Salman Rushdie

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Salman Rushdie Biography

For Salman Rushdie, being a writer has been far from a safe occupation. His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, was so controversial that he was forced to live in hiding for nearly ten years. The novel was criticized as portraying the prophet Muhammad irreverently, and when it was deemed as blasphemous by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, a fatwa—an Islamic legal pronouncement of death—was placed on Rushdie. Though the fatwa has been revoked, some extremists still insist they want Rushdie dead. Happily, though, there are many more people who are content to just read his work. He garnered international acclaim when Midnight’s Children was published in 1981. Since then, that book has won numerous accolades, including the “Booker of Bookers” as the best novel to ever receive the prestigious Booker Award.

Facts and Trivia

  • Salman Rushdie has been married four times, most recently to the host of the popular television show Top Chef, Padma Lakshmi, who divorced him in 2007.
  • Rushdie was awarded the British knighthood in 2007 for his services to literature.
  • He has openly criticized the wearing of the veil by Muslim women. “I think,” he has said, “the battle against the veil has been a long and continuing battle against the limitation of women.”
  • Ironically, his first novel, Grimus, was a sci-fi story that no one paid much attention to.
  • Rushdie had a tendon operation in 1999 to correct an eye problem. He claims that if he had not had it done, he would have been unable to open his eyes in later years.

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The Novel’s Alleged Offenses

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The novel’s odd-numbered sections narrate the adventures of two popular Anglo-Indian actors, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, who (having survived the terrorist bombing of their airplane) attempt to resume normal life in modern London. The even- numbered sections concern an imaginary story about the Prophet Muhammad in the fictitious holy city of Jahilia and the apparently doomed mission of the prophetess Ayesha to lead Muslim Indian villagers on a pilgrimage to Mecca. The novel’s climax reveals a miraculous parting of the waters of the Arabian Sea and the subsequent apparent drowning of the pilgrims. However, it is possible that the entire sequence is part of a fantasy in one of the popular religious films (“theologicals”) that had made Gibreel an Indian film star.

It is possible that a few particularly vivid episodes in the novel inspired the fatwa against Rushdie. In the section titled “Mahound” (a profoundly offensive derisive name given to Muhammad in medieval English mystery plays), the devil—in the guise of the archangel Gibreel (or Gabriel), gives Muhammad the so-called “Satanic verses” in the Koran. (In anti- Islamic traditions, Muhammad inserted a contradictory passage in the Koran attesting the divinity of three local goddesses in order to secure a community’s conversion to Islam.) In another section, “Return to Jahilia,” the religious doubts of the scribe named Salman about Mahound and his wives leads the scribe to alter portions of the sacred text of the Koran. Perhaps equally offensive to Muslim readers, whores at a brothel called the Curtain each assume the identity of one of Muhammad’s wives, allowing their customers to act out blasphemous sexual fantasies. In the penultimate section of the novel, “The Parting of the Arabian Sea,” the pilgrims going to Mecca suffer from internal dissension and the hostility of a Hindu mob. When they wade in the waters and apparently drown, others claim to have seen the waters part miraculously.


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Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay, India, in 1947 into a liberal, middle-class family. Although Islam was not central to his childhood, he nevertheless maintained an interest in it because of its centrality to his Indian culture. He received the finest of educations. After attending Cathedral School in Bombay, he studied at Rugby in England (1961-1964). Here Rushdie became sensitive to the ways in which English culture denigrated or exoticized his home country, partly through the demeaning insults thrown at him by his schoolmates. After Rugby, Rushdie attended King’s College at Cambridge and finished in 1968. He decided to stay in England after he graduated, desiring to assimilate more thoroughly into English culture. He married Clarissa Luard, an English woman, and after a divorce he married Marianne Wiggins, an American novelist. His literary themes, however, repeatedly engaged his Indian culture, often humorously. His first major work was Midnight’s Children (1981), which won him the Booker Prize. The novel took as its point of departure the independence of India at midnight in 1947. After publishing Satanic Verses (his second important novel) in 1988, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence on Rushdie because he was thought to have profaned Islam, which forced the writer into hiding to protect his life. This strained his second marriage as a result. However, the novel did earn him international fame. He married his third wife in 1997 and his fourth in 2004. His numerous relationships and marriages affected him significantly, for many of his works address the theme of searching for and obtaining love. Over the course of his writing career, Rushdie has published thirteen major works including novels, collections of short stories, and one collection of essays. He now lives and teaches in the United States.

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