The exact words of Ayatollah Khomeini when he issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses were:
“I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of ‘Satanic Verses’ book [sic] which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them.”
Khomeini meant business. In response to his call, Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator of The Satanic Verses, was brutally assaulted at his home in Milan by an Iranian national. William Nygaard, the novel’s Norwegian publisher, was also attacked. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of the novel, was murdered in his office. If Rushdie managed to escape until now, it is entirely due to the protection offered to him by the British government. However, the attack on Rushdie 34 years after the publication of The Satanic Verses and the fatwa proves that Khomeini’s words have not been forgotten.
Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old youngster who assaulted Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, was born to Lebanese immigrant parents in America a full decade after the publication of The Satanic Verses. It is unlikely that he read the book, which is a dense literary work of magical realism. That he is originally from Lebanon is significant. It was Lebanese Hezbollah militants who demanded that Rushdie be extradited to Iran in exchange of three Britishers and several Americans whom they had earlier taken hostage. Matar’s mother Silvana Fardos is reported to have said that her son got radicalised after a four-week trip to Lebanon in 2018.
Khomeini went on to say, “Even if Salman Rushdie becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and his wealth, to send him to hell.” Some clerics believe that a fatwa can only be withdrawn by the person who issues it. Khomeini died in 1989, soon after issuing the fatwa. In 1998, Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami said his country no longer supported Rushdie’s killing. But the fatwa was never officially withdrawn.
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In keeping with Khomeini’s words, in the aftermath of the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie did attempt to become “pious” in a desperate bid to save his life. He first planned to write a long essay titled “In Good Faith” in which he hoped to tell the people he had offended that they had made a mistake about him and his book; that it wasn’t an evil book and that he was a good human being.
In the published version of the essay that appears in Rushdie’s 1991 book, Imaginary Homelands, he points out that all that The Satanic Verses requires is a “moment of goodwill; a moment in which we may all accept that the other parties are acting, have acted, in good faith.” He affirms that though he isn’t himself a man of faith, the novel does not deny people their right to faith, but instead dissents from all types of orthodoxies and upholds the power of debate.
Rushdie then defends himself against the charge that he wrote the novel on purpose. In his own words: “Of course I did it on purpose. The question is... what is the ‘it’ that I did? What I did not do was conspire against Islam.... Would I have written [the novel] differently if I had known what would happen? Truthfully, I don’t know. Would I change any of the text now? I would not. It’s too late.”
Rushdie’s next move was much more out of character. The last chapter in Imaginary Homelands is an essay titled “Why I Have Embraced Islam”. The title is self-explanatory. Here Rushdie admits that though “I am certainly not a good Muslim... I am able to say now that I am Muslim; in fact it is a source of happiness to say that I am now inside, and a part of, the community whose values have always been closest to my heart.”
“In an essay that appears in Rushdie’s 1991 book, Imaginary Homelands, he points out that all that The Satanic Verses requires is a “moment of goodwill; a moment in which we may all accept that the other parties are acting, have acted, in good faith.””
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Rushdie also admits in so many words that “the controversy over The Satanic Verses was based on a tragic misunderstanding, and we must all now work to explain to Muslims everywhere that neither I nor my work have ever been inimical to Islam.”
Rushdie concludes the essay by writing: “I know that Muslims will be content with what has been achieved, and will now wish this matter to be laid to rest. I appeal to all Muslims, and to Muslim organizations and governments everywhere, to join in the process of healing that we have begun. What I know of Islam is that tolerance, compassion and love are at its very heart. I believe that in the weeks and months to come the language of enmity will be replaced by the language of love.”
In his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton, Rushdie tells us about the genesis of the reactionary essay “Why I have Embraced Islam”. Apparently, a jury of six Egyptians, led by one Hesham el-Essawy, wrote out a document for him to sign. The key statement in the document was, There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet. The rest of the document, according to Rushdie, was in crude and ungrammatical English which he could not sign till he edited it. That done, he put his pen to the document and signed it.
Even as Rushdie handed over the signed document to Essawy, his conscience admonished him. You are a liar and a coward and a fool it told him. Rushdie’s supportive sister Sameen then called him from Pakistan where she lived with his mother Negin Bhatt, and scolded him “for having taken leave of your senses” by signing the document. His conscience echoed his sister’s words. Yes, you have taken leave of your senses it said to him. You have no idea what you have done, or are doing, or can do now.
Rushdie’s publisher Bill Buford had advised him to include the backtracking essay in Imaginary Homelands saying, “Now that you’ve done this thing, maybe we should put your essay into the book.” One of the things that Rushdie said in the document to Essawy and in the essay was: “As a contribution to the new atmosphere of goodwill, I have agreed not to permit new translations of The Satanic Verses, nor to publish an English-language paperback edition, while any risk of further offence remains.”
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In Joseph Anton Rushdie tells us that for the rest of his life he shall never be able to see a copy of Imaginary Homelands “without feeling a knife of embarrassment and regret.”
As it turned out, Rushdie’s hope that the language of enmity would be replaced by the language of love was false. If anything, the warring factions have got more polarised down the years. And despite his forced disavowal, he remains a target of fanatics. Moderation, it seems to me, is a solution the bloodthirsty never accept.
R. Raj Rao is a writer and professor. His forthcoming novel is Mahmud and Ayaz.