Rushdie had written ‘The Satanic Verses’ in 1988, roughly 34 years ago after which he suffered death threats for several years for writing the book.
The controversial element in ‘The Satanic Verses’
The title of the book ‘Satanic verses’ has sparked concerns among and protests by Muslims.
According to Muslims, the angel Gibreel (Gabriel in English) visited the Prophet Muhammad, who for over 22 years, recited God’s words to him. Muhammad then recited the words to his followers, which eventually became the verses and chapters in Quran.
Rushdie’s book explores the same line of events. However, in his narrative, one of the main characters, Gibreel Farishta, has a dream, wherein he takes on the role of the angel Gibreel and comes across another central figure Mahound, who is referred to the Prophet Muhammad. The encounter between Gibreel and Mahound is said to resemble the holy encounter between the angel Gibreel and the Prophet Muhammad.
As far as the controversy around the book is concerned, the name ‘Mahound’ is believed to be a derogatory term for Muhammad, used during the Middle Ages by Christians who considered him a devil.
Furthermore, Rushdie also described Mecca as “Jahilia”, referring to the ‘time of ignorance’ before Islam.
“And most controversially, he invoked a discredited tradition in Islam, the so-called satanic verses, in which Satan inspired Mohammad to compromise with the people of Mecca and to allow them to continue to worship other deities in an attempt to lure them to Islam,” says HuffPost.
The fatwa and death threats
Rushdie’s book ‘The Satanic Verses’ has been banned in Iran since 1988, as many Muslims consider it to be blasphemous. A year later, Iran’s late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death. A bounty of over $3 million has also been offered for anyone who kills Rushdie,’ reports AP.
Recalling the incident, author and Rushdie’s friend, Ian McEwan had said in an earlier interview to The Guardian, “The first few months were the worst. No one knew anything. Were Iranian agents, professional killers, already in place in the UK when the fatwa was proclaimed? Might a “freelancer”, stirred by a denunciation in a mosque, be an effective assassin? The media excitement was so intense that it was hard to think straight. The mobs were frightening. They burned books in the street, they bayed for blood outside parliament and waved “Rushdie must die” placards. No one was arrested for incitement.”
Meanwhile, sharing his opinion on the matter, author and 1988 Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey had told The New York Times in an earlier interview, “I had written a novel about many things including the Anglican church. Rushdie had written a novel about many things including the Prophet Muhammad. We were both shortlisted for the Booker prize… This was in October 1988, almost four months before the fatwa. Even so early the accusations of blasphemy were in the air (and in the publishers’ mail room) but the notion that the leader of Iran might pronounce a death sentence on a law-abiding British citizen was not something to foresee on that warm autumn evening, as Salman and I stood chatting outside the Guildhall, where the Booker ceremony is held.”
AP further reports that over the years Iran’s government distanced itself from Khomeini’s decree, but anti-Rushdie sentiment has continued to linger on. ‘In 2012, a semi-official Iranian religious foundation raised the bounty for Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million.’
After the fatwa was issued against him in the 1980s, there were attempts to murder Rushdie’s translators and publishers. Following this, Rushdie was given police protection in the United Kingdom, where he had studied and lived before. He spent close to a decade in hiding under the alias Joseph Anton.
In the 1990s after Iran said that it won’t support his killers, Rushdie emerged from his hiding. He later moved to New York, USA where he currently lives. But spending years living on the run didn’t stifle Rushdie’s spirit. Instead, he published his memoir titled ‘Joseph Anton’ in September 2012. Rushdie is also a strong supporter of the freedom of speech.
Reacting to the fatwa, Rushdie had told BBC Radio 4 in an earlier interview, “Frankly, I wish I had written a more critical book. I’m very sad that it should have happened. It’s not true that this book is a blasphemy against Islam. I doubt very much that Khomeini or anyone else in Iran has read the book or more than selected extracts out of context.”