In Review

Why was The Satanic Verses so controversial?

New documentary sheds light on contentious novel and its continuing impact today

A new documentary is shedding light on the lasting effect that Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses has had on Britain’s Muslim community following the novel’s publication three decades ago.

BBC Two’s The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On tracks journalist Mobeen Azhar as he explores the controversy surrounding the book, which sparked riots, assassinations and death threats. So how did Rushdie’s writings cause a global row?

Why is the novel so controversial?

Upon publication, Muslim critics accused Rushdie of portraying Islam as a “deceitful, ignorant, and sexually deviant religion”, reports HuffPost

Many were outraged by a character called Mahound, who appears in dream sequences in the novel and was alleged to be “a thinly and perversely diguised representation of the Prophet Mohammed”, according to The New York Times’ Michoko Kakutani. 

The name Mahound was used in medieval Christian plays to represent satanic figures, and some Muslims concluded that Rushdie was implying that Mohammed was a false prophet.

In his book, Rushdie also described Mecca as “Jahilia” - a term signifying the period of ignorance prior to the revelations received by Mohammed - and gave the names of the prophet’s wives to twelve prostitutes in a brothel. 

“And most controversially, he invoked a discredited tradition in Islam, the so-called satanic verses, in which Satan inspired Mohammad to compromise with the people of Mecca and to allow them to continue to worship other deities in an attempt to lure them to Islam,” says HuffPost.

The resulting anger led to bookshop bombings, burnings and bans on the novel in much of the Islamic world. Ayatollah Khomeini, then the supreme leader of Iran, even issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie - forcing the writer to go into hiding for almost a decade.

The controversy surrounding the novel also sparked a cultural war in Britain between those who considered the book blasphemous and called for it to be banned, and those who defended it as an expression of freedom of speech, says the i news site.

How are the row still relevant today?

The most important questions posed by Azhar in the documentary surround free or limited speech, says The Guardian.

Rushdie and his supporters see free expression as an undeniable right. In a 2015 interview, the author argued: “It is possible to respect individuals, to protect them from intolerance, while being skeptical about their ideas, even criticising them ferociously.” 

However, some critics still believe Rushdie abused his freedoms to denigrate Muslim beliefs.

Indeed, during filming of the new documentary, a man in Bradford snatched a copy of the novel from Azhar and tried to set it on fire - an incident that highlights the continuing relevance of the controversy, says the Bafta-winning filmmaker.

“If you want to understand things like the rise of the Right, and understand how that became mainstream, you’ve got to understand our history. And a big part of our history, particularly when it comes to how immigrant communities and how Muslims are perceived in Britain, a lot of that goes back to what happened 30 years ago,” Azhar told news site Vice.

What exactly is the documentary about?

In the film, Azhar describes how he grew up as a British Muslim witnessing the fallout from Rushdie’s novel without fully understanding what was taking place. After establishing himself as a journalist, he decided to find out and help others understand why the book had such a lasting impact on his community.

According to The Guardian, the documentary takes the style of a personal journey, as Azhar speaks to Rushdie’s opponents in interviews that “lack stuffiness and produce candour and insight”.

The resulting programme - screened on BBC Two earlier this week - “poses complex and ever pressing questions about free speech, and whether limits should be imposed upon it”, the newspaper says.  

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