Salman Rushdie—Novelist, Children’s Author, and Activist



Born: 19 June 1947

 Little known facts:

During the most violent period of the fatwa declared by the Supreme Leader of Iran calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, the author used the alias Joseph Anton—a pseudonym derived from his wish to honor Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.

He won the 1992 Writers’ Guild Award for Best Children’s Book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz believed The Satanic Verses was insulting to Islam, but, nonetheless, signed a petition with 80 other intellectuals, stating “no blasphemy harms Islam and Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer”. Five years later, Islamic extremists stabbed the 82-year old Mahfouz in the neck. (Anthony)


Much better known facts:

On Valentine’s Day 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against Rushdie, declaring him an apostate for writing The Satanic Verses and sentencing him to death under Islamic law—along with those directly involved in the publishing and distribution of the novel.

As the violence and the fear grew, Penguin India shared in the umbra of the fatwa and began living behind barricades while bookshops in London and America were firebombed. In the following months, Islamists in Belgium shot two moderate imams; Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator, was stabbed to death in the face at work; a Norwegian publisher was; and an Italian publisher knifed.

Despite some journalistic misinterpretations that Iranian President Mohammed Khatami rescinded this fatwa in 1998, criticism by Iranian Parliament hardliners forced the Foreign Affairs Minister to state categorically that Tehran has not backed down on the Rushdie question. (BBC) Senior cleric Ahmad Khatami reminded worshippers at the Tehran Friday prayers in February of 2014 that the ‘historical fatwa’ is ‘as fresh as ever’. The $3.3M bounty remains on his head.


Snap Shot

Salman Rushdie was born in 1947 just prior to India’s independence. He was educated in India and in England, where he invested two decades becoming a critically acclaimed and commercially successful writer. Rushdie now lives in New York and insists that the danger presented to him by the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 has passed. He was the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University for five years; he was elected to the American Academy of Letters, and he became the president of American PEN. In addition to his novels, he is the author of five volumes of nonfiction, and a short-story collection. He continues to argue forcefully for freedom of expression around the world.


Early Life and Non-Writing Career

Rushdie was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) and was the only son in a Muslim family. He went to Cathedral School in Bombay and boarded at Rugby School in England. After Rugby, he went to Cambridge where his father expected him to study economics; however, he studied history instead and plumbed the origins of Islam.

After Cambridge, Rushdie secured a position in a small advertising agency called Sharp McManus, writing copy and writing fiction in his spare time until he published his first successful novel in this middle thirties.

Now living in the United States, he still thinks of himself as a British citizen of Indian origin and he refers to himself regularly as both a New Yorker and as a Londoner. “I probably think of those as being more exact definitions than the passport or the place of birth,” he says. (Livings)


Major Relationships

Salman Rushdie has been married to four women. He was married to Clarissa Luard from 1976 to 1987 and they produced a son, Zafar, in 1979. He left Clarissa in the mid-’80s for the Australian writer Robyn Davidson. His second wife was the American novelist Marianne Wiggins; they were married in 1988 and divorced in 1993. His third wife was Elizabeth West from 1997 to 2004 and they have a son, Milan, who was born in 1999. In 2004, he married the Indian American Padma Lakshmi, actress, model, and host of the American reality-television show Top Chef. They ended the marriage in 2007.


Writing Career

Salman Rushdie broke out as a writer with his publication of his novel Midnight’s Children that won a Booker Prize in 1981, followed by Shame two years later that was shortlisted for another Booker Prize. With those accomplishments, he caught the attention of the English speaking and reading world. Five years later, he finished The Satanic Verses and that earned him additional praise in the literary world as well as immediate and intense attention from the Muslim world—subsequently acknowledged as the major inflection point of his life.

In February of 1989, the dying Ayatollah Khomeini launched the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It was not long before a private prosecutor tried to take him to trial for blasphemous libel in the U. K. The magistrate refused which led the prosecutor to appeal to the High Court. Thirteen Muslim barristers attempted to get the book banned and, in that process, they were forced to draft an indictment against Rushdie and his publishers, specifying with some legal precision the exact way in which the novel’s author had blasphemed.

Their efforts convinced Geoffrey Robertson, the Queen’s Counsel who defended Salman Rushdie in the trial, that The Satanic Verses is not blasphemous in that each of six specific claims was either a clear misreading of the novel’s satirical content or it was a theological mistake. “The book is the fictional story of two men, infused with Islam but confused by the temptations of the West. The first survives by returning to his roots. The other, Gibreel, poleaxed by his spiritual need to believe in God and his intellectual inability to return to the faith, finally kills himself. The plot, in short, is not an advertisement for apostasy.” Soon afterward the British blasphemy laws were eliminated as antiquated concepts—though not necessarily in other countries of the Commonwealth or in former members of the Commonwealth. (Robertson, “Looking”)

The Rushdie controversy is cited by some as the first demonstration of Islam’s globalization; there were clearly local politics involved in Muslim protest, but it was the reshaping of the global arena after the end of the Cold War that really framed the Rushdie affair. “The author and his book were incidental to this mobilization, which is why so few of its Muslim critics had read the novel.” The debate was “dominated by old-fashioned ideas about free expression. Confined as they legally are to individual countries, such ideas have no standing in the global arena where these controversies occur.” Devji, “Looking”)

It is also not clear that the Rushdie affair had much to do with religion: the closest British demonstrators came to a theological argument was to demand that their religion be included under Britain’s blasphemy law as an indication they were to be integrated into British society. (Devji, “Looking”)

“Right from the start, The Satanic Verses affair was less a theological dispute than an opportunity to exert political leverage. The background to the controversy was the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran to be the standard bearer of global Islam.” (Anthony)

After the infamous fatwa, Rushdie disappeared from public view and during the next 14 years, he met in secret with friends and associates, always accompanied by agents of Special Branch. “Living as a fugitive with no home, Salman occasionally had meetings in our flat in north London. On one occasion I asked my young colleague Elizabeth West to let him into the flat for a meeting. She was a great fan of his work and took on the task with alacrity. Some time later, she became Mrs. Rushdie the third.” (Calder, “Looking”)

“The fatwa ensured that the name Salman Rushdie is better known around the world than that of any other living novelist. But his reputation as a writer has hardly been eclipsed by the political assaults.” This is supported by the fact that in 1993, he was awarded the “Booker of Bookers” for Midnight’s Children—the best book to ever win the Man Booker Prize since it was established. (Livings)

Since 2000, Rushdie has lived in the United States, where he has worked at Emory University and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2012, he published Joseph Anton: A Memoir, an account of his life in the wake of the storm over The Satanic Verses.

Salman Rushdie recently came to PEN’s defense against the debate over awarding Charlie Hebdo the American PEN recognition for courage in issues of freedom of expression scheduled for May 9th. “This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority,” he wrote. “It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.” (Mayer)


Taking Another Look

The 1988 Whitbread prize panel dissenter (2-1) admired Rushdie’s writing, but “The Satanic Verses was not,” in his opinion, “as successful a novel as Midnight’s Children or Shame. It was close to the last moment when the book could be judged solely on its literary merit.” (Shakespeare, Looking)

Zöe Heller, reviewing his memoir points out retrenchments and narrowing of viewpoint in Joseph Anton, and declares that the saddest is his altered attitude toward Islam. She notes that throughout the fatwa, Rushdie carefully resisted making Islam itself the enemy. “The thing called Islamism is not the same thing as Islam,” he said in 1995. “This political thing which we call fundamentalism, everybody is scared stiff of it. It is not a religious movement, it’s a political fascist movement which happens to be using a certain kind of religious language.”

Rushdie’s taste for this sort of distinction has since atrophied, she says. Now he regards any efforts to separate reactionary forms of Islam from Islam itself as dishonest and wrong, and Heller asks how are we to reconcile these sentiments with his belief in the artist’s role as a promoter of human tolerance? “The job of literature, he instructs us in the final pages of this memoir, is to encourage ‘understanding, sympathy and identification with people not like oneself…to make the world feel larger, wider than before.’” (Heller)

“Some readers may find, by the end of Joseph Anton, that the world feels rather smaller and grimmer than before. But they should not be unduly alarmed. The world is as large and as wide as it ever was; it’s just Rushdie who got small.” (Heller)

It is worth noting that Heller wrote her review and formed her viewpoint before the Boston Marathon Bombing, the ISIS beheading of Egyptian Christians kneeling on the shores of the Libyan Mediterranean, and the Charlie Hebdo slaughter. If one has been hunted and continues to by hunted, the world very likely does seem smaller. Why would anyone think the fatwa is over due to disinterest in apostates in today’s violent, politically-charged climate, the author’s shrugging off the danger to him notwithstanding?


Magical Realism

Magic realism is associated with Rushdie’s name because it was used as a narrative technique in his first three successful novels, Midnight’s Children (1981), the Shame (1983), and The Satanic Verses.

In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie used a “hyperbolic narrative – by turns lyric and vulgar, street smart and allusive – and a cast of improbable characters (a telepathic narrator, a child who can travel through time, another who can change sex at will) to create a parable of modern Indian history.” In Shame, he used as a setting that was ”not quite Pakistan” and a character named Raza Hyder who was reflective of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the former President of Pakistan. Rushdie said the story he wanted to tell was ”a tragedy on a very large scale,” but its ”protagonists are not tragic actors.” (Kakutani)

He has used magic realism to try to capture “chaos of contemporary reality, its resemblance to a dream or nightmare”—to give the reader a “sense of just how fantastic recent history has become.” (Kakutani) The irony is unambiguously that the author’s life since the fatwa has only underscored this point at his personal expense.

Rushdie maintains that the writer has a responsibility to tackle the larger issues of the day: ”It seems to me imperative that literature enter such arguments,” he wrote in an essay, ”because what is being disputed is nothing less than what is the case, what is truth and what untruth, and the battleground is our imagination. If writers leave the business of making pictures of the world to politicians, it will be one of history’s great and most abject abdications.” (Kakutani)

“So what do we mean by ‘truth in literature?’” asks Rushdie. He says, “Clearly what we mean is human truth, not photographic, journalistic, recorded truth, but the truth we recognize as human beings. About how we are with each other, how we deal with each other, what are our strengths and our weaknesses, how we interact and what is the meaning of our lives?”  A flying carpet and Madam Bovary are untrue in the same way, and as a result both of them are ways of arriving at the truth by the road of untruth, and so then they can both do it the same way. Human truth is what you’re looking for and you can get to that by many different roads. (Miller)

Rushdie doesn’t see much of a similarity between himself and García Márquez. He points out that he wrote his first novel before he read Garcia Márquez. He alludes to the older tradition of magic realism, which is the one he says he learned from—with writers like Gogol and Dickens who understood that the surreal works only when it is rooted in the observed world. “If those roots weren’t there, then the fantasy wouldn’t work,” he says. (Meer)



“I knew my work did not appeal to the likes of radical mullahs…. There were one or two early readers, including Edward Said, who noticed that I’d taken these guys on and asked whether I was concerned about it. And in those innocent days, I said no…. The idea that it would even float across their field of vision seemed improbable, and I truthfully didn’t care. Why shouldn’t literature provoke? It always has.” (The Paris Review)

“The larger world gets into the story not because I want to write about politics, but because I want to write about people.” (The Paris Review)

“This idea that somehow the person under attack is responsible for the attack is a shifting of the blame—which seemed easy to do in 1989. Recently, in England, in the aftermath of the Al-Qaeda bombings, there’s been a lot of journalistic comment saying it all began with The Satanic Verses, and there’s total sympathy now for what was happening to me then. Nobody these days is saying it was my fault and I did it on purpose, because people understand the nature of radical Islam better.” (Paris Review)



“We received our first reality check in the form of some advice from the great Indian novelist and historian Khushwant Singh, who served as literary adviser to Penguin India. He said to me that we’d get into trouble if we published the novel, because there were passages in it that could be seized on by politicians and mullahs, taken out of context, and used to create mischief. This was news to me, as I was, at the time, largely ignorant of the history of Islam and its sacred texts.” (Davidar, “Looking”)

“Although Rushdie remains alive and well after nearly 24 years, spare a thought for the families of those who did not get away from this theocratic regime: the 162 democrats and dissidents assassinated in Europe; the thousands of atheist and Marxist prisoners murdered in prison; the green movement protesters and their lawyers (15 so far) who have been sentenced to long prison terms for being their lawyers. Had the world devised a way to bring this regime to justice for devising the Rushdie fatwa, we would not now have to worry about what it will do with nuclear weapons.” (“Looking”)

“In a hopeful attempt to accommodate his opponents, Rushdie spoke of his faith, or lack of it, as a God-shaped hole. His apology was firmly rebuffed by a committee of imams. He had always fought his own corner with eloquence, but now, increasingly after this rejection, he was fighting the corners of imprisoned or otherwise silenced writers around the world. Years later this advocacy culminated in his highly effective presidency of American PEN. He has brilliantly proved the uses of adversity.” (McEwan, “Looking”)

“Rushdie showed the rest of the world that literature, language and free speech are always at a premium. One of the most important things about The Satanic Verses is that Rushdie was speaking of uncertainty and asking the questions that anyone who believes also has to ask themselves. This came at a huge price, and all of us should be grateful to him for his bravery in being willing to pay it.” (Kureishi, “Looking”)


AWARDS and PRIZES (selected)

2008 James Joyce Award

2008 Best of the Booker, Midnight’s Children

2007 KBE for contributions to Literature

1995 Whitbread Novel Award, The Moor’s Last Sigh

1995 British Book Awards Author of the Year, The Moor’s Last Sigh

1993 Booker of Bookers, Midnight’s Children, special award celebrating 25 years

1992 Writers’ Guild Award (Best Children’s Book), Heroin and the Sea of Stories

1989 German Author of the Year, The Satanic Verses

1988 Whitbread Novel Award, The Satanic Verses

1984 Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (France), Shame

1981 James Taint Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), Midnight’s Children, joint winner

1981 English-Speaking Union Award, Midnight’s Children

1981 Booker Prize for Fiction, Midnight’s Children



Midnight’s Children, Shame, The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh, Shalimar The Clown, The Enchantress of Florence, and Joseph Anton



Anthony, Andrew. “How one book ignited a culture war,” The Guardian 10 January 2009. Web. 1 May 2015.

“Iran MPs back Rushdie fatwa,” BBC Online Network 4 October 1998 Published at 17:10 GMT 18:10 UK. Web. 1 May 2015.

British Council Literature. 2011. Web. 25 April 2015.

Heller, Zoë. “The Salman Rushdie Case,” The New York Review of Books. 20 December 2012. Web. 24 April 2015.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Critic’s Notebook; Telling Truth Through Fantasy: Rushdie’s Magic Realism,” The New York Times 24 February 1989. Web. 27 April 2015.

Livings, Jack. “Salman Rushdie: The Art of Fiction No. 186,” Paris Review 2005.

“Looking back at Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses,” The Guardian Friday 14 September 2012. Web. 24 April 2015.

Mayer, Petra. “Dozens Of Writers Join Protest Of Free Speech Award For ‘Charlie Hebdo, ‘The Two-way: Break News from NPR 30 April 2015. Web. 1 May 2015.

Meer, Ameena. “Salman Rushdie,” BOMB 27 Spring 1989. Web. 27 April 2015.

Miller, Max. “How to magic and fantasy help you arrive at realism?” Big Think video 12 November 2010. Web. 27 April 2015.


Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is writing an historical novel and revising a collection of connected stories.


Richard Perkins
Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is writing an historical novel and revising a collection of connected stories.