What you need to know about Salman Rushdie and the fatwa against him
(The Hill) – Celebrated author Salman Rushdie, who had death threats issued against him in the 1980s, was attacked on stage Friday at an event in New York.
Photos circulating after the incident showed Rushdie being treated on stage after he was reportedly stabbed in the neck, moments before he was scheduled to give a lecture on “redefining the American home” in the 21st Century.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) confirmed Friday afternoon that Rushdie is still alive. Though no other details are known about his condition. It is also unclear what motivations prompted his attacker.
However, Rushdie, a British-American national born in Mumbai, India, became a controversial figure for his written work because of its descriptions Islam and the Prophet Mohammad, garnering backlash from the former Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
But how did Rushdie become a controversial figure? And how did he draw the ire of one of the most prominent Islamic figures in the Middle East?
Rushdie and ‘The Satanic Verses’
“The Satanic Verses,” Rushdie’s fourth novel, caused immediate controversy around the world and among the Muslim community upon its publication in 1988, as many Muslims considered it blasphemous.
There were calls for its immediate ban and the book was burned in multiple demonstrations in the U.K., Pakistan and elsewhere. The book is still banned in a number of countries around the world including Egypt, U.A.E and India.
On February 14, 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. According to History.com, a fatwa can only be repealed by that same scholar, and Ruhollah Khomeini died in the same year he issued the ruling.
Rushdie wrote about the controversy surrounding his novel in an essay for The New York Review in 1989 and said: “One may not discuss Muhammad as if he were human, with human virtues and weaknesses. One may not discuss the growth of Islam as a historical phenomenon, as an ideology born out of its time. These are the taboos against which ‘The Satanic Verses’ has transgressed.”
What is a fatwa?
A fatwa is issued by a religious scholar and is a legal pronouncement handed out by an Islamic religious leader. A fatwa is, in essence, a ruling under Islamic law, and in rare cases like in Rushdie’s, a fatwa may call for death.
Gordon D. Newby, author of “A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam,” told CNN that getting a fatwa “would be like going to someone who was a combined lawyer-priest and getting an opinion.”
He added that a fatwa is an opinion and that different scholars from different schools of Islamic law might rule differently on the same issue or question.
Attacks on translators and publishers of ‘The Satanic Verses’
Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese scholar and translator of Rushdie’s novel was stabbed to death in 1991.
The Italian translator of the novel, Ettore Capriolo, was injured in a stabbing in Milan in 1991. The Norwegian publisher of the book, William Nygaard, survived the assassination attempt when he was shot three times in Oslo in 1993.
Lived in hiding for 10 years
Rushdie, who was living in the U.K. at the time the fatwa was issued, went into hiding for 10 years under an alias. The author was also given 24-hour police protection by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government.
Rushdie wrote about his experience in hiding in his 2012 memoir “Joseph Anton,” which was his alias for a decade.
Rushdie told NPR that the alias was necessary so that he could rent property, because doing so in his own name would be dangerous.
“And I was asked to make it not an Indian name. And so, deprived of one nationality, I retreated into literature — which is, you could say, my other country — and chose this name from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov: Joseph Conrad, Anton Chekhov equals Joseph Anton,” he added.
Almost a decade after the fatwa was first issued, the Iranian government issued a statement saying it would neither “support nor hinder” Rushdie’s assassination. However, some Iranian groups and others have continued to push for his assassination.
Continued death threats
Rushdie has continued to receive threats over his novel, and has been forced to pull out of numerous literary festivals and appearances due to personal safety concerns. In 2012, for instance, he withdrew from India’s biggest literary festival in Jaipur after saying that he feared for his life, the BBC reported.
Move to the US and other works
Rushdie moved to the U.S. in the 2000s and told the Village Voice that Manhattan reminded him of the city where he was born.
“Even the shape of Manhattan island is pretty much the same shape and size as what used to be called Bombay and what is now called South Bombay. The old downtown area,” he said.
Prior to the publication of “The Satanic Verses,” Rushdie had earned a name for himself in the literary world with his second novel “Midnight’s Children,” winning the 1981 Booker Prize for his work. The novel was adapted into a film in 2012.
He’s also written nearly a dozen other novels, as well as children’s books and other works.
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