author salman rushdie
A death fatwa was issued on Salman Rushdie in 1989 for his novel The Satanic Verses.

Earlier this month, author Salman Rushdie was brutally attacked at a speaking event in New York which left him fighting for his life. While the alleged attacker’s motivations remain muddy, there is some evidence the attack was religiously motivated.

In 1989, the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a "fatwa" on Salman Rushdie, ordering faithful Muslims to murder Rushdie. This was in response to his novel The Satanic Verses – a text that many Muslims find blasphemous.

The fatwa forced Rushdie into hiding, and resulted in attempts on not only his life, but the lives of publishers and translators of his work; Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was murdered in 1991.

While the fatwa on Rushdie is by far the most famous in the eyes of westerners if not the entire world, Islamic scholars say the high-profile nature of this particular fatwa obscures the real meaning of the word. 

So, what does it really mean?

What is a Fatwa?

Most people in the West (probably due to Rushdie's story) associate a fatwa with a call for violence – the religious equivalent of a Mafia "hit."

But that's not true, say experts.

A fatwa can be issued over anything, and is simply an answer to a question posed to qualified Islamic scholars. Georgetown University Law Center professor Lama Abu-Odeh describes a fatwa as a “legal opinion on a matter that is raised by a constituent” to Islamic religious leadership.

Seeking a fatwa "would be like going to someone who was a combined lawyer-priest and getting an opinion," said Gordon D. Newby, author of A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam. Fatwas are often issued on mundane things affecting Muslims' everyday lives, like fasting, food, and prayer.

They can also be issued as a general condemnation against a person, institution, or concept.

In fact, fatwas can be calls specifically condemning violence. For example, a 2005 fatwa from a group of U.S. and Canadian Muslim leaders condemned terrorism as haram in the wake of 9/11. A 2014 fatwa from respected Muslim cleric Bin Bayyah denounced ISIS and religious violence.

What About Salman Rushdie?

As it happens, the fatwa on Rushdie’s life issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was many non-Muslims’ introduction to the word, and gave it a violent association that lingers to this day.

“There is no historical instance or basis for calling on members of the general public to exercise vigilante justice to put someone to death for statements and, for that matter, for someone to follow such directives,” says the director of Harvard Law’s Islamic Law program, Intisar Rabb. 

Historical basis aside, the facts on the ground remain: a Muslim cleric called for Rushdie's head, and, over 30 years later, he almost got it. 

Fortunately, the attempt on his life was unsuccessful – the latest reports indicate that Rushdie is expected to survive.

And while police are still exploring potential motives, early indications are that the attack was motivated by the fatwa on Rushdie’s life, which was never formally rescinded.

In 1998, Iran announced the fatwa “finished,” but said they’d neither support nor hinder attempts on his life. As recently as 2019, Iranian leadership called the fatwa “irrevocable”. 

Still, many Muslim scholars argue that death fatwas are un-Islamic, and regret the violent association most Westerners now have with a term that is – on its face – not inherently violent. 

What are your thoughts?

38 comments

  1. James Michael Fish's Avatar James Michael Fish

    Any religion that professes unprovoked harm to become any person, group, or collective is by definition, evil... and should not exist or be tolerated in the free world.

    1. Reverend Kurt's Avatar Reverend Kurt

      I agree James, all religions are inherently evil. If you are not of their faith, you are seen as being the enemy, disposable of little value.

    2. Keith Allen Steele Eash's Avatar Keith Allen Steele Eash

      Free world. We do not live in a free world.

      1. William Dusenberry's Avatar William Dusenberry

        Keith; according to Hebrew/Christian mythology — when the mythological/Christian God, created the first person (a male) he was arguably free, until this God began to tell him what to do — and this same God created a female (Eve) for him (Adam) to play with.

        Why this God never created a male or female God for himself to play with — can’t be found anywhere in the Hebrew/Christian Bible

        Can any of my fellow ULC clergy persons tell us why?

        Those of us with a sense of humor, want to know.

        1. Dr. Zerpersande's Avatar Dr. Zerpersande

          Just opinion but god did create a female god to play with. That’s how the devil came about. 🤣

      2. William Dusenberry's Avatar William Dusenberry

        Keith; according to Hebrew/Christian mythology — when the mythological/Christian God, created the first person (a male) he was arguably free, until this God began to tell him what to do — and this same God created a female (Eve) for him (Adam) to play with.

        Why this God never created a male or female God for himself to play with — can’t be found anywhere in the Hebrew/Christian Bible

        Can any of my fellow ULC clergy persons tell us why?

        Those of us with a sense of humor, want to know.

        1. Robert Edward Szekely's Avatar Robert Edward Szekely

          Judaism speaks of the Shekinah, or the female spirit of God, that would appear in the Holy of Holies in response to the supplication of the Temple Priests.

          When speaking of an Omnipresent God, we can only expect facets, components or modalities, if we are to maintain any semblance of monotheism. Some still argue that Christian trinitarianism pushes the boundaries of the concept by arguing of essentially "three gods in one".

          1. Stacy Allison Raines's Avatar Stacy Allison Raines

            IF man(woman) is created in the image of their creator...is it so impossible to believe that as in all "humans" we have many facets to our being??? Can "God" not be all things "in" (Man/Woman/Spirit) Attempt to take 1 facet away and you would have far less than perfection.

  1. Reverend Kurt's Avatar Reverend Kurt

    It is not only Islam that has promotes murder in the name of their god. A study of ALL religions show a remarkable consistency for bloodshed and murder. It is true words do kill. The Bible gives numerous precedents, as does the Torah and the Koran. Why is this so?

  1. Lionheart's Avatar Lionheart

    It’s religion! Christianity has had it’s murderous past during the times of the inquisition to combat heresy.

    ❤️🦁

  1. Robert Edward Szekely's Avatar Robert Edward Szekely

    For anyone who has taken the time to make an academic study of Islam, a fatwa is a decision made in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) by an alim (Islamic legal scholar) trained in one of the madhabs (recognized schools of Islamic legal thought). There is no evidence that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni was an alim, and thus, his fatwa carried no authority. It's like a street preacher passing legal sentence.

  1. Brien's Avatar Brien

    Folks, I am just not going to sit here while all of you use mythical dribble to debate a... CRIME. Again, I will repeat, CRIME. Do you understand that a CRIME was committed? Here is what should happen, you catch suspect, you arrest suspect, you jail suspect. Suspect goes before the judge, the judge uses the legal process to see if suspect is sane, and so on. The motivation does not matter. Trying to kill someone else in cold blood makes you insane or criminally negligent, both of which will remove you from society. NO FREAKIN MYTHICAL DEBATE NEEDED. Thank you for your time

    1. Rev. B's Avatar Rev. B

      If the motivation is self-defense, it matters very much.

      1. Brien's Avatar Brien

        Again, a CRIME was committed. Beyond whatever "motive" you wish to assign to it, which will be determined by the court, it is still a CRIME. Self defense is determined by the court. Anyway you look at it, this is a CRIME. Enough excuses, let the law do it's job. It seems to me a bit selfish of some of you to reduce this horrible action down to some mythical debate. You are free to be selfish, that is your right. You are free in your beliefs, that is your right. You are also free to look petty and ridiculous, a right that some of you exercise frequently. ✌

        1. Rev. B's Avatar Rev. B

          Of course this event was a crime. Or, as you put it, a CRIME. I was only speaking of the situation where one would have to argue self defense. I was not trying to diminish the attack on Rushdie.

          1. Brien's Avatar Brien

            I am not sure how that applies in this situation, but I'm not a lawyer nor judge and am not qualified to express a judgement. I will let the law exercise it's authority. I certainly will not assign some mythical belief to this crime, nor will I debate it as such. Beliefs are personal and meant to be kept in your own heart, but most mythical beliefs are used as weapons to break down others. When you commit a crime, no matter what mythical motive you try to use for justification, in the end it is still a crime. Thank you for your response. Peace ✌️

  1. Lionel Reiter Nazario's Avatar Lionel Reiter Nazario

    As many have pointed out, one could easily find a violent example in the adherents of any religion. Or the words later written by imperfect men. Let us not look to the imperfect followers as the yardstick, let us instead look to the founders.

    Does anyone dispute that Mohammed practiced and called for violence on a large scale? This tells us much.

    How about the "Old Testament God"? This also tells us much.

    How about Jesus, called Christ?

    Let us then separate Jesus from the Old Testament, there is no reason why they should be joined. Let us also not pretend that the example set by Jesus and that set by Mohammed are comparable.

    Just as most "Catholics" have no dealings with the molestation and violence of the larger institution, so most Muslims are not actively violent or even inclined to it. Yet, the institutions they are bound up in are dangerous, we deny it at our peril.

  1. Keith Allen Steele Eash's Avatar Keith Allen Steele Eash

    Islam is not a peaceful religion. It evens recommends killing the person.next to you if you don't think he's worshipping properly.

    1. Robert Edward Szekely's Avatar Robert Edward Szekely

      The Old Testament paints a picture of a bloodthirsty and violent God, as well.

    2. Rev. B's Avatar Rev. B

      Yep, that's christianity all right.

      1. Lionel Reiter Nazario's Avatar Lionel Reiter Nazario

        Many think so, but no, not by definition. CHRISTianity is supposed to be about Christ. The OT "God" is a killer that should never have been linked to the NT writing about Jesus called Christ. It's one of history's grandest deceptions, to link Christ with the savage creature depicted as God in the OT. Much to be learned here!

  1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

    Ok then, no insult intended but wht when a muslum religious "authority" issues a fatwa, someone almost ALWAYS is hurt or killed? Rushdie had a fatwa issued against him with his book 'The Satanic Verses' and you had millions of Muslums screaming for his blood. So please dont try and sugar coat this. When you make a"muslum expert" mad at you for some reason and they issue a fatwa against you, chances are pretty good that unless you stay hidden or are under guard, you are going to end up being hurt or dead.

    1. Robert Edward Szekely's Avatar Robert Edward Szekely

      Islamic clerics aren't automatically granted the authority to issue fatwas by virtue of their position. Ayatollah Khomeini was a fanatic who was being followed by other fanatics who aren't even following the rules of their own religion when it comes to fiqh, fatwas and ulema. It's kind of like practicing law without a license, but having your arguments accepted by the court anyway. Alim (plural ulema) are the Islamic legal scholars authorized to issue fatwas (decisions in matters of Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh) not clerics. The government and leadership of Iran HAS are fanatics who have perverted Islam for their own political ends. They're not Muslims any more than the Westboro Baptist Church are Christians.

      1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

        Sorry but you are wrong. I checked with a local Imam in Toledo and this is the definition I received on who can issue a fatwa:

        "What is a fatwa in Islam? The Arabic word fatwa can mean “explanation” or “clarification.” It refers, in simple terms, to an edict or ruling by a recognized religious authority on a point of Islamic law. The process of issuing a fatwa usually begins when a Muslim, confronted with a problem of life, belief or law, is unsure what to do."

        And the last time I looked an Imam IS a recognized religious authority. Sorry but you dont know what you are talking about

    2. Robert Edward Szekely's Avatar Robert Edward Szekely

      Ayatollah Khomeini did NOT have the authority to issue the fatwa against Rushdie. He broke the rules of his own religion when he stated it, and those who follow it are radicals, not much different from the zealots and sicarii in Ancient Rome, or the hashishin.

      1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

        Definition of ayatollah

        a religious leader among Shiite Muslims

        Sorry but wrong again

    3. Rev. MichaelRS's Avatar Rev. MichaelRS

      THIS ☝️

      1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

        Just proved BOTH of you wrong, now if you have a problem with these definitions, then you need to get the Islamic religion to clarify it

  1. Nicholas J Page's Avatar Nicholas J Page

    Fatwah or not nobody can issue the death penalty on anyone unless its a proper judge and jury in a recognised court Not just any Tom ,Dick or ,Harry.Has any expert on the Islamic laws atualky read the Satanic Verses Why would any decent person want to denounce a religion. What is one of the 10 commandments say Thou Shall not kill The Islamic faith does not rule the world.No body does The earth was created by God and he oversees everything. Not one minority or religious sect.Mankind is supposed to love thy neighbour not go around killing people.That's the reason the world is so fxxxxd up everybody wants to rule the world.

    1. Robert Edward Szekely's Avatar Robert Edward Szekely

      The commandment you cite is "Thou shalt not murder". You can kill in self-defense, and that is not a sin.

    2. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

      In islam, you can, sorry

  1. Dr. Zerpersande's Avatar Dr. Zerpersande

    With the Xtians their holy book came from a lot of old scrolls found in the desert. Some were chosen as being their deity’s words, others discarded. They were subsequently put together with whatever artistic freedom King James dictated. Now the Xtians stick to the bible. They interpret it of course. And sometimes those interpretations result in new sects of various weirdness.

    But the Muslims,well, to me these fatwas are a result of Mr. Magic speaking directly to the clerics. These are like iPhone updates and all users are expected to install them. Hey, at least the Muslim’s Abrahamic cousin is still interacting with his creation and making an effort to get the bugs out. The Xtian god had his prophet nailed to a cross to get him back to heaven and left everything written in stone thereafter. The Muslim god brought his prophet home on a horse and still issues updates. One seems to have a slightly better business model. Well, except for the pretty regular murders. But that’s like batteries catching one fire.

  1. Yanel Jay Laroche Jr.'s Avatar Yanel Jay Laroche Jr.

    I am Archbishop Yanel Jay Laroche Jr.. Violence is condemned in the Holy Bible. We can read 1 Timothy 3:2-3 that talks about an overseer not given to violence,but gentle.

  1. Rev. MichaelRS's Avatar Rev. MichaelRS

    It seems to me that every excuse under the sun is made for other religious groups that have radicals in them, but the same is not accorded to Christianity.

    For example you could have conservative Christians that have a honest sincere faith-based belief that homosexuality is wrong/sin, but they are not reactionary zealots like the Hillsboro Baptist Church people. And yet they are painted as such.

    In cases like this do the "moderate Muslims" really matter?

    Considering the rampant destruction visited upon others by their more strident brothers and sisters, it doesn't seem that they do.

  1. Richard Darwin Richards's Avatar Richard Darwin Richards

    oh that peaceful loving religion...

  1. Reverend Kurt's Avatar Reverend Kurt

    Comment removed by user.

  1. Reverend Kurt's Avatar Reverend Kurt

    Comment removed by user.

  1. Troels Qvist's Avatar Troels Qvist

    I am the ayatollah of rock'nrolla Quote "heartbreak ridge"

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