Satanic Verses burning

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie (it was issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1989). To mark the anniversary, here is an extract from Chapter 1 of my book From Fatwa to Jihad (pp 1-10),which tells the story of how the conflict over The Satanic Verses first arose.



‘It would be absurd to think that a book can cause riots’, Salman Rushdie told the Indian journalist Shrabani Basu shortly before publication of The Satanic Verses. ‘That’s a strange sort of view of the world.’ It is in retrospect a comment either extraordinarily naive or piquantly ironical.

It was in India that the campaign against The Satanic Verses began. Even before it was published in Britain, Kushwant Singh, a distinguished novelist and journalist who acted as an editorial adviser for Penguin Books India, had raised concerns. He had read the book in typescript and ‘was positive it would cause a lot of trouble’. ‘There are’, he told Chitrita Banerji of Sunday magazine, ‘several derogatory references to the Prophet and the Qur’an. Muhammad is made out to be a small-time imposter’. Singh spoke directly to Penguin’s CEO Peter Mayer. Penguin decided to publish the novel in India – but not under its own imprint.

On 5 October, barely a week after it had been published in Britain, the Indian Ministry of Finance placed The Satanic Verses on its list of proscribed books. The ban, the ministry proclaimed, ‘did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work.’ To which Rushdie sardonically replied, ‘Thanks for the good review’ – while also wondering what the world might make of the fact ‘that it is the Finance Ministry that gets to decide what Indian readers may or may not read.’ The ministry was in fact acting on orders from Prime Minister Ranjiv Gandhi who had been alerted to the issue by a letter from the MP Syed Shahabuddin, a member of the opposition Janata Party, and a self-proclaimed champion of India’s 150-million strong Muslim community.

‘The very title’ of Rushdie’s book, Shahabuddin complained in an article in The Times of India, was ‘suggestively derogatory’. In Islamic theology, the Qur’an is the word of God given to the Prophet Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel. Muhammad excised two of the original verses believing them to have been inspired by Satan masquerading as Gabriel. These are the ‘Satanic Verses’. Rushdie presents the whole of the Qur’an as the work of Muhammad masquerading as the Prophet of God. Mahound, as Rushdie calls Mohammad, is an archaic name for the Prophet used as an insult by Crusaders. And most insultingly, Shahabuddin observed, Rushdie depicts the Prophet’s wives as prostitutes in a brothel called the Curtain, the literal translation of al-hijab, the Arabic word for the veil. In fact, as Rushdie himself has pointed out, Muhammad’s wives do not, in the novel, work in a brothel. Rather, the twelve prostitutes take on the names of the Prophet’s wives. For Shahabuddin, however, that amounted to the same.

Like virtually all of Rushdie’s opponents, Shahabuddin had not actually read The Satanic Verses. ‘I do not have to wade through a filthy drain to know what filth is’, he retorted. He had been alerted to the novel’s significance by Jamaat-e-Islami activists. Jamaat-i-Islami is an Islamist organisation founded in India in 1941 by Sayyid Abu’l Ala Maududi, one of the heroes of the modern jihadist movement. Rushdie had already taken aim at the Jamaat in Shame. Its response was the campaign against The Satanic Verses. It organised protests and petitioned Indian MPs. With a general election due in November, the result of which was too close to call, no politician was willing to alienate an important Islamic organisation. A ban on The Satanic Verses was inevitable, whether or not anyone had read the book, and whatever its ‘literary and artistic merit’.

The Jamaat had a network of organisations in Britain, funded by the Saudi government, at the heart of which was the Islamic Foundation based in the small Midlands town of Leicester. According to the Illustrated Weekly of India, Ahmad Ejaz of the Islamic Foundation in Madras wrote to his friend Faiayazuddin Ahmed, who had recently arrived at the Leicester centre, about the furore in India over The Satanic Verses and urged him to do God’s work in Britain. Ahmad bought the book, photocopied extracts and mailed them to other Islamic groups in Britain and to the London embassies of Muslim countries. Soon afterwards, the Saudi-backed weekly Islamic magazine Impact International published a selection of the most controversial passages from The Satanic Verses, and Ahmad was invited to Saudi Arabia, where he briefed officials about the novel and mobilised Saudi support for a campaign against it.

The Saudis encouraged a number of Jamaat-influenced organisations in Britain to set up the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs (UKACIA) to co-ordinate the campaign against what one UKACIA circular described as ‘the most offensive, filthy and abusive book ever written by any hostile enemy of Islam’. But however overwrought the language, the Jamaati and the Saudis wanted to keep the anti-Rushdie campaign low-key. The Saudis’ style was that of backroom manoeuvrings rather than street protests. They hoped that a combination of diplomatic pressure and financial muscle could suppress The Satanic Verses, just as it had managed to ensure that Death of a Princess, a 1980 TV documentary hostile to the Saudis, was never reshown on British TV. This time the campaign had little success. Penguin refused to withdraw the book and the British government refused to ban it. Even Muslim states seemed barely interested. Few responded to the Saudi campaign or banned the novel. In November Pakistan and South Africa followed India’s lead in proscribing the book and soon after Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Sudan did so too. But in the majority of Muslim countries, including virtually all Arab states, The Satanic Verses continued to be freely available, even after the Organization of Islamic Conference had, in November, called for a ban.

The Satanic Verses cover

In December – almost three months after the publication of the novel – came the first major street protest in Britain. Seven thousand Muslims marched through Bolton, another small northern mill town, across the Pennines from Bradford. The demonstration was organised not by the Jamaat but by a rival Islamic faction, the Deobandis. The Jamaat possessed money and political influence, thanks to the Saudi connection, but little support on the ground. The majority of British Muslims were Barelwis, a Sufi-influenced tradition founded in India by Ahmad Raza Khan. Most mosques were run by the Deobandis, another movement founded in nineteenth century British India, with the aim of cleansing Islam and which placed particular stress on Qur’anic study and law. They created a network of madrassas throughout India (and subsequently Pakistan) the aim of which was to create a cadre of ulema (or religious leaders) capable of issuing fatwas on all aspects of everyday life based on a strict interpretation of the Qur’an. Most leaders of the Taliban, who came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, were trained in the Deobandi tradition. Conflict between the Jamaatis, the Barelwis and the Deobandis was a feature of British Islam, and helped fuel the Rushdie controversy.

The Bolton protest was an impressive call to arms. Almost 7000 protestors from across Britain marched through a town with a total Muslim population of around 10,000. As in Bradford, they carried a copy of The Satanic Verses that they torched – the first time The Satanic Verses had been burnt in anger in Britain. Yet, almost no one took any notice. Whatever the grievances of British Muslims about The Satanic Verses, these had not yet registered on the national radar.

The Bradford protest the following month was different, partly because Bradford itself was different. In 1985 a Sufi mystic, Pir Maroof Hussain Shah died. An Urdu poster displayed in corner shop windows throughout Britain urged his followers to attend a celebration of his life in Britain’s ‘Islamabad’ – the ‘city of Islam’. Islamabad was Bradford. By the 1980s, this small northern town had become the heartbeat of Britain’s Muslim communities. The creation of the Bradford Council of Mosques in 1981, and the close relationship between the mosques – around half of which were controlled by the Deobandis – and Bradford City Council, had provided the town’s imams with considerable political clout. Bradford’s heart also beat strongly to a secular pulse. The Asian Youth Movement, which gave voice to young radical Asians, and was as critical of the mosques as it was of racists, organised strongly in the town. More than a decade of militancy and protest had made Bradford’s Muslim leaders – religious and secular – politically astute and media savvy. They understood the gospel of Marshall McLuhan as well as the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. The demonstrators videoed the protest and despatched the images to media outlets across the world. The flames that incinerated The Satanic Verses were fanned into an international controversy.

In response to the Deobandi demonstrations the Jamaat organised its own street protests – not in Britain but in Pakistan. Pakistan had already banned the novel. But the Islamic Democratic Alliance, of which the Jamaat-e-Islami was an influential part, had recently lost an election to Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. ‘Was the agitation really against the book which has not been read in Pakistan, is not for sale in Pakistan’, Bhutto wondered, or ‘was it a protest by those people who lost the election… to try and destabilize the process of democracy?’ The Jamaati organised an anti-Rushdie demonstration on 12 February, targeting neither the British embassy nor the offices of Penguin books, but the American Cultural Centre in Islamabad. An angry Jamaati-led mob, 2000-strong according to some reports, 10,000-strong according to others, tried to storm the Centre shouting ‘Allahu Akhbar’ and ‘American Dogs’. They pulled down the Stars and Stripes flying on top of the building and burnt it, along with an effigy of Salman Rushdie. Eyewitness described the police repeatedly firing into the crowd with semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns. By the end of the day at least five people had been killed and more than a hundred injured – the first fatalities of the Rushdie affair.

Yet even now fury about The Satanic Verses appeared confined largely to Muslims in the Indian subcontinent and in Britain. Critics of Rushdie have insistently argued that the blasphemies in his novel caused mortal offence to all Muslims. ‘The life of the Prophet Mohammad’, the liberal Muslim writer Ziauddin Sardar has observed, ‘is the source of Muslim identity.’ Because ‘the Prophet and his personality define Islam’, so every Muslim relates to him directly and personally.’ That is why Sardar had ‘felt that every word, every jibe, every obscenity in The Satanic Verses was directed at me – personally.’ Every Muslim would have felt the same, Sardar insisted. ‘Just as people threatened with physical genocide react to defend themselves, Muslims en masse would protest against this annihilation of their cultural identity.’

Leaving aside the question of whether the blasphemies in The Satanic Verses are really more offensive than, say, the attempt to compare the publication of a novel with the Final Solution, Sardar’s claim that all Muslims would see such blasphemies as the ‘annihilation of their cultural identity’ was not borne out by events. The novel had little impact on Muslims in other European countries. There is no evidence that French or German Muslims, on reading the book, imagined, as Sardar did, that ‘this is how… it must feel to be raped’. There was barely a squeak of protest in either country when the novel was published there. In America there was an organised letter campaign aimed at Viking Penguin, and bomb threats against its offices, but no mass protests as in Britain, India or Pakistan. Arabs and Turks, too, seemed as unmoved by Rushdie’s blasphemies as did their European and American brethren.

Even within the Islamic Republic of Iran there appeared to be little concern. Unlike the governments of India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, Teheran’s revolutionary mullahs had felt no need to ban the book. In December 1988, Kayhan Farangi, a leading Iranian literary journal, published a review. The Satanic Verses, it suggested, ‘contains a number of false interpretations about Islam and gives wrong portrayals of the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad. It also draws a caricature-like and distorted image of Islamic principles which lacks even the slightest artistic credentials.’ Though highly critical of the novel, there was no intimation that the ‘distorted images’ amounted to blasphemy or that Rushdie’s ‘moral degradation’ constituted apostasy. Nor was there any suggestion that The Satanic Verses was, as the Jamaat-inspired UK Action Committee had put it, ‘the most offensive, filthy and abusive book ever written by any hostile enemy of Islam’. Kayhan Farangi acknowledged Rushdie’s insistence ‘that his book is nothing more than a work of imagination which tries to investigate the birth of a major religion from the point of view of a secular individual.’ It acknowledged, too, Rushdie’s fear that the campaign against the novel in the subcontinent was driven by politics rather than theology. As Indian politicians attempted to ‘win the hearts and minds of 100 million Muslims’, so The Satanic Verses had ‘become a ball in this political game.’

Today, Ghayasuddin Siddiqui is a founding trustee of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. Twenty years ago his views about Islam and secularism were very different. He was a great admirer of the Iranian Revolution and, in 1974, one of the founders, together with the scholar Kalim Siddiqui and the writer Ziauddin Sardar, of the Muslim Institute, a London-based organisation that was eventually entirely funded by Tehran. Sardar, who soon became disenchanted with the Revolution, describes the Institute as ‘an extension of the Iranian embassy in London’. ‘Being the first Sunni organisation to support the Revolution, we had privileged access to the revolutionaries’, says Siddiqui. He was frequently in Tehran and in the autumn of 1988 had plenty of discussions about The Satanic Verses, in street cafes and government ministries. ‘There was little hostility to the novel’, he recalls. ‘It was widely discussed. There were even some good reviews in the press.’




It was the evening of 13 February 1989. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui and Kalim Siddiqui were in Tehran attending a conference. On the way home they were, as usual, ushered into the VIP lounge at the airport. Waiting for them was Mohammad Khatami. Almost a decade later Khatami would become the most liberal of Iran’s post-revolutionary presidents. In 1989 he was in charge of the Ministry of Religious Guidance. ‘He took Kalim aside’, remembers Siddiqui, ‘and they were engaged in earnest discussion. When he came back, I asked him what that was about. “He wanted to know about Rushdie’s book’, Kalim said. “What did you tell him?”, I asked. And Kalim said with a laugh “I told him it was obnoxious”.’

At the same time as Kalim Siddiqui was conferring with Mohammad Khatami, on the other side of the city, in his modest house, the Ayatollah Khomeini was summoning a secretary. He dictated a simple four-paragraph message:

In the name of Him, the Highest. There is only one God, to whom we shall all return. I inform all zealous Muslims of the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses – which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the prophet and the Qur’an – and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death.

I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities. God willing, whoever is killed on this path is a martyr.

In addition, anyone who has access to the author of this book, but does not possess the power to execute him, should report him to the people so that he may be punished for his actions.

May peace and mercy of God and His blessings be with you.

Ruhollah al-Musavi al-Khomeini, 25 Bahman 1367

The following day – 14 February, Valentine’s Day – the sheet of paper was hand-delivered to Tehran Radio just before the 2pm news, at the start of which it was read out. It was a message that was to transform the Rushdie affair.

rushdie avedon

At the very moment that Khomeini was dictating his death sentence, Salman Rushdie was attending a book party for his American wife Marianne Wiggin’s new novel John Dollar in the elegant art deco atrium of the Michelin House, on the Fulham Road in West London. They were planning a joint book tour of America. Apprehensive about the consequences of the riots in Pakistan they spent that night with friends rather than in their Islington home. It was early next morning that a telephone call from the BBC World Service alerted Rushdie to the fatwa. Within hours he was in the BBC studios at Broadcasting House in central London responding to Khomeini’s edict. ‘I am very sad it should have happened’, he said. ‘It is not true this book is a blasphemy against Islam. I doubt very much Khomeini or anyone else in Iran has read the book, or anything more than selected extracts taken out of context.’ Later, interviewed for the CBS This Morning television show in America, Rushdie added, ‘Frankly, I wish I had written a more critical book. A religion that claims it is able to behave like this, religious leaders who are able to behave like this, and then say this is a religion that must be above any kind of whisper of criticism: that doesn’t add up.’

‘By the time I came off the air’, Rushdie recalled a year later, ‘Marianne had rung the studio and said, “Don’t come home, because everybody and his mother is parked on the pavement”.’ Rushdie was smuggled instead into his agent’s office where ‘of course every telephone in the building was ringing non-stop and everybody was being told I wasn’t there.’

He was due that evening to attend a memorial service for the writer Bruce Chatwin who had been ‘probably my closest writer friend’. Should he go? ‘It was very important for me to go to that service’, Rushdie recalled, ‘but I had no way of knowing what I should or shouldn’t do. In the end I just said, “The hell with it, let’s go”.’ It was to be Rushdie’s last public appearance for years. ‘Your turn next’, the travel writer Paul Theorux whispered to him on leaving the church. ‘I suppose we’ll be back here for you next week.’ ‘It wasn’t the funniest joke I ever heard’, Rushdie later remarked, ‘but I did write him a letter subsequently saying that I was glad he’s a less good prophet than he’s a novelist.’


The seminal account of the Rushdie affair and its legacy
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‘Gripping… The Rushdie affair has shaped all our lives. This book shows us how.’
Hanif Kureishi

‘A riveting political history… Impeccably researched, brimming with detail, yet razor-sharp in its argument.’
Lisa Appignanesi, Independent

‘Few writers have untangled the paradoxes and unintended consequences of political Islam as deftly as Malik does here.’
Maureen Freely, Washington Post



The photo of the burning of The Satanic Verses in Bradford is by Garry Clarkson; the photo of Salman Rushdie is by Richard Avedon.


  1. damon

    That anti-Rushdie demonstration in Bolton thirty years ago sounds like the beginning of sectarianism in Britain.
    There would have been every justification for there to have been counter protests by people who thought this movement was awful. Just like we always get if anyone considered right wing or racist tries to organise publicly.
    But I think I remember that only progressive liberal voices were highlighted. By Rushdie’s friends and those from literary circles. They wrote hand wringing letters to the newspapers and appeared on the news and political shows.
    I can only imagine what ordinary working class people were saying about this in the pub, or at work the following Monday morning.

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