Understanding Salman Rushdie: The Life Behind the Literary Genius

Photo of Salmon Rushdie main

Salman Rushdie’s life shows the importance of religious freedom, the freedom of speech, and the duties of citizenship  Rushdie is an Indian-American citizen. He was born in India and later moved to Great Britain. Rushdie became an author of wondrous symbolic tales. His fourth book, The Satanic Verses, led to a death sentence by Ayatollah Khomeini because of allegedly blasphemous passages. Rushdie went into hiding for over a decade. He eventually returned to public life, moving to the United States. He later became a U.S. citizen. Rushdie was physically attacked by a Muslim American extremist in 2022. 

Early Life 

Salman Rushdie was born in India shortly before it obtained independence from Great Britain. He came from an Indian Muslim family. His father was a lawyer and businessman and his mother was a teacher. Rushdie has three sisters. He later had two sons. 

He went to school in India and Great Britain. Before becoming a writer, Rushdie worked in a British advertising firm.  His book The Satanic Verses is a work of fiction with religious themes.

The Satanic Verses are words that the prophet Muhammad supposedly was tricked into believing were the divine word of God. There is much debate if it was based on a real incident. Also, many Muslims doubt that the prophet could have been tricked at all.  

Rushdie is publicly an atheist. Nonetheless, he denied that he was trying to be insulting. Rushdie’s writings are complex and filled with symbolism. Multiple characters are honorable Muslims. Many people upset at Rushdie’s writings have admitted they barely read them.  

Iran vs. Rushdie  

Ayatollah Khomeini became the religious leader of Iran after a revolution against a secular government. Iran is now a theocracy, where a government is religiously run. 

Shiite Islam is the official religion. The government prohibits religions found to violate the faith, including some forms of Christianity

Khomeini proclaimed Satanic Verses was an insult to Islam. He declared a death sentence on Rushdie and promised a three million bounty for anyone who carried it out. His proclamation was called a “fatwa,” or a religious legal judgment. 

Salman Rushdie went into hiding for many years.  

Censorship and Theocracy 

Khomeini’s proclamation that Salman Rushdie, a foreign citizen, could be killed was a step beyond restrictions on the Iranian people. It is an example of how Iran supported terrorism in other countries. Iranian support of terrorism continues to cause problems in the Middle East.

Many Muslims also argued that Khomeini was not acting within the proper guidelines of their faith. For instance, he was not a suitable Islamic jurist and Rushdie was not a proper target. 

Also, properly interpreted, many argue that Islam honors freedom of belief. The proper interpretation of religious doctrine is a complicated and very personal enterprise. 

The United States has a separation of church and state and religious liberty, which is protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment also protects free speech. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also honors freedom of speech and religious liberty. 

Salman Rushdie Becomes An American 

Rushdie became tired of hiding. After about ten years in hiding, he moved to the United States in 2000. Rushdie decided to stop hiding and start living in the open. He continued to write.

Salman Rushdie became an American citizen in 2016. People who are born in the United States are automatically American citizens. Other people have to study and declare their loyalty to the United States. A “naturalized” citizen like Rushdie can not become president. 

He married his current wife, Rachel Eliza Griffiths (a poet and novelist), in 2021. 

Salman Rushdie Attacked 

A young Muslim American citizen attacked Salman Rushdie with a knife in 2022. 

Hadi Matar’s family was shocked at his actions. The Iranian government denied any involvement in that attack. They have long distanced themselves from Khomeini’s death sentence. 

Rushdie was speaking at the Chautauqua Institution in update New York. The institution opened in 1874 and was the inspiration for the Chautauqua movement, an educational and social movement. There is some irony that his attacker chose this location to attack. 

Rushdie survived his wounds (he lost sight in one eye) and (of course) wrote a book about his experience. Hadi Matar, his attacker, was arrested and charged with attempted murder. 

Duties and Honors Of Citizenship

Salman Rushdie (naturalized) and Hadi Matar (by birth) are both American citizens. 

American citizenship provides them with rights and obligations. They have freedom of speech, religious liberty, and due process rights (even when arrested for attempted murder). Rushdie obtained life-saving medical care. He had insurance but would have received it either way.

American citizens also have obligations. They have to follow the law. A good American also respects our values and takes part in public life. They vote and respect others. 

President Biden’s statement after Rushdie’s attack is a suitable summary:

Salman Rushdie—with his insight into humanity, with his unmatched sense for story, with his refusal to be intimidated or silenced—stands for essential, universal ideals. Truth. Courage. Resilience. The ability to share ideas without fear. These are the building blocks of any free and open society. And today, we reaffirm our commitment to those deeply American values in solidarity with Rushdie and all those who stand for freedom of expression. 

We each have a civic duty to advance these principles.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.