Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Intellectually Black and Socially South Asian": Michael Muhammad Knight

Michael Muhammad Knight, who had a pretty rough childhood in upstate New York, converted to Islam as a teenager. He came from an Irish Catholic background, but partly under the influence of Malcolm X and black nationalist Islam, and partly simply as a result of his own idiosyncratic spiritual leanings, he took the Shahadah at age 16, and changed his name to Mikail Muhammad. He traveled to Pakistan to study Islam at the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, under the guidance of Muslim intellectuals he first knew in the U.S. With a convert’s enthusiasm and zeal, he was as a teenager on a course to militancy –- perhaps not so different from John Walker Lindh (and Michael Knight acknowledges some similarities at certain points in his memoir, Blue-Eyed Devil). But Knight soon became disillusioned with that life and the rigidity of the teachings he was being exposed to, specifically as it seemed to inculcate a negativity in himself he didn't like.

When Knight returned to the U.S. after a year in Pakistan, he continued to identify as a Muslim, but with a dimension of non-conformist punk rock theatricality. Starting in the early 2000s, Knight became a fixture at Muslim American conferences like ISNA, where he posed himself as a dissenting, outsider kind of figure, next to the well-groomed second-generation Muslim-Americans from Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds.

Also, starting around 2003, Knight started circulating a photocopied version of a novel he had written about an imagined community of Muslim punks in Buffalo, New York, called "The Taqwacores" ("Taqwa" means piety in Arabic). Eventually the book would be formally printed, most recently by an established independent publishing house called Soft Skull Press. Since 2004 Knight has become a bit of a publishing machine, putting out several other books. A documentary has been made about the Islamic punk movement his book helped inspire, and a feature-length film version of "The Taqwacores" is in post-production.

One interesting thread in Knight’s story is the role South Asian Americans play in his books, especially Bangladeshis and Pakistani Americans. At one point early in "Blue-Eyed Devil" (and I can’t find the exact passage for some reason), he describes his engagement with Islam in America as "intellectually black and socially South Asian," (quoting from memory) and the phrase has stuck with me.

1. Blue-Eyed Devil

Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America began as a series of columns Knight wrote for the website Muslim WakeUp! between 2003 and 2005. Some chapters are personal accounts of hanging out (and sometimes hooking up) with Bangladeshi American girls he meets in environments like ISNA. These chapters alternate with travel experiences and encounters, all loosely structured around resolving the identity of the figure who inspired the founding of the Nation of Islam in the 1930s, a figure known as W.D. Fard (or sometimes Wallace Fard Muhammad).

One of the major threads in Blue-Eyed Devil is the thesis, which Knight investigates at length, that this pioneering figure in black Islamic theology, W.D. Fard, may have actually been from South Asia, rather than the Middle East, as was originally thought. There is at least some evidence uncovered by Knight and others (none of it overwhelming) that Fard may have come from India via Fiji. After 1934, Fard disappeared for awhile, and officially no one knows what happened to him. However, the successor to Elijah Muhammed in the black Muslim community in the U.S., Warith Deen Muhammed, claimed that Fard re-appeared as a "Pakistani" Imam in the Bay Area named Muhammed Abdullah starting around 1959, and died in 1976.

The prospect of W.D. Fard as a South Asian immigrant is a thesis not so much proved as explored in Blue-Eyed Devil. But it presents an interesting image: this founding figure in black nationalist Islam may not have been of African, but South Asian, descent.

Knight’s narrative involves contemporary desis to a considerable extent. One passage, which gives a strong indication of Knight’s complex relationship to South Asian American peers, is in a section where he talks about going to a Muslim Summer Camp in the U.S.:

Often I’d try to boost my Muslim cred by wearing the right kind of hat but only ended up looking like a crazy convert with something to prove. Which I was, of course. I had taken a decent religion and made it real crazy, crazier than any of the good normal kids at my Islamic summer camp back in Rochester. All those desi teenagers would go out between lunch and Zuhr to play basketball or soccer or man-hunt and I’d sit in the office pouring through Bukhari with the imams telling me that it was okay to go outside and play, that even Prophet Muhammad enjoyed sports. I had soon read enough to teach kids my own age who had been raised with Islam around them all their lives. I remember one summer-camp afternoon when all the kids sat in a circle in the mosque and the imams asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said that I wanted to be an imam or an alim and assumed that everyone else would say the same thing, but one after another it was all doctor, engineer, computer programmer. It blew me away; I thought we all wanted to live in mosques and read the Qur’an all day. (3)

Michael Knight’s approach to Islam often seems contradictory, not just slightly, but intensely. As a young man, he studied Islamic theology obsessively, and tried to shape his life to follow a pretty rigid interpretation of that theology. But there’s also a punk, anarchist, and non-conformist side of his personality which can’t help but rise to the surface. The two sides of himself seem to battle one another in the pages of his books, and he neither turns away from Islam (as the non-conformist side of himself might require), nor does he finally suppress all of his own rebellious tendencies under the banner of an undivided, respectable approach to Islam. Instead, you see passages like the following, again from Blue-Eyed Devil:

ISNA speaks for the Islam of Uplifting Hygiene: a vision of smiling professionals in cotton white hijabs, community-minded role models, politically moderate doctors, teenagers who keep their genitals clean and a perfectly sound way of life that all Americans will inevitably flock towards, or at least concede an enlightened admiration. In paying my $100 registration fee online I had to click ‘Agree’ on the term that if any member of a group caused a disturbance, my whole group would leave. I had no group. "Judgment of term ‘disturbance,’" it said, will be determined solely by ISNA officials." The convention’s official website also provided a list of behaviors for Muslims to avoid and discourage while at McCormick Place: things like fuhsh (‘indecency, obscenity, atrocity and abomination’), fuhsha (‘shameless deeds, adultery, fornication and whoredom’), munkar (‘ignorance, detestable behavior and reprehensible action’) and bagha (‘rebelliousness, outrageousness and wrongdoing’). I figured that in my time at ISNA I’d have no problem hitting each at least once. My friend Sara told me that while ISNA usually had cool programs, it could often become a big hook-up place for horny young Muslims. 'I guess they’re not all there for speeches and stuff,' she said. (8)

Knight almost seems to take pride in first, knowing the Arabic terms for what is forbidden at an Islamic event, and then deliberately flouting those rules. (If it’s haram, it’s sexy.) A committed individualist (that is to say, a liberal) would reject the institution as a whole, or at least argue for a "progressive," softened version of the institution, while a devout Muslim might do his or her best to follow the rules as given. But Michael Muhammad Knight seems happy being in both places at once: he prefers the most conservative version of Islam, specifically because it’s more thrilling to disobey it.

Admittedly, some of the people who figure in Michael Knight’s story as friends do call him on his idiosyncratic approach to the Muslim community in the U.S., leading to a fair amount of internal debate within the books themselves. A revealing example might be the following passage:

Then I imagined a voice in my head that sounded like Khalida’s telling me, 'It’s not about being white or not white, Mikail... you’re in no shape to tell the story of American Muslims because you think that only weirdos are worth writing about, you and your Wally Fords—'

I don’t know why it sounded like Khalida in my head, maybe Khalida’s just my conscience but I knew that she was right—because I couldn’t bum all over the country sleeping in my car or sleeping on Greyhound buses for the sake of writing on lame Progressive Muslims and I don’t know that I could if I wanted to. Give me Noble Drew Ali with a Cherokee feather in his turban, selling Moorish Healing Oil for fifteen cents a bottle—and W.D. Fard in his mug shot looking like he could slit your throat with a thought (83)

Indeed, Knight is mainly interested in the weirdos and marginal figures in American Islam, people who are in some way like himself. He finds the new, respectable authority figures in the Muslim community –- people like Ibrahim Hooper and Asma Gull Hasan -– insufferable.

2. Taqwacores

I didn’t really enjoy reading "The Taqwacores," certainly not as much as the two memoirs, Impossible Man and Blue-Eyed Devil. In large part the book just seemed too abrasive and gratuitously provocative, though I recognize that it wouldn’t be “punk” if the writing was too pretty and well-considered. The protagonist, Yusef Ali, is supposed to be a Pakistani-American interested in both conservative Islam and punk rock, but the novel isn’t really convincing on that score. There’s no real acknowledgment of Yusef Ali’s family, and very little discussion of Pakistan itself. Though most of its main characters are from South Asian backgrounds, it seems like "The Taqwacores" subsumes that part of their social identity to "Islam."

Still, there are some great dialogues, which might have been inspired by Knight’s conversations with immigrant and second-gen Muslims at various conventions and summer camps. Below is part of a dialogue between Yusef and a white convert named Lynn, who has been struggling with her identification as a Muslim after being given grief by orthodox Muslims about her lifestyle:

The conversation paused for us to take a few bites of our respective slices. 'You know,' I mentioned after swallowing, 'I imagine it’s a lot easier for you.'

‘What is?’ she replied with her mouth full.

‘Separating the good stuff from the bad. You weren’t raised in a Muslim family so you can just take things on your own terms. For me it’s hard because I got all this tuff in one big lump package. Some of it’s worthwhile guidance that I would like to hold on to for the rest of my life, some is just culture that’s a part of who I am and then there’s a lot of traditional things that I can’t understand and I don’t know why people follow them, but they always have. I think that’s why you have something to your Islam that I don’t have.’

‘What do you mean?’ she asked with half-smile of pleasant surprise.

‘I can’t separate spirituality from my family, my heritage, my identity as a South Asian; it’s inextricably connected. You reject an aspect of one, to some extent you’re rejecting all of them.’

‘Yeah, my family didn’t seem too disappointed when I started celebrating Christmas again.’

‘You celebrate Christmas?’

‘Just with my family. It has nothing to do with religion.’

‘Well, it is Christ-mas.’

‘No, no it’s not. It’s see-my-family-that-I-don’t-ever-see-mas.’


‘But who cares anyway, right? It’s like Attar said, ‘forget what is and is not Islam.’ (86-87)

The novel is a young person’s book –- at its core, it seems to be about how the protagonist’s sexual coming of age comes into conflict with his religious beliefs. The book has a series of graphic sexual encounters and a general uncensored sexual candidness that’s likely to turn off some readers (especially, one thinks, the conservative Muslims to whom it seems to be addressed).

But most of all, it’s the novel’s conclusion, which involves a graphic sex act performed by a woman in a Burqa in a public place, that is likely to be shocking to many readers. When the film of "The Taqwacores" comes out later this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a pretty major controversy, specifically relating to that scene... (I’m told the filmmakers are fully expecting that controversy to occur.)

Overall, I think readers will find Knight’s books to be worth their time, especially the two memoirs written by Knight in maturity, Blue-Eyed Devil and Impossible Man. Impossible Man is a highly compelling conversion narrative, which includes both the rise as well as the decline of Knight’s religious fervor (and, oh yeah, a couple of chapters about wrestling). Blue-Eyed Devil is more of a road narrative, focusing on Knight’s engagement with African American interpretations of Islam, including the NOI, the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths, as well as the movement of black Islamic communities towards orthodox Sunni Islam after the death of Elijah Muhammed.

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Blogger Si Pemimpi said...

I just want to offer a small correction, sir. In Mike's other memoir, it is told that Mike is in Pakistan for only 2 months, and I guess that's the only time he's in Pakistan for studying in Faisal Masjid. So I think you might want to check again about it--as here you writes that he was a year in Pakistan.

2:11 AM  

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