Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses and the Fatwa

Posted: July 24, 2007 in Literary Works, Polemic of Literature, Salman Rushdie

The publication of The Satanic Verses in September 1988 caused immediate controversy in the Islamic world because of what was perceived as an irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad. The title refers to a Muslim tradition that is related in the book. According to it, Muhammad (Mahound in the book) added verses (sura) to the Qur’an accepting three goddesses that used to be worshipped in Mecca as divine beings. According to the legend, Muhammad later revoked the verses, saying the devil tempted him to utter these lines to appease the Meccans (hence the Satanic verses). However, the narrator reveals to the reader that these disputed verses were actually from the mouth of the Archangel Gibreel. The book was banned in many countries with large Muslim communities.

On 14 February 1989, a fatwa requiring Rushdie’s execution was proclaimed on Radio Tehran by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran at the time, calling the book “blasphemous against Islam.” A bounty was offered for the death of Rushdie, who was thus forced to live under police protection for years to come. On 7 March 1989, the United Kingdom and Iran broke diplomatic relations over the Rushdie controversy.

The publication of the book and the fatwa sparked violence around the world, with bookstores being firebombed. Muslim communities in several nations in the West held public rallies in which copies of the book were burned. Several people associated with translating or publishing the book were attacked, seriously injured, and even killed.[11] Many more people died in riots in Third World countries.

On 24 September 1998, as a precondition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Britain, the Iranian government, then headed by moderate Mohammad Khatami, gave a public commitment that it would “neither support nor hinder assassination operations on Rushdie.”[12][13] Hardliners in Iran have however continued to reaffirm the death sentence.[14] In early 2005, Khomeini’s fatwa was reaffirmed by Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a message to Muslim pilgrims making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.[15] Additionally, the Revolutionary Guards have declared that the death sentence on him is still valid.[16] Iran has rejected requests to withdraw the fatwa on the basis that only the person who issued it may withdraw it[15], and the person who issued it is dead.

Salman Rushdie reported that he still receives a “sort of Valentine‘s card” from Iran each year on February 14 letting him know the country has not forgotten the vow to kill him. He was also quoted saying, “It’s reached the point where it’s a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat.”[17] Despite the threats on Rushdie, he has publicly said that his family has never been threatened and that his mother (who lived in Pakistan during the later years of her life) even received outpourings of support.[18]

Hezbollah’s failed assassination attempt

A 1989 explosion in Britain is believed to have been a Hezbollah “attempt to assassinate British novelist Salman Rushdie [which] failed when a bomb exploded prematurely, killing a terrorist in London.”[19] There is a shrine in Tehran’s Behesht-e Zahra cemetery for Mustafa Mahmoud Mazeh that says he was “Martyred in London, August 3, 1989. The first martyr to die on a mission to kill Salman Rushdie.” Mazeh died priming a book bomb loaded with RDX explosives that took out two floors of a hotel in Paddington, central London. A previously unknown Lebanese group, the Organisation of the Mujahidin of Islam, said he died preparing an attack “on the apostate Rushdie”. Mezeh’s mother was invited to relocate to Iran and the Islamic World Movement of Martyrs’ Commemoration built his shrine in the cemetary that holds thousands of Iranian soldiers slain in the Iran-Iraq War.[12] During the 2006 Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared that “If there had been a Muslim to carry out Imam Khomeini’s fatwa against the renegade Salman Rushdie, this rabble who insult our Prophet Mohammed in Denmark, Norway and France would not have dared to do so. I am sure there are millions of Muslims who are ready to give their lives to defend our prophet’s honour and we have to be ready to do anything for that.”[20]

Pakistani International Guerillas film

In 1990 a Pakistani film was released in which Rushdie, played by Afzaal Ahmad, was depicted as plotting, soon after his publication of The Satanic Verses, to cause the downfall of “Pakistan, the stronghold of Islam” by opening a chain of casinos and discos in the country. The hero of the story, played by Mustafa Qureshi, learns of the plot and decides to quit his day job as a police officer to recruit his unemployed brothers and create a mujahid (God’s soldiers) group to pursue Rushdie and slay him before the plot can go into effect.[21][22] The film was popular with Pakistani audiences, and it “presents Rushdie as a Rambo-like figure pursued by four Pakistani guerillas”[23] and surrounded by the Israeli armed forces.[24] Rushdie is protrayed as “a smug, bespectacled butcher in a double-breasted suit, who lives in palatial splendor, [and who] personally slaughters his enemies with a huge blood-soaked sword”.[25] In the end as the trio of brothers and their mother are being crucified by Rushdie, Allah frees them with bolts of lightning and “Rushdie is attacked by a quartet of floating holy books (the Koran, Tawrat, Zabur, and Injil), which shoot laser beams into his skull until he bursts into flame”[25], “a scene that evoked shouts of approval from [Pakistani] audiences.”[23] The British Board of Film Classification refused to allow it a certificate, as “it was felt that the portrayal of Rushdie might qualify as criminal libel, causing a breach of the peace as opposed to merely tarnishing his reputation.”[24] This move effectively banned the film in Britain outright. However two months later, Rushdie himself wrote to the board, saying that while he thought the film “a distorted, incompetent piece of trash” he would not sue if it was released.[24] He later said “If that film had been banned, it would have become the hottest video in town: everyone would have seen it”.[24] While the film was a massive hit in Pakistan, it went virtually unnoticed in the UK.[24]


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