Explaining the controversy around 'Satanic Verses,' the book that led to the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie

Explaining the controversy around 'Satanic Verses,' the book that led to the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie
Demonstrators in Tehran called for the death of Salman Rushdie after Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwah in February 1989,Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
  • Famed author Salman Rushdie was attacked in New York on Friday morning.
  • Rushdie's book, "The Satanic Verses," has sparked controversy since its publish in 1988 for its depiction of the prophet Muhammad.

On Friday August 12, Salman Rushdie was attacked moments before giving a lecture in New York.

Rushdie was scheduled to speak at the Chautauqua Institution about his experience as an exiled writer in the US, according to the event page.

Although the suspect's motive is still unclear, the attack has renewed discussions over a decades-long controversy surrounding the author's book, "The Satanic Verses."

In 1989, Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the deaths of Rushdie and his publishers.

What is 'The Satanic Verses'?

Published in 1988, "The Satanic Verses" follows two Indian Muslim actors who magically survive a plane hijacking. As they fall from the sky, one of the actors is transformed into the archangel Gabriel, while the other morphs into the devil.


The book explores themes of dislocation, the nature of good and evil, doubt, and the loss of religious faith.

"The Satanic Verses" was inspired by the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, whom Rushdie renames "Mahound" — a derogatory term used by the English during the Crusades.

The novel's title refers to the Satanic Verses, a group of verses from the Qur'an that Muhammad — who is meant to be morally infallible — allegedly mistook for divine revelation. These verses permitted prayer to three pre-Islamic Meccan goddesses, which is a stark violation of Islamic monotheism. The Satanic Verses were withdrawn on the grounds that the devil had sent them to trick Muhammad into thinking they came from God, and devout Muslims deny that these verses ever existed.

Book bans and death threats

Upon publish, Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" instantly became the subject of heated controversy.

India became the first country to ban the novel just nine days after it was published in the United Kingdom. Other countries, like South Africa, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, swiftly followed suit.

Explaining the controversy around 'Satanic Verses,' the book that led to the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie
Protestors in New York City, 1989.Rick Maiman/Sygma via Getty Images

In the UK and abroad, thousands of Muslims protested the book and the blasphemous references some believed it contained. On January 14, 1989, protestors in the UK city of Bradford burned a copy of "The Satanic Verses."

The New York offices of Viking Penguin, the publisher of the book, received seven bomb threats, and several bookstores across the UK were bombed.

In 1991, the Japanese translator of "The Satanic Verses" was assassinated, and the Italian translator was badly wounded in a stabbing attack.

The fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini

On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa — a formal edict on a matter of Islamic law — calling for the death of Rushdie and his publishers.

"I call on all valiant Muslims wherever they may be in the world to kill them without delay, so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth," Khomeini said on Tehran Radio.


Rushdie denied that "The Satanic Verses" was blasphemous against Islam, but issued a statement recognizing that "Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel. I profoundly regret the distress the publication has occasioned to the sincere followers of Islam."

Khomeini rejected Rushdie's apology, reiterating his order to "execute" the writer.

Explaining the controversy around 'Satanic Verses,' the book that led to the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie
Young protestors in Beirut hold up a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini and signs that say they're reading to kill Rushdie.Maher Attar/Sygma via Getty Images

Rushdie went into hiding for a decade, shuttering himself in a home fitted with bulletproof glass and security cameras, Insider previously reported.

Though Iran's foreign ministry eventually assured Britain they wouldn't carry out the threats in 1999, others in Iran rallied behind Khomeini's fatwa. In 2012, an Iranian religious foundation raised the bounty for Rushdie's head to $3.3 million.

In 2019, current Iranian ruler Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei said in a now-deleted tweet that the assassination order was "irrevocable."