One of the most controversial books in recent literary history, Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” was published three decades ago and almost immediately set off angry demonstrations all over the world, some of them violent.
A year later, in 1989, Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, ordering Muslims to kill the author. Born in India to a Muslim family, but by then a British citizen living in the U.K., Rushdie was forced to go into protective hiding for the greater part of a decade.
What was – and still is – behind this outrage?
The book, “Satanic Verses,” goes to the heart of Muslim religious beliefs when Rushdie, in dream sequences, challenges and sometimes seems to mock some of its most sensitive tenets.
Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammed was visited by the angel Gibreel – Gabriel in English – who, over a 22 year period, recited God’s words to him. In turn, Muhammed repeated the words to his followers. These words were eventually written down and became the verses and chapters of the Quran.
Rushdie’s novel takes up these core beliefs. One of the main characters, Gibreel Farishta, has a series of dreams in which he becomes his namesake, the angel Gibreel. In these dreams, Gibreel encounters another central character in ways that echo Islam’s traditional account of the angel’s encounters with Muhammed.
Rushdie chooses a provocative name for Muhammed. The novel’s version of the Prophet is called Mahound – an alternative name for Muhammed sometimes used during the Middle Ages by Christians who considered him a devil.
In addition, Rushdie’s Mahound puts his own words into the angel Gibreel’s mouth and delivers edicts to his followers that conveniently bolster his self-serving purposes. Even though, in the book, Mahound’s fictional scribe, Salman the Persian, rejects the authenticity of his master’s recitations, he records them as if they were God’s.
In Rushdie’s book, Salman, for example, attributes certain actual passages in the Quran that place men “in charge of women” and give men the right to strike wives from whom they “fear arrogance,” to Mahound’s sexist views.
Through Mahound, Rushdie appears to cast doubt on the divine nature of the Quran.
Challenging religious texts?
For many Muslims, Rushdie, in his fictional retelling of the birth of Islam’s key events, implies that, rather than God, the Prophet Muhammed is himself the source of revealed truths.
In Rushdie’s defense, some scholars have argued that his “irreverent mockery” is intended to explore whether it is possible to separate fact from fiction. Literature expert Greg Rubinson points out that Gibreel is unable to decide what is real and what is a dream.
Since the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” Rushdie has argued that religious texts should be open to challenge. “Why can’t we debate Islam?” Rushdie said in a 2015 interview. “It is possible to respect individuals, to protect them from intolerance, while being skeptical about their ideas, even criticising them ferociously.”
This view, however, clashes with the view of those for whom the Quran is the literal word of God.
Why can’t we debate Islam? It is possible to respect individuals, to protect them from intolerance, while being skeptical about their ideas, even criticising them ferociously.
After Khomeini’s death, Iran’s government announced in 1998 that it would not carry out his fatwa or encourage others to do so. Rushdie now lives in the United States and makes regular public appearances.
Still, 30 years later, threats against his life persist. Although mass protests have stopped, the themes and questions raised in his novel remain hotly debated.
Myriam Renaud, University of Chicago
Myriam Renaud, Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Thought and Ethics, University of Chicago