The Satanic Verses is a magical realist epic with three major plotlines. The first of these plotlines follows two Indian actors, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, after they miraculously survive a plane crash over the English Channel. The second and third plotlines are elaborate descriptions of dreams that Gibreel has after the crash. One focuses on the Muslim prophet Mahound (based on Mohammed), as he wrestles with his faith to found a new religion. Another follows Ayesha, a prophet who leads the people of her village on a futile pilgrimage. Rushdie draws on a variety of influences, including Islamic history and theology, Bollywood cinema, and immigration politics.
The Satanic Verses is Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel. When it was published in 1988, the author was already well-known and critically respected. His novel Midnight’s Children, published eight years before, had won the Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was a bestseller. So when The Satanic Verses was published, it was poised to garner plenty of attention from critics and the public at large.
And attract attention it did. Some Muslim clerics and literary critics found Rushdie’s use of Islamic theology very offensive. The main point of contention was his exploration of the ‘satanic verses,’ a series of possibly apocryphal verses in the Qur’an, in which Mohammed seems to recognize ‘Allah’s daughters’ – three female demigods. The story generally goes that Satan tricked Mohammed into recognizing the goddesses, but Mohammed retracted what he had said once he realized he had been fooled. However, this piece of Islamic history is extremely controversial, and some Muslim scholars argue that it never happened at all.
Several countries with Muslim populations, including India, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and South Africa, banned The Satanic Verses, although the censorship often ended up becoming as controversial as the book itself. In February 1989, the Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a fatwa on Rushdie – that is, a call for his murder. As a result, the United Kingdom - where Rushdie is a citizen - severed its diplomatic relations with Iran. Rushdie successfully went into hiding, a period of his life that he chronicles in his 2012 memoir, Joseph Anton. However, the Italian and Japanese translators of the novel, as well as its Norwegian publisher, were violently attacked; the Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, died of his wounds.
In later years, both sides made attempts to resolve the conflict. The Iranians promised to retract the fatwa in order to improve their relationship with the United Kingdom. For his part, Rushdie made an official apology to Muslims, and even converted to Islam a year after the book’s publication. However, none of these attempts were long-lasting. Rushdie stopped being a Muslim shortly after his conversion, and Iran eventually reaffirmed the fatwa. The novel remains controversial to this day, although it has also been recognized for its stylistic virtuosity, and is studied by many scholars of postcolonial literature.