Khomeini had not read the book. According to the British press, he was reportedly watching the evening news on television, as he did every evening, when he saw rioters in Pakistan burning the book and protesting over it, violently. Some Muslims believed the novel was blasphemous to Prophet Muhammad. Khomeini, who is spoofed in the book, dictated a fatwa to be read immediately over Tehran Radio.
Khomeini's words were, according to various translations:
"I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book entitled 'Satanic Verses'. . . as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, are hereby sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Moslems to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult Islamic sanctity. Whoever is killed doing this will be regarded as a martyr and will go directly to heaven."
Radio Tehran went on, declaring in the Iranian government's name Feb. 15, 1989 a "day of national mourning . . . in protest against the new conspiracy of the great Satan (the United States) to publish poisonous and insulting subject-matter concerning Islam, the Koran and the blessed prophet."
Within 72 hours, six people died and more than 160 were wounded in violent demonstrations against the book in Pakistan and India.
Rushdie, who was 41 and living in London at the time, immediately went into hiding, though the following day he granted interviews.
"Frankly, I wish I had written a more critical book," Rushdie said on a CBS television morning show on Feb. 13, 1989. "I mean, a religion that claims, that is able to behave like this; religious leaders, let's say, who are able to behave like this, and then say that this is a religion which must be above any kind of whisper or criticism, that doesn't add up. It seems to me that Islamic fundamentalists could do with a little bit of criticism right now."
Subsequently, Khomeini set a $5.2 million bounty on Rushdie's head, and Rushdie, on Feb. 18, issued an apology: ""I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others."
The Iranian government rejected the apology. Rushdie's acts of contrition would eventually go as far as a declaring, in a Dec. 28, 1990 column in The New York Times, "I am able now to say that I am a Muslim," while virtually repudiating the book and refusing to condone new translations or its publication in paperback.
Rushdie would eventually repudiate the repudiation. "It mostly had to do with despair and disorientation," he said in a 1995 Playboy interview. "I had lost my strength and felt completely bereft. Many of my friends pointed out that it was the stupidest thing I had ever done in my life."
The Iranian government lifted the fatwa in 1998.