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Stabbing Salman Rushdie won’t stop his ideas

A.S. Ibrahim | The celebrated novelist almost paid with his life for his decades-old retelling of an inconvenient Islamic tradition


Hadi Matar arrives for an arraignment in the Chautauqua County Courthouse in Mayville, N.Y., on Aug. 13. Associated Press/Photo by Gene J. Puskar

Stabbing Salman Rushdie won’t stop his ideas
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It must be horrific for any man to live for over 30 years with a bounty on his head, because he simply wrote a novel. This is the case of Indian-born British citizen Sir Salman Rushdie, 75, who was stabbed more than ten times at an event last Friday in Chautauqua, N.Y.

Rushdie has received death threats since 1989, when Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa (religious decree) condemning Rushdie’s 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, and declaring Rushdie to be an apostate from Islam. (Rushdie was born to Muslim parents in India.) A bounty was then offered for anyone who would execute Rushdie. For years, he lived in Britain, hiding under the protection of Scotland Yard, making only sporadic public appearances. The attack last Friday came as Rushdie was at a speaking event in the United States

The suspected attacker, Hadi Matar, 24, is a devout Muslim with clear Shiite and Iranian sympathies. Born in California to a Lebanese family, Matar reportedly had a fake New Jersey driver’s license when he was detained. As Rushdie was being introduced, Matar rushed to the stage and began stabbing him. “It took like five men to pull him away and he was still stabbing,” an eyewitness explained. “He was just furious, furious. Like intensely strong and just fast.” Rushdie was flown to a nearby hospital in critical condition but is now reportedly off a ventilator and gaining streangth.

While many world leaders condemned the attack and praised Rushdie’s work and courage, Iran’s hardline newspapers celebrated and praised the attacker.

What are these satanic verses? Why did Khomeini consider Rushdie an apostate and the novel to be blasphemous to Islam and Muhammad? And why was Matar furious as he stabbed Rushdie?

Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, is a literary masterpiece that never directly insults Muhammad. However, in one of its nine chapters, it retells a widespread Muslim tradition—found in numerous trusted Islamic sources—that depicts Muhammad as being deceived by Satan and proclaiming satanic statements instead of divine words. Muslim traditions reveal that the incident occurred nine years after Muhammad allegedly received his first revelation from Allah.

The so-called satanic words uttered by Muhammad specifically praised three idols, not Allah, and encouraged Muslims to seek their intercession. These satanic words found their way, we are told, into the Quran for a period of time. Even Muslims as far away as Ethiopia heard of them and thought that Muhammad had reconciled with idol worshippers. Later, according to Islamic tradition, the angel Gabriel rebuked Muhammad and Allah had to remove the verses from the Quran.

Although early Muslims accepted the story as a historical fact, later generations attempted to tweak the story or dismiss it altogether.

Undoubtedly, the story found in these Muslim traditions portrays Muhammad as incapable of discerning Satan’s voice from that of Allah. These verses cause him to appear to be a non-monotheist at least at some point in his life after he supposedly became Allah’s prophet. While this story is circulated widely in the earliest Muslim sources, it created a huge embarrassment to Muslims for centuries. Although early Muslims accepted the story as a historical fact, later generations attempted to tweak the story or dismiss it altogether.

Still, recent researchers argue that the story is legitimate and was accepted as historically truthful in ample Muslim sources.

Even though Rushdie simply retold a widespread Muslim tradition in a creative literary fiction, Khomeini was appalled that a writer—let alone an author born into Islam—may unearth, or even hint at, what he deemed an unfavorable and embarrassing tradition. He thus ordered his zealots to execute Rushdie wherever they found him and, last week in New York, Matar seized the chance. While Matar’s motives are not yet publicly declared, his professed sympathies to Shiite Islam and the Iranian leadership are revealing.

We should all hope and pray for Rushdie’s recovery. He is one of the notable creative writers of our day. After all, his writings were the reason he was knighted in Britain in 2007—an action that made many Muslims furious, and some declared that his knighthood “justifies suicide attacks.”

It remains true that Rushdie is often offensive and that he has spoken dismissively of all religious beliefs. But the Christian response is to try to convert him to belief in Christ, not to kill him or wish him dead.

These days, you can be assured that if one wishes to creatively assess Islam, any critical argument may be met with intimidation and retaliatory response. Those who would criticize Islam or Muhammad must understand the risks. Any attempt to evaluate Islam critically is often faced with severe condemnation. Some would hasten to label any critic of Islam as a bigot or Islamophobe. Meanwhile, the truth about Islam and Islamic terrorism is there for all to see.


A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Fuller Theological Seminary in the United States, and at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. He authored several books, including Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018). He co-edited Muslim Conversions to Christ: A Critique of Insider Movements in Islamic Contexts (Peter Lang, 2018).

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