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Following the stabbing of Salman Rushdie in New York, I thought people might want a refresher on exactly why he is so controversial. (I know I did — although I’d read up on him quite a bit beforehand, the debate surrounding his work is endlessly fascinating and complicated.)
Who Is Salman Rushdie?
Salman Rushdie was born in 1947, at the tail end of British rule in then-called Bombay, India. However, he grew up largely in the UK, attending the famous boarding school Rugby followed by King’s College, Cambridge, where he was a member of the Footlights. In other words, he had an unusually privileged life.
Although he grew up in a Muslim family, it is said that Rushdie himself didn’t often attend mosque during his time in England. After school, he worked in advertising where he created several successful taglines, among which are “naughty but nice”, and “that’ll do nicely”. This gave him the money and time he needed to complete his first book, Grimus, which honestly, we’re going to ignore because it totally flopped. That didn’t keep Rushdie down though, because his second book, Midnight’s Children, went on to win the Booker Prize.
Midnight’s Children (1981)
Midnight’s Children is the story of the children born in the very first hour of India’s independence from Britain (much like Rushdie himself), and was a huge sensation:
Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the very moment of India’s independence. Greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and Prime Minister Nehru himself, Saleem grows up to learn the ominous consequences of this coincidence. His every act is mirrored and magnified in events that sway the course of national affairs; his health and well-being are inextricably bound to those of his nation; his life is inseparable, at times indistinguishable, from the history of his country. Perhaps most remarkable are the telepathic powers linking him with India’s 1,000 other “midnight’s children,” all born in that initial hour and endowed with magical gifts.
Following this came Shame (1983), also to critical acclaim. And then, in 1988, the book that caused all his problems: The Satanic Verses.
The Satanic Verses (1988)
Despite what you might assume, taking into account all that came later, The Satanic Verses is entirely a work of fiction, following two passengers on a plane that has been hijacked. While the plane is going down, they fly together to London in a classical Rushdie-like bit of magical realism. Because of this, it can be a difficult book to summarize, so here is the basic blurb:
One of the most controversial and acclaimed novels ever written, The Satanic Verses is Salman Rushdie’s best-known and most galvanizing book. Set in a modern world filled with both mayhem and miracles, the story begins with a bang: the terrorist bombing of a London-bound jet in midflight. Two Indian actors of opposing sensibilities fall to earth, transformed into living symbols of what is angelic and evil. This is just the initial act in a magnificent odyssey that seamlessly merges the actual with the imagined. A book whose importance is eclipsed only by its quality, The Satanic Verses is a key work of our times.
Why is The Satanic Verses controversial?
Now for why it is controversial. In the simplest terms, the title The Satanic Verses originates from the myth by the same name. The Qur’an is supposedly Allah’s direct word as told to Muhammad, who then had those words transcribed. However, myth says that in writing it all down, a few extra lines that were not from God were added in the process. Naturally, those lines were assumed to have come from Satan — hence, these bits were dubbed the Satanic Verses.
This myth is no longer widely believed for various reasons, but the implication is heavy nonetheless. The idea that the Qur’an ever had “Satanic verses” is so controversial because one of the strongest-held tenants of Islam is that the Qur’an is 100% the word of Allah. Being that it is supposedly verbatim, none of it is up for interpretation or debate. “Satanic verses” throws a wrench into the whole thing, and suddenly everything is up for questioning. There is, after all, a huge difference between a text being word-for-word and not.
It’s an apt name, because that’s the theme of The Satanic Verses as a whole. As previously mentioned, it is a difficult piece to sum up, but that’s partially because the intention is to have the reader never know what is real and what isn’t.
The entire book nudges at little bits of Islam throughout. Although not directly attacking Islam, Rushdie’s work is still perceived by some as a great insult in questioning tenants of the faith, even when satirical.
The Satanic Verses Reception
The publishing of The Satanic Verses was received with a lot of anger. At first, mosques around the UK printed out and passed around offending bits of the book, but things really came to the forefront when the book was literally burned at a riot in Bradford, a UK city with a large Muslim community. A protest outside the Palace of Westminister saw an effigy of Rushdie burned.
Even carrying the book became risky, as locations in both London and New York City suffered explosions. Barnes & Noble even refused to stock The Satanic Verses until Stephen King threatened to remove his own books as a result.
Salman Rushdie Fatwa
The biggest risk for Rushdie was the fatwa issued. A fatwa is basically a mandate issued by an Islamic religious leader. In this case, that mandate was to kill Rushdie and anyone associated with the publishing of The Satanic Verses.
So, at 41 years old, Salman Rushdie went into protective custody, and stayed there for nine years. (Although it is interesting to note that he still attended many events, in a rich man’s form of isolation.)
Several men associated with the translation of The Satanic Verses weren’t so lucky. In 1991, Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was found stabbed to death. Italian translator Ettore Capriolo and Norwegian publisher William Nygaard were both seriously injured in similar attacks. Despite this, Nygaard ordered a reprint of the book following his attack.
Although Iran has varied in its stance on the fatwa over the years, the order is still in place and the bounty ever-growing. Meaning that unfortunately, it seems that we know the reasoning behind Rushdie’s recent attack.
There’s certainly a conversation to be had on whether Rushdie was intentionally inflammatory in his work or not. I have my own opinion on it, but that is a completely different topic and in this case, irrelevant to the events threatening freedom of speech.
Before ending this article, I want to acknowledge that this is the briefest of overviews of what happened, and not at all comprehensive. In fact, I’m sure that I’ve gotten some of the details wrong. If you’ve reached the end, thank you for reading and I encourage you to seek out other, more thorough resources on the topic, because it’s a big one. One of the most helpful resources for me was the podcast RedHanded and their episode on the Rushdie controversy entitled ‘”The Satanic Verses”: Fatwas & Faux Pas’, which I’ve linked and highly recommend.
Finally, I’ll leave you with this Salman Rushdie quote: “Art happens at the edge”.
All my best,