Before the storm: Salman Rushdie in 1989 © David Levenson/Getty Images

Demonising Salman Rushdie

Following the author’s brutal stabbing it’s time to reclaim The Satanic Verses as a capacious work of art exploring faith and identity
September 8, 2022

The first time I saw Salman Rushdie he was wearing devil’s horns and being burned at the stake. On 27th May 1989, tens of thousands of British Muslims converged on Hyde Park to wish the author of The Satanic Verses a speedy journey to hell. “In a rush to die,” read one banner with a map helpfully charting the way to a flaming pit. A nearby sign read: “We are Satan bashers.” Another simply: “Kill the bastard.” Rushdie’s demonisation was in some ways a bizarre compliment to the vividness of his fantastical imagination. In the condemned novel, Saladin Chamcha, an Indian man desperate to be the perfect Englishman, transforms to his horror into a sulphurous goatman with cloven hooves. In a typical Rushdie joke, the author himself—recognisable from his salt-and-pepper beard, glasses and dandruff—appears to his other protagonist, Gibreel Farishta, as both God and the Devil. But in London that spring day, playful metaphor had turned into deadly literalism.

On Valentine’s Day that year, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had published his peremptory death sentence. “The Imam has fired an arrow and it will not fail until it hits its target,” said Iran’s then prime minister and now supreme leader Ali Khamenei, a threat he confirmed as “solid and irrevocable” on Twitter in 2019. On 12th August this year, the arrow found its target. Appearing on stage at New York’s Chautauqua Institution, Rushdie was stabbed multiple times, suffering horrible injuries. Hearing the news, I felt the dreadful sense of a tragic destiny fulfilled; for these were further brutal blows in a slow-motion assassination begun 33 years ago. “As I watched the marchers,” Rushdie wrote at the time, “I felt them trampling on my heart.”

I was eight years old when the fatwa struck. My parents didn’t take me to the demo but watching it on the news they clearly felt a defiant pride in the protesters’ actions. Finally, people were standing up for British Muslims, a community that had been disrespected from imperial times back in India up to our present benighted position in what Rushdie himself called “the new empire within Britain.” As much as the apparent blasphemy, it was Rushdie’s betrayal of the tribe that infuriated them. I remember being shocked when my usually kind-hearted mother phoned LBC and furiously denounced a book that she hadn’t read. At the mosque a cousin assured me that Rushdie, or Simon Rushton as he allegedly called himself, had only written the book to impress white people—oh, and that Israel paid him a fortune.

Amid the conspiracy theories, serious characters spied an opportunity. One such was Kalim Siddiqui, a family friend whom I remember speaking at our mosque a couple of times. Born in British India, Siddiqui set up grandly named institutions like the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain to corral a splintered community. He had worked at the Guardian as a subeditor and had a PhD in international relations; he spoke more like an academic than a firebrand and was once asked to stand as a Labour MP.

Although Sunni, Siddiqui was inspired by Khomeini’s Shia revolution. He was in Iran on 14th February 1989, and was instrumental, he said, in getting the ageing theocrat to declare the fatwa. Back in Britain he became the fatwa’s most visible supporter, regularly being interviewed on television and radio. He was an expert at what became a familiar game for British Islamists: luring naive or perhaps cynical producers into giving him airtime by presenting hardline interpretations of Islam as the most authentic. When a BBC poll found that most British Muslims didn’t support the fatwa, Siddiqui arranged for a BBC crew to film 500 of his own supporters. When he asked who wanted Rushdie dead, they all raised their hands.

When I finally came to read The Satanic Verses as a teenager, I was amused to find figures like Khomeini and Siddiqui wickedly satirised within its pages. There is the “granite-grey” Imam in Kensington waiting to return home and overthrow the corrupt government. (Khomeini was exiled in Paris.) “Burn the books and trust the Book; shred the papers and hear the Word,” says one of the Imam’s Siddiqui-like hangers-on, in one of the novel’s many prophetic lines.

There were other parts I loved. The section entitled “A City Visible but Unseen” is set in the fictional Asian area of Brickhall, resembling Brick Lane. We meet the charming, argumentative Sufyan family who run the Shaandaar café selling samosas, Bombay chaat and “gulab jamans straight from Paradise.” A hodge-podge of the religious and the secular, the old-fashioned and the modern, the Sufyans were not unlike my own family. They are also the first sympathetically depicted British Muslims in English fiction.

The novel displays both a righteous awareness of racism and a raised eyebrow at the community leaders who crop up to oppose it. Saladin, an actor, works for the boorish Hal Valance on a puppet programme called The Aliens Show. Hal tells him that when a black actor walked into his audition wearing a racial equality badge, he was told not to expect “special treatment.” (The same thing happened to Rushdie when he worked in advertising.) Set against Valance is Uhuru Simba, a black radical whose supporters call Saladin a “Brown Uncle Tom” for working on what they say is a racist show. When it emerges that Simba beats up women, his allies are reluctant to call him out for fear of tainting the cause. In yet another twist, Simba is then framed for the granny-ripper murders terrifying London and ends up with his neck broken by the police.

Rushdie rarely lets you settle into a comfortable position. No sooner has he set up a stable dichotomy—racist vs anti-racist—than he destabilises it with a new plotline or counter-rhetorical flourish. He has a compulsion to knock down what he has built up, which is one reason why his novels can be difficult and often unsettling reading experiences.

So capacious is the novel that it even voices the criticism that would come its way for its chapters on Islamic history. A passionate secularist takes the poet Bhupen Gandhi to task for using religious metaphors. “Battle lines are being drawn up,” she says, sounding like Rushdie’s future defender Christopher Hitchens, “secular versus religious, the light versus the dark. Better you choose which side you are on.” But Bhupen is equally insistent: “We can’t deny the ubiquity of faith. If we write in such a way as to pre-judge such belief as in some way deluded or false, then are we not guilty of elitism, of imposing our worldview on the masses?”

When metaphor became deadly literalism: anti-Rushdie protesters calling  for his death  assemble at Hyde Park in May, 1989 © Janine Wiedel Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo When metaphor became deadly literalism: anti-Rushdie protesters calling for his death assemble at Hyde Park in May, 1989 © Janine Wiedel Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo

When metaphor became deadly literalism: anti-Rushdie protesters calling for his death assemble at Hyde Park in May, 1989 © Janine Wiedel Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo

Rushdie is both Bhupen and his opponent: a man with an abiding interest in the stories and spiritual dimension of Islam, for whom as a child religion meant “family and light.” Midnight’s Children is a love letter to the relaxed Bombay Muslim culture in which he was brought up. (You can get a taste in his sister Sameen Rushdie’s delightful Indian Cookery, which I use when recreating dishes from my own childhood.) And yet he is also a merciless mocker of fundamentalism: his novel Shame excoriates the sharia regulations in Pakistan that restrict women’s rights, and attacks dictators who whip up fanaticism to bolster their rule. He is mystic, Marxist and clown, sometimes all in the same paragraph.

All three approaches are found in the two most controversial chapters of The Satanic Verses that deal with Islam. The setting for them is openly distorted. Gibreel, a tortured, lapsed Muslim, is a Bollywood star who specialises in playing divine figures. Caught in an aeroplane hijacking, he dreams the biopic of Mahound, a character similar to but not identical with the Prophet Muhammad. In his hometown, Mahound is being persecuted by his pagan tribe for preaching there is only one God. Wanting to soften his monotheistic message, his tribe ask him to accept three of their deities—the goddesses Lat, Manat and Uzza—as partners of Allah. Up in the mountain where he receives revelations, Mahound prays for inspiration. “Veins bulge in his neck, he clutches at his centre.” A voice speaks, telling him to accept the deities: “They are the exalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed.” To the dismay of his supporters, a deal is struck. Yet when he returns to the mountain, Mahound realises the Devil has tricked him: the verses accommodating the goddesses were satanic, not divine. A new revelation abrogates the old and he reaffirms his pious mission.

This outlandish story was not invented by Rushdie. As the Harvard academic Shahab Ahmed convincingly showed in his 2017 study Before Orthodoxy, there are around 50 versions of the satanic verses incident told in the early Muslim biographies of the Prophet. This moment of diabolical temptation was not, as the protesters thought, a libel on the sanctity of their Prophet—at least it wouldn’t have seemed so to the first Muslims. It was, in fact, seen as proof of his prophethood: like Jesus, he was tempted; like Job, he suffered; like Moses, he came through his tribulations more faithful than ever.

Rushdie being Rushdie, he reverses the story’s old moral trajectory: for him, the compromise was the Prophet at his most attractive, and the abrogation a missed opportunity to embrace the multiplicity so vital to Rushdie both as a migrant and postmodern writer. Nevertheless, he dramatises his prophet’s struggles with deep sympathy. You could even argue, in this chapter at least, Rushdie is more faithful to the early Islamic sources than those later Muslims who elevated the Prophet into an infallible lawgiver. That new status, which emerged about 200 years after his death, made the dramatic ambiguity of the satanic verses story redundant; by 1988 practically no Muslims knew it existed.

Rushdie was genuinely disturbed that his book was perceived as offensive by Muslims—British ones especially

Like Rushdie’s best fiction, the Mahound chapter brings an ironic tone to a powerful originating moment. In Midnight’s Children, it is the birth of India; in Shame, the birth of Pakistan; in The Satanic Verses, the birth of Islam. Sometimes that irony, though, hardens into cynicism. The second Islam chapter loses many readers because of that—including this one.

After years away, Rushdie’s prophet returns to conquer his hometown and his old enemies go into hiding. One, a dissolute poet named Baal who had once taunted him in verse, ends up living in a brothel. The women working there appeal to the erotic fantasies of the defeated people by masquerading as Mahound’s wives. (Needless to say, this part is all Rushdie’s invention.) In a later essay, Rushdie defended these passages by saying that the real wives of the Prophet were shown to be chaste, so any offence taken was misplaced. But that is pushing it: the provocative power of these scenes rely on the commingling of the sacred and the profane. Even laying aside matters of taste, the scenario is too enamoured of the old whore/saint division; and its ostensible feminist critique of Islam is made less convincing, given all the female characters here are either repulsive crones or sex-mad -manipulators.

Although now lauded as a free speech absolutist, Rushdie was genuinely disturbed at the time that the book was perceived as offensive by Muslims—British ones especially. He had hoped that this would be the one group with the cultural knowledge and life experience to truly understand the conflicts played out in the novel. (Certainly, literary London missed the important bits: on publication, one interviewer asked Rushdie if he was worried about libelling his ex-colleagues in advertising.) On Christmas Eve in 1990, Rushdie met six Muslim scholars and explained that far from being a farrago of blasphemies, his novel was a serious exploration of faith and doubt. “We want to reclaim you for ourselves,” one scholar said to him, and Rushdie agreed. To the dismay of his supporters, a deal was struck. As he wrote in a newspaper article, he recited the declaration of faith, agreed to delay the paperback of The Satanic Verses and considered adding a note to any later edition confirming the book was not an “attack on Islam.”

Very soon the same scholars were attacking him in public again, though. And the response from Tehran was even more emphatic: “Even if he repents and becomes the most pious Muslim on earth, there will be no change in this divine decree,” said Khamenei who, in disallowing the possibility of forgiveness and turning Khomeini’s words into holy writ, was running close to blasphemy himself.

Rushdie would later disavow his reaffirmation as Muslim; he withdrew the article from the paperback edition of his essay collection Imaginary Homelands. Like his Mahound, he blotted out his moment of weakness and became increasingly hardened in defence of his novel—and against Islam. You can hardly blame him: offering the hand of friendship to heal what he called a “family quarrel,” he was slapped in the face.

Countless Muslim writers and thinkers have dissented from religious orthodoxy, only to be lauded by later generations

His feelings about that time can be surmised by a moment from his next novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh. When the painter Aurora Zogoiby is attacked by Hindu fundamentalists for creating a supposedly pro-Muslim work, she must defend herself. “She was required by the public prints to speak ponderously of ‘underlying motives’ when she had had only whims, to make moral statements where there had been only (‘only!’) play, and feeling, and the unfolding inexorable logic of brush and light.”

The Satanic Verses was likewise turned into a moral statement. First by Muslims who hated the book, but also by racists and civilisational warriors. At school, I was taunted with Rushdie’s name and had photocopies of the controversial chapters left on my desk. In a more sophisticated vein, during my first term at Cambridge, my supervisor gave us extracts from The Satanic Verses in a practical criticism class. This same man invited me to stay behind and discuss what it meant to be a British Muslim and all that. Harmless enough, surely? But I was puzzled when, after 9/11 happened at the start of my third year, he gave me a book on Rushdie by the Islamophobic writer Daniel Pipes. All became clear in my last week when the supervisor tried to recruit me for MI6. He told me he had been impressed by my capacity to move between worlds—a quality Rushdie’s novel exemplified, and which he wanted to put to good use in the War on Terror.

While many present the whole controversy as pitting western freedom against eastern tyranny, Rushdie was initially reluctant to do so. “The novel does contain doubts, uncertainties, even shocks that may well not be to the liking of the devout,” he wrote in 1990; “such methods have, however, long been a legitimate part even of Islamic literature.” He was right. Countless Muslim writers and thinkers have dissented from religious orthodoxy, and while they have often been punished for their transgression during their lifetimes, they have often gone on to be lauded by later generations. 

To take just a few examples. The medieval philosopher Ibn Rushd, whose name Rushdie’s father adopted in tribute, took Aristotle as his hero, and believed that rational thinking was equally important, if not more so, than prophetic revelation. He was also a judge in Cordoba dispensing orthodox sharia rulings—like his namesake, he contained multitudes. 

The physician and polymath Abu Bakr al-Razi penned a treatise entitled On the Tricks of False Prophets which, says his translator Tarif Khalidi, was “one of the most systematic attacks on revelation in any medieval context—Christian or Muslim—up to that time.” One passage seems especially pertinent: when “those that adhere to religious laws are asked for proof of what they say, they grow wild and angry and declare licit the blood of whoever questions them in this manner, forbidding rational investigation and urging that their opponents be killed. For this reason, the truth is buried very deep and falls totally silent.” Razi is still celebrated for his scientific achievements in Iran, his heterodoxy forgotten.

Then there’s religious ribaldry. In Arabic rhetoric there was a practice called iqtibas, very loosely translated as “playing with fire,” which involved subtly alluding to Quranic passages in inappropriate sexual contexts. The 10th-century poet al-Ma’arri—whose statue was beheaded by Islamic State when they overran his Syrian hometown—wonders in his poem The Epistle of Forgiveness whether, just as wine is allowed in paradise, gay sex will be too.

Admittedly that last speculation was put into the mouth of Satan—but in Islam even the Devil is given his due. Many Sufis, for example, took him up as a tragic hero. Poets like Attar, one of Rushdie’s favourites, and Rumi saw in his painful separation from God a corollary of the human condition—just as Milton would in Paradise Lost. Others saw his role as a tempter of mankind—and indeed of prophets—as allowing us the necessary freedom to choose the right or wrong path. In any case, for these Muslims, Satan is on a long path to being forgiven. And if Satan can be redeemed, why not Rushdie?

But perhaps it’s a stretch to see Rushdie in this exalted vein—and given his naturally irreverent spirit, happily undimmed since the assault according to his son Zafar, he would likely refuse the comparison. Better to see him as that naughty uncle every Muslim family has, the cheeky chacha who likes a drink and tells salacious stories about corrupt mullahs. Sometimes he is hilarious; sometimes exasperating; but he is absolutely one of us.

When Rushdie’s father, Anis, read the portrayal of the drunken father of the narrator Saleem in Midnight’s Children, he accused his son of betraying him. “In my young, pissed-off way,” Rushdie said in an interview, “I responded that I’d left all the nasty stuff out.” In the same way, he has sometimes said he wished he had been more critical of Islam in The Satanic Verses. Yet at the end of the novel, Saladin returns to India and movingly reconciles with his father—a reconciliation Rushdie has said was based on his own final making-up with Anis Rushdie.

Yet I fear there is little chance of reconciliation between Rushdie and British Muslims now. Too much hatred has been unleashed. Too many people have died, including the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses and a Belgian imam who condemned the fatwa. And in that I cannot help thinking we Muslims have failed him. Rushdie’s ambiguous fate will be to be remembered as a political icon rather than a creator of ludic, multi-layered and often very funny fiction. Born near enough to the stroke of Indian independence 75 years ago, he has, like Saleem in Midnight’s Children, been “handcuffed to history.” As Rushdie wrote in that book’s final lines: “It is the privilege and the curse of midnight’s children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live and die in peace.”