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A Forgotten Precursor To The Rushdie Affair, The Telegraph

In the winter of 1988-9, there occurred what became known as the ‘Rushdie Affair’. Salman Rushdie had just published his novel The Satanic Verses, which orthodox Muslims denounced as having defamed the image of Prophet Muhammad. In Iran, the fundamentalist cleric Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on the writer’s life. In the country of Rushdie’s birth, India, the book was banned by the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. In the country of Rushdie’s domicile, the United Kingdom, the book was burnt in several cities, and the threats to the novelist’s life were so serious that he had to spend several years in hiding, protected by the British police

The ‘Rushdie Affair’ is well known and has been widely written about. Recently, while working in the British archives, I found evidence of a fascinating (and now forgotten) precedent, when, a full fifty years before Khomeini called for Rushdie to be killed, another famous British writer had attracted the ire of fundamentalist Muslims.

Back in the 1930s, there were only a few thousand Muslims living in the United Kingdom. This small group of expatriates sought to maintain their spirit by regular meetings. Thus the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin, an organization of Indian Muslims living in London, met every Friday. The records of the London Metropolitan Police tell us that at one such meeting, held in August 1938, H. G. Wells’s book A Short History of the World was ‘ceremoniously committed to the flames’.

Wells’s book had in fact been published many years earlier, in 1922. But an abridged version had recently been translated into Hindustani, and this had aroused protest meetings in Calcutta and other Indian towns, and now, in London.  According to the protesters, Wells had said that Muhammad was vain and greedy, and so they burnt his book on the 12th of August 1938. Four days later, a leader of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin named Mohammed Buksh went to see Sir Feroz Khan Noon, the High Commissioner for India in the United Kingdom. Buksh told Noon that the members of the Jamiat proposed to organize a march on his office to lodge a formal protest against the book, in the hope that he would convey their anger to the authorities, and have the book banned and the author punished.

The High Commissioner told the visitor that such a march would serve no purpose. As he put it, ‘in a matter like this we [Muslims in Britain] are helpless. This is a country in which there are people who criticise the Christian religion and Jesus Christ; there are also people who criticise the Royal Family and the King, and nobody takes any notice of these things. The moon continues to shed its light on the world in spite of the barks of the mad dogs at night’. The High Commissioner reminded his injured co-religionist that Muslims were ‘a very small minority’ in England, ‘and it would do them no good to try and be mischievous in this country, no matter how genuine their grievances were’.

Mohammed Buksh was unconvinced. Two days later, he returned with a party of 500 Muslims, who marched from the East End to India House, off the Strand in central London. They presented the High Commissioner with a petition that ‘strongly vehemently and angerly (sic) protest[ed] against the false, cowardly and maliciously slanderous statement made by H. G. Wells in his Short History of the World against our revered, respected and honoured prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) and our holy Quran’. The militants of the Jamiat demanded that ‘Mr H. G. Wells immediately withdraw the allegation and offer us immediate public apology’.

The High Commissioner forwarded this petition to the Marquess of Zetland, Secretary of State for India. Zetland replied that while he regretted that offence should have been given to Muslims on a matter concerning their faith, ‘having regard to the freedom permitted to the expression of views in this country, I have no power to secure a modification of the passage to which exception has been taken’. But, to show that he was not indifferent to Muslim sentiment, Zetland passed on a copy of the petition to H. G. Wells’ publisher, Penguin Books, whose boss, Allen Lane, wrote back to say that since ‘we have no authority to alter an author’s work without his express permission’, there was nothing they could do with regard to the passage complained of.

Meanwhile, B. Shiva Rao, the London correspondent of The Hindu, interviewed H. G. Wells in London about the controversy. Wells said that his analysis of the Prophet’s character in his book was by no means ‘irreverent’, adding that ‘he was fully aware of the contributions of Islam to the world’s culture’. He added that it was unfair to judge his views ‘by a stray passage in an abridged version’.

Wells was correct in saying that his views had been misrepresented. Here is what he wrote about Muhammad in his Short History of the World: ‘He seems to have been a man compounded of very considerable vanity, greed, cunning, self-deception, and quite sincere religious passion’. Wells was clearly much impressed with the last, for, as he wrote later in the same chapter, ‘when the manifest defects of Muhammad’s life and writing have been allowed for, there remains in Islam, this faith he imposed on the Arabs, much power and inspiration’.

In the United Kingdom, the controversy died down after the protests and protesters had been summarily dismissed. In other parts of the world, however, Muslims were still exercised about the matter. A meeting of Indian Muslims in Mombasa, held on the 28th of August 1938, urged the British Government to place a ban throughout the Empire on a book which it claimed ‘has seriously wounded the religious feelings of the Muslims and is likely to cause religious disturbance throughout the Islamic world’. This resolution was ‘passed unanimously amidst shouts of anger against the author’.  On the 4th of September, a similar meeting held in Nairobi claimed that Wells’s book ‘has seriously hurt the religious feelings of Muslims throughout the world’.

The file in the archives on this controversy contains an interesting letter written by the bookseller W. H. Smith to the British Government’s ‘India Office’. On three separate occasions, W. H. Smith had shipped copies of Wells’s book to the Premier Book Depot, Sadar Bazar, Hyderabad, Sind, each time the recipient reporting that the packet had not reached. Was, wondered the bookseller, ‘this class of book banned for sale in that country’? The India Office made enquiries, reporting back that the Sind Government had indeed banned the import of the book, since the C. I. D. had reported ‘that it would inflame the feelings of Muslims’.

The controversy I have exhumed here does not figure in the major biographies of H. G. Wells. It was perhaps a minor matter in the life of that novelist, but it does, I think, deserve to be resurrected today. For one thing, it prefigured a later and much more serious controversy, the Rushdie Affair. In 1938, Muslims were indeed ‘a very small minority’ in England. But by 1989, they numbered in the millions rather than the thousands. They could make a lot of noise, and potentially cause violence. And since Rushdie was (unlike Wells) himself a Muslim by birth, his book attracted far greater attention too.

I doubt that most members of the London branch of the Jamiat-ul-Muslimin had read H. G. Wells’s A Short History of the World. And one can be certain that a majority of those Muslims who burnt Rushdie’s book in Bradford or demonstrated against it in Karachi or New Delhi had not read The Satanic Verses either. In each case, fanatical or attention-seeking clerics had taken some words and phrases from these books, twisting them out of context, representing the authors as anti-Islamic, and demanding that the Government act against them and their works.

In 1938, when Wells’s book was attacked, or even in 1989, when Rushdie’s book was burnt and banned and threats issued to the author’s life, one could argue that this kind of thing mostly happened to Muslims. It was possible to represent some followers of the Prophet as being particularly thin-skinned. Indeed, some Hindus made that argument all the time. But that sort of complacency is no longer tenable. Hindus, either in the aggregate or acting as castes, are now as quick to take offence as any Muslim. In Rajasthan, film-sets were vandalized by Rajputs fearful that their caste was not being presented in the purest and most perfect light. In Maharashtra, an American scholar who wrote a well researched but not entirely adulatory book about Shivaji had his book banned, and could never travel to India again. I grew up thinking that Rama and Krishna were compellingly flawed; but anyone now making that case in print or in film better take out a life insurance policy in advance.

There is one last thought I would like to leave the reader with. In the land of our former colonizers, one can make fun of Gods and Kings, without having one’s book burnt or film banned. Regardless of the party in power, the Government of the United Kingdom is firmly committed to protecting the freedom of expression of writers and artists. In this respect at least, Christian Britons are far more civilized, far more broad-minded, than Indian Muslims or Indian Hindus.



Ramachandra Guha

(first published in The Telegraph, 14th October 2017)