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What is a fatwa and why did Salman Rushdie get one?

Novelist Salman Rushdie was stabbed on stage in New York, 33 years after a fatwa was ordered against him. Why? What’s a fatwa?

Update:
Novelist Salman Rushdie was stabbed on stage in New York, 33 years after a fatwa was ordered against him. Why? What’s a fatwa?
TMX/MARY NEWSOMTMX/Mary Newsom via REUTERS

British-Indian Novelist Salman Rushdie has been admitted to hospital after being stabbed in the neck on stage in New York. The 75-year-old had been preparing to deliver a lecture at the Chautauqua Institute when he was attacked.

The male attacker has reportedly been detained by police with no official motive ascribed to the assault. However, it may very well be related to Rushdie’s 1988 controversial novel, The Satanic Verses, which has kept Rushdie controversial in the public eye for decades.

In 1989, a fatwa was declared against him for mocking the religion of Islam and the Prophet Muhammed.

But what is a fatwa, who issues it, and why was one ordered against Mr Rushdie?

Fatwa meaning and explanation

A fatwa is basically a legal pronouncement by an Islamic legal scholar, known as a mufti. A mufti is capable of forming his opinion on any kind of legal issue that embodies the religion of Islam, and pronounce his judgments.

While fatwas can be traced back to the holy ‘Quran’, most of the scholars actually believe that fatwas cannot be mandatory for everyone, as their application may differ according to various things, like situation and context, etc. At the end of the day, a man is forming his own opinion on what consequences he thinks another man/woman should have, in regards to an issue and its relation to Islam, which can be interpreted differently.

Why was Rushdie ordered a fatwa?

In 1981, Rushdie won the Booker Prize for his ‘Midnight’s Children.’ In 1988, The Satanic Verses was published, and proved to be a major success in some countries like the US, just as much as it provoked a controversial storm for many (not all) Muslims around the world. A year later, everything changed for the Bombay-native who was born to a Muslim family.

On February 14 1989, Iran’s religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced the fatwa on Rushdie for “insulting Islam” with his novel, calling on “all brave Muslims” to kill the writer and those who were associated with selling his book. A $3m reward was attached to the fatwa.

Since then, Rushdie has faced incalculable threats to his life, and the repercussions of his novel would chase him for decades to come. Rushdie had to go into hiding following the fatwa, while book bans, burnings, firebombings and death threats continued, questioning freedom of expression in the arts around the world.

Interestingly enough, in 1998, when Ayatollah had been dead for almost a decade, the Iranian government backed away from the threat, indicating it would neither “support nor hinder” threats against Rushdie’s life.

However, private groups and Iranian religious foundations that were not official continued to support efforts to kill Rushdie.

By 2012, Rushdie had already returned to public life and travel, and even published a memoir about his time in hiding, Joseph Anton, a title drawn from the alias he used when he was a fugitive.

What was the novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ about?

In the novel, a film actor named Gibreel Farishta survives a terror attack on a plane and turns into an angel who has a series of unusual dreams along the way. The dream sequesnces included a group of prostitutes named after the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as a character having a vision of a polytheistic religion sent by the devil. Another sequence seems to play on the story of Jesus.

The book was banned from being sold in several countries, including Bangladesh, South Africa, Sudan and Kenya.

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