This Day In History: February 14

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On February 14, 1989, Iran's Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini decrees a death sentence for author Salman Rushdie after publication of his novel The Satanic Verses ignited a storm of outrage among Muslims, many of whom consider the book blasphemous. The controversy would test the limits of free speech in a multicultural, multifaith world.

Rushdie likely understood he was courting controversy when he published a novel with that title. The book mocked or at least contained mocking references to the Prophet Muhammad and other aspects of Islam, in addition to a character clearly based on the Supreme Leader of Iran. After months of public unrest over the book, the Ayatollah issued arguably the strongest response possible, calling on "all brave Muslims" to kill Rushdie and his publishers.

Although many of the most controversial things said about Islam and Muhammad in the book come from the mouths of disreputable or comic characters, it was undeniably critical and insulting. The title refers to passages said to have been removed from the Qur'an in which the Prophet spoke the words of Satan instead of God, and many were particularly incensed by the depiction of a brothel where the prostitutes shared the names of Muhammad's wives.

Khomeini, who had suddenly deposed a U.S.-backed monarch a decade earlier, was the leader of a group of clerics who had turned Iran into a theocracy. As such, he was perhaps the most prominent Shi'a authority in the world. Muslims around the world had already condemned The Satanic Verses—it was publicly burnt in Bolton, UK, sparked a deadly riot in Pakistan and was banned entirely in multiple Muslim countries—but Khomeini's fatwa brought the controversy to new heights.

Booksellers the world over, including many Barnes & Noble stores in the United States, refused to sell The Satanic Verses for fear of retribution. Many that did sell it were bombed. Free speech advocates and anti-religious figures vociferously defended Rushdie, but many Muslim leaders and even moderate Muslim cultural figures outright condemned him or at least stated he had gone too far. Rushdie apologized both to the Ayatollah and to Muslims around the world in 1989 and 1990, but protests and violence continued. The novel's Japanese translator was stabbed to death in 1991, while its Italian translator was critically wounded by an assailant. Rushdie later said he regretted apologizing.

A fatwa is a judgement issued by a religious scholar and can only be repealed by that same scholar, meaning that the fatwa against Rushdie could never be taken back after the Ayatollah's death in June of 1989. In 1998, the Iranian government declared it would neither "support nor hinder" Rushdie's assassination, and private groups inside Iran and elsewhere continue to raise money to put towards the bounty on his head. 

The author, who was knighted in 2007, said that year that he saw the fatwa as "a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat." Yet 15 years later, on August 12, 2022, Rushdie was stabbed multiple times while preparing to give a lecture in upstate New York. The author was gravely injured but later recovered. The assailant is believed to have been religiously motived.