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RUSHDIE AFFAIR. On 26 September 1988, Viking Penguin published The Satanic Verses in London. The author, Salman Rushdie, was already a well-known and esteemed writer. On 5 October, 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, such as Pakistan and South Africa. There had not yet been a reaction from Iran. On 8 November, The Satanic Verses won Britain’s Whitbread Prize. On I I November, Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, rejected an appeal, put forward by 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. Later, on 22 July 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 14 January 1989, when Muslims in the northern city of Bradford, England, burned copies of the book. Tension grew, and events took a deadly turn on 12 February when six persons were killed and a hundred others were injured during protest demonstrations in Islamabad, Pakistan. After the last events, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini passed his celebrated 14 February death sentence against Salman Rushdie. The situation thus became truly international, entering history as the Rushdie affair.

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

On 24 February, the Indian police shot and killed twelve Muslim anti-Rushdie demonstrators in Bombay (Rushdie’s birthplace). On 2 March, Javier Perez de Cuellar, secretary general of the United Nations, declared (in India) that “we must respect all religions. At the same time we must respect the freedom of expression.” On 4 March, the Holy See, through the Osservatore Romano, criticized the ingredient of “irreverence and blasphemy” in Rushdie’s book, underscoring at the same time that the “sacred character of the religious conscience cannot prevail over the sacred character of the life of the author.” On 6 March, the president of the United States, George Bush, condemned Khomeini’s fatwd and held Tehran accountable. On 13 March, 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, however, did not endorse Khomeini’s death edict.

Despite Khomeini’s death on 3 June 1989, the Iranian Islamists remained intransigent; Hujjat al-Islam ‘Ali Akbar Hashimi Rafsanjani (elected president of Iran in July 1989), declared on 23 October that “the Islamic Republic’s view and politics concerning Salman Rushdie is the same as it was under Imam Khomeini.” Furthermore, on 9 February 1990 Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene’i, 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 was almost neglected. 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 fatwd.

Despite Rushdie’s multiple 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, Hujjat al-Islam Ahmad Khomeini, the son of the late ayatollah, has reiterated that “Imam Khomeini’s death edict remains unchanged and will never be cancelled” (Tehran Times, 9 November 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 1 1 May 1993) and U.S. president Bill Clinton (on 25 November 1993)

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 blasphemy (an offense against divinity). The Qur’anic phrase kalimat al-kufr (“statement of impiety and infidelity” (surah 9.74-75) is close in meaning to blasphemy. According to the Qur’an, blasphemy consists of riddah (apostasy) and kufr (infidelity), but it decrees no concrete punishment apart from encouraging the Prophet to “struggle with the infidels [kuffdr] and the hypocrites [munafiqun]” (surah 9.73). The Qur’an in general minimizes the act of blasphemy and infidelity. Moreover, it offers infidels and hypocrites the way of “return from their error” (surah 9.74-75).

The Sunni and Shi`i attitudes in regard to blasphemy are almost identical. The differences are based on, among other conditions, the sex of the apostate and whether he or she is fitri (born a Muslim) or milk (converted to Islam). In general, both groups punish apostates and infidels with the death penalty, although a trial is imperative (for example Hallaj and `Ayn al-Quzat’s trials in 922 and 1131, respectively). However, some Shi`i religious authorities have executed the accused persons on their own initiatives; in some cases (for example, Muhammad Baqir Shaft! 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, it was in reality The Qur’anic Verses that the author had in mind. By doing that, Rushdie offended the Holy Qur’an; Rushdie has made ironic remarks about Islam’s most sacrosanct principles, such as tawhid (the concept of divine unity) and nubuwah (prophecy in general and the prophecy of Muhammad in particular); the wives and the companions of the Prophet have not been spared Rushdie’s derisive and airy 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 the three following arguments: The Satanic Verses is essentially a work of fiction, “an imaginative text,” and hence could not be blasphemous (interview with Rushdie, Far Eastern Economic Review [2 March 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, 4 February 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. 38o). Furthermore, he refutes the accusation of being an apostate, because “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, 4 February 1990

Muslim reactions were varied and can be divided into three categories: those who considered Rushdie an apostate and so put a price on his head; those who concurred with the West; and those who took a more moderate attitude.

The first group did not wait for Khomeini’s call to react. Several months before, the Muslim minority in England (1.5 million) demonstrated against Rushdie in early October 1988, only a few days after the book’s publication. Khomeini’s call was in fact a response to these and other reactions. After Khomeini’s death edict, there was no lack of volunteers to carry out this mission. Numerous Iranians (including Iran’s ambassador to the Vatican), Lebanese, and Palestinians (such as Ahmad Jibril, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command) volunteered to kill Rushdie (Le Monde, 13-14 August, and The Guardian, 6 March 1989).

The second group, composed essentially of Muslim intellectuals residing in Western countries, vigorously condemned Khomeini’s fatwd and approved of the book by putting their signatures to various petitions in the name of 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. While Mahfouz accused Khomeini of “intellectual terrorism,” he nevertheless 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, 9 March 1989).

[See also Fatwa, article on Modern Usage; and the biography of Khomeini.]


Appiganesi, Lisa, and Sara Maitland, eds. The Rushdie File. London, 1989. Good documentary book that provides a chronology of events up to 1989.

Aubert, Raphael. L’affaire Rushdie. Paris, 1990 Review of events and an analytical essay.

Easterman, Daniel. New Jerusalem: Reflections on Islam, Fundamentalism and the Rushdie Affair. London, 1992. A collection of essays and occasional pieces previously published by the author, added by the review of other authors’ works.

Ibn Taymiyah, Alunad. Majmu` fatawa Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad ibn Taymiyah. 37 vols. Edited by `Abd al-Rahman ibn Qasim. Riyadh, 1963.

Khomeini, Ruhollah. Kashf al-Asrdr. [Tehran, 1943?] Probably the first book written by Ayatollah Khomeini, and a refutation of the “blasphemous statements” of some Iranian writers.

Khomeini, Ruhollah. Risdlah -yi tawzih al-masd’il. [Tehran, 1980?} Authoritative Risdlah of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Mozaffari, Mehdi. “La conception Shiite du pouvoir.” 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 Violence 2.3 (Autumn 1990): 415-442. Comprehensive analysis of the different dimensions of the Rushdie affair.

Muhaqqiq al-Hilli, Ja’far ibn Hasan. Shara’i` al-Islam. Tehran, 136o/ 1981. Excellent collection of the classical ShN laws and rules. Pour Rushdie. Paris, 1993. One hundred Arab and Muslim intellectuals express their opinion on the Rushdie Affair.

Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. London, 1988.

Tunkabuni, Mirza M. Qisas al-`ulama’. Tehran, n.d. Excellent and probably unique work on the biography of the prominent Shi’i `ulama’ throughout history.

Tuthven, Malise. A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Rage of Islam. London, 1990 Examination of arguments against Rushdie and the West.

Webster, Richard. Salman Rushdie: Sentenced to Death. New York, 1990 A critic of Western insensitivity toward Islamic culture and values.




Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/rushdie-affair/

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