SHOULD a book be banned because leaders of Britain's Muslim minority insist that it blasphemes their religion and its founder? The question has been provoked by the publication of Salman Rushdie's prize-winning novel, ``The Satanic Verses,'' which portrays the Prophet Muhammad as an ordinary mortal and raises questions about his sincerity as a religious leader. Copies were publicly torched by angry Islamic clergy in the north England city of Bradford. Since the mid-January immolation, the furor over the book has lost none of its heat.
Kenneth Baker, the education secretary, and other leading politicians have appealed to Britain's 1 million Muslims to accept the need for tolerance. But religious leaders have threatened legal action against Mr. Rushdie - himself a Muslim of Indian background - and his publisher, Penguin Books.
Ali Muhammed Azhar, a prominent Muslim barrister, has said he and his supporters plan to go to court and argue that the Rushdie book breaks the law of blasphemy because it offends against the Islamic faith. The novel's name alludes to two verses that the Prophet Muhammad is said to have removed from the Koran because he believed them to be the work of Satan. The book is a secular exploration of the Islamic faith.
Early in the dispute, one of Britain's leading booksellers, WH Smith, ordered its shop in Bradford (a city with a large immigrant population) to remove the book froms its shelves. Later the management reversed itself, causing Islamic clerics to complain afresh. Since then, the Council of Mosques, claiming to represent Islamic opinion, has threatend a boycott of all WH Smith outlets and called on public libraries to refuse to give ``The Satanic Verses'' shelf space. On Jan. 24, 8,000 Muslims marched through London, demanding a ban on the book.
Rushdie has said he is shocked by reaction to his novel. He assumed the British tradition of tolerance would be observed by most citizens, regardless of ethnic origin. He now says that he was too hopeful.
The book has particularly aroused the anger of Islamic religious leaders, many of whom are more radical than their congregations. Most of Britain's Muslims are from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and East Africa. A smaller group is from the Middle East.
Much of the furious reaction to the Rushdie novel appears to have been stirred by imams (religious leaders) with close Middle East connections. Mosques in cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Bradford, and London have become social centers as well, enhancing the influence of the clergy.
Recent clergy-inspired campaigns have demanded sexually segregated teaching for Muslim pupils and the serving of halal (prepared according to Islamic teaching) meat to Muslim pupils in state schools. These demands are said to reflect the orthodox views of the clergy more than those of Muslim citizens generally. But because the clergy have acquired power at the mosques, many rank-and-file Muslims let the imams speak for them.
There appears to be little chance of Rushdie's novel being banned in Britain. Last year it won the coveted Whitbread Prize for fiction. A paperback edition is planned for later this year, and there is to be a launch of the novel in the United States on Feb. 22.