British writer, born in India, whose novel The Satanic Verses was denounced as blasphemous by many Muslims, leading to a demand for the author's death from Ayatollah Khomeini.
Born to wealthy parents in Bombay, Rushdie was educated in England at Rugby School and King's College, Cambridge. He became a British citizen in 1964. On graduating in 1968 he worked briefly as an actor before starting a career as an advertising copywriter. His first novel, Grimus, appeared in 1974, but Rushdie owes his reputation to his second book, Midnight's Children (1981), a rich novel that explores the experience of growing up in post-independence India. The book won the 1981 Booker Prize and comparisons with the work of García Márquez and Kundera. In 1984 he produced Shame, a complex narrative combining satire, fantasy, and political allegory. The 1980s also saw Rushdie's emergence as a journalist, writing widely on political, cultural, and racial issues.
The Satanic Verses (1988) is a sophisticated and sometimes abstruse treatment of the experience of Muslim immigrants to Britain, dealing especially with the tension between secular and religious ways of thinking. Because a character identified by many Muslims as the prophet Muhammed was treated in a manner they regarded as disrespectful, the book was denied publication in some Muslim countries; early in 1989 Bradford Muslims burnt the book in public as part of a campaign to have it banned in Britain. This was followed in February by Khomeini's notorious fatwa demanding the author's death; a reward of one million pounds was subsequently offered to any Muslim who carried out the murder. While Rushdie went into hiding with a permanent police guard, the book became a bestseller and a focus for heated debate about the concept of blasphemy and the limits of free expression in a multi-cultural society. The affair had wide international repercussions, including violent demonstrations in the Muslim world, the breaking of diplomatic ties between Iran and the EC states, and the murder of moderate Islamic leaders in Belgium. Although relations between Britain and Iran improved following the death of Khomeini, the fatwa was not revoked. In an attempt to break the impasse Rushdie held private talks with sympathetic Muslim leaders in late 1990; he subsequently released a statement saying that he now accepted the basic tenets of Islam and had agreed not to publish the novel in paperback. While dismaying many of his supporters, these concessions did nothing to soften hardline Muslim opinion and Rushdie later admitted that his ‘conversion’ had been a product of desperation rather than faith. As the years went by, the Iranian authorities began to hint that the death sentence would not now be carried out, while also insisting that, theologically speaking, a fatwa can never be cancelled. As a result Rushdie gradually began to live a less restricted life. In 1998, following intense diplomacy with Britain, the Iranian government formally dissociated itself from the fatwa, thereby effectively releasing Rushdie from his nine-year ordeal.
During his ordeal Rushdie published Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), a children's fable, Imaginary Homelands (1991), a collection of essays that includes reflections on the controversy, and another major novel, The Moor's Last Sigh (1995). Shortly after regaining his freedom he published The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1998), a novel set in the world of rock music.