From fatwa to fear: 30 years on from ‘The Satanic Verses’ affair

6 February 2019

In 1989, an Iranian ‘fatwa’ was issued calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie following the publication of his book, ‘The Satanic Verses’. 30 years on, Tim Dieppe looks into how this event has caused the fear of religious offence – particularly fear of appearing Islamophobic – to censure our freedom of speech and expression.

The fatwa

On 14th February 1989, the following announcement was made on Radio Tehran:

“We are from Allah and to Allah we shall return. I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses, a text written, edited, and published against Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Qur’an, along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents, are condemned to death.

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. And whoever is killed in this cause will be a martyr, Allah Willing. Meanwhile if someone has access to the author of the book but is incapable of carrying out the execution, he should inform the people so that he may be punished for his actions. May Allah’s blessing be upon you all.”

— Rouhollah al-Mousavi al-Khomeini.

This was how the famous fatwa was released. It immediately received international attention and was headline news right across the world. A foreign leader had issued a death sentence on a British citizen, no matter that he lived in Britain and had broken no British law. He said that British Muslims had a duty to kill him. Author Salman Rushdie had to go into hiding with 24-hour police protection for over a decade.

This was a watershed moment for Britain in in terms of the influence of Islam in the UK and the challenges that posed. The repercussions are still being felt. In this article I will explore what happened 30 years ago, discuss the implications, the real Satanic verses, and the lasting repercussions on our culture today.

What is a fatwa?

The first most British people ever heard of a fatwa was when this fatwa hit the headlines. A fatwa is an authoritative legal ruling issued by an appropriate Islamic authority – in this case Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini was the leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution which overthrew the last Shah of Iran and set up the Islamic Republic of Iran. He became the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic as well as the primary spiritual leader for some 50 million Shia Muslims.

A month after the Khomeini fatwa the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers met in Riyadh, with 46 Islamic countries represented, and pronounced the following in their communique:

“The Conference declared that blasphemy could not be justified on the basis of freedom of thought or expression. It strongly condemned the blasphemous publication “Satanic Verses” whose author is regarded as an apostate. It appealed to all members of the International community to ban the book and take necessary measures to protect the religious beliefs of others.”

Although this communique stopped short of expressly calling for Rushdie to be killed, in declaring the publication blasphemous and the author apostate, this was seen as supporting the verdict of Khomeini’s fatwa which pronounces Rushdie guilty of crimes deserving of the death penalty.

The book

On 26th September 1988, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was published in the UK by Viking Penguin. Rushdie had won the prestigious Booker Prize for a previous novel and had earned a reputation as a highly regarded contemporary novelist who was unafraid to tackle controversial subjects.

The Satanic Verses is a novel, using magical realism and dream visions to tell a lengthy imaginative story.  Some parts of the book are clearly based on aspects of the life of Muhammad. Muhammad is not mentioned by name, however, nor is Mecca or sharia law. Instead there is a character called ‘Mahound’ who founds a religion of ‘Submission’ in a fantastical polytheistic city of ‘Jahilia’.  It is, nevertheless, as Kenen Malik explains, “a fictionalised, satirical account of the origins of Islam.”[1] ‘Mahound’ is an ancient derogatory name for ‘Muhammad’. ‘Submission’ is the literal meaning of ‘Islam’. ‘Jahiliyya’ is an Arabic word for ‘ignorance’, used by Muslims to describe the Arabic world prior to the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad.

In an interview broadcast on 14th February 1989 Rushdie was asked:

“The controversy, in a sense, has been about your acting on the historic text of the Koran and playing with that. How much of that was based on historical fact?”

He replied:

“Almost entirely. Almost everything in those sections – the dream sequences – starts from an historical or quasi-historical basis, though one can’t really speak with absolute certainty about that period of Mohammed’s life.”[2]

What are the Satanic verses?

According to numerous authoritative Islamic traditions, early in his career when Muhammad was struggling to attract followers, he gave a revelation which endorsed polytheism which meant that more people joined him. These are verses he recited which remain in the Qur’an:

So have you considered al-Lat and al-‘Uzza?And Manat, the third – the other one?” (Q 53:19-20)

Originally, this reference to three gods, was followed by these verses which endorse them:

“These are the exalted cranes (intermediaries). Whose intercession is to be hoped for.”

The angel Gabriel then corrected Muhammad, and these later verses were removed from the Qur’an and became known as the Satanic verses.[3]

This story provides the context for the following verse from the Qur’an:

And We did not send before you any messenger or prophet except that when he spoke [or recited], Satan threw into it [some misunderstanding]. But Allah abolishes that which Satan throws in; then Allah makes precise His verses. And Allah is Knowing and Wise.” (Q 22:52)

It is worth remembering here that the Qur’an is not in even roughly chronological order. It is also worth noting that some verses of the Qur’an (which Allah himself is said to have inspired, not Satan) are abrogated or superseded by later verses. This is clearly taught in the Qur’an itself in verses such as this one:

We do not abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten except that We bring forth [one] better than it or similar to it. Do you not know that Allah is over all things competent?” (Q 2:106, cf. Q 16:101)

The point here is that Salman Rushdie did not invent the concept of ‘Satanic verses’, or of some verses which Muhammad recited, having been inspired by Satan. This is part of standard Islamic tradition, as is the idea that Allah has abrogated some of his own inspired verses. Rushdie used this idea to inform the provocative title of his book. Of course, this incident raises serious questions about the source Muhammad’s revelations and the trustworthiness of Allah.

The Reaction

The book was published on 26th September 1988. On 5th October, the Indian government announced that the book would be banned in India. This was quickly followed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Sudan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Qatar, and South Africa. Meanwhile, back in England the book won the Whitbread “best novel” award in November and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Salman Rushdie wrote an open letter to the Indian prime minister complaining about the ban and arguing for the importance of the right to freedom of expression.[4] This was responded to by Sayed Shahabuddin, an Indian MP. Some representative statements from his response are:

“Yes, I have not read it, nor do I intend to. I do not have to wade through a filthy drain to know what filth is.”

“No, your act is not unintentional or a careless slip of the pen. It was deliberate and consciously planned with devilish, forethought, with an eye to your market. Here in India our laws are very clear… Whoever with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India … shall be punished with imprisonment … or with a fine … or with both. I wish you were in India Mr Rushdie, to face the music.”

“To sum up, your magnum opus is objectionable on three grounds: it is a crime against human decency; it is an insult to Islam; it is an offence under Indian law. And tell your British advisors that India shall not permit ‘literary colonialism’, nor what may be called religious pornography.”[5]

Back in England, Muslim outrage mounted, culminating in a demonstration in Bradford on January 14th where copies of the book were ceremoniously burned, followed by 8,000 Muslims demonstrating at Hyde Park on 27th January. Amongst the placards were some reading: “Islam – Our Religion Today, Your Religion Tomorrow.”[6] Many others simply called for Rushdie to be killed.[7] A petition was submitted to Penguin Books asking for the book to be withdrawn and pulped, and for Penguin to apologise for publishing it. Penguin also received threats and hate mail. Penguin stood firm, though WH Smith withdrew the book from its stores.

The first deaths followed shortly afterwards with five killed in rioting in Islamabad, Pakistan, and then another killed and 100 injured in Kashmir on 13th February 1989.

Reactions after the fatwa

Media in Tehran claimed that the book was published at the request of the British Intelligence services as part of a deliberate attempt to confront Islam.[8] A reward of £1,500,000 was offered to kill Rushdie.[9]

Rushdie went into hiding, but said in an interview:

 “Frankly I wish I had written a more critical book, 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 which must be above any kind of whisper of criticism, that doesn’t add up.”[10]

Robert Maxwell countered the reward for killing Rushdie with this:

“I will offer $10m to the man or woman who will not kill, but civilise the barbarian Ayatollah, the test of which shall be that he shall publicly recite the Ten Commandments, with special reference to the sixth (‘Thou shalt not kill’) and the ninth (‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’).”[11]

Iqbal Sacranie, of the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs said:

“Death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him … his mind must be tormented for the rest of his life unless he asks for forgiveness to Almighty Allah.”[12]

Sacranie went on to become the first secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, and Sir Iqbal in 2005.

Sayed Abdul Quddus, joint secretary for the Council of Mosques in Bradford said:

“I totally agree with what Ayatollah Khomeini has said in public. Every Muslim blames Salman Rushdie. If any Muslim will get a chance, he won’t avoid it and he should not. Why not? He (Rushdie) has tortured every Muslim. Why should people be brutally murdered and lose their lives and Salman Rushdie not pay.”[13]

West Yorkshire Police later confirmed that they would not be bringing charges of incitement to murder against Muslim leaders in Bradford. The CPS cited insufficient evidence and questions around whether such a prosecution would be in the public interest.[14]

Anthony Burgess likened the threats against Rushdie to Jihad:

“To order outraged sons of the prophet to kill him and the directors of Penguin Books on British soil is tantamount to a jihad. It is a declaration of war on the citizens of a free country and as such it is a political act. It has to be countered with an equally forthright, if less murderous, declaration of defiance.”[15]

After a few days, Rushdie issued an apology expressing regret for the distress caused by the publication.[16] Ayatollah Khomeini was not impressed:

“Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything has got, his life, his wealth, to send him to hell.”[17]

In October 1989, Kalim Siddiqui, founder of the Muslim Institute, addressed an audience in Manchester Town Hall with TV cameras present. He told the audience that the fatwa was just and that Rushdie should be killed. He asked the audience how many supported the death sentence for Rushdie. The majority raised their hands. He then asked how many would be willing to carry it out. Almost all of them kept their hands up. This electrifying scene was captured on camera and played on the evening news.[18] Nevertheless, Siddiqui was not prosecuted for incitement to murder.

Archbishop supports extension of blasphemy laws

Home Secretary Douglas Hurd announced on 1st February that the government had no plans to change the blasphemy laws in response to Islamic demands.[19] The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, while condemning incitement to murder, also condemned the offence caused by the book. He added:

“I firmly believe that offence to the religious beliefs of the followers of Islam or any other faith is quite as wrong as offence to the religious beliefs of Christians.”[20]

In the context of demands for the blasphemy law to be extended to include Islamic blasphemy, this astonishing and appalling statement lent support to criminalising criticism of Muhammad. A Vatican official also condemned Salman Rushdie for blaspheming.[21] The Chief Rabbi, however, whilst stating that he thought the book should not have been published, made clear that he did not support any extension to the blasphemy laws.[22]

The International Response

Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, was taken by surprise by the strength of opinion from EC foreign ministers who were keen to do more than merely issue a statement as he had done. The twelve countries of the EC recalled their ambassadors and suspended all high-level visits between their countries and Iran.

In France, publication of The Satanic Verses was suspended for security reasons.[23] In Canada, imports of the book were stopped pending a review of the book for possible hate propaganda.[24] In the US several prominent bookstore chains, including Barnes & Noble, and independent bookstores pulled the book from their shelves.[25]

Thousands of literary writers signed a statement expressing solidarity with Rushdie.[26] One anonymous person from Karachi wrote to say that Rushdie speaks for him and others like him who wish to recant from Islam but are unable to do so publicly in Islamic society on pain of death.[27]

Meanwhile the UK government seemed keener to express sympathy with the offence caused to Muslims than to stand up for freedom of expression. Sir Geoffrey Howe explained to a meeting in Birmingham that there was nothing he could do about the book under British law, instead he discussed the obligation of immigrants to integrate.[28] He later criticised the book for being “extremely rude” about Britain.[29] Margaret Thatcher joined him in criticising the novel for the offence caused.[30] Labour party leader Niel Kinnock, by contrast, later revealed that he had met Rushdie in hiding and defended his right and that of his publishers to release a paperback edition. Roy Hattersley and a number of other senior Labour figures disagreed.[31] Commentators opined that it was not really appropriate for the government to make pronouncements on the quality of a novel.

More violence

An Imam in Brussels who had made a lenient statement about Rushdie was shot dead on 30th March 1989.[32] On 9th April the ground floor of Collets Penguin bookshop in London was destroyed by a firebomb, and a Dillons store was also attacked.

An anonymous official at Viking Penguin was interviewed for his perspective. He defended the publication but said that the security costs all over the world would far outweigh any profits from sales of the book. He added:

“I don’t know if Viking Penguin can stand this indefinitely.  … this is censorship by fear and intimidation.”[33]

Between December and March 1989, Viking received 30,000 letters of protest and 16 bomb threats.[34] Penguin CWO, Peter Mayer received death threats to himself and his family, and letters written in blood pushed under the door of his house.[35]

In July 1991, the Italian translator of The Satanic Verses was stabbed in his apartment in Milan by an Iranian. He survived the attack.[36] Nine days later the Japanese translator of the book Hitoshi Igarashi was found stabbed to death in his university office.[37] In 1989, the Islamic Center in Japan had requested publishers not to translate or reproduce the novel, describing it as “anti-Islamic.”

The aftermath

Salman Rushdie finally came out of hiding in 1998 after the Iranian government distanced itself from the Khomeini fatwa. The fatwa itself still stands though, and as recently as 2016 a bounty of $600,000 was offered by state-run Iranian media outlets for the death of Rushdie.[38] Rushdie was knighted for his services to literature in 2007. Since 2000 he has lived in the United States. In 2012 Rushdie published Joseph Anton: A Memoir which is an account of his life under police protection when his pseudonym was Joseph Anton.[39]

Twenty years later – The Jewel of Medina

Twenty years to the day after the publication of The Satanic Verses, on 26th September 2008, the London offices of publishers Gibson Square were firebombed.[40] Gibson Square was planning to publish a novel The Jewel of Medina, about Muhammad’s youngest wife Aisha.

Random House had originally planned to publish The Jewel of Medina, but it cancelled publication after an email suggesting that it might inspire violent reactions from some Muslims. Random House put out a statement explaining that it had received:

“from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”[41]

Malik claims that all they had received was an email from an academic and a critical post on an online forum.[42] An actual fatwa and actual violence had not stopped Penguin from continuing to publish The Satanic Verses twenty years earlier. Now the merest suggestion that it could inspire violence was enough to cancel publication of The Jewel of Medina. As Salman Rushdie said:

“This is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed.”[43]

Gibson Square then bought the rights and announced it would publish The Jewel of Medina in the UK.[44] After the arson attack, publication was postponed in the UK. The book was published in the US, Germany, Denmark, Serbia, and Italy with no repercussions.  It was later published in the UK by Gibson books in 2009.

The idea that Random House would cancel publication after the suggestion of possible inspiration of violence would have been unthinkable before the Rushdie fatwa. Furthermore, if Random House had gone ahead and ignored these suggestions, it is likely that nothing would have happened. Random House drew attention to the book with its cancellation. As Malik said: “The fear of giving offence … made it easier to take offence.”[45]

Repercussions Today

Kenan Malik appropriately comments that: “Rushdie’s critics lost the battle, but won the war.”[46] They did not succeed in banning publication of The Satanic Verses, but they did succeed in establishing a principle in society that it is wrong to offend other religions and cultures. Even more significantly, they established a de-facto assassin’s veto, whereby the mere threat of violence means that something perceived as critical of Islam is self-censored. The fatwa has become internalised, and we now live in a culture of self-censorship by fear.

The ICM survey in 2015 found that 78% of British Muslims believed that no publication should have the right to publish pictures of Muhammad. This rose to 87% when talking about the right to publish pictures making fun of Muhammad.[47] Further, 18% sympathised with people who take part in violence against those who mock Muhammad.

In 2017, two British newspapers published a correction notice: “We are happy to make clear that Islam as a religion does not support so-called ‘honour killings’.”[48] No matter that many Muslims would disagree with this, and Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters would certainly have disagreed. The death penalty for apostasy is a form of honour killing that is clearly part of Islamic teaching.[49] This means that the press regulator is now watching out for statements that criticise Islam. This is a new form of censorship that would not have been imagined prior to the fatwa.

Last year, Canadian journalist Lauren Southern was refused entry into the UK. She had committed no crime. She had previously distributed posters with slogans about Allah such as “Allah is Gay” or “LGBT for Islam UK”.[50] This was a response to an article which questioned whether Jesus was gay. Clearly the border forces believe that someone who some may consider to have insulted Allah is a threat to society. Another person was refused entry into the UK because of his ‘anti-Islamisation beliefs’.[51] We are now living in a culture that goes to quite some lengths to protect Islam from criticism, but not Christianity.

From fatwa to fear to …

30 years after the fatwa, fear of criticising Islam is part of our culture. No-one wants to be labelled ‘Islamophobic’. But it is actually those who are silenced by fear who are really ‘Islamophobic’. We are all aware that some Muslims will turn to violence if they feel that Muhammad has been insulted, and that there are enough Muslims sympathising with this in the UK to create a culture of fear. Blasphemy laws have been abolished, but publishers and others are careful not to criticise Islam anyway. We have moved from fatwa to fear.

It is time to say enough to Islamic intimidation, threats and censorship. This is no way to run a free society. The police and the government should robustly defend free speech in every area of society and clamp down on threats of violence of any form. Rather than saying that all religions should be respected, they should defend criticism of religions. Christians and others should be able to clearly expose the discriminatory nature of Islam and its links with terrorism and other activities without fear of prosecution or of violent threats. Sometimes the truth is offensive, but people have no right not to be offended. Journalists, politicians, and others should be entirely free to say that Muhammad was a false prophet who taught and practiced immoral things. We need to move from fear to faith and boldly proclaim that Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life and that no-one comes to the Father except by Him. Having moved from fatwa, to fear, it is time to move from fear to faith and freedom.

[1] Kenan Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy (London: Atlantic, 2009), xv

[2] Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland, The Rushdie File (Syracuse University Press, 1990), 21-22

[3] A.M.I. Hishām, et al., The life of Muhammad: a translation of Isḥāq’s Sīrat rasūl Allāh (trans. A. Guillaume; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 165-166. Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari Vol. VI: Muhammad at Mecca (trans. W. M. Watt and M. V. McDonald; vol. 6: State University of New York Press, 1989), 107-112. For further discussion of the Satanic verses and other sources see:

[4] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 34-36

[5] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 37-41

[6] Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1

[7] Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy, 185

[8] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 70-71

[9] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 79

[11] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 103-4

[14] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 104-5

[15] The Independent, 15 February 1989. Cited in: Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 79

[16] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 97-98

[17] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 99

[18] Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy, 185

[19] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, xiii

[20] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 101-102

[21] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 116

[22] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 197-99 

[23] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 130

[24] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 144

[25] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 147

[26] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 109-112

[27] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 221-22

[28] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 108

[29] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 115

[30] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 114

[31] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 129

[32] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 126-7

[33] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 149

[34] Appignanesi and Maitland, The Rushdie File, 149

[35] Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy, 12

[42] Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy, 195

[43] Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy, 196

[45] Malik, From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Legacy, 196


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