Many Muslims of my age will tell you about their Rushdie experiences around 30 years ago – and how it was a defining moment for them in their Islamic identity.
Most will have grown up in traditionally practising Muslim communities across the UK who had never heard of the writer before Khomeini’s fatwa hit the headlines, but were collectively outraged by Rushdie’s insult to the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and his wives.
My experience was very different. Thirty years ago Islam had no great significance in my life – but nonetheless, the issue was, in retrospect, a defining moment for my identity.
There was no strong Muslim community where I grew up – and I had not only heard of Rushdie but had enjoyed his novels ‘Midnight’s Children’ and ‘Shame’.
I should clarify that it wasn’t that I had rejected Islam. Rather, I slowly had drifted away from the modest things I had learned from my parent’s best efforts.
As a student in London in the 1980s, there were no thriving university Islamic societies that I knew of.
People sometimes talk of ‘the Ramadan Muslim’ – but sadly I had drifted so far that I wasn’t even that.
In 1988 (I think it was September or October because it was the start of the academic year), Rushdie’s new novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ was published. I was keen to get the book. So I took a chance to meet Rushdie, buying a signed copy from Dillon’s Bookstore, exchanging a brief conversation with him.
But I couldn’t get far through the book. The language was too heavy and required more effort for me than I had the patience for, so I set it aside.
Then, some months later, the furore around the fatwa started – as did protests by Muslims across the UK.
To be very frank, the images of the protests felt very disconnected from me. The language of the protestors didn’t speak to me. I had assumed it was the recounting of the fabricated so-called ‘satanic verses’ incident that I had heard of as a literary device in the book, which had upset people.
Those around me never knew how disconnected I was and never even thought to ask me what I thought. But a friend of a flatmate of mine, who was visiting from Germany was interested to know what I thought. I explained I didn’t really know what the issue was – and whilst I was suspicious of a fatwa from the ruler of Iran, I could tell him the insult felt by ordinary Muslims was genuine – as even relatively docile friends of my parents that we’d see on an occasional basis were upset by it. But did Rushdie deserve this kind of reaction? I wasn’t sure, but I doubted it. My assumption was that, regardless of the sincerity of the protestors, they had over responded.
Yet it was a polarising issue – not one where you could sit on the fence. So I decided then I had to struggle to read the book to understand what the issue was for myself.
So I read it. And I finished it. And I understood.
I – a disengaged Muslim, who knew very little other than the most basic things about Islam, for whom Islam had no great relevance in my life – understood.
For those who’ve never read it – the book centres on two rival characters. As the book progresses, one character has a series of dreams, and eventually goes mad and kills himself.
These dreams – which might be argued to be the product of a deranged fictional mind, but were in the end the product of Rushdie’s imagination – included sequences about an Arabian man who claimed prophethood and his wives, with sufficient similarities to the Prophet of Islam ﷺ to leave few in any doubt that it was about him.
As I read these sequences, I remember feeling extreme discomfort, occasionally sickness. What I knew of the Prophet ﷺ and his family was very little. But I knew they were good people, and that they did not deserve this literary treatment.
I also knew that Rushdie, having grown up in India, in a Muslim family would have known exactly the kind of insult he was throwing at any believer.
He was displaying his contempt not merely for Islam, but for any reader who had even an atom of belief in their heart.
So to defend him after reading the book would have been to eradicate that atom from my heart. To defend him would have been to side with someone who derided people who were good, for no reason except to be accepted by the secular literary establishment, and to make bit more money. To defend him would have been to defend someone who had displayed utter contempt for those ordinary Muslim protesters around the world – the ones whose reaction I couldn’t understand or connect with, but whose sincerity appeared very apparent.
After reading the book, far from admiring Rushdie’s work, I couldn’t even enjoy his previous books.
Some years later there was the talk of him regretting what he’d done – but when he was called out by his secular friends for retracting his previous position, he spinelessly recanted his regret and crawled back under his rock to hide. It didn’t surprise me later when I’d read articles quoting his security officers or those formerly intimate with him that they would describe him as arrogant or dislikeable.
Someone that deliberately and knowingly insults good people – indeed the best of people – is likely to have many dislikeable qualities on a personal level.
It is arguable that such a work should not have been made more prominent by drawing attention to its filthy contents. It is not a great literary work, would have been impenetrable to most readers.
But it was a defining moment for me, causing me to reflect upon the little I knew about Islam at that time – and hence affirming – if only to myself – that I was a Muslim, in belief and not merely by culture and heritage as some would say.
And it was one step in a series over about five years that eventually led me to embrace submission to none other than Allah – based upon reason and bringing contentment to the heart – one for which I am forever grateful to Him, Subhanahu wa Ta’ala.
For some years I kept the book. A cynical part of me estimated it might be worth more if he died! But eventually, I decided it was neither appropriate to gift it or sell it to anyone. So I decided to get rid of it. I didn’t burn it. I binned it!