The Work of Michael Muhammad Knight
“I don’t know what it means that I spunked in the burqa,” Michael Muhammad Knight writes in his novel The Taqwacores, a text that, originally self-published in 2003, circulated “underground,” helping to transform the very Islamic punk scene it describes. The climactic scene of this novel involves an Islamic “punk rocker with a Zionist t-shirt and Budweiser in his hand getting blown by a girl in full purdah while two hundred drunk punks looked on,” and said girl in purdah, Rabeya, then spitting her mouthful of semen at some obnoxious guys with Wahhabi inclinations: absolute over-the-top shock-the-senses punk rock theological commentary, which the novel presents as deeply Islamic, true to the message and spirit of Islam.
Knight’s literary project is one of exploring and imagining the possibilities of uniquely American Islamic identity. The ummah—the community of believers in Allah’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad—is a necessarily fragmented collection of communities, Knight insists. “Punk” and “Islam” have both “suffered from sell-outs and hypocrites, but also from true believers whose devotions had crippled their creative drive. Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth.” Thus, Knight’s statement of faith—submission to God but defiance of any and all level of human authority in God’s name—can be condensed to any of a number of punk mantras peppering his texts, like this one from The Taqwacores: “Be Muslim on your own terms. Tell the world to eat a dick.”
Knight, a white American convert to an Islam he identifies as informed first by South Asian immigrants and then, increasingly, by America’s indigenous African American religious traditions claiming Islamic identity—Master Fard’s Supreme Wisdom Lessons, at the root of the Nation of Islam, and a spin-off movement, the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths—is zealously ambivalent. In 2003 he published an essay in an anthology edited by Ibn Warraq, celebrating apostasy from Islam. Knight’s contribution stated that, “My own personal religion came from Islam. It has Islam at its foundations. However, it escaped that cage long ago.” But the story isn’t nearly that simple. Knight is as aggressively opposed to simplification as he is to the constrictions of authority and the bludgeons of rote tradition. This doesn’t mean that Knight’s Islam is not deeply rooted in tradition, just that he believes—in keeping with that tradition—that Islam erupts beyond all boundaries, all human limitations, and that just as Allah cannot be contained in law or language, experience of Allah must not be restricted by customs and culture.
So Knight is the sort of convert who names a fictional Islamic band “Our Holy Prophet Fingers His Six-Year-Old Bride In Her Dirty Asshole” and who has a character insist that Muslims must “own up to the fact that [the Prophet] was a pedophile,” a shocking statement—particularly in today’s sensitive public relations climate, of which more later—that Knight then glosses in what could be called punk-homiletic fashion, drawing support for a seemingly ultra-un-Islamic statement from the very core teachings of Islam, proof-texting, as it were, what sounds like an assault on the Prophet by recourse to the Prophet’s own sunnah, and, moreover, to the theology in which prophets, however excellent as humans, are, ultimately, merely humans. Thus, Knight writes, Muhammad “was human and capable of evil and sickness as much as anyone. Nothing special. His shit smelled just as bad as yours. In fact, Muhammad being a sicko is totally punk rawk. Tears down any chance of him being a Christ or sacred cow.”
The driving logic of The Taqwacores is rephrased again and again: the Quran, for instance, has a suspiciously large amount of “humanness” in it, making it “a tiny little book for tiny little men.” Do not confuse the divine revelation with the divine, Knight argues. Idolization of the text doesn’t make you a better Muslim, it makes you not a Muslim at all, because you are paying homage to an idol rather than setting your heart and mind and actions on Allah. Punk’s rashness is here conceived as a radical return to core Islamic teachings, phrased in an emotionally jagged contemporary vernacular. “I can say that Muhammad ate a fat fuck and it doesn’t even matter because he’s dead and Allah’s alive,” one of Knight’s punk Muslims declares. This is old school Islam, phrased as an angry lashing back at centuries of accumulated hypocrisy.
What’s best about the Knight oeuvre is not just that he gets progressively more sophisticated in his readings of religion and the inherent tension between tradition and innovation, institutionalization and anarchy, but that his rage against hypocrisy is aimed at himself as well; he is critically wary of his own privilege, his own flaws—including, notably, that sin of thinking that one’s thinking makes one superior or that self-reflection insulates oneself from the flaws of others. Every punk knows that punk instantly risks cooptation and commodification and calcification; so too Islam, Knight argues, but also so too anything else. We have here, then, a kind of gonzo academic journalism, a push beyond the autobiographical turn of, say, anthropologists like Levi-Strauss. Knight is devoted to vomiting all subjectivity onto the page as a way to talk more responsibly about his subject matter.
Thus, his memoir Impossible Man traces out the fantastic trajectory of his wrestling with Islam—and with race. From the kid who drew a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini on his bedroom wall and fantasized of “crashing a 747 into the White House” as part of some adolescent Islamic revolution, to the kid who stole and mutilated a Penguin Books edition of the Quran from the public library out of the pious belief that the edition was religiously “offensive,” Knight then becomes the kid who, on the flight to Pakistan, as a young convert, listens to the soundtrack to Star Wars. But the adventure here is intellectual, one of reinvention prompted by re-consideration, a perpetual return to an Islam that presents itself, perpetually, as fresh. “Real Islam is when you love Allah enough to say ‘La ilaha illa Allah’ and then piss on His Words.”
Likewise, in his memoir Journey to the End of Islam, Knight recounts how he masturbates while wearing the burqa used as a prop for the film version of Taqwacores, echoing the masturbation scene in that novel and, along the way, reiterating his basic thesis: that American Islam is unique to America, shaped in large part by the legacy of slavery, and that the Qur’an, as a single book, is insufficient, is only part of a much wider and ongoing revelation. “It’s not that the Qur’an is unable to stand alone as the source material for Islam,” Knight writes, “the Qur’an can’t even stand alone as the Qur’an. There are millions of Qur’ans, billions of Qur’ans. To pretend like I had the right one seemed kind of, I don’t know, dickish.”
Unfortunately, Knight often fails to avoid being “dickish.” Specifically, when his critical self-reflection gives way to mere self-disgust, it functions as a sort of excuse for ongoing “dickish” behavior, whether it is his rage against what he takes to be the too-coifed façade of politically correct “progressive” Islam or his sexual interests and exploits. Knight, a guy historically fond of strip clubs and porn, a white dude who found his masculinity via hip-hop and Malcolm X, a Muslim convert whose anger at hypocrisy can eclipse all else and whose anger derives its righteousness in large part from a nuanced understanding of the politics of sex and race, nonetheless can come across as “dickish” in a way that gives no reason to believe he’s likely to reform. At an Islamic Society of North America convention, for instance, he watches “girls and pointed out the pseudo-hijabis who’d cover up at ISNA and then go out in their club gear,” but then he masturbates to the “gorgeous Muslim girls” in a shalwar kameeze catalogue—another masturbatory scene that finds repetition in his oeuvre, as in his short story collection Osama Van Halen, where he describes himself, as a fictional character, jerking off again to the “beautiful girls in that brochure with dark wet hair and long lashes.” Having submitted this evidence before his readers, he castigates himself: Look at me, I go from strip clubs to providing security for the Daughters of Hajar; “I’m a Radical Muslim Feminist with the authority of a self-hating sack of shit.”
Osama Van Halen climaxes with Rabeya, the character from The Taqwacores, now morphed into a deadly, comic book-type ninja, who, before cutting off Michael Muhammad Knight’s head, accuses him of being the sort of fetishizing convert who, like Indiana Jones, thinks “you can just swagger into the brown man’s temple and sneak out with his idol,” with the “idol” at the heart of Islam being
PUSSY! Mike, it’s all about pussy. Islam’s idol is an unbroken vagina . . . find the women’s section, wherever they put it, and fuck all the brown girls. To the uncles you’re a trophy, but you still watch us through a hole in the wall. You know that you’re not in, not really, not fully, until you get yourself a shaved houri and ritually tear her open . . . Michael Muhammad Knight, in the end you’re just another phallocentric orientalist, and I’m putting an end to your bullshit sand-wigger discourse right now.
There’s self-loathing here, to be sure, but is there anything like authentic self-revelation? I belabor the point because it clearly matters to Knight: he doesn’t want to be the white guy who swaggers into Islam to say, hey, there is no imam, no authority, just me and Allah—even while that does seem to be what he’s saying. Moreover, he doesn’t want to end up as a theorist and popularizer of “distinctly American Islam” the same way, as a white guy swaggering into a “socially South Asian and intellectually Black” scene and writing it up because, as he says in his most recent book, “I can travel among white academics, white book publishers, agents, editors, and journalists, and speak about black supremacy to white audiences, and no one’s afraid that my Elijah shirt marks me as a dangerous radical or a nutty cultist”—precisely because he is white, and also because he is, as he calls himself, an “Exceptional Devil.” As his nuanced and informative work on The Five Percenters—first in an academic history, The Five Percenters, then in the more familiar form of gonzo-journalistic-memoir, Why I am a Five Percenter—shows, Knight can tackle the race issue head on, wrestle with it with candor and vigor. His quick but brilliant treatments of Marshall Mathers, Oprah, FUBU, T.D. Jakes, and James Baldwin in his most recent book are by themselves worth the cover price. But the issue of “pussy” remains slippery for him.
At its ugliest, Knight’s “dickish” behavior is cheap and vicious, utterly removed from any of his stated ideals of Islam, masculinity, or human kindness. Making fun of Asma Gull Hasan for saying that she faces “a jihad simply to maintain a shopping budget” or because she blogs that she wants to date a clone of Todd Palin, is one thing—but Knight can’t stop himself there, and his desire to attack a woman who, from his own accounting, goes out of her way to be nice to him and seems genuinely to want to be his friend, borders on his defacement of women back in his truncated college days, when “females were just another part of the surrounding environment in need of vandalism.” The scandal and short-lived defamation suit against Knight that resulted from his portrayal of Hasan and a lyric in a song by a Taqwacore band regarding her and a hand job revolves around precisely this sort of “vandalism.” Hasan, a “bubbly” “princess” with a Louis Vuitton purse, presents an easy target, but if Knight is troubled by her politics or her wealth or her shopping, why use sex as the means of assault?
A book on William S. Burroughs and Peter Lamborn Wilson, to be called William S. Burroughs Versus the Quran, is forthcoming, but what Knight needs to write is something on the theme of “my living black manhood,” offering a serious self-examination of the role of sex and gender in his life and in Islam. What does it mean to “spunk in the burqa,” to be so filled with rage for “pseudo-hijabis” and “princesses,” yet also to work for mixed-gender prayer in American mosques while recollecting what it felt like to scream “Thank you for your daughters” back in college, at fathers packing up their station wagons or mini-vans at the end of the semester? Indeed, what does it mean to objectify female sexuality as an “idol” at the heart of Islam—what does this mean for Islamic history, for future Islamic thought and practice, but also for the author, whose fantasies about group sex and strip clubs and veiled women spitting semen are so central to his texts? Hasan’s personal jihad might involve shopping budgets, but the jihad to which Knight’s work is calling him is to be less “dickish” by examining his own conceptions (fantasies, desires, ideals, disgust, anger, etc.) of “pussy.” Indeed, such an analysis could be at once a work urgently needed in religious history and the next, more honest chapter in Knight’s ongoing autobiographical journey.
Works by Michael Muhammad Knight
discussed in this essay: