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What is a fatwa and why did Iran issue one against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses in 1989?

It was only after the fatwa was lifted by Iran in 1998 that he was willing to be seen in public again

Emma Guinness
Monday 15 April 2024 08:01 BST
Who is Salman Rushdie and why is he controversial?

For a period of time, British Indian author Salman Rushdie was just as famous for the threats against his life as he was for his remarkable novels.

The writer was once the subject of global storm following the publication of his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, due to its fictionalised account of the prophet Muhammed’s life, which were perceived as disrespectful and sacrilegious by many in the Islamic world.

Points of contention included an unflattering depiction of the prophet and the book’s title, which refers to withdrawn verses from the Qur’an that were – according to some Islamic teachings – delivered to Muhammed via the Devil.

The novel recreated this incident, which was deeply offensive to many Muslims and subsequently sparked protests against its publication, its banning in various countries and even the arson of bookshops that continued to sell it.

Perceived insults

A fatwa - that is, an Islamic execution order - was then issued against Rushdie and his publishers by the then Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in February 1989.

While this prompted the author to apologise for any offence caused by his book, Rusdhie denied the claims it was blasphemous before going into hiding.

He said: “Frankly, I wish I had written a more critical book.

“A religion that claims it is able to behave like this, religious leaders who are able to behave like this, and then say this is a religion that must be above any kind of whisper of criticism: that doesn’t add up.’’

The outcry caused by the book was so extreme that Rushdie was forced to spend the best part of a decade hiding in London.

During this time, various people involved in its production fell victim to violent attacks and its Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was stabbed to death.

It was only after the fatwa was lifted by Iran in 1998 that he was willing to be seen in public again – by which point he had moved to New York.

He later told the New Yorker: “I had come to feel that it was a very long time ago and, and that the world moves on.”

Attack on stage

However, in 2022 the author was repeatedly stabbed ahead of a lecture about his work by Hadi Matar, then 24.

The author narrowly escaped with his life and spent six weeks in hospital, eventually emerging having lost the sight in his right eye and the use of one hand.

Matar, who is still on trial for the attack but has pleaded not guilty to the charges he faces, said he had acted alone out of a dislike for Rushdie’s treatment of Islam.

He said: “I don’t like the person. I don’t think he’s a very good person.

“He’s someone who attacked Islam, he attacked their beliefs, the belief systems.”

The attack and its aftermath is now the subject of Rushdie’s new memoir, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, where he reflects upon the decades-long threats against his life.

He told Hay Literary festival that he had to write the book in order to move on with his life.

Rushdie said: “It will be a relatively short book, a couple of hundred pages. It’s not the easiest book in the world to write but it’s something I need to get past in order to do anything else. I can’t really start writing a novel that’s got nothing to do with this … So I just have to deal with it.”

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