Why Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” Is Still So Controversial

Author Salman Rushdie is hospitalized with serious injuries after being stabbed by a man at an arts festival in New York state on Friday. The following article was published on the 30th anniversary of the release of The Satanic Verses.

One of the most controversial books in recent literary history, Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’, was published three decades ago this month 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 author. Born in India to a Muslim family, but then a British citizen living in the UK, Rushdie was forced into hiding for protection for the better part of a decade.

Angry demonstrators protest against the book in 1989. Photo: Robert Croma / CC BY-NC-SA

What was – and what is still – behind this outrage?


The book, “Satanic Verses,” goes to the heart of Muslim religious beliefs when Rushdie, in dream sequences, challenges and at times appears to mock some of its most sensitive tenets.

Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad was visited by the angel Gibreel – Gabriel in English – who over a period of 22 years recited the words of God 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 picks up on 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 a way that echoes the traditional Islamic account of the angel’s encounters with Muhammad.

Rushdie chooses a provocative name for Muhammed. The Prophet’s version of the novel is called Mahound – an alternative name for Muhammed sometimes used in the Middle Ages by Christians who considered him a devil.

Additionally, Rushdie’s Mahound puts his own words into the angel Gibreel’s mouth and issues edicts to his followers that conveniently further his selfish goals. 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 belonged to God.

British author Salman Rushdie. Borders of Pensamento, CC BY-SA

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

Through Mahound, Rushdie seems to cast doubt on the divine nature of the Koran.

Difficult 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 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 discuss Islam? Rushdie said in a 2015 interview. “It is possible to respect individuals, to protect them from intolerance, while being skeptical of their ideas, even fiercely criticizing them.”

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

After 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 regularly makes public appearances.

Yet 30 years later, threats against his life persist. Although the mass protests have ceased, the themes and issues raised in her novel remain hotly debated.

Myriam Renaud is affiliated with the Faculty of Contemporary World Religions, Union Institute & University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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