It was a 1988 Booker Prize Finalist (losing to Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda) and won the 1988 Whitbread Award for novel of the year. In the Muslim community, however, the novel caused great controversy for what many Muslims believed were blasphemous references. The book was banned in India, was burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom, and was the subject of a violent riot iin Pakistan. In February 1989, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling on all good Muslims to kill or help kill Rushdie and his publishers.Following the fatwa, Rushdie was put under police protection by the British government. As of early 2010 Rushdie has not been physically harmed, but 38 others have been killed in violence against those connected with the book. Individual purchasers of the book have not been harmed.
The novel consists of a frame narrative, using elements of magical realism, interlaced with a series of sub-plots that are narrated as dream visions experienced by one of the protagonists. The frame narrative, like many other stories by Rushdie, involves Indian expatriates in contemporary England. The two protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, are both actors of Indian Muslim background. Farishta is a Bollywood superstar who specializes in playing Hindu deities. (The character is partly based on Indian film stars Amitabh Bachchan and Rama Rao.Chamcha is an emigrant who has broken with his Indian identity and works as a voice over artist in England.At the beginning of the novel, both are trapped in a hijacked plane during a flight from India to Britain. The plane explodes over the English Channel, but the two are magically saved. In a miraculous transformation, Farishta takes on the personality of the archangel Gibreel, and Chamcha that of a devil. After being found on the beach, Chamcha is taken into custody by the police, who suspect him of being an illegal immigrant, while Farishta looks on without intervening. Both characters struggle to piece their lives back together. Farishta seeks and finds his lost love, the English mountaineer Allie Cone, but their relationship is overshadowed by his mental illness. Chamcha, having miraculously regained his human shape, wants to take revenge on Farishta for having forsaken him after their common fall from the hijacked plane. He does so by fostering Farishta's pathological jealousy and thus destroying his relationship with Allie. In another moment of crisis, Farishta realizes what Chamcha has done, but forgives him and even saves his life. Both return to India. Farishta, still suffering from his illness, kills Allie in another outbreak of jealousy and then commits suicide. Chamcha, who has found not only forgiveness from Farishta but also reconciliation with his estranged father and his own Indian identity, decides to remain in India.
Embedded in this story is a series of half-magic dream vision narratives, ascribed to the disturbed mind of Gibreel Farishta. They are linked together by many thematic details as well as by the common motifs of divine revelation, religious faith and fanaticism, and doubt. One of these sequences contains most of the elements that have been criticized as offensive to Muslims. It is a transformed re-narration of the life of Muhammad (called "Mahound" or "the Messenger" in the novel) in Mecca ("Jahilia"). At its centre is the episode of the Satanic Verses, in which the prophet first proclaims a revelation in favour of the old polytheistic deities, but later renounces this as an error induced by Shaitan. There are also two opponents of the "Messenger": a demonic heathen priestess, Hind, and an irreverent skeptic and satirical poet, Baal. When the prophet returns to the city in triumph, Baal goes into hiding in an underground brothel, where the prostitutes assume the identities of the prophet's wives. Also, one of the prophet's companions claims that he, doubting the "Messenger"'s authenticity, has subtly altered portions of the Qur'an as they were dictated to him. The second sequence tells the story of Ayesha, an Indian peasant girl who claims to be receiving revelations from the Archangel Gibreel. She entices all her village community to embark on a foot pilgrimage to Mecca, claiming that they will be able to walk on foot across the Arabian Sea. The pilgrimage ends in a catastrophic climax as the believers all walk into the water and disappear, amid disturbingly conflicting testimonies from observers about whether they just drowned or were in fact miraculously able to cross the sea. A third dream sequence presents the figure of a fanatic expatriate religious leader, the "Imam," set again in a late-20th-century setting. This figure is a transparent allusion to the life of Ayatollah Khomeini in his Parisian exile, but it is also linked through various recurrent narrative motifs to the figure of the "Messenger".
In the Muslim community the novel caused great controversy for what many Muslims believed were blasphemous references. As the controversy spread, the book was banned in India and burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom. In mid-February 1989, following a violent riot against the book in Pakistan, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran and a Shi'a Muslim scholar, issued a fatwa calling on all good Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers, or to point him out to those who can kill him if they cannot themselves Following the fatwa, Rushdie was put under police protection by the British government. Despite a conciliatory statement by Iran in 1998, and Rushdie's declaration that he would stop living in hiding, the Iranian state news agency reported in 2006 that the fatwa would remain in place permanently since fatwas can only be rescinded by the person who first issued them, and Khomeini had since died. As of mid 2010 Rushdie has not been physically harmed, but others connected with the book have suffered violent attacks. Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese language translator of the book, was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991; Ettore Capriolo, the Italian language translator, was seriously injured in a stabbing the same month; William Nygaard, the publisher in Norway, barely survived an attempted assassination in Oslo in October 1993, and Aziz Nesin, the Turkish language translator, was the intended target in the events that led to the Sivas massacre on 2 July 1993 in Sivas, Turkey, which resulted in the deaths of 37 people. At the same time, the only nation with a predominantly Muslim population where the novel remains legal still is Turkey.