Here’s Why Salman Rushdie’s Book ‘The Satanic Verses’ Is So Controversial

One of the most controversial books in recent literary history, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, was published three decades ago and almost immediately sparked outrage all over the world, some of them violent.

A year later, in 1989, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa, or religious order, ordering Muslims to kill the author. Born in India to a Muslim family, but by then a British national living in Britain, Rushdie was forced into protective hiding for more than a decade.

What was behind this outrage – and still is?

How and why Conflict?

The book, The Satanic Verses, delves into the heart of Muslim religious beliefs, as Rushdie challenges and occasionally mocks some of its most sensitive principles in dreamlike visions.

Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad was visited by the angel Jibril – Gabriel in English – who recited God’s words to him over a period of 22 years. In return, Muhammad repeated the words to his followers. These words were eventually written down and became the verses and chapters of the Quran.

Rushdie’s novel takes on these core beliefs. One of the main characters, Jibril the angel, has a series of dreams in which he becomes his name, the angel Jibril. In these dreams, Jibril encounters another central character that echoes Islam’s traditional account of the angel’s encounters with Muhammad.

Rushdie chooses a provocative name for Muhammad. The novel’s version of the prophet is called Mahound – an alternative name for Muhammad sometimes used during the Middle Ages by Christians who believed him to be the devil.

In addition, Rushdie’s mahound pours his own words into the angel Jibril’s mouth and gives orders to his followers that easily reinforce his own self-serving motives. Even though in the book, Mahoud’s fictional author, Salman Farsi, rejects the authenticity of his master’s text, he records them as if they belonged to God.

For example, in Rushdie’s book, Salman describes some genuine passages in the Qur’an that place men “in charge of women” and give men the right to strike wives they “fear arrogantly”. , for Mahoud’s sexist views.

Through Mahoud, Rushdie appears to doubt the divine nature of the Quran.

Challenging religious texts?

For many Muslims, Rushdie, in his fictional account of the birth of major events in Islam, implies that, rather than God, the prophet Muhammad himself is the source of the revealed truth.

In Rushdie’s defence, some scholars have argued that the purpose of his “outrageous ridicule” is to explore whether it is possible to separate fact from fiction. Literary expert Greg Rubinson points out that Jibril is unable to decide what is real and what is dream.

Since the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie has argued that religious texts should be open to challenge. “Why can’t we debate Islam?” Rushdie said in a 2015 interview. “It is possible to respect individuals, to protect them from intolerance, to doubt their views, even to cruelly criticize them.”

However, this approach clashes with those for whom the Qur’an is the literal word of God.

After Khomeini’s death, in 1998, Iran’s government announced that it would not implement his fatwa or encourage others to do so. Rushdie now lives in the United States and makes regular public appearances.

Yet, even after 30 years, his life remains in danger. Although the mass protests have ceased, the themes and questions raised in his novel continue to be hotly debated.