Michael Muhammad Knight - Inside on the outside: Punk, Magic and Wrestling in Islam
As a young kid in the nineties Michael Muhammad Knight got intrigued by the anti-racist struggle of Malcom X and because of that got drawn into Islam. A following phase brought him to a madrassa in Pakistan where he immersed himself in a more fundamentalist approach of religion. After getting disillusioned and returning to the US he expressed his frustrations through ‘The Taqwacores’, a novel that describes a small Anarchist community of young Muslim Punk Rockers who pray, party and discuss Islamic philosophy. Quite unexpectedly the book found its niche and gave rise to an actual Muslim Punk scene. In other words, Michael’s fantasy turned out to be reality.
For Michael, the link between Islam and Punk is obvious. In his view, both exhibit an ‘idol-smashing consciousness’. Such a consciousness remained an important aspect of his several books that followed afterwards. One of those was ‘Tripping with Allah’, for example, in which he discusses his experiments with drugs such as the ritualized hallucinogen Ayhuasca and how that leads to a vision of Fatimah, the Prophet’s daughter. Another example is his study of the Five Percenters tradition that tries to help African-Americans spiritually free themselves of racist suppression through a very particular interpretation of Islamic elements. Like their founder, adherents of the movement (such as some protagonists of the famous hip-hop collective ‘The Wu-Tang-Clan’) often call themselves ‘Allah’. On top of it, in their mythology someone like Michael can be considered a ‘white devil’. Nevertheless, in many ways, he sees himself as a Five Percenter. Then again, his previous book bears the title ‘Why I am a Salafi’ while his newest book, published today (May 24th 2016), is about Magic in Islam. And – importantly – within all of that he also remains a huge fan of American Professional Wrestling.
In these days when the academic study of religion is rife with the effort to ‘deconstruct’ all sorts of themes and topics, few people seem better placed to do so in matters of religion than this catholic-turned-muslim-turned-radical-turned-punker-turned-academic-turned-we’ll-see-what’s-next-because-it’s-bound-to-be-interesting-in-any-case. After he presented the first Dutch translation of ‘The Taqwacores’ at the ‘International Literature Festival of Utrecht’, we found some time to sit down and get into some of that deconstructing of religion. Ironically enough, Michael himself would call it a time to ‘build’ – the Five Percenter term for a positive exchange of ideas.
Your name and personality is still mostly associated with Punk Islam. The fact that the release of the first Dutch translation of ‘The Taqwacores’ brings you to the Netherlands for the first time, is a good example. Yet fourteen years have passed since you wrote the book. Is the Michael Muhammad Knight who’s sitting in front of me today still the same man, or has he changed?
A main difference is my deeper knowledge about the accumulated tradition of Islam. When I wrote the novel I didn’t have the tools to historically contextualize or theorize. Those weren’t necessary at the time. I simply screamed out what I needed or what hurt me. In the years since, as an academic, I developed the theoretical tools and the knowledge to dig deep within Islam’s diversity and find precedence for the Muslim punk of Taqwacore.
Now, when I say ‘precedence’, I don’t mean it in the same way as those who said that the Taqwacores were a modern version of the Sufi Qalandars, who also didn’t always abide by the religious rules. When I wrote the book I had no idea who the Qalandars were, so you can’t say it was a rejuvenation of that old concept. Nevertheless, now that I know about the existence of the Qalandars and many other phenomena, I understand there certainly was and is a space for punk in Islam.
In what manner then, is your current writing any different? As you said during the book presentation, perhaps one could say that you’re doing exactly the same, only now in a more academic manner by throwing in a bit of Derrida or Ibn al-Arabi to make it sound more sophisticated.
Sure. I think I’m trying to answer the same crises and similar hurts. I just have more tools to do it.
But another important change besides the ‘scholarliness’ is my relationship to people. When I came into Islam, as a fifteen year old isolated convert, it was as a religion. It was an ‘either you believe it or you don’t believe it’ kind of thing. My relationship to Catholicism was far more complicated because I grew up in a Catholic family and I could see people with all kinds of relationships to it. As a Muslim, at first, I didn’t get to see that. That’s why I wrote ‘The Taqwacores’ as a religious dilemma, as a theological problem I felt confronted with. Today, however, my understanding of religion became broader. I now see Islam as a set of references. It’s the stories and experiences that I use to process myself as a human being in the world. And I don’t think that’s a lesser thing than saying: “well, there’s this dude up in the sky and that’s what makes Islam for me.”
So I don’t like the way people frame my religiosity when they ask me to tell them more about ‘my faith’. I don’t have a stable doctrinal position. It changes. What I say tomorrow will be different from today. Yet I married a Muslim and that created a different set of relations. In the end then, on a personal level, being Muslim is about my family. And I don’t think that’s a shallow thing. To be honest, people are more important to me than the transcendent things at this point. I could perhaps even say that my mother in law is a bigger part of my current Islam than the Prophet – although she wouldn’t like it, of course, if she heard me say that. (Laughs.)
If your Islam is for a great part defined by relationships, what then does the concept of ‘silsilah’ mean to you? To explain where the question comes from: I actually use the concept of silsilah myself to define my ‘Christianness’. After my long involvement with different aspects of Islam – both personally and professionally – I find myself in a hybrid space of spiritual osmosis between these two traditions. As such, this idea of ‘chains of transmission’ not only helped me to redefine religion in general, but also to more properly place myself within my own tradition. It helped me to leave behind the idea of religion as a set of faith doctrines or rules and to start seeing it as organic lines of ‘wisdom transference’. My own chain of transmission, for example, ultimately runs through more punky people like Saint Francis back to Christ. Do you see such a silsilah for yourself?
That’s actually where my latest book ‘Why I’m a Salafi’ ended up. I see much use for the concept but I don’t see a silsilah as a straight line from A to Z or as a sort of tree model with one particular trunk and many branches. I see it more as a tangle of roots. I don’t have this singular chain. I have multiple silisilahs and they connect in multiple ways. I feel a connection to the Five Percenter tradition, I feel a connection to the Nimatullahi Sufi order that I joined and I feel a connection to the Sunni tradition – whatever that is.
Sometimes these chains are radically irreconcilable. For example, I took my shahada from a student of Ismail al-Faruqi who’s a very important American Muslim scholar. So I consider al-Faruqi part of my chain but I also really consider myself a student of Azreal, who, during the sixties, was a close companion of Allah. [The founder of the Five Percenter movement, red.] Yet I have all of these chains within me and none of them gets to dominate. This is where my instability comes in. There are times when I can sense the ‘big thing up there’ but just as much there are times where it’s all internal to myself.
This religious ‘fluidity’ is one of the main themes in most if not all of your books. You often reflect on what it means to be the margin or the norm, you question the borders of these concepts and you express stinging critiques on the power play that produces such borders. Do you think that religion can one day become completely deconstructed or ‘borderless’?
Of course, there’s a certain value to the historical critique which shows that the borders weren’t always there or weren’t always drawn in the same way, but it’s not going to end. If the people that argue for a borderless religion would come into power, they would marginalize the people who like borders. So yes, I advocate a borderless and deconstructed Islam but if somehow I’d have the authority to take away borders, that in itself would be an act of violence because there are people who define themselves through the cohesion of their tradition and I would take that option away from them.
I just try to make some space for people who find themselves in these ‘in between spaces’, in these liminal conditions. I try to say: “Look, you’re feeling troubled by the fact that you don’t fit into this category or that category, but don’t bother too much, because these categories aren’t all that real. You can create your own categories and boundaries.”
And actually I think that is the norm. Most people don’t know it, but the liminal conditions are the norm.
In a statistical sense I would agree. But that norm simply isn’t in charge.
Yet the thing is, even the people who are pushing up against whatever it is that scares them ‘on the other side’, are transformed by their pushing. By their very recognition of the border, they actually start poking holes in that border.
On the other hand, some more subversive elements can, once in a while, be quite needed to give the borders a very thorough shake – Taqwacore being a good example. Yet isn’t it a problem that the ‘intellectual elite’ incorporates someone like you or something like Taqwacore and thus takes away their subversive and punky elements? In other words, shouldn’t you have stayed outside the borders to be able to rattle them?
Well, I’m still outside. I don’t get invited to the mosques or by the politicians. And I still piss of a lot of people. There are some scholars who have networks of mosque audiences and there are some scholars who are seen as community leaders who get invited to the Presidential Ramadan diners. I’m not part of that.
What does that do to you on a personal level? I guess that you, just like any other writer, have some sort of ‘fame impulse’ as well. Would you sometimes like to be invited to the White House?
It’s of course nice to be liked. And it can always be hurtful to read to read hostile things about myself, depending on what’s affecting my vulnerability that day.
As Azreal once told me: “being Azreal is a lonely thing”. [Though Azrael was very close to the founder of the Fiver Percenters, he always remained one of the few white exceptions in a movement of ‘black gods’, red.] He named me Azreal as well and I feel very serious about that. I’ve alienated basically everybody and I’ve never been too careful. (laughs.) I’ve alienated myself from many Sunnis by being open to the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenter Tradition, I’ve alienated myself from the Five Percenters by being pro-queer and I’ve alienated myself from the progressive Muslim spaces because they’re bad on race. It’s a bit bouncing back and forward but I’m not the type to kiss asses and play the kind of games that would entitle me to a community position.
Now, besides vanity, ego or the fame impulse or anything like that, it’s of course comforting to belong somewhere. So sometimes I feel I could really have a place if I would be able to choose one particular platform and compromise a little. But then I get responses from people who are on the outside – often more outside than I am – and they see some value in a guy who’s recognising their position.
I suppose the very same effort of interrogating the borders and categories also drove you to research the topic of ‘Magic in Islam’.
Yes, that too was a way of reflecting on the false perceptions concerning the unity of religion. We tend to think about religion and magic as separate categories, clearly defined against each other and both clearly defined against science. But historically that’s not the case. In many ways, they can’t be separated. Magic is just religion which we decided to discredit, or considered to be weird. But there’s no meaningful difference – or no consistent meaningful difference in any case. Today there might be, but five hundred years ago there was no such boundary-drawing. In my upcoming book I discuss, for example, how people use the sounds of the Qur’an as something which contains power or why some people ‘drink’ the Qur’an. I also write about the occult esoteric revival in American history and how that connected to the revival of Islam in the US, in the late 19th beginning of the 20th century. And just as well, I talk about the figure of Hermes and how he becomes Idris in the Qur’an. As such, my focus on magic was an opportunity to show just how permeated Islam’s border around itself is. There are things slipping in and out of it all the time.
After you focused so intensely on the topic of magic and some particular ways in which it manifests itself in the lives of many Muslims, how ‘real’ is the concept of magic to you?
I have no idea. I don’t have a position.
I do feel like brains can do things but I don’t necessarily fear that, for example, somebody can write bad words about me on a page to cause my hand to fall off or something.
Nevertheless, in an academic context I was reading about affect-theory, which tries to explain how you can ‘feel’ the atmosphere when you walk into a room because of affect-transmission. That’s not magic exactly but it’s at least about people transmitting something out of themselves that changes the energy around them.
So you didn’t have any personal magical-religious encounters of which you might say “I don’t know what the hell that was, but that was weird!”
I’ve had cool experiences in my life that I can’t explain. One day I was in a cemetery, searching for Elijah Muhammad’s grave. [Elijah Muhammad is the founder of the Nation of Islam, the community to which Malcolm X originally belonged and of which the Fiver Percenter tradition is a split-off. Red.] I couldn’t find it, but suddenly a car pulls up and the driver asks what I’m looking for. After I told him, he told me to get in the car because he’d show me where it was. It turned out that he was the grandson of Elijah Muhammad. It’s random weird things like that. As I’m experiencing these things, I can only feel that I’m on some kind of magical mission and that builds up an energy around me that encourages more happenings. Yet I don’t know how it works.
Something you do know how it works is American Professional Wrestling. It’s one of your main personal interests. I was wondering therefore, would you somehow be able to link your research about magic to your wrestling?
In what sense?
That affect. That changing the room when you walk into it. That’s what wrestling is all about. That’s wrestling a hundred percent.
After all the lines and borders have blurred in your view on religion, would you now consider wrestling as a religious phenomenon?
Sure. Years ago I wrote a paper about Hulk Hogan as a religious figure. He was really operating in a religious system – sometimes very explicitly, very Christian and very mystical. And I take this seriously. In fact, there’s no writer who influenced me as much as wrestling. I often processed religion through wrestling. The way I thought about sacrifice, the way I thought about performance and the way I thought about community was all influenced by wrestling. There’s so much religion in wrestling and also wrestling in religion.
Wrestling is about storytelling, it’s about myth-making. Often when I mention wrestling people react by asking: “Don’t you know it’s fake? Why would you watch it?” They’ve been saying that since I was nine years old and even then I didn’t understand it. It made no sense to me then and it makes no sense to me now. I watch TV, I watch movies and I read novels, but nobody seems to question that. Yet it’s not like you’re watching a super hero blockbuster and in the middle of the movie you suddenly go like “oh, wait a minute, this is just a movie.”
Good point. Where do you think that different approach comes from in the case of wrestling?
They think that wrestling is trying to fool people. They think – and this is not grounded in reality – that the wrestlers are trying to convince you it’s all real. In the eighties, during the professional wrestling boom, Vince McMahon said in court that wrestling is just a show. Entertainment in New Jersey was taxed differently, so it benefited him greatly as one of the most important organisers of wrestling matches. So I’ve never understood this idea that they must be trying to fool me. Why wouldn’t they be allowed to do a suspension of disbelief the way any TV show would do it? In fact, one thing I love about wrestling is that it’s ok with itself being fake. Yet I can still use it in all the ways I can use any great story – and forget to care that it’s fake.
This obsession with the idea that “if it’s not real, you should throw it out” is, of course, also very present in all sorts of discussions about religion.
Certainly. And the parallel can even be drawn further. I’m no longer questioning whether a book is really what it says it is. Whether it’s ‘really’ what it claims to be, doesn’t make it less ‘useful’ to me. Similarly, wrestling can be real in the moment. I mean, I walk into the arena and I’m just completely drawn into it.
But when you deconstructed religion that far, why then still read the Qur’an again and again? Couldn’t you just read ‘Harry Potter’ for example?
People actually do that. I do it with Star Wars myself. Tough not the prequels. (laughs.)
Understandable, those prequels are an absolute disaster.
In fact the prequels took all the religion out of it. In the original trilogy Yoda is like a Sufi master but in the prequels being a Jedi becomes this kind of chromosomal disorder. And then they try to compensate by laying the religion on extra thick. You can see that, for example, in the idea that Anakin was immaculately conceived, that he was the chosen one and all this shit. That’s just garbage. But the original trilogy was very innocent myth making.
So your religiosity and Islam include things like wrestling and Star Wars.
Absolutely. And I’m very ok with that.