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Violence and Terrorism >
Why was Salman Rushdie condemned to death?

In 1988, Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, a novel that caused an uproar among Muslims throughout the world because of its perceived disrespect for Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Quran. The title of the novel refers to a story about Muhammad (which many Muslims believe to be apocryphal) in which Satan interferes with the revelation Muhammad is receiving. As a consequence of this interference, Muhammad is said to have recited two verses saying that al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat, three goddesses who had been worshipped by the Quraysh (the people of Muhammad's tribe), could be intermediaries between God and humans. Muhammad discovered that this message had come from Satan, and these “satanic verses” were eliminated. Muhammad then received a new revelation describing the three goddesses as figments of the imagination deserving no worship at all.

Although this story appears in the accounts of two early historians, it is not to be found in the Quran or in any of the official collections of traditions (hadith) compiled about Muhammad in the ninth century. Moreover, it is contradicted by other stories and by the Quran itself. In the past it had attracted more interest in the West than in the Islamic world. Rushdie's use of the title, with its suggestion of Muhammad's receiving a satanic revelation, coupled with what many regarded as blasphemous treatment of the Prophet and his wives, generated Muslim protests and demonstrations. These protests occurred first in England, where the book was initially published, and then across the Muslim world. Photocopies of the book's offensive passages describing Muhammad, his wives, and his Companions were circulated widely in the Muslim community.

The worldwide Muslim protest against The Satanic Verses was followed by the notorious fatwa (a legal opinion by a religious scholar)—a death sentence imposed upon Rushdie by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini held that Rushdie had insulted the Prophet and was therefore an apostate whose life, according to Islamic law, should be forfeited. A reward was offered to whoever carried out the execution, and Rushdie was forced into hiding. Eventually, in order to placate the Muslim community, he converted to Islam, having previously identified himself as non-Muslim. Subsequently he changed his mind and again became a non-Muslim.

Muslim reaction to Khomeini's condemnation of Rushdie was varied. Some considered Rushdie an apostate and agreed that a price should be put on his head. Others, especially Muslim intellectuals in Western countries, strongly opposed Khomeini's fatwa and signed petitions calling for freedom of expression. A third group, among them the Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, condemned the fatwa but also criticized Rushdie's book as “intellectual terrorism,” declaring that The Satanic Verses “is not an intellectual work … and a person who writes a book like this does not think; he is merely seeking consciously to insult and injure.”

While it is not true that most Muslims wanted to kill Salman Rushdie, it would be wrong to think that they did not agree with the outpouring of outrage against what they considered a book intentionally written to insult their sacred beliefs and sully the image of Islam. The title Satanic Verses implied that the Prophet was not able to recognize malevolent “revelations” and that Islam, as its enemies have maintained, teaches that evil actions are the will of God.

The Muslim community's strong defense of Islam and the Prophet in England, where the protests started, was also an expression of frustration with what they perceived as ill treatment by a British government that would not enlarge the scope of the British law against blasphemy (which applied only to Christianity) or allow them to establish Muslim schools in the same way that British Christian and Jewish schools had been allowed and supported by public funds. (The blasphemy law was abolished in 2008, and under Tony Blair's administration seven Muslim schools received state funding.)

Worldwide, what is still remembered internationally as the Rushdie affair was fueled by the gulf of misunderstanding and differences between a liberal, secular culture, which was horrified by what was seen as a medieval threat to freedom of expression, and a more conservative Muslim community, feeling disrespected, offended, and misunderstood.

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