Apart from Iran’s Islamic revolution, for which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini could claim only partial credit, his most momentous achievement was the February 1989 fatwa against author Salman Rushdie. Pronounced in response to Mr. Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses,” Khomeini’s edict was the first time a Muslim militant had the audacity to apply an Islamic punishment deep inside the West. Khomeini applied jujitsu to the West’s claim that it stood for “universal values,” obliging it to take note of Muslim sensibilities about the sacred and the profane. Muslim reaction to Khomeini’s decree varied, but it elicited considerable sympathy among Sunni as well as Shiite believers.
Mr. Rushdie’s recondite book was an odd choice for such ire. Islamic scholars and jurists had long debated Surah 53, the segment of the Quran on which “The Satanic Verses” is based. It concerns Muhammad’s efforts to convert the powerful pagans of Mecca to Islam. The canonical interpretation held that the devil intruded into the prophet’s inspirations, producing what appeared to be a temporary and tactically astute toleration of paganism. Possibly excepting the slaughter of the male members of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe, no action has caused more heartburn among Islamic commentators.