Why Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ Remains So Controversial Decades After It Was Released

British writer Salman Rushdie is in hospital with serious injuries after being stabbed by a man at an arts festival in upstate New York on August 12, 2022. The following article was published on the 30th anniversary of the publication of Satanic Verses.

One of the most controversial books in recent literary history, the satanic verses by Salman Rushdie, was published in 1988 and almost immediately sparked angry protests around the world, some of them violent.

A year later, in 1989, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, ordering Muslims to kill the perpetrator.

Born in India to a Muslim family but then a British citizen living in the UK, Rushdie was forced into hiding for almost a decade.

Angry protesters protest the book in 1989.
Robert Croma, CC BY-NC-SA

What was – and still is – behind this outrage?

the controversy

The book delves into the heart of Muslim belief as Rushdie, in dreamlike sequences, challenges and sometimes appears to mock some of its most sensitive tenets.

Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad was visited by the angel Gabriel who, for 22 years, recited the words of God to him. In turn, Muhammad repeated the words to his followers. These words ended up being written down and became the verses of the Koran.

Rushdie’s novel captures these core beliefs. One of the main characters, Gibreel Farishta, has a series of dreams in which he becomes his namesake, Gabriel. In these dreams, Gibreel meets another central character, echoing the traditional Islamic account of the angel’s encounters with Muhammad.

Rushdie chooses a provocative name for Muhammad. The version of the prophet that appears in the novel is called Mahound, an alternative name for Muhammad used during the Middle Ages by Christians who considered him a demon.

Furthermore, Rushdie’s Mahound puts his own words into the mouth of the angel Gabriel and issues edicts to his followers that conveniently reinforce his selfish purposes. Although in the book Mahound’s fictional scribe, Salman the Persian, rejects the authenticity of the recitations by his teacher, he records them as being from God.

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British author Salman Rushdie.
Frontiers of Thought, CC BY-SA

In Rushdie’s book, Salman, for example, attributes to Mahound’s sexist views certain actual passages in the Koran that place men “in charge of women” and give men the right to beat the wives of whom they love. They fear arrogance.

Through Mahound, Rushdie seems to question the divine nature of the Koran.

Challenging religious texts?

For many Muslims, Rushdie, in his fictional account of the birth of key events in Islam, implies that, rather than God, the Prophet Muhammad himself is 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. Literary scholar Greg Rubinson points out that Gibreel is unable to decide what is real and what is a dream.

Since the publication of the satanic versesRushdie has argued that religious texts should be open to discussion. “Why can’t we discuss Islam?” Rushdie said in a 2015 interview.

“It is possible to respect individuals, protect them from intolerance, and at the same time be skeptical of their ideas, even fiercely critical of them.”

This point of view, however, clashes with the opinion of those for whom the Koran is the literal word of God.

Following Khomeini’s death, the Iranian government announced in 1998 that it would not enforce his fatwa or encourage others to do so. Rushdie now lives in the United States and makes regular public appearances.

However, threats against his life still persist. Although the mass protests have ceased, the themes and issues raised in her novel are still hotly debated.

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