The Fatwa

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Issued on February 14, 1989, Iran’s fatwa condemned Rushdie and the publisher of The Satanic Verses, calling on “all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly.” In a series of subsequent statements from official sources in Iran, Rushdie was depicted as a demonic blasphemer and tool of sinister Western manipulators. The speaker of the Iranian parliament saw Rushdie’s novel as the most overt of a series of covert hostile actions against Islam. A report on Iranian radio blamed British intelligence for Rushdie’s book, calling it part of a larger anti-Islamic propaganda campaign. Although Khomeini himself was said to have viewed The Satanic Verses as a calculated move against religion in general, another leader, President Khamenei, detected a broad cultural conspiracy behind the novel. In Khamenei’s view, “aside from being a sin in the eyes of the law, religion and humanity, this dirtying of literature and arts was an ugly deed.” Khomeini’s statement claimed that God himself had revealed the anti-Islamic nature of the novel and wanted it published in order to expose its poison. The statement of President Khamenei viewed Rushdie inconsistently as both a mere stooge of the United States and a “member of the British royal literary society” who “was forced to write a book.”

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Rushdie and Modern Fiction

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The novel’s “The Parting of the Arabian Sea” passage forms not only the narrative climax to the book, but its emotional highlight. The novel is distinguished both for the Joycean exuberance of its language and the fantastic nature of its plotting, written in the spirit of the Magical Realism of Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez. Because Middle Eastern literature has not developed the range and variety of fiction in the English tradition, it is possible that the Iranian clerics and officials profoundly misunderstood Rushdie’s complex narrative strategy, and consequently misread the novel’s tone, as did the thugs who beat the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz.

Although the novel admittedly treats three of the world’s great religions as absurd delusions, it also shows the potential for human love, action, and profoundly contradictory behavior. So much of its narrative concerns dreams, fantasies, and dreamlike behavior that it is difficult to identify Rushdie’s own attitude toward Islam, beyond an implied playful skepticism about the claims of any religion. Any Western reader willing to read through his complex text would probably concede that he has complicated and perhaps contradictory things to say about race, religion, politics, sexuality, and ethnicity in postmodern society.

The threat of murder by a government against a creative artist with no personal connection or debt to that government is a horrifying demonstration of the worst kind of official censorship. Not only Western intellectuals and proponents of democracy, but also non-Iranian writers and intellectuals have issued sharp defenses of Rushdie’s right to write as he pleases, regardless of the offense that he may cause to religious sensibilities, and to live without the threat of bodily harm. The Tory government of Great Britain under Margaret Thatcher was quick to condemn the Iranian fatwa and to supply security and safe housing for Rushdie, although Thatcher herself was one of the prime targets of Rushdie’s sharp satire.

Other Literary Forms

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Best known for The Satanic Verses (1988), Salman Rushdie’s other novels include Grimus (1975), Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), and The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999). Additionally, he has written a children’s fable, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990); a monograph on cinema, The Wizard of Oz: A Short Text About Magic (1992), and two books of essays: The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey (1987) and Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 19811991 (1991).

Achievements

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Salman Rushdie received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1982 and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1983. Shame won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in 1984; The Satanic Verses and The Moor’s Last Sigh won Whitbread Literary Awards in 1988 and 1995, respectively. His Midnight’s Children won a Booker McConnell Prize while Shame and The Satanic Verses were finalists for that award.

Other literary forms

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In addition to his novels, Salman Rushdie (ROOSH-dee) has produced short stories and works of nonfiction. The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey (1987) is a book of travel and political observations written following Rushdie’s visit to Nicaragua in July, 1986, as a guest of the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers. Among his short stories; the best known is “The Prophet’s Hair,” which appeared originally in the London Review of Books in 1981 and has been reprinted in The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories (1987). A fable in the style of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, Haroun and the Sea of Stories was published in 1990, and the collection of short stories East, West: Stories (1994) includes “The Prophet’s Hair” and the dazzling “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers.” The essays in Rushdie’s Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction, 1992-2002 (2002) deal with a variety of subjects, including popular culture, politics, and soccer.

Achievements

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Although furor and indignation have followed the publication of a number of Salman Rushdie’s novels, the works have also received critical praise and rave reviews. Midnight’s Children won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the English Speaking Union Literature Award, and the Booker Prize; it has been translated into twelve languages. Although Shame was banned in Pakistan, as Midnight’s Children had been in India, it too received critical plaudits for its seriocomic portrait of Pakistani life. No writer since English satirist Jonathan Swift has aroused as much ire from so many sources, notwithstanding the notoriety of The Satanic Verses, which won the Whitbread Award as best novel of 1988. On February 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the fundamentalist spiritual leader of Iran, issued a fatwa (a proclamation concerning a matter of Muslim faith) that called for Rushdie’s death as an enemy of Islam and sanctioned similar reprisals against those who published or distributed The Satanic Verses. Rushdie became a Knight of the British Empire in 2007. Ironically, this royal honor served to rekindle the hatred and many of the threats that haunted him following publication of The Satanic Verses.

Rushdie’s novels, actually modern picaresques, explore the tragicomic results of lost identity; they portray in exuberant, highly inventive, satirical style what the author considers to be the consequences of living in cultures that have become mixed, distorted, and diluted through combinations of expediency, political ineptitude, and exploitative religion.

Discussion Topics

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Exile involves the loss of “home.” How is this loss experienced by some of the characters in Salman Rushdie’s later fiction?

Metamorphosis is also a constant subject, technique, and theme in Rushdie’s fiction. Consider its importance in several of his novels.

Read Rushdie’s essay “Imaginary Homelands.” How are the ideas it discusses reflected in his work?

The controversy over The Satanic Verses raises fundamental questions about the responsibilities of both writers and readers. What are they?

What is the role of history and/or politics in Rushdie’s novels?

What techniques does Rushdie use to express what he calls his “stereoscopic vision”?

Rushdie loves word play, including puns, rhymes, and funny names. Discuss examples of this in his work.

How does Rushdie balance comedy with the serious, even tragic, elements in his fiction?

Bibliography

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Afzal-Khan, Fawzia. Cultural Imperialism and the Indo-English Novel: Genre and Ideology in R. K. Narayan, Anita Desai, Kamala Markandaya, and Salman Rushdie. University Park: Pennyslvania State University Press, 1993. A section on Rushdie shows how he “debunks myth” in examining postcolonial society to develop “liberation strategies.”

Ahsan, A. R. Sacrilege Versus Civility: Muslim Perspectives on “The Satanic Verses” Affair. Markfield, Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 1993. Among the more than seventy books that have been written about the fatwa, this is one of many that are largely critical of Rushdie.

Appignanesi, Lisa, and Sara Maitland, eds. The Rushdie File. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1990. Surveys critical reaction to The Satanic Verses. Reprints the text of the Khomeini fatwa.

Brennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation. London: Macmillan, 1989. This sociopolitical study was the first book-length analysis of Rushdie’s art.

Cundy, Catherine. Salman Rushdie: Contemporary World Writers. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996. Although it gives very little attention to East, West, this is a readable overview of his work.

Fletcher, M. D., ed. Reading Rushdie: Perspectives on the Fiction of Salman Rushdie. Amsterdam: Cross/Cultures, 1994. This is a convenient collection of essays, most previously published.

Goonetilleke, D. C. R. A. Salman Rushdie. Modern Novelists. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Its fine chapter on East, West is virtually the only extensive treatment of Rushdie’s short fiction.

Hamilton, Ian. “The First Life of Salman Rushdie.” The New Yorker, December 25, 1995, 89-113. An excellent, illuminating presentation of Rushdie’s life before the fatwa, written with Rushdie’s assistance and including accounts from interviews with many of Rushdie’s friends and peers.

Harrison, James. Salman Rushdie. English Author Series. New York: Twayne, 1992. It notes Rushdie’s difficulties (as one of the British-educated elite) in representing what Brennan somewhat apologetically calls the “Third World.”

Hassumani, Sabrina. Salman Rushdie: A Postmodern Reading of His Major Works. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002. A close reading of Rushdie’s five major novels from Midnight’s Children through The Moor’s Last Sigh.

Hitchens, Christopher. “Holy Writ.” The Atlantic Monthly 291, no. 3 (April, 2003). Beginning with Rushdie, Hitchens reviews Islam as reflected in the works of several contemporary writers.

MacDonogh, Steve, ed. The Rushdie Letters: Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Write. Kerry, Ireland: Brandon Book Publishers, 1993. It is a collection of letters from such notables as Gunter Grass, Paul Theroux, and Nadine Gordimer, supporting Rushdie.

Mortimer, Edward. “Satanic Verses: The Aftermath.” The New York Times Book Review, July 22, 1990, 3, 25. A discussion of the right to publish offensive literature. Mortimer concludes that genius and literary worth can mitigate such offense and allow publication. Mortimer believes that The Satanic Verses is, indeed, a work of genius and not, as some have claimed, an unreadable novel published to provoke controversy. He does, however, suggest that an author’s self- imposed censorship has its place in the writing of fiction.

Parameswarn, U. The Perforated Sheet: Essays on Salman Rushdie’s Art. New Delhi: Affiliated East-West, 1988. Despite some heterogeneity to the essays, it offers insight into Rushdie’s Indian context.

Pipes, Daniel. The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, the Ayatollah, and the West. New York: Birch Lane Press/Carol Publishing Group, 1990. This volume also recounts the controversy attending publication of The Satanic Verses, though it examines the question from the Muslim point of view. It suggests that the valid arguments of many against publication were lost in the wake of the Khomeini fatwa that decreed Rushdie’s death, in effect giving credence to the wild Muslim stereotype held by many Westerners. It also contains information on the historical founding of Islam, which will be helpful to readers of The Satanic Verses who are without this background.

Rushdie, Salman. Salman Rushdie Interviews: A Sourcebook of His Ideas. Edited by Pradyumna S. Chauhan. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. A handy selection of Rushdie’s many interviews provides insight into his thinking, writing, and life experience.

Taneja, G. R., and R. K. Dhawan, eds. The Novels of Salman Rushdie. New Delhi: Indian Society for Commonwealth Studies, 1992. A wide-ranging compilation of essays by contributors from the Indian subcontinent, covering all of Rushdie’s writing through 1992 except The Satanic Verses. Provides a perspective beyond the criticism of Anglo-American authors.

Weatherby, W. J. Salman Rushdie: Sentenced to Death. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1990. A sensationally written biography of Rushdie that focuses on his difficulties with his family (particularly his father) and his disputes with publishers and agents, fellow writers, and wives. It offers an essentially negative portrait of a brilliant but insecure and ruthlessly ambitious man.

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