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

Clergy took issue with novelist’s depiction of Islam and Prophet Muhammad

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Friday 12 August 2022 17:50 BST
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Sir Salman Rushdie, the acclaimed British-Indian novelist, was attacked on Friday at a planned lecture in western New York.

A male assailant reportedly stormed the stage and stabbed the writer, who was airlifted to hospital.

The attacker has reportedly been detained by police. No official motive has been ascribed to the assault, but it may be related to a long-running controversy over Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, which has provoked numerous threats against the author’s life.

On 14 February, 1989, Irananian religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (legal opinion), calling on "all brave Muslims" to kill the writer and those who helped translate and sell the book to the masses. A $3m bounty was attached to the fatwa.

While The Satanic Verses would prove to be a major success in some countries like the US, it also provoked a storm of controversy for Muslims around the world. Many took issue with how Rushdie, who was raised as a Muslim in Mumbai, seemed to mock Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

In the novel, a film actor named Gibreel Farishta survives a terror attack on a plane and turns into the angel Gabriel, having a series of surreal dream sequences along the way.

In one dream, a prophet by the name of Mahound living in a town called Jahilia appears to have a vision of polytheistic religion sent by the devil, only to recant. Later in the book, a group of prostitutes are featured, bearing the names of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives. Another dream sequence seems to play on the story of Jesus.

Following the threat, as well as protests around the world which included book burnings in the UK and India banning the novel, Rushdie apologised.

"I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam,” he said in 1989.

In 1990, he said further that "there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his last prophet,” emphasing his background as a Muslim and saying he didn’t agree with any character in his novel who "casts aspersions... upon the authenticity of the holy Qur’an, or who rejects the divinity of Allah”, though he later said he regretted apologising.

Rushdie went into hiding for nearly a decade, living under the protection of Scotland Yard and changing locations frequently.

Major booksellers like Barnes & Noble refused to carry The Satanic Verses, while others like Collets and Dillons, as well as London’s Liberty department store, were bombed for selling the controversial novel.

In addition to numerous death threats against the author himself, those who helped create and market the work  were targeted. In 1991, the novel’s Japanese translator was stabbed to death, and two years later the book’s Norwegian publisher was injured in a shooting.

In 1998, with the Ayatollah who issued the fatwa having been dead for a decade, the Iranian government backed away from the threat, saying it would neither “support nor hinder” threats against Rushdie’s life.

Still, private groups and semi-official Iranian religious foundations continued to support efforts to kill the author.

In 2012, Rushdie, who has largely returned to public life and international travel, published Joseph Anton, a memoir about his time in hiding, its title drawn from the alias he used when he was on the run.

The attack on the author comes as tensions between the US and Iran have grown in recent years, following the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the 2020 assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

On Wednesday, the US Justice Department unsealed charges claiming a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps tried to assassinate former Trump national security adviser John Bolton.

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