The Fatwā and Literature Analysis

Rushdie’s Case

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

As many critics have noted, very little of The Satanic Verses is actually about religion. Most of the novel’s approximately 550 pages are devoted to the intertwined stories of Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta, two Indian men who miraculously survive a plane crash. Inserted somewhat uneasily into this framework are two other tales: an extended dream sequence which recounts, to a certain extent, the life of Muhammad and the tale of a holywoman who leads her followers into the Arabian Sea. The religious sequences are, at best, a subplot in a masterful tale about the postcolonial condition and the issue of migrancy in the postmodern era.

While it is clear that Rushdie’s novel does not focus on Islam, and that the dream sequences do not necessarily espouse the author’s belief, it cannot be denied that the title of the novel itself suggests a religious controversy. By entitling his novel The Satanic Verses, Rushdie revived an ancient debate about the wording of the Koran. According to some contemporary biographers of Muhammad, the prophet made reference to three Meccan goddesses while he was inscribing the Koran, purportedly lauding their power. God, realizing that Satan had temporarily controlled Muhammad’s tongue, canceled the blasphemous lines (the satanic verses). Thus the Koran retains a reference to the goddesses, yet there is no recording of their power; the subsequent lines uphold the supremacy and omnipotence of the one, true, God. While the tale of these verses...

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Nasrin’s Case

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi anesthesiologist, newspaper columnist, and writer of fiction and poetry, became a central figure in the literary community when a series of fatws was levied against her in 1993. Bangladeshi religious leaders, ired by her frank treatment of women’s sexuality as well as her open denunciation of the treatment of women under Islamic law, called for her death. Women’s rights groups across the globe, as well as Bangladeshi radicals and Western literary communities, all lobbied on her behalf. The “female Rushdie,” as she was described in the press, was able to escape death, but was forced, like Rushdie before her, to live in hiding.

Although there was a flurry of publicity around Nasrin as officials tried to smuggle her from Bangladesh, her story did not generate the same interest in the West as Rushdie’s had. Part of this may have to do with the fact that none of Nasrin’s sixteen works had been translated from their native Bengali, and the author, no matter how notorious in her native land, did not have the acclaim of Western literary critics behind her. Also, Nasrin’s fatw did not impinge upon nor involve the West in the same way Rushdie’s had. The fatw pronounced by the Ayatollah Khomeini was directed at not only Rushdie but also at his numerous publishers and translators. The Iranian leader meant to prohibit anyone, not only people in his country, from reading the text. The bomb threats, as well as the murders of some of the novel’s translators in American and European cities, proved that the Ayatollah’s pronouncement could affect freedom of expression well beyond Iran’s borders.

Implications for Identity

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In many ways, the debates over Rushdie’s and Nasrin’s works, as well as the issuance of the fatws, revolve around identity. In both cases, many Muslims concluded that their religious identity was being threatened by the works and writers in question. Rushdie’s case in particular demonstrates this preoccupation. Indian and Pakistani Muslims felt betrayed by the writer. Not only had he written a book that questions the tenets of Islam, but also he had written the book in English for a Western audience. It seemed as if Rushdie were exposing the Muslims to the laughter of the colonial powers from which they had liberated themselves. Nasrin’s case replayed this identity politics. Bangladeshi leaders concluded that her commitment to women’s rights and her glorification of women’s sexuality were the products of a Western culture, and thus a rejection of an indigenous cultural and religious identity.

Censorship and Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The fatws, especially the one laid on Salman Rushdie, created an uproar in the West. Talk shows and news programs spoke of it often. Newspapers and academic journals were filled with similar responses. Many critics, horrified by the sentences, decried the regimes of religious leaders who refuse to allow dissenting voices. In Rushdie’s case in particular, critics argued, religious leaders misused their positions, propagandizing by quoting passages out of context and making sweeping generalizations about a novel they may never have read. This religious intolerance troubled many thinkers who felt that Muslims and non-Muslims alike had a right to read the novel and decide for themselves whether or not it was blasphemous.

Many liberal critics took this opportunity to decry religious Fundamentalism and to laud the freedom of the West, using Rushdie as their evidence. Not surprisingly, Rushdie has been critical of the imperialist and neocolonial abuses of Great Britain and of the United States in his fiction and nonfiction. Critics were quick to point out, however, that he found his greatest support there. The country that is arguably most vilified in The Satanic Verses, England, became the author’s protector. Rushdie, a citizen of the United Kingdom, was placed under the protection of the British government shortly after the issuance of the fatw.

There was much lambasting of the Third World and of Islam in particular (although not all...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Abdallah, Anouar, et al. For Rushdie: Essays by Arab and Muslim Writers in Defense of Free Speech. New York: George Braziller, 1994. This work is most notable for its “Appeal of Iranian Artists and Intellectuals in Favor of Salman Rushdie,” a petition which 127 Iranian intellectuals, all at peril to their lives, signed.

Appignanesi, Lisa, and Sara Maitland, eds. The Rushdie File. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1990. An exhaustive compilation of the original news reports and political documents concerning the controversy over Rushdie.

Cohn-Sherbok, Dan, ed. The Salman Rushdie Controversy in Interreligious Perspective. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990. Offers a variety of essays, each from a different religious or cultural perspective. An invaluable tool for a scholar who wishes to explore the many facets of the controversy.

Pipes, Daniel. The Rushdie Affair. New York: Birch Lane, 1990. A comprehensive synthesis of the debate surrounding The Satanic Verses. The work presents a balanced account of the issues involved.

Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York: Viking, 1988. The novel that launched a thousand tirades. A dense but readable work that deals with issues of identity, postcolonialism, migrancy, and Islamic faith.

Weaver, Mary Anne. “Fugitive from Injustice.” The New Yorker 70 (September 12, 1994): 48-60. The most comprehensive account in English of Taslima Nasrin’s story.