Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

28
Behind the Rushdie
Affair

On 14 February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, the highest Islamic religious authority in Iran, issued a fatwā “to inform all the zealous Muslims of the world that the blood of the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses, which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’ān, as also of those involved in its publication who were aware of its contents, is hereby declared forfeit. I call on all zealous Muslims to dispatch them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one will dare to insult Islamic sanctities again. Anyone who is himself killed in this path will be deemed a martyr.” Shortly after, the head of an Islamic charitable trust in Tehran offered a bounty to anyone who carried out this sentence—twenty million tumans (about three million dollars at the official rate, about $ 170,000 at the open-market rate) for an Iranian, one million dollars for a foreigner. In 1992 the bounty, still unclaimed, was increased by the trust. Strictly speaking, a fatwā is a responsum, a legal opinion or ruling given in answer to a question and is not in itself a judicial verdict or sentence. Khomeini’s fatwā has, however, been treated, by its defenders and opponents alike, as combining both characters, and an enormous literature has appeared, in many languages, discussing the merits of the case. This discussion has been concerned almost exclusively, on the Western side, with the literary and political issues raised by the condemnation; on the Iranian side, with considerable but not universal Islamic support, with the alleged insult to Islam. Remarkably little attention has been given to the Islamic legal and historical issues raised by Khomeini’s fatwā and the Muslim responses to it: What offense against Muslim law is Rushdie alleged to have committed? What jurisdiction can

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