Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie was born June 19, 1947 in Bombay (now Mumbai), India. The only son of a wealthy Indian businessman and a school teacher, Rushdie was educated at a Bombay private school before attending The Rugby School, a boarding school in Warwickshire, England. He went on to attend King’s College at the University of Cambridge, where he studied history.
After earning his M.A. from Cambridge, Rushdie briefly lived with his family in Pakistan, where his parents had moved in 1964. There, he found work as a television writer but soon returned to England, where for much of the 1970s he worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency.
While Rushdie would later become a target of Muslim extremists, the religion was very much a part of his upbringing. His grandfather, a kind man and family doctor, was a devout Muslim, who said his prayers five times a day and went to Hajj to Mecca.
But his grandfather’s embrace of the religion was not shrouded in intolerance, something that greatly shaped the young Rushdie.
“You could sit there as an 11- or 12-year-old boy and say, ‘Grandfather, I don’t believe in god.’ And he would say, ‘Really? That’s very interesting. Sit down here and tell me all about it.’ And there would be no kind of attempt to ram something down your throat or criticize you. There would just be conversation.”
In 1975 Rushdie published his first book, Grimus, a fantasy and science fiction novel that received tepid reviews. Undeterred by the response, Rushdie kept writing and his second work, Midnight’s Children, proved life altering.
Published in 1981, the book, which tells the story of India’s complicated history through a pickle-factory worker named Saleem Sinai, was a critical and commercial success. The honors included the Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction). In 1993 and 2008 it was awarded the “Best of the Bookers,” a distinction that made it the best novel to have won a Booker Prize for Fiction in the award’s 25 and later 40-year history.
Rushdie’s follow-up, 1983’s Shame won the French literary prize, Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, further cementing Rushdie’s place among literature’s upper echelon.
The Satanic Verses
In 1988 Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, a novel drenched in magical realism and whose main story was inspired in part by the life of Muhammad. Critics adored it. The book won the Whitbread Award for novel of the year and was a finalist for the Booker Prize.
But it also drew immediate condemnation from the Islamic world for what was perceived to be its irreverent account of Muhammad. In many countries with large Muslim populations, the novel was banned and on February 14, 1989,Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran, issued a fatwa requiring the author’s execution. A bounty was offered for Rushdie’s death and for a number of years the writer was forced to live under police protection.
To try and dial back the outrage, Rushdie issued a public apology and voiced his support for Islam. The heat around The Satanic Verses eventually cooled and in 1998, Iran declared it would not support the fatwa.
In 2012 Rushdie published Joseph Anton: A Memoir, an autobiographical account of what life was like for him during the decade-long fatwa.
Even at the height of controversy surrounding his famous novel, Rushdie continued to write. In all he’s written eleven novels, as well as a pair of children’s books and published several collections of essays and works of non-fiction. Rushdie’s 12th novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights was published in September 2015. Overall, his books have been translated into more than 40 languages.
Rushdie’s litany of honors and awards are considerable, including honorary doctorates and fellowships at six European and six American universities. In 2007 Queen Elizabeth II knighted him. In 2014 Rushdie was awarded the PEN/Pinter Prize. Established in memory of the late Nobel-Laureate playwright Harold Pinter, the annual award honors a British writer for their body of work.
Rushdie has also maintained a fiery tongue and pen. He’s been a fierce defender of freedom of expression and was a frequent critic of the US led war in Iraq. In 2008 he publicly regretted his embrace of Islam in the wake of the criticism of The Satanic Verses.
“It was deranged thinking,” he said. “I was more off-balance than I ever have been, but you can’t imagine the pressure I was under. I simply thought I was making a statement of fellowship. As soon as I said it, I felt as if I had ripped my own tongue out.”
Rushdie has been married four times and is the father of two sons, Zafar (b. 1979) and Milan (b. 1997).