In the late 1980s, Indian author Salman Rushdie, who had established his literary career after the publication of three novels, published his most controversial book The Satanic Verses.
Rushdie based the book on a disputed Islamic tradition that verses were to be added to the Holy Koran, but in the end, the prophet Muhammad felt their were wrong and didn’t add them.
The verses focus on three pagan goddesses of Mecca, who had been worshipped by the locals before they converted to Islam.
The book mixes history, faith and religion – focusing on two main characters, Gibreel and Saladin, both Bollywood actors. The book begins with the two characters on a hijacked plane which explodes, but both survive. Gibreel becoming the archangel he is named for (Gabriel) while Saladin is arrested and tried as an illegal immigrant.
The two characters return to India, trying to make sense of their lives and past loves, as Gibreel pursues his previous love Allie, while Saladin wants revenge and decides to destroy their future.
Although called Mahound in his novel, many people objected to Rushdie’s depiction of the prophet as someone who was infallible and irreverent, who tries to help the characters deal with the changes in their lives and not a perfect figure. Many sequences in the book are a mix of magic realism and fantasy, especially with Gibreel’s mind affected by his schizophrenia.
After the book’s publication in 1988, protests happened in several countries, with the banning of the book in 13 countries. After prolonged protests in the UK, Rushdie’s adopted home, India and Pakistan, the then ruler of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared the book blasphemy and declared a fatwa on Rushdie, for him to be killed, in February 1989.
Rushdie was put under protection by the British government and had to lead a life of seclusion, while scholars and many individuals continued to write and protest for and against his right to have written the book.
Although Rushdie has been protected since 1989, several other people have been attacked. His Norwegian publisher was shot, but survived, his Italian translator stabbed, but also survived. His Japanese translator and Turkish publisher were both killed.
To this day the fatwa still exists on Rushdie for the writing of the book, as the Iranian government says the only person who can rescind it is Khomeini, who died in July 1989. It is still considered one of the most controversial books published in the past 50 years and as Rushdie has been quoted, would probably not be published in the 21st century’s environment of fear.