In the history of publishing there have been few fictional works that have caused such controversy as Salman Rushdie’s novel of 1988, The Satanic Verses. The novel was immediately targeted by some for its perceived mockery of Islam, and in particular its blasphemous depiction of the prophet Muhammad. Such was the magnitude of the insult, that on this day in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie.
The novel, like much of Rushdie’s oeuvre, is a complex and multi-faceted piece of writing. It is primarily a novel about immigrant life; a window into the complex and often conflicting experiences of members of Britain’s Indian community. It tackles issues of displacement, race, prejudice and isolation, and as such can be placed firmly within the traditions of post-colonial literature. It is also a novel of poetry and lyricism, a towering example of aesthetic beauty and magical realism.
Much of the offending elements are found in the dream-like sequences set in the city of Jahilia, a name for pre-Islamic Mecca. The representation of Muhammad—through the character Mahound—can be construed as derogatory, especially in his capacity as overlord of a vast brothel. The fact that some of the prostitutes share names with the Prophet’s wives also gave rise to offence.
The title itself proved problematic. When translated into Arabic, it gave the sense that the entire Qu’ran was somehow satanic, whereas the title in fact refers only to the verses omitted from the Qu’ran by Muhammad after he suspected that they came not from God but from the scheming Devil.
The reaction of the global Islamic community was swift and uncompromising. The work was immediately condemned as blasphemy, and demonstrations against the work took place the world over. Angry protests were accompanied by book burning rituals and Rushdie became the target of an unprecedented campaign of hatred. Shops that sold the work were routinely attacked, and the book was banned in the majority of Muslim countries.
With the controversy reaching fever pitch, Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on 14 February 1989, stating that “the author of the book Satanic Verses, which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qu’ran, and those publishers who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death.”
Rushdie was forced into hiding, and given round-the-clock protection by the British government. Several attempts were made on his life, including a failed bomb attack at a London hotel in August 1989. In 1991, the Italian translator of the work was attacked, receiving non-life-threatening injuries, but the same month the Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was stabbed to death.
Rushdie attempted to quell the anger by issuing an apology and appealing to Iran for the fatwa to be lifted, but his plea fell on deaf ears, and to this day the fatwa remains in place. Over time the hysteria has abated, and the threat to Rushdie and his associates seems to have subsided, but the controversy continues to impact on the global cultural landscape. The reaction to The Satanic Verses is a constant reminder of the uncomfortable co-existence of freedom of speech, religious tolerance, and literary responsibility.
Photo Credit: © UK History / Alamy
Photo Caption: Author Salman Rushdie holds up his controversial work, “The Satanic Verses,” on 14 February 1989.