Sir Salman Rushdie: Who is he, what is he known for and what happened to him?

·6-min read
Sir Salman Rushdie (PA) (PA Archive)
Sir Salman Rushdie (PA) (PA Archive)

Sir Salman Rushdie has forfeited his home, freedom, marriage and peace of mind due to his controversial writings.

The 75-year-old Indian-born British author, whose writing led to death threats from Iran in the 1980s, was stabbed on stage in New York state on Friday, with his condition in hospital unclear.

The incident is not the first time his life has come under threat.

Iran’s former ruler Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced him to death in February 1989 for the “blasphemous” The Satanic Verses, which parodied the Koran’s account of the prophecies of Mohammed, founder of Islam.

Inextricably trapped within the net of his own written words and with a £1 million-plus bounty on his head, Sir Salman Rushdie came to symbolise the freedom of the writer and the fragility of the profession in an age of prisoners of conscience.

The book generated fury and division, stirring up emotive, complicated questions about religion and racial harmony, law, politics and diplomacy, literary freedom and ethics.

A rally in London’s Park Lane against the publication of Salman Rushdie’s controversial book The Satanic Verses in 1989 (PA) (PA Archive)
A rally in London’s Park Lane against the publication of Salman Rushdie’s controversial book The Satanic Verses in 1989 (PA) (PA Archive)

Few men have had to bear such vilification and menace as the self-described “mischievous iconoclast”, whose critics fanned violence across the Muslim world and, in Britain, book-burning and arson.

Sir Salman espoused peace and progress by liberation from fixed ideas but, in challenging Koranic tradition, the literary lion became Islam’s public enemy number one.

Under Islamic law, he was found guilty of creating “fasad” or public disorder in a land under divine sovereignty.

The ayatollah’s justification for his death sentence, or fatwa, was the riots and a dozen deaths in India and Pakistan that followed newspaper condemnation of the book, published in 1988.

The Satanic Verses was banned in 45 Islamic countries, with hundreds of British Muslims endorsing the death sentence.

The author was regularly moved from house to house by round-the-clock Special Branch officers in an attempt to keep one step ahead of would-be assassins – with 56 moves in the first three months alone.

Sir Salman and independent India were born within weeks of each other in 1947.

His Muslim grandfather had built a fortune manufacturing “leather cloth”, but India’s independence led to the creation of a separate Muslim state in Pakistan. Sir Salman’s was the wrong religion in the wrong country.

Sir Salman Rushdie (Julien Behal/PA) (PA Archive)
Sir Salman Rushdie (Julien Behal/PA) (PA Archive)

Brought up a nominal Muslim, he never received an Islamic education, going instead to Rugby when he was 13.

Like his father, he went to King’s College, Cambridge, where he read history and appeared as “a tiny bulb in The Footlights” along with Clive James and Germaine Greer.

The young graduate dabbled in fringe theatre before moving into advertising. He dreamed up the “naughty but nice” slogan for fresh cream and the bubble “delectabubble” pun for Aero chocolate.

He began his writing career in the early 1970s with two unsuccessful books before Midnight’s Children, about the birth of India, which won the Booker Prize in 1981 and brought him worldwide fame.

Shame, based around the intricacies of Pakistani politics, followed two years later, confirming his reputation as the founder of a new genre, Anglo-Indian “magic realism”, with his own school of stylistic imitators.

His 11-year marriage to Clarissa Luard, with whom he had a son, Zafar, ended in divorce in 1987.

Aged 41, he was the darling of London and New York’s literary establishment, hunted only by international publishers, when Viking Penguin paid a £500,000 advance for his next book, The Satanic Verses.

Sir Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses (Adam Butler/PA) (PA Archive)
Sir Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses (Adam Butler/PA) (PA Archive)

The novel is a parable of contemporary Britain and India and the conflict of good and evil, represented by two survivors from a jumbo jet blown up at 30,000ft who find themselves changing, one into the Angel Gabriel and the other into the Devil.

On February 14 1989, the BBC telephoned his Islington home with a message that Ayatollah Khomeini had sentenced him, and all those knowingly involved in the publication, to death.

He locked and shuttered his house, went to writer Bruce Chatwin’s memorial service, then vanished from the world with his second wife, American writer Marianne Wiggins.

After five months together in exile, Ms Wiggins walked out, unable to stand the strict security.

Penguin received repeated threats to staff and spent £2 million a year on security for its premises after shops were burned in Chelsea and York.

In March 1989, two men hunting Rushdie and travelling on forged Moroccan passports were stopped at Santander in Spain en route to Plymouth.

Five months later, a man blew himself up in a Paddington hotel room while making a bomb with military plastic explosive. A note to a French newspaper the next day said he died “preparing an attack on the apostate SR”.

The Satanic Verses (PA) (PA Archive)
The Satanic Verses (PA) (PA Archive)

On Christmas Eve in 1990, the author announced that he regretted writing The Satanic Verses, promised to stop publication of the paperback, and said he had embraced Islam – statements he later said he wished he had never made.

Appeasement failed. Iran responded by renewing the death sentence and doubling the reward for his murder.

In September 1998 that threat appeared to lessen significantly when Iran distanced itself decisively from the fatwa and the accompanying bounty.

Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi told then-foreign secretary Robin Cook in New York that his government had “no intention” of harming Sir Salman and that his government did not support the bounty put up by an Iranian charitable foundation.

Sir Salman, by then 51, acknowledged there was still a degree of threat.

However he stressed he had no regrets about the book, adding: “There’s not a chance in hell of the book being withdrawn. We have not fought this battle for freedom of speech to give in at the last moment.”

Sir Salman Rushdie and his former wife Elizabeth in 2008 (Johnny Green/PA) (PA Archive)
Sir Salman Rushdie and his former wife Elizabeth in 2008 (Johnny Green/PA) (PA Archive)

Hailing his newfound freedom, he took the opportunity to express his gratitude to his wife, Elizabeth, whom he described as a “heroine”.

He told how Elizabeth, whom he had recently married, had shared with him eight and a quarter years of the nine and a half years of the ordeal.

He said: “Without her, I would not have survived this.”

They had a son named Milan, who was born in 1997.

In 2000 Sir Salman moved to Manhattan in New York, and four years later he divorced Elizabeth and married his fourth and final wife Padma Lakshmi, an Indian-American actress and model, with whom he stayed until July 2007.

His return to public life saw him publish novels such as Fury, The Moor’s Last Sigh and Shalimar The Clown, which was long-listed for the Booker.

He also appeared in the 2001 hit film Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Sir Salman Rushdie after receiving his knighthood from the Queen in 2008 (John Stillwell/PA) (PA Archive)
Sir Salman Rushdie after receiving his knighthood from the Queen in 2008 (John Stillwell/PA) (PA Archive)

He was knighted in 2008 for his services to literature, an honour he was “thrilled and humbled” to receive.

However, the announcement sparked outrage in some Islamic countries, leading to widespread protests.

In 2022 he was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

He said it was “a great surprise and delight”, describing the “privilege” of being included in “such illustrious company”.

Later in the year, as he was about to give a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, he was attacked by a man who stormed the stage.

Sir Salman suffered an apparent stab wound to the neck and was transported to hospital by helicopter where his condition remained unclear, state police said.

Photos from the Associated Press news agency showed him lying on his back with his legs in the air and a first responder crouched over him.