Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses rapidly became one of the most widely known and controversial books in the world when it was published in 1988. Reviled by much of the international Muslim community, the novel was banned in India and protested across the world for its portrayal of certain sensitive topics such as the wives of the chief Islamic prophet Muhammad and the infallibility of the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an. After the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini issued a “fatwa,” or Islamic judicial decree, that Rushdie and those involved in the publication of the book be killed, the novel made headline news across the globe and inspired a diplomatic crisis between countries, including Britain and Iran.
Although The Satanic Verses does address the religious beliefs and practices of Islam, this is only one aspect of a complex and highly allusive novel that produces a broad and ambitious commentary about the philosophical and religious problem of good and evil. In fact, Rushdie’s novel is steeped in commentary about British and South Asian politics and culture; it takes on a diverse variety of themes involving cultural and racial identities (particularly Asian and African immigrant identities), and it is concerned with literary aesthetics and the nature of truth. All of these ideas are incorporated into an eventful storyline involving Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, two characters with complex British/Indian identities caught in an epic battle that takes place between London and Bombay in the 1980s. Both of the main characters begin to take on supernatural qualities and visit alternate worlds, such as that of Gibreel’s extended dreams about the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The Satanic Verses has been widely misunderstood and defamed, but it has also fascinated its readers, opened up an international debate about censorship and the function of literature, and confirmed Rushdie’s status as one of the most important contemporary writers in the English language.