Islam Through the Looking-Glass: Salman Rushdie in Context

On Valentine’s Day, 1989, Salman Rushdie learned that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa against him for the perceived anti-Islamic sentiment in his novel “The Satanic Verses.” Rushdie, as he writes in his memoir, “Joseph Anton,” “wondered how many days he had left, and guessed that the answer was probably a single-digit number.” More than twenty years later, Rushdie is still alive, the Ayatollah is dead, the fatwa has been lifted, and the world is a very different place for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In “Joseph Anton” (titled for the pseudonym Rushdie adopted in tribute to Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov while in hiding), the writer describes not only the tricks and tactics he used to evade his would-be assassins for nearly a decade, but also details his own interest in the history of Islam, and describes how his study of the religion gave him the ideas for the novel that would change his life forever. Today, as Muslim protests against an anti-Islam film rage around the world, the religion remains polarizing and often misunderstood. Several memoirs and biographies attempt to explain the conflict.

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi

It was the world’s most dangerous book group: in the mid-1990s, Nafisi, a former literature professor at the University of Tehran, began hosting secret weekly study sessions in her home for women who wanted to read Western literature. As "morality guards" ensured Muslim women were covered with robes and head scarves, the members of the club risked personal safety to read and discuss “Madame Bovary,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and, of course, “Lolita.” Nabokov’s tale of a dissolute pedophile may seem to have little relevance to life under an increasingly restrictive political regime, but, Nafisi writes, “there is no way I can write about that novel without also writing about Tehran.”

"Infidel" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

One of the most outspoken critics of Islam, Hirsi Ali is a former member of Dutch Parliament whose views earned her death threats and cost her her citizenship and her political position. A former devout Muslim who endured genital mutilation and an arranged marriage, Hirsi Ali came to believe radical Islam was an inherently “brutal” and “bigoted” religion that oppressed women. When she collaborated on a film about domestic violence in Muslim households, she put her views, and her personal safety, in the spotlight. In this memoir Hirsi Ali writes about her personal journey and the evolution of her faith and her belief that Islam must reform in order to survive.

"Khomeini: Life of the Ayatollah" by Baqer Moin

In “Joseph Anton,” Rushdie describes the Ayatollah as a “mortally ill old man, lying in a darkened room” when he signs the fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. But who was the Ayatollah Khomeini? In this biography, Moin traces the rise to power of the man who led the Iranian Revolution and popularized radical Islam from his early work as a poet and student of philosophy to his increasingly fervent religious and political views. Moin writes that “as an Iranian working abroad,” he spent much of his time “trying to correct misconceptions” about Khomeini and the larger culture of Iran that supported him, describing the Ayatollah as a “tenacious and complex character” whose life spanned the twentieth century and saw the decline and resurgence of Islam in the Middle East.

"Acts of Faith" by Eboo Patel

Patel, an American Muslim from India, writes in this memoir that as an adolescent, he believed it was impossible for American, Muslim, and Indian sides of his identity to coexist in one person. As an adult, he realized he didn’t need to reject any part of himself, but could embrace all the facets of who he was. He went on to found Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that brings the interfaith movement to college campuses and unites youth of different religions to perform community service. In his book, he writes of his hope that Americans will transform and revitalize Islam into a faith that embraces diversity and looks to the future.