The Satanic Verses | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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The Satanic Verses | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, blasted by some Muslims as blasphemous, has been the subject of extreme controversy, dispute, and violence since its publication. The novel follows the lives of two Indian actors of Muslim origin, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, as they experience a magical, spiritual transformation after surviving a terrorist attack on a hijacked plane. The novel's title refers to an ambiguous set of verses from the Islamic holy text, the Quran. These verses imply that prayers can be made not to Allah, but to three pre-Muslim pagan deities, Allāt, Uzza, and Manāt.

The Satanic Verses is most known for the chaotic unrest that it prompted—the novel's publication led to protests, burnings, bans, and threats that required government intervention in numerous countries, both inside and outside the Middle East.

1. Rushdie was ordered to be executed for writing The Satanic Verses.

By writing a novel that discussed controversial elements of the Islamic faith, Rushdie inadvertently put himself in danger. On February 14, 1989, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ordered Rushdie's execution for blasphemy. The order, known as a fatwa, applied even though Rushdie lived in Britain, not Iran. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had to supply guards for Rushdie to ensure his safety, and many of Rushdie's publishers, translators, and friends became targets for religious extremists. Rushdie expressed regret at offending devout followers of Islam, but he responded to a call to pull his novel from bookstores by explaining:

If you don't want to read a book, you don't have to read it. It's very hard to be offended by The Satanic Versesit requires a long period of intense reading. It's a quarter of a million words.

2. The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was killed for his affiliation with the novel.

Although Rushdie's execution order was never successfully carried out, others affiliated with The Satanic Verses were victims of religious violence. In July 1991 Hitoshi Igarashi, who translated the novel into Japanese, was killed near Tokyo for his association with Rushdie's text. This was not an isolated incident, as the Italian translator Ettore Capriolo had been stabbed in his apartment in Milan, barely surviving his injuries. In Turkey, the translator Aziz Nesin was nearly killed during a mob attack on his hotel in 1993. Although Nesin survived by escaping down a fire ladder, 35 people were killed in the chaotic incident.

3. The Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses was shot three times near his home.

As translators of The Satanic Verses became targets of violence around the world, publishers of the novel were also subjected to threats and acts of hostility. On October 11, 1993, the Norwegian publisher of the novel, William Nygaard, was shot three times outside his home in Oslo. Although Nygaard survived the attack, the sheer number of violent acts directed against individuals with ties to The Satanic Verses caused the United States and Britain to subject Iran to international pressure to remove Rushdie's fatwa—a plea that was refused by Iranian officials at the time.

4. The publication of The Satanic Verses led to bans, burnings, and bombings.

Beyond the targeted assassination attempts of translators, publishers, and the author himself, The Satanic Verses spawned a great deal of civil unrest around the world. Muslim-majority countries throughout the Middle East quickly banned the novel upon its publication. India's government also banned The Satanic Verses, a decision that former minister Chidambaram later claimed to regret, stating, "I have no hesitation in saying that the ban was wrong." The novel was also burned publicly, both in the Middle East and right outside the city of London. Perhaps most notably, The Satanic Verses was the reason behind one of the first recorded incidents of Islamic terrorism in the United States. Cody's Books, a bookstore in Berkeley, California, was bombed with Molotov cocktails in February 1989.

5. Many Muslim scholars dispute the legitimacy of the actual "satanic verses."

The "satanic verses" that inspired Rushdie's novel are a subject of dispute among scholars of Islam. Not all cultures and sects of Islam include the verses in their theological teachings. Only two Islamic scholars, al-Waqidi and al-Tabari, concluded that the verses had a legitimate place within the Islamic faith. Rushdie drew from the works of these two scholars almost exclusively for his information about the verses themselves. Many modern researchers and practitioners of Islam have discredited the verses, regarding them as "apocryphal gossip dredged up from the past by Western orientalists to discredit Islam."

6. Rushdie doubts The Satanic Verses could've been published in the 21st century.

In 2012 Rushdie reflected on the chaos surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses, and he explained that he didn't think the novel could've been published in the 21st century. He cited the international climate of "fear and nervousness" after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, and noted that, "A book which was critical of Islam would be difficult to be published now." At the same time, Rushdie called upon publishers to be more courageous in the face of threats and hostility, stating that:

The only way of living in a free society is to feel that you have the right to say and do stuff.

7. Rushdie explained that The Satanic Verses was not intended to be a book about Islam.

Although the backlash against The Satanic Verses was entirely based on religious grounds, with offended parties viewing the novel as a work of blasphemy, Rushdie stated that it wasn't intended to be a book about Islam. Upon being notified that The Satanic Verses would be banned in India, Rushdie wrote a letter to the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi protesting the decision. Rushdie explained:

Let's remember that the book isn't actually about Islam, but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay.

8. Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to literature.

Despite the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses in Britain, Rushdie was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 for his impact on literature. There was fear this would draw negative attention from the Islamic world—as Rushdie was still subjected to the fatwa—but the ceremony continued nonetheless. The decision to knight Rushdie was not attributed solely to the success and controversy of The Satanic Verses, but to his entire literary career. After the ceremony, Rushdie explained to an interviewer:

I really have no regrets about any of my work. This is, as I say, an honour not for any specific book but for a very long career in writing, and I'm happy to see that recognised.

9. Farishta's character was based on real Bollywood film stars.

Gibreel Farishta, Rushdie's protagonist who finds success in the Indian film industry, was based on two real figures of Bollywood fame. Critics describe Farishta as a "composite" of Amitabh Bachchan and Raj Kapoor, both of whom were wildly popular actors during the 1970s and 80s. Certain events in Farishta's life mirror the lives of Bachchan and Kapoor—the accident that befalls Farishta onset was inspired by an injury that Bachchan sustained while filming the 1983 film Coolie, which led to press pandemonium and panic from fans.

10. Rushdie cites several Western authors as his main influences for writing.

Rushdie wrote an article discussing the impact that various literary figures had on his own writing. He listed English novelists Charles Dickens and Jane Austen among his greatest sources of inspiration. Rushdie noted in particular the universality of these authors and their works' compatibility with his experiences growing up in India. He drew similarities between Dickens's depictions of 19th century London and his home city of Mumbai, and said of Austen that:

When I first read the novels of Jane Austen, books out of a country and a time far removed from my own upbringing in metropolitan, mid-twentieth-century Bombay, the thing that struck me about her heroines was how Indian, how contemporary, they seemed... women whose counterparts could be found throughout the Indian bourgeoisie.

Discussing the notion of literary influence, Rushdie expressed that he had also learned about writing from all corners of the world. He explained:

One of the most remarkable characteristics of literary influence, of these useful streams of other people's consciousness, is that they can flow toward the writer from almost anywhere. Often they travel long distances to reach the one who can use them.

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