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Rushdie Affair

Mehdi Mozaffari
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Rushdie Affair

On September 26, 1988, Viking Penguin published The Satanic Verses in London. The author, Salman Rushdie, was already a well-known and esteemed writer. On October 5, the Indian government, acceding to the requests of its Muslim deputies, forbade the sale and distribution of the book in India.


This decision was followed by similar actions in a number of countries, including Pakistan and South Africa, but not yet from Iran. On November 8, The Satanic Verses won Britain's Whitbread Prize. On November 11, Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, rejected an appeal from the Union of Muslim Organisations to prosecute Rushdie and Penguin under the Public Order Act (1986) and the Race Relations Act (1976); the Home Office said that no change would be made to British law against blasphemy, which applies only to Christianity. On July 22, 1989, the Paris Court also rejected a Muslim request to banish The Satanic Verses. There were protests and demonstrations in England and elsewhere, but reaction to the book did not become dramatic until January 14, 1989, when Muslims in Bradford in northern England burned copies of the book. Tension grew, and events took a deadly turn on February 12 when six persons were killed and a hundred others were injured during protest demonstrations in Islamabad, Pakistan. After these events, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini passed his famous death sentence of February 14 against Salman Rushdie. The situation thus became truly international, entering history as the Rushdie affair.

The fatwā (formal legal opinion) of Ayatollah Khomeini read as follows:

"In the name of God Almighty; there is only one God, to whom we shall all return; I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, have been sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult the Islamic sanctions. Whoever is killed on this path will be regarded as a martyr, God willing. In addition, anyone who has access to the author of the book, but does not possess the power to execute him, should refer him to the people so that he may be punished for his actions. May God's blessing be on you all."

Shortly after Khomeini's fatwā, the Organization of 15 Khurdād (named for the date of Khomeini's first rebellion against the shah's regime in 1963) put a price of $1 million on Rushdie's head. Fearing for his life, Rushdie went into hiding. Khomeini's fatwā provoked a huge reaction worldwide. The European Economic Community's ministers of foreign affairs met in Brussels on February 20, 1989, condemned the death sentence, and recalled their ambassadors from Tehran, though on March 20, the same ministers, meeting again in Brussels, decided to return their ambassadors to Tehran.

On February 24, the Indian police shot and killed twelve Muslim anti-Rushdie demonstrators in Bombay, Rushdie's birthplace. On March 2, Javier Pérez de Cuellar, secretary-general of the United Nations, speaking in India, declared that “we must respect all religions. At the same time we must respect the freedom of expression.” On March 4, the Holy See, through the Osservatore Romano, criticized the “irreverence and blasphemy” in Rushdie's book but stressed that the “sacred character of the religious conscience cannot prevail over the sacred character of the life of the author.” On March 6, the president of the United States, George H. W. Bush, condemned Khomeini's fatwā and held Tehran accountable. On March 13, the foreign ministers of forty-six Muslim countries, members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), met at Riyadh and judged The Satanic Verses blasphemous, because it “transgresses all norms of civility and decency and is a deliberate attempt to malign Islam and the venerated Islamic personalities.” The OIC did not, however, endorse Khomeini's death edict.

Even after Khomeini's death on June 3, 1989, the Iranian Islamists remained intransigent; Ḥujjat al-Islām (“proof of Islam” a title given to religious authorities) ʿAlī Akbar Hāshimī Rafsanjānī (elected president of Iran in July 1989), declared on October 23 that “the Islamic Republic's view and politics concerning Salman Rushdie is the same as it was under Imam Khomeini.” Furthermore, on February 9, 1990, Ayatollah ʿAlī Khameneʿi, the new leader of the Islamic Republic, reiterated the late Khomeini's decree and called for its implementation.

Meanwhile, Salman Rushdie, in an attempt at conciliation with the Muslim community, converted to Islam (Christmas 1990) after having previously proclaimed himself non-Muslim. Later regretting his conversion, he again became a non-Muslim.

In 1991, because of the Gulf War and its aftermath, the Rushdie affair subsided. After the end of the war and particularly after the liberation of the last Western hostages in Lebanon, Rushdie, whose case was no longer connected with the fate of the hostages, began to mobilize Western public opinion, hoping that Western governments would put more pressure on Iran to obtain an annulment of the famous fatwā.

Despite Rushdie's efforts, his situation did not improve. On the contrary, in November 1992, the Iranian Islamists, furious at Rushdie's television interviews, raised the price on his head to $2 million and even more “in case a member of Rushdie's family will do the job.” Furthermore, Ḥujjat al-Islām Aḥmad Khomeini, the son of the late ayatollah, has reiterated that “Imam Khomeini's death edict remains unchanged and will never be cancelled” (Tehran Times, November 9, 1992). As a result, Western sympathy for Rushdie grew, and he was received by several Western leaders, including the British prime minister, John Major (on May 11, 1993) and U.S. president Bill Clinton (on November 25, 1993).

Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression.

There are two main issues in the Rushdie affair, namely, blasphemy and freedom of expression. In Islam there is no exact term for blasphemy, which comes from the Greek blasphēmia (an offense against divinity). The Qurʿānic phrase kalimat al-kufr (statement of impiety and infidelity; surah9:74–75) is close in meaning to “blasphemy.” According to the Qurʿān, blasphemy consists of riddah (apostasy) and kufr (infidelity), but it prescribes no punishment apart from encouraging the Prophet to “struggle with the infidels (kuffār) and the hypocrites (munāfiqūn)” (surah9:73). The Qurʿān in general minimizes the seriousness of blasphemy and infidelity and offers infidels and hypocrites the possibility of “return from their error” (surah9:74–75).

The Sunnī and Shīʿī attitudes toward blasphemy are almost identical. The differences are based, among other conditions, on the sex of the apostate and whether he or she is fiṭrī (born a Muslim) or millī (converted to Islam). In general, both groups punish apostates and infidels with the death penalty, although a trial is required (as in the cases of Hallāj and ʿAyn al-Quz‥āt Hamadānī in 922 and 1131, respectively). Some Shīʿī religious authorities have, however, executed the accused persons on their own initiatives—in some cases (such as that of Muḥammad Bāqir Shaftī in the early nineteenth century) with their own hands.

Muslims convinced of the book's blasphemous nature have criticized Rushdie principally on the following points: When choosing the provocative title The Satanic Verses for his book, the author really had The Qurʿānic Verses in mind. By doing that, Rushdie offended the Holy Qurʿān. Rushdie has made ironic remarks about Islam's most sacrosanct principles, such as tawḥīd (the concept of divine unity) and nubūwah (prophecy in general and the prophecy of Muḥammad in particular). The wives and the companions of the Prophet have not been spared Rushdie's derisive comments. In short, these Muslims feel that the basic principles of their religion have been insulted.

Confronted with such severe accusations, Rushdie has based his defense essentially on three arguments: The Satanic Verses is essentially a work of fiction, “an imaginative text,” and hence could not be blasphemous (Far Eastern Economic Review, March 2, 1989); freedom of expression condones the work—as Rushdie has written, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist. Without the freedom to challenge, even to satirise all orthodoxies, including religious orthodoxies, it ceases to exist” (The Guardian, February 4, 1990); finally, Rushdie defends himself against the accusation of apostasy by saying that he is not a Muslim, and “where there is no belief, there is no blasphemy” (The Satanic Verses, p. 380). Furthermore, he refutes the accusation of apostasy by asserting, “I have never in my adult life affirmed any belief, and what one has not affirmed one cannot be said to have apostatized from” (The Guardian, February 4, 1990).

Muslim Reaction.

Muslims can be divided into three categories based on their reactions to Rushdie: those who considered him an apostate and so put a price on his head; those who concurred with the West; and those who adopted a more moderate attitude. The first group did not wait for Khomeini's call to react. Several months before, in early October 1988 only a few days after the book's publication, the Muslim minority in England (numbering 1.5 million) demonstrated against Rushdie. Khomeini's call was in fact a response to these and other reactions. After Khomeini's death edict, many volunteered to carry out the mission. Numerous Iranians (including Iran's ambassador to the Vatican), Lebanese, and Palestinians (such as Aḥmad Jibrīl, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command) volunteered to kill Rushdie (Le Monde, August 13–14, and The Guardian, March 6, 1989).

The second group, composed essentially of Muslim intellectuals residing in Western countries, vigorously condemned Khomeini's fatwā and expressed approval of the book by signing petitions for freedom of expression. The most significant of these petitions is signed by fifty Iranian intellectuals living abroad.

The third group, which included personages otherwise known for their lay views—among them Shabir Akhtar, member of Bradford's Council for Mosques, and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz—condemned Khomeini's call but also criticized Rushdie's book. Though he accused Khomeini of “intellectual terrorism,” Mahfouz also declared 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” (Le Monde, March 9, 1989).



  • Appiganesi, Lisa, and Sara Maitland, eds.The Rushdie File. London: Fourth Estate, 1989. Well-documented book that provides a chronology of events up to 1989.
  • Aubert, Raphaël. L’affaire Rushdie: Islam,identité, et monde moderne (The Rushdie Affair: Islam, Identity, and the Modern World). Paris: Éditions Cerf, 1990. Review of events and an analytical essay.
  • Easterman, Daniel. New Jerusalems: Reflections on Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Rushdie Affair. London: Grafton, 1992. A collection of essays and occasional pieces previously published by the author.
  • Ibn Taymīyah, Aḥmad. Majmūʿ fatāwā Shaykh al-Islām Aḥmad ibn Taymīyah (Collected Fatwās of Shaykh al-Islā Aḥmad ibn Taymīyah). 37 vols. Edited by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Qāsim. Riyadh, 1963.
  • Jennings, Jeremy, and Anthony Kemp-Welch, eds.Intellectuals in Politics: From the Dreyfus Affair to Salman Rushdie. London: Routledge, 1997.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Kashf al-Asrār (Revelation of the Secrets). [Tehran, 1943?] Probably the first book written by Ayatollah Khomeini, and a refutation of the “blasphemous statements” of some Iranian writers.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Risālah-yi tawz ¨īḥ al-masāʿil (Explanatory Essay on the Cases). [Tehran, 1980?] Authoritative Risālah of Ayatollah Khomeini.
  • Mozaffari, Mehdi. “La conception Shiʿite du pouvoir (The Shiite Concept of Power).” Ph.D. diss., Sorbonne, 1971. The first work (in a Western language) on political Shiism.
  • Mozaffari, Mehdi. “The Rushdie Affair: Blasphemy as a New Form of International Conflict and Crisis.”Terrorism and Political Violence2, no. 3 (Autumn 1990): 415–442. Comprehensive analysis of the Rushdie affair.
  • Muḥaqqiq al-Ḥillī, Jaʿfar ibn Ḥasan. Sharāʿiʿ al-Islām (The Religious Laws of Islam). Tehran, 1360/1981. Excellent collection of the classical Shīʿī laws and rules.
  • Pour Rushdie (For Rushdie). Paris: La Découverte, 1993. One hundred Arab and Muslim intellectuals express their opinion on the Rushdie affair.
  • Reder, Michael R., ed.Conversations with Salman Rushdie. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
  • Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. London: Viking, 1988.
  • Tunkābunī, Mirzā M.Qiṣaṣ al-ʿulamāʿ (Stories of the Scholars). Tehran, n.d. Excellent and probably unique work on the biography of the prominent Shīʿī ʿulamāʿ throughout history.
  • Tuthven, Malise. A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Rage of Islam. London: Chatto & Windus, 1990. Examination of arguments against Rushdie and the West.
  • Weatherby, William J.Salman Rushdie: Sentenced to Death. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1990. A criticism of Western insensitivity toward Islamic culture and values.
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