Rushdie, Salman (b. 1947)

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Anglo-Indian author.

Ahmed Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay, India, on 18 June 1947, eight weeks before Indian independence was declared. His was a prosperous Muslim family; his father had attended King's College, Cambridge, and brought up his family with a deep respect for British culture. Salman Rushdie's childhood was spent, in the words of the title of the 1981 novel that made his reputation, as one of "midnight's children," those born in the shadow of both freedom and the bloodshed attending partition of Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. After attending the Cathedral School of Bombay, he continued his education at Rugby School in the British Midlands and at King's College, Cambridge, from which he graduated with a degree in history in 1968. By then his family had moved to Pakistan, to which Rushdie temporarily returned after Cambridge.

Rushdie had become, he said repeatedly, a non-Muslim Muslim, a British Asian, a non-European European. The ambivalence of his approach to both British and South Asian society and politics dominates virtually all his writing. In Shame (1983), he exposed the corruption of the military and political elite of Pakistan, "that fantastic bird of a place, two wings without a body, sundered by the land-mass of its greatest foe, joined by nothing but God" (p. 194). In Shame, Rushdie presented a thinly disguised Benazir Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan, in the form of the "Virgin Ironpants." In Midnight's Children he had conjured up the frightening figure of the "Black Widow," easily decipherable as Indira Gandhi during the State of Emergency she introduced in 1977. Awarded the prestigious Booker Prize for the best work of fiction in 1981 , Rushdie had indeed arrived in English literary culture.

In 1988 he arrived as well in international politics. The casus belli between Rushdie and upholders of the Islamic faith was the publication in 1988 of The Satanic Verses. This rambling, complex mixture of satire and fantasy presents two entirely distinct stories. One concerns the degrading treatment nonwhite immigrants receive in British society. The other is a story based on the medieval legend that Satan insinuated some lines into the Koran by whispering them surreptitiously in Mohammed's ear. Rushdie added insult to injury: he named prostitutes after the twelve wives of Mohammed and called Mecca "Jahilia," or "ignorance" in Arabic. He gave Mohammed the name "Mahound" and thereby conjured up an older non-Muslim tradition in which "Mahound" the Prophet was a charlatan or madman. What more did devout Muslims need to hear before concluding that Rushdie aimed to discredit Islam itself?

British Muslims took to the streets. On 14 January 1989, copies of The Satanic Verses were burned publicly in Bradford, home to a large population of Muslims whose origins were in poor rural areas of Pakistan. Two weeks later thousands of Muslims demonstrated against Rushdie in London's Hyde Park. Overseas the book also became a cause célèbre. The book was banned in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and India. This is the background to the fatwa, or death sentence, on Rushdie promulgated by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, after which Rushdie went into hiding. Police protection was provided in Britain. In Pakistan, six demonstrators were killed in Islamabad in mass protests over Rushdie's supposed vilification of Islam. Rushdie was barred from India. It was only on 7 September 1995, six years after the fatwa was issued, that Rushdie appeared in public, at Westminster City Hall in a debate on "writers against the state." In 1998 the Iranian authorities promised not to enforce the fatwa, but in 2005 Iran's Revolutionary Guards claimed that the fatwa still stood. Rushdie remains a marked man.

The Rushdie affair highlighted the vulnerability of the Muslim community in Britain. Faced by the temptations of Western culture, British Muslims from South Asia feared the loss of their children to secularism. Not having Arabic—the language of the Koran—as their native tongue, these Asian Muslims in Britain were even more vigilant in the defense of the Holy Text; they lacked the self-confidence simply to ignore a novel written by a Muslim-born writer who had ceased to believe in Islam. On the other side, the controversy brought into high relief the issue of Muslim assimilation of British "values" and anticipated later conflicts over Western military action in the Persian Gulf and Middle East.

Rushdie's later fiction is more eclectic, reflecting his decision to leave Britain for the United States. The Moor's Last Sigh (1995) is set in contemporary India, against the backdrop of Hindu terrorism against Muslims. The Ground beneath Her Feet (1999) deals with rock music, and Fury (2001) follows the life of a writer trying to start a new life in New York. Shalimar the Clown (2005) returns to Kashmir, and its destruction in the course of the Indo-Pakistani conflict over control of it. Here Rushdie speaks obliquely of terrorism, and more directly of this beautiful and troubled land where his most celebrated novel, Midnight's Children, began.

See alsoIslamic Terrorism/Al Qaeda.


Appignanesi, Lisa, and Sarah Maitland, eds. The Rushdie File. Syracuse, N.Y., 1990.

Booker, M. Keith, ed. Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie. New York, 1999.

Easterman, Daniel. New Jerusalems: Reflections on Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Rushdie Affair. London, 1992.

La'Porte, Victoria. An Attempt to Understand the Muslim Reaction to The Satanic Verses. Lewiston, N.Y., 1999.

Lévy, Bernard-Henri. Avec Salman Rushdie: Questions de princip. 6. Paris, 1999.

Ruthven, Malise. A Satanic Affair: Salman Rushdie and the Rage of Islam. London, 1990.

Weatherby, William J. Salman Rushdie, Sentenced to Death. New York, 1990.

Jay Winter