What you need to know about Salman Rushdie and the fatwa against him

Celebrated author Salman Rushdie, who has death threats issued against him from the 1980s, was attacked on stage Friday at an event in New York.

Photos circulating after the incident showed Rushdie being treated on stage after he was reportedly stabbed in the neck, moments before he was scheduled to give a lecture on “redefining the American home” in the 21st century.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) confirmed Friday afternoon that Rushdie is still alive, though no other details are known about his condition. It is also unclear what motivations prompted his attacker.

However, Rushdie, a British and American national who is of Indian descent, became a controversial figure for his written work because of its descriptions of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad, garnering backlash from the former Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

But how did Rushdie become a controversial figure? And how did he draw the ire of one of the most prominent Islamic figures in the Middle East?

Rushdie and ‘The Satanic Verses’

Rushdie was born in Mumbai, India, on June 19, 1947, and he later moved to the U.K. to study. According to GQ, he grew up in a “notionally Muslim house,” where religion open to “free debate rather than deep faith.”

Published in September 1988, “The Satanic Verses” caused immediate controversy around the world and among the Muslim community.

There were calls for its immediate ban and the book was burned in multiple demonstrations in the U.K., Pakistan and elsewhere. The book is still banned in a number of countries around the world including Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and India.

The book is considered by many Muslims to be blasphemous.

On Feb. 14, 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie. According to, a fatwa can only be repealed by that same scholar, and Ruhollah Khomeini died in the same year he issued the call.

Rushdie wrote about the controversy surrounding his novel in an essay for The New York Review in 1989 and said: “One may not discuss Muhammad as if he were human, with human virtues and weaknesses. One may not discuss the growth of Islam as a historical phenomenon, as an ideology born out of its time. These are the taboos against which The Satanic Verses has transgressed.”

What is a fatwa?

In Islam, a fatwa is issued by a religious scholar and then handed out by a religious leader as a legal pronouncement. A fatwa is, in essence, a ruling under Islamic law, and in rare cases like in Rushdie’s, a fatwa may call for death.

Gordon Newby, author of “A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam,” told CNN that getting a fatwa “would be like going to someone who was a combined lawyer-priest and getting an opinion.”

He added that a fatwa is an opinion and that different scholars from different schools of Islamic law might rule differently on the same issue or question.

Attacks on translators and publishers of ‘The Satanic Verses’

“The Satanic Verses” has also caused issues for those who have translated the work.

Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese scholar and translator of Rushdie’s novel, was stabbed to death in 1991.

The Italian translator of the novel, Ettore Capriolo, was injured in a stabbing in Milan in 1991. The Norwegian publisher of the book, William Nygaard, survived the assassination attempt when he was shot three times in Oslo in 1993.

Ten years in hiding

Rushdie, who was living in the U.K. at the time the fatwa was issued, went into hiding for 10 years under an alias. The author was also given 24-hour police protection by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government. 

The New York Times wrote that according to his former wife, novelist Marianne Wiggins, the couple moved 56 times, or once every three days in the first few months after the fatwa was issued. 

Rushdie wrote about his experience in hiding in his memoir published in 2012 called “Joseph Anton,” which was his alias for a decade. The New York Times noted that the memoir is “a record of his relocation from Bombay to London to New York, where he settled in 2000.”

The name is a combination of his favorite writers: Anton Chekhov and Joseph Conrad.

He told NPR that the alias was necessary so that he could rent property because doing so in his own name would be dangerous.

“And I was asked to make it not an Indian name. And so, deprived of one nationality, I retreated into literature — which is, you could say, my other country — and chose this name from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov: Joseph Conrad, Anton Chekhov equals Joseph Anton,” he added.

He later lived in a safe house on London’s infamous “Billionaires Row,” which had bullet-proof glass windows, a safe room and rooms for six live-in police officers, Insider reported.

“We put in what they call bomb-proof net curtains,” Ashton Hill, the architect who renovated the property told Insider.

Almost a decade after the fatwa was first issued, the Iranian government issued a statement saying it would neither “support nor hinder” Rushdie’s assassination. However, Iranian groups and others have continued to push for his assassination.

Move to the US and other works

Rushdie moved to the U.S. in the 2000s and told the Village Voice that Manhattan reminded him of the city where he was born.

“Even the shape of Manhattan island is pretty much the same shape and size as what used to be called Bombay and what is now called South Bombay. The old downtown area,” he said.  

Despite the controversy surrounding “The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s second novel “Midnight’s Children” in 1981 made him a household name in the literary world. He won the 1981 Booker Prize for his novel. A Netflix TV series based on the film version of the book is also reportedly in the works.

He had a famous cameo in the movie “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

Aftereffects of ‘The Satanic Verses’

For years, Rushdie has continued to face the aftereffects of publishing his novel, and on numerous occasions pulled out of literary festivals and appearances due to safety concerns.

He withdrew from India’s biggest literary festival in Jaipur after saying that he feared for his life in 2012, the BBC reported.

Updated at 2:58 p.m.

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