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Salman Rushdie: The Apostate Novelist Condemned to Death by Islam


The limits of Religious Freedom are tested when a religious leader induces a personal vengeance against a work of fiction and its author.

There is no bitterness as that of a man that discovers he has believed in a shadow.

Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was published on the 26th of September 1988. For two decades, this novel has been acclaimed and criticised harshly. Its author, Hindu by birth and later English by naturalisation, lived under 24-hour surveillance for two years because of fatwa (death penalty), and afterwards with a $3 million dollar reward for his head, offered by Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini. But what makes the content of The Satanic Verses so dangerous? Why has it come to represent, for those involved in the Rushdie affair, the origin of Islamic radicalism against the West as well as the precedent for 9/11?

The Satanic Verses was published by Viking Penguin and enjoyed a modest success during its first days, but eventually it would become the most sold book in the history of said publishing house, propelled by the allegations of it being anti-Mohammedian as well as heretical towards the historical sources of the Quran (the sacred book of Islam). This of course lead to an international spotlight. It was towards the end of 1988 that the book was banned form India, Sri Lanka, and later Kenya, Thailand, Tanzania, Indonesia, Singapore and even Venezuela.

Burning book

Rushdie’s role as a rebel was attested when the writer referred to the role of the author as a natural rival to politicians. A left wing intellectual, Rushdie initially supported the Iranian revolution that would eventually put a price on his head, as well as writing against the American intervention in Nicaragua, asserting that “the bandit sometimes plays the sheriff”.

But the Rushdie affair really began when in 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini declared that, according to the legal interpretation of the incredibly traditional Quran, Rushdie should be murdered by any member of Islam in the world for the crime of blasphemy against the prophet. But what exactly does the blasphemy in The Satanic Verses consist of?

The book is comprised by several intertwined stories, many of which make reference to Islam, and part of that deals with the process of writing the Quran. There, a blasphemous scribe supposedly changes the Prophet’s dictations (words which, in the Islamic religion correspond directly to Allah), thus suggesting that the Quran has “some” verses that were dictated by demonic entities. Additionally, referring to the Prophet as “Mahound” which is a derogatory expression Christians during the Crusades used to refer to Mohammed.

The legend of the “Satanic verses” within an Islamic context is known as “gharaniq” and was described for the first time in Mohammed’s biography by Ibn Ishaq. Removed from the later versions of Quran, their danger lied in the authorisation of worshiping three previous gods of Islam Al-lāt, Uzza y Manah; a notion that directly opposes the monotheism Muslim believers must to follow.

The Satanic Verses

The critics were able to find many other sources of blasphemy, for those who didn’t feel the freedom of religion and of speech where sufficient justification according to the strict interpretation of Islamic law promoted by Ayatollah Khomeini. When he died, the emerging government stated they would not support any attempt to hurt Rushdie (or his editors, who also faced the death penalty), however they didn’t go as far as removing the fatwa against him. Despite the latter, his Japanese translator was stabbed to death during the first decade of the twenty-first century and multiple other attempts against Rushdie have been registered in several libraries in the United Kingdom and the United States.

On the 14th of February of 2006 the Iranian state reiterated through mass media that the fatwa against Rushdie would remain forever. Rushdie says he still receives “Valentines cards” from the Iranian government and from religious fanatics, which he only sees as rhetoric and not an actual threat to his wellbeing.

Rushdie and his wife became separated during the first year of his fatwa. The couple had to move 56 times that year, once every three days. Despite all that, Rushdie has offered plenty of apologies to the followers of Islam whose sensitivity was hurt by the novel, without forgetting to stress that the freedom of expression is an undeniable right —one that has led the author to spend many years of his life as a prisoner in his own home.

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