For What is a Fatwā ?

The Bible & Literature module I’m currently taking has thrown up some real gems. Firstly there was the amazingly bleak The Road which we compared with The Book of Job. Last week it was the epic Ben Hur alongside the Gospels on silent film, and now I’m reading Salman Rushdie’s infamous The Satanic Verses.

I knew that there was a lot of controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie but it didn’t click that it was this particular book, until my friend said, pointing to it, “Oh god, not that book.” Some quick Wikipedia-ing updated me and then I became scared.

For 25 years old it has a lot of history, for under 600 pages it has caused a lot of trouble, and for printed paper it is alarmingly dangerous. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me explain.

Published in 1988 as Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses immediately became controversial for its title referring to an alleged event where the prophet Muhammad is tricked by the devil into delivering verses wrongly to the people. Add that to the depiction of the prophet in the book, three pagan goddesses and the naming of the Angel Gabriel as a film actor and the great Muslim hero of the Crusades Saladin as the devil, it became clear very quickly that Rushdie was in a lot of trouble. So too were his editors – scarily enough it was published by Viking Press: the part of Penguin where I’ve just done my work experience – and Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwā instructing Muslims to kill Rushdie and his editors. Scary stuff. It led to Rushdie having to live under a 24 hour armed guard, moving every couple of days in the first few months, and even his Japanese translator being killed.

It’s a tricky business. For what right does a leader have to issue a death warrant from a different country? Free speech and all that. But then again, surely Rushdie knew that what he was writing could be seen as controversial and upset a lot of people? It brings up questions of the purpose and distribution of literature and the role of political leaders in the event of a controversy. I think that for a book to have such an immediate reaction in the modern age is hugely significant, and I’m sure that the events certainly made a lot of people think twice about what they were reading and writing.

An event like this is interesting in bringing literature to the forefront of global issues. Personally, I am enjoying reading the book and can’t help but think that the whole reaction was perhaps a little over the top. The controversial parts are quite clearly fictional and isn’t the role of fiction to test the boundaries of humanity and stretch the minds of their readers? Anyway, I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in the controversy or who simply enjoys good fiction. It’s as strange as Rushdie always is and intriguing if only in its plot and narrative style.

Happy reading! And don’t worry guys, Rushdie is alright and out of hiding although apparently a fatwā  can only be rescinded by the person who ordered it and seeing as he’s dead, I can’t see it happening soon.

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