Culture & Society

Salman Rushdie: The Man Who ‘Provoked’ The Muslim World

Salman Rushdie’s literature and life address one of the most important questions of the modern world: How free should a speech be? Some critics continue to believe that Rushdie exploited his freedom in order to disparage Muslim beliefs. However, to Rushdie, literature must be ‘provocative’ and ‘it always has been’ so.

Salman Rushdie has received death threats from a section of Muslims over his book The Satanic Verses

“You never know the answers to the questions of life until you are asked.” 
—Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown

Salman Rushdie through most of his novels set out to question the bridles on imagination, its expression amid the sub-domains of human culture and history and the ensuing unfathomable crises. 

Rushdie’s writing brought him everything—fame, literary acclaim, and, unfortunately, the unprecedented hatred too. His work quickly established him as a critically acclaimed writer. He also became an effigy — hung, beheaded, and set ablaze in public squares and furious rallies. He became the threat and the threatened, he became an icon and a villain, and probably the most hated one among the Muslim world.  

Rushdie was born to a Kashmiri family in Mumbai. His father was a lawyer-turned-businessman who the former revealed once being a “scholar of Islam, very knowledgeable” but “completely lacking in religious belief”.  It was the novelist’s father who gave him the name ‘Rushdie’ as a homage to Ibn Rushd, one of the most influential 12th-century Spanish-Muslim philosophers. In many ways, Rushdie at his home was exposed to Islamic culture and history.  

After writing the The Satanic Verses, the book responsible for most of the troubles he has faced, Rushdie said that through the novel, he attempted to investigate the nature of the revelation using Islam’s example because it was the religion he “knew most about”. However, as fate had it, no sooner did The Satanic Verses hit the stands, Rushdie found himself engulfed in the midst of the most heated conflagration of the time. 

Rushdie’s novel —accused by Muslim critics of insulting the Prophet Muhammad and portraying Islam as a devious, ignorant, and sexually deviant religion— turned into a fuel for book-burnings. In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, then the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. The Iranian leader’s decree forced Rushdie to run into hiding for nearly a decade.  

Ironically, four years prior to fatwa, in 1985, when Ali Khamenei was the President of Iran, the Persian translation of Rushdie’s Shame was awarded as the best foreign novel by the jury appointed by a ministry of the Iranian Islamic government.  
Rushdie told The Paris Review, “Even Iranian booksellers thought that I was probably cool because the mullahs had given my previous book a stamp of approval.” 

Rushdie, after the controversy, was contemplating quitting writing at once. He “felt disgusted” about being mired in controversy just in the beginning of his career. He found himself immediately stuck with a dreadful question: “How to continue if that was how my work was going to be treated?”  

However, Rushdie, a novelist as unbridled as one could be, wrote the children's book Haroun And The Sea Of Stories, the short story collection East, West, and the novel The Moor's Last Sigh while in hiding, fighting disruption and fear. Although Rushdie kept writing, undeterred, Hitoshi Igarashi, his Japanese translator, was stabbed to death in 1991 and his Italian translator survived a knife attack the same year. 

Since The Satanic Verses debacle, Rushdie has written eight novels and dozens of other books including non-fiction, anthologies and children’s books.  

Rushdie once said, “Literature is the one place in any society where within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way.” 

Rushdie’s literature and life address one of the most important questions of the modern world, the landscapes of which have been reduced by technology into a cardboard box, a world that allows voices to fester and is abuzz with a cacophony of opinions all around: How free should a speech be? 

Some critics continue to believe that Rushdie exploited his freedom in order to disparage Muslim beliefs. However, to Rushdie, literature must be “provocative” and “it always has been” so. 

Rushdie lies on a hospital bed, battling the wounds he sustained on Friday in New York. The brutal stabbing came nearly three decades after The Satanic Verses was published. Whether Rushdie’s wounds would renew the Islamophobic waves across the West needs to be seen, but it cannot be ignored that the stabbing came at a time when the tensions between Iran and Israel-US blocs are rife.