
Hashim changes the family’s routine. He wakes them at 5 in the morning. They have to pray five times a day. He has all his books burned, except the Qur’an, from which everyone must read two hours a day. They can’t go to the cinema. If males come over, Huma must stay out of sight.
In the afternoon, two debtors come seeking relief. Hashim attacks them both, one with a whip and the other with a knife. In the evening, he strikes his wife and then his son for attempting to intervene.
On the fourth day, the family is afraid and numb. When Hashim goes out to collect from his insolvent clients, Atta retrieves the vial from the safe. He tells Huma about it, and that he believes it’s somehow to blame. They agree it must be returned.
Atta takes a boat to the Hazratbal mosque. Upon arriving, he finds his pocket empty with a hole in it. He hasn’t told the religious leaders about the relic, so no one knows. Relieved it’s out of their lives, he goes home.
At home, Huma is bruised and crying. Hashim once again found the vial floating in the water. He beat the story of out his daughter. Huma says they must get rid of the hair at any cost. It was stolen once, so it could be stolen again, but they need someone outside its influence. They need to hire a desperate and fearless thief.
“The Prophet’s Hair” Summary, Cont’d
Huma asks Sheikh Sín if he can do it and wants an assurance. He says he’s not afraid of stories about a curse.
“The Criminal, spitting, stated that he was not in the habit of providing references, as a cook might, or a gardener, but he was not alarmed so easily, certainly not by any children’s djinni of a curse.”
Huma lays out the plan. Hashim sleeps with the vial under his pillow. He tosses and turns and sleeps heavily, so the thief will enter the room and take the vial. Then he will go to Huma’s room, where she will give him all the family’s jewelry as payment. It must be done tonight.
Huma leaves. The old criminal is sick and poor from a lifetime of gambling. He’ll use this commission to get out of this life with his blind wife and retire comfortably. He doesn’t tell his four sons about the job because they’re devout men. He crippled them at birth to ensure their livelihood. They make good money begging.
That night, Hashim sleeps. Atta still lies in a coma with his mother attending to him. Huma waits in her room. She hears a bird outside. Opening the door, she sees a bird with a scar on its face in the shape of the letter sín. It flies up the stairs into Hashim’s room.
The burglar, Sheikh Sín, finds the scene as Huma described. As he nears the vial, Atta sits up in the next bedroom and starts screaming “Thief”. Atta dies, and his mother wails loudly.
In the darkness, Hashim wakes up, grabs a sword and rushes out of the room without noticing Sheikh Sín. He picks up the vial. In the hallway, Hashim waves the sword wildly and inadvertently kills Huma. Overcome with remorse, he kills himself with the sword. Hashim’s wife goes mad and is committed to an asylum.
Meanwhile, Sheikh Sín realizes the plan is ruined. Abandoning his reward, he climbs out the window and goes home, telling his wife he failed and must disappear for a while. When he leaves she regains her sight.
The noise in the house alerts the servants who alert the police. The Deputy Commissioner reads the sealed letter from Huma, then leads a charge into the bad part of the city. The police track Sheikh Sín to a house. He tries to escape by the roof-top but is shot down by the Deputy Commissioner.
The vial is recovered from him and returned. It sits to this day in a vault.
Sheikh Sín’s four crippled sons woke up the next day in perfect health. Their earning power was cut at least 75% and they were ruined. Sheikh Sín’s widow, with her sight restored, is able to spend her days looking at the beauty of the valley of Kashmir.
I hope this summary of “The Prophet’s Hair” by Salman Rushdie was helpful.