In 1988, Salman Rushdie published ‘The Satanic Verses’ — one of the most controversial books in recent literary history — and since then, life has never been the same for the author.
The book not only sparked angry protests but also a fatwa against Rushdie by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, asking for the author’s killing. Born in India to a Muslim family, Rushdie was forced to go into hiding for over a decade as many hunted him over the years, harming — even killing — some of his translators along the way.
But why was ‘The Satanic Verses’ so controversial? And why does it still whip up such a sentiment?
Rushdie’s book, in dream sequences, challenges and sometimes seems to mock some of the most sensitive tenets of Muslim religious beliefs.
Muslims across the world believe that the angel Gibreel – Gabriel in English – visited the Prophet Muhammad and recited God’s words to him over a 22-year period. These words were then repeated by Muhammad to his followers, eventually written down and became the verses and chapters of the Quran.
In ‘The Satanic Verses’, one of the main characters — Gibreel Farishta — has a series of dreams in which he becomes his namesake, the angel Gibreel, the Independent explained. Gibreel, in these dreams, meets another central character in ways that seem similar to Islam’s traditional account of how the angel met Prophet Muhammad.
To make matters worse, the author chose a provocative name for Prophet Muhammad, with the novel’s version calling him Mahound – a moniker sometimes used during the Middle Ages by Christians who considered him a “devil”.
Also, 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”, Independent reported.
This angered the community which considered that the author, through his fictional retelling of the birth of Islam’s key events, implied that Prophet Muhammad is himself the source of revealed truths and not God. The apparent “distortion” of the Quran also angered Muslims.
While Rushdie, and many scholars supporting him, have argued that religious texts should be open to challenge, those who consider the Quran the literal word of God seem to be in no mood to forgive the author — proof being Friday’s knife attack which has left Rushdie on the ventilator.
In October 1988, then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi banned the import of the book. Soon, 20 countries went on to outlaw it.
The author tried to explain himself in 1990 in an essay titled “In Good Faith” but many Muslims were not placated.
Many Muslims were furious when Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 for his services to literature. Iran accused Britain of “Islamophobia,” saying its fatwa still stood, and there were widespread Muslim protests, notably in Pakistan.