Salman Rushdie; blasphemy and freedom of thought

Sent On: 
Thu, 2022-09-01
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Salman Rushdie (


Indian-born British-American novelist Salman Rushdie (75) became world news again after he was stabbed ten times on stage on August 12, 2022, when he wanted to deliver a lecture in New York, USA.


Rushdie, who was born in a liberal Indian Muslim family, had been living under threat of assassination since Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwā in 1989 calling for his assassination after the publication of his book The Satanic Verses (1988). This forced Rushdie in hiding for many years. In 2017, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei reaffirmed that the fatwā remained in effect, yet security measures relaxed over time which made the attack on August 12 possible. The injuries are severe. Rushdie is on the road to recovery, but the injuries probably will affect him for the remainder of his life.


The title of Rusdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, refers to a Muslim tradition that the Prophet Muḥammad initially accepted three pagan goddesses al-Lāt, al-ʻUzzā, and Manāt who were worshipped in Mecca prior the Meccans accepting Islam. According to legend the Prophet later revoked these verses, saying that the devil had tempted him to utter these verses to appease the Meccans, hence the name “Satanic” verses. The narrator in Rushdie’s book, however, claimed these verses had come from the mouth of archangel Gabriel which is widely perceived as blasphemy since the archangel, Muslims believe, gave the Prophet the verses that we find in the Qur’an. I am pleased to have such a good friend in Azhar professor Dr. Hassan Wagieh [Ḥassan Muḥammad Wajīh] who in 1989, when he worked on his PhD at Georgetown University, wrote an excellent commentary on The Satanic Versesand why fiction should not be a veiled justification to hurl insults, falsehoods and stereotypes at a religion that is dear to billions of citizens around the world. Rushdie claimed his book was needed in the intellectual debate with Islam and depicted this controversy as “yet another example of dogmatic Islam’s traditional stifling of debate!” Ḥassan Wajīh rightly commented “any work based on intellectual integrity, honesty, and scientific methodology must be respected by every fair-minded person, but insults and slander should be excluded from the realm of intellectual discourse.”


Rushdie employed a literary style described as magic realism, painting a realistic view of the world while also adding magical elements, often blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. Rushdie used the accounts of historians al-Waqidi [al-Wāqidī] (747-823 CE) and al-Tabari [al-Ṭabarī] (839-923 CE) but added fiction and an irreverent description of the Prophet Muḥammad. He also blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. The combination of this created much Muslim anger. Not only Muslims object to a misrepresentation of their faith. So do Christians who, for example, objected to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code which the Egyptian government, after being pressured by the Coptic Orthodox Church, forbade to be published and imported in Egypt.


In our Arab-West Report/Dialogue Across Borders database we have 175 articles with mostly Egyptian responses to Salman Rushdie as author and his book The Satanic Verses in particular. These give a good impression of the many arguments used against Rushdie’s book and Khomeini’s fatwā.


The fatwā of Ayatollah Khomeini resulted in numerous killings and bombings by extremists, fire-bombings of bookstores, attacks on publishers and translators and widespread demonstrations during which many people have died, which in turn sparked a debate about censorship and religiously motivated violence. Rusdie responded in 1989 in an article in the Observer to the outpour of violence stating that “Islamic doctrine holds Muḥammad to be human, and in no way perfect.” He also argued that his book was not "an anti-religious novel. It is, however, an attempt to write about migration, its stresses and transformations." It wasn’t very convincing to most Muslims and hardly impacted people opposing him.


Rushdie’s views on religion radicalized over the years. In 2006 he called himself a “hard-core atheist.”  In an interview with Point of Inquiry in 2006, he described his view as follows:


“We need all of us, whatever our background, to constantly examine the stories inside which and with which we live. We all live in stories, so called grand narratives. Nation is a story. Family is a story. Religion is a story. Community is a story. We all live within and with these narratives. And it seems to me that a definition of any living vibrant society is that you constantly question those stories. That you constantly argue about the stories. In fact the arguing never stops. The argument itself is freedom. It's not that you come to a conclusion about it. And through that argument you change your mind sometimes.… And that's how societies grow. When you can't retell for yourself the stories of your life then you live in a prison.… Somebody else controls the story.… Now it seems to me that we have to say that a problem in contemporary Islam is the inability to re-examine the ground narrative of the religion.… The fact that in Islam it is very difficult to do this, makes it difficult to think new thoughts.”


One of these effects of the debate around Rushdie is that people in the West have come to associate the word fatwā with Salman Rushdie and Ayatollah Khomeini, Dutch journalist and Arabist Eildert Mulder wrote in Trouw, August 25.


Mulder points out that on July 28, 1988, six months before the fatwā on Rushdie, Khomeini issued a fatwā against the Iranian opposition Mujahedin Khalq and other opponents of his regime, calling to hang them without process since they were ‘enemies of God.’


In 1979 the Mujahedin Khalq, Iranian Islamic leftists, sided with Khomeini in the revolution against the Shah but after the Shah had been overthrown Khomeini saw no more use in the Mujahedin Khalq and started persecuting them. Eventually, the majority of the Mujahidin Khalq’s leadership and members fled to France, where they operated until 1985. Since France was seeking to improve relations with Iran, they expelled the Mujahedin Khalq in June 1986 as the price for seeking to improve relations with Iran. This drove the Mujahedin Khalq into the hands of Saddam Hussein [Ṣaddām Ḥussayn], their erstwhile enemy. This war only ended on August 20, 1988, and was the deadliest conventional war ever fought between regular armies since the Second World War with between 1 and 2 million deaths with Iran suffering the greatest losses. This explains the anger of Khomeini against the Mujahedin Khalq. Michael Axworthy described in his book Revolutionary Iran how members were sentenced. A ‘committee’ told prisoners that they needed to be questioned for a possible amnesty. If during this questioning they would show even the slightest support for the Mujahedin Khalq they would be killed. When some denied support for the Mujahedin Khalq they were asked to hang their former comrades. Only an enthusiastic yes could save their lives.


Consequently, the word fatwā became tarnished, associated in the West to death sentence, a meaning this word never had for millions of Muslims. A fatwā is a legal opinion by a Muslim legal authority and can deal with a host of different subjects. Sadly, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and Khomeini’s and other responses have contributed to much polarization between peoples of different religious convictions and cultures resulting in arguments where to draw the line between freedom of thought and respect for people with different beliefs. These discussions are needed but without the violence that associated opposition to blasphemy.



September 01, 2022


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief Dialogue Across Borders