How the ‘fatwa’ against Salman Rushdie marks the timelessness of the Islamist war against the West

Reflections on the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks in the backdrop of a 34-year-old religious edict that threatens lives.

Author Salman Rushdie speaking in Novello, Italy, on May 29, 2011. Credit: Andersphoto/Shutterstock.
Author Salman Rushdie speaking in Novello, Italy, on May 29, 2011. Credit: Andersphoto/Shutterstock.
Shireen Qudosi. Credit: Courtesy.
Shireen Qudosi
Shireen Qudosi, a North American Muslim reformer, is the author of The Song of the Human Heart: Dawn of the Dark Feminine in Islam. Follow her on Twitter @ShireenQudosi.

“You have the watches, but we have the time,” is a phrase by the Taliban referencing the 20-year-old war in Afghanistan. It also underscores the American challenge in fighting the ideological war. That challenge is a short scope—a limited-range distance through which we measure either progress or failure. Meanwhile, the enemy is patient and always planning. While generational wars fueled by ideology are difficult concepts for most people to sit with, there is one man who is a symbol of the ideological war against Islamist extremism: Salman Rushdie.

Of the many narratives that surface about Islamic extremism, the one that most captures public attention is the controversy around Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. Any creative work on Islam, like that one, will struggle to be understood given that Islam itself often isn’t understood even by followers of the faith. Absent that, Islam is a belief system vulnerable to a mercurial nature of politics and culture that flanks the faith—a characteristic that is ironically also fast defining the American sociopolitical landscape.

Rushdie was made a perpetual target of Muslim fanatics when, in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini (Iran’s leader of the Islamic revolution) issued a fatwa (a religious edict) calling for the death of Salman Rushdie and his publishers at Viking Publishers, calling the book a “blasphemy against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran.” The Iranian Prime Minister at the time, Hussain Mousavi, sanctioned the terror group Hezbollah to “take necessary action” against Rushdie. Threats against Rushdie continued even after 1999 when Iran’s foreign ministry retreated; in 2012, an Iranian religious foundation raised a $3.3 million bounty to kill Rushdie. Rushdie had become a marked man. (Translators and publishers of Rushdie’s work were subject to attacks; several were brutally assassinated.)

Despite the passing of generations, time did not relent the tide of malevolence against the writer. On Aug. 12, 2022, in Upstate New York Rushdie was attacked on stage ahead of giving a lecture. The 75-year-old author, who has lived through decades of death threats, was stabbed in the neck by a 24-year-old Muslim man from New Jersey—a man almost 50 years his junior. Rushdie was placed on a ventilator; he subsequently lost sight in one eye and one hand as a result of the attack.

Central to the idea of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is the sermon by the same name that the Prophet Muhammad allegedly gave in which he honored three pagan goddesses: al-Lāt, al-‘Uzzá and al-Manāt.

“Have you considered al-Lāt and al-‘Uzzá? And about the third deity, al-Manāt?”
(“The Star,” Quran 53:19–20)

The next line that is removed from modern Quran editions:

“These are the exalted gharāniq [cranes], whose intercession is hoped for.”

The reference to the pagan Arabian goddesses as bird-like spiritual emissaries is Islam’s most taboo topic. In Islam’s origin story, however, the verses were never considered a satanic influence; that came later.

In 1858, British Orientalist Sir William Muir first used the term “satanic verses” in his book Life of Mahomet (Muhammad) to describe the story of the cranes. Ironically, despite Islamists’ perennial complaint of colonization, they choose to accept the dominant narrative about the most contested story in Islam as defined by peak British Imperialism. However, in Islam’s early years, the best and brightest of Muslim scholars universally referred to the revelation as “the story of the cranes.” Satan wasn’t part of the conversation, nor was there panic or controversy over the debate as generated by today’s Islamist clout.

In Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam, Shahab Ahmed, a Pakistani scholar of Islam at Harvard University, wrote: “The facticity and historicity of the Satanic verses incident are today (with a few maverick exceptions) universally rejected by Muslims of all sects and interpretative movements … routinely on pain of heresy (kufr)—that is, on pain of being deemed not a Muslim.”

Ahmed is saying that the present rejection of an authentic conversation on the satanic verses/story of the cranes is colored by a culture of forced exclusion. Forced exclusion tends to yield consensus; nobody wants to be canceled (usually by death). While the mainstream belief today among Muslims is that the story of the cranes didn’t take place, history shows the story wasn’t always rejected. Across the first 200 years of Islam’s origin story, Muslims believed that the event did take place:

“The fundamental finding of the present volume is that in the first two centuries of Islam, Muslim attitudes to the Satanic verses incident were effectively the direct opposite of what they are today. This volume [Ahmed’s book] studies no less than fifty historical reports that narrate the Satanic verses incident and that were transmitted by the first generations of Muslims. This study of the Satanic verses incident in the historical memory of the early Muslim community will demonstrate in detail that the incident constituted an absolutely standard element in the memory of early Muslims of the life of their Prophet. In other words, the early Muslim community believed almost universally that the Satanic verses incident was a true historical fact. As far as the overwhelming majority of the Muslim community in the first 200 years was concerned, the Messenger of God did indeed, on at least one occasion, mistake words of Satanic suggestion as being of Divine inspiration. For the early Muslims, the Satanic verses incident was something entirely thinkable.” [Source]

The shift from thinking to contesting the verse came later. Ahmed notes that by the 14th to 15th century, the scholarly Muslim consensus was that the event never took place.

The Islamic faith is still a largely unexcavated archeological site that deserves to be investigated. We approach the 22nd anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks in a world where it has become more difficult to dig into that work for three reasons.

First, it has become more difficult to isolate and deconstruct the issues due to the expanding field of static. We’re in an age seasoned by accusations of bigotry and racism by the very groups that risk losing their clout through the findings—or who are either unfamiliar or uninterested in doing the investigative work. Second, our attention spans are severed, including the capacity and bandwidth of activists. In order to stay relevant in the news cycle, activists are pressured to create bite-sized content that cannot hold the depth of conversation. And third, because people have simply forgotten. It has been 22 years since a major Islamist terror attack, during which time national attention has pivoted to domestic issues. However, as the 2022 attack on Rushdie shows, Islamists never forget.

As stewards of these conversations, the next 22 years stand before us as an invitation to pierce the static through a new dialectical approach that is measured, patient and timeless. We are invited to reorient ourselves towards larger frames of conversation rich with multidisciplinary thinking and new language that can deepen the range of dialogue.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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