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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Friday, April 06, 2007

Mohsin Hamid Media Coverage; Pankaj Mishra on Matar, Lailami

Mohsin Hamid's new novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is getting quite a lot of publicity this week. I've been an admirer of his first novel, Moth Smoke, which I think of as giving a fresh, entertaining image of the changes occurring in urban Pakistan in the globalization era. It also has an irreverent, off-beat style, somewhat reminiscent of Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August. When I've taught it in courses on South Asian literature, I've found that students really tend to latch onto it -- often more than writers like Ghosh, Rushdie, or Mistry.

Initially, I've been less than enthused about picking up Hamid's new novel, along the lines of: do I really need to read another book about the tension between fundamentalism and modernity? This ground has been covered so many times already -- starting with The Satanic Verses -- that one doesn't expect to be surprised. But the more I hear about the novel, the more interested I've become.

A good place to start might be the 20 minute interview Hamid did this week with Terry Gross, where (among other things) they spent a fair amount of time discussing how having or not having a beard affects how you're perceived, in both Pakistan and the UK/US. Apparently this is a major theme in the novel as well; as a dariwalla (bearded person), I approve.

And there's been other prominent coverage of the book, including an interview where Hamid discusses his allusions to Camus' 1957 novel The Fall:

The Fall is very clearly a model for this novel – both in the first sentence, and throughout the book I try to acknowledge Jean-Baptiste (who is present in the Chilean publisher who Changez meets later in the book), it’s something I did very consciously. In 1957 this idea of trying to break down the individual, and debunk the notion of us being good – something literature and the world has done very successfully – was quite radical. Now no one goes around thinking the individual is good; we're all tarnished. If you look behind anyone you find all sorts of stuff. What’s surprising given that, is that notions of larger collectives haven’t been debunked as thoroughly. We indulge ourselves in larger narratives that remain fundamentally good. Somehow, there is an emotional tribal feeling that remains. And that tribal feeling is actually particularly encouraged in America, as the only victor of the Second World War still standing. And in the Muslim world, it’s a sense of decadence and decline and impotence, which causes people to reach out for a similar type of

More in the political vein, I've been impressed to see Hamid directly challenging Pervez Musharraf's recent actions against Pakistan's judiciary in the Daily Times:

Like many Pakistanis, I knew little about Justice Chaudhry except that he had a reputation for being honest, and that under his leadership, the Supreme Court had reduced its case backlog by 60 percent. His suspension seemed a throwback to the worst excesses of the government that General Musharraf’s coup had replaced, and it galvanised protests by the nation’s lawyers and opposition parties, including rallies of thousands in several of Pakistan’s major cities yesterday. (link)

And the interview with Hamid in Tehelka from August 2006 was pretty striking -- actually quite confrontational in tone. Hamid feels the Indian media (even Tehelka!) has a somewhat hysterical attitude about Pakistan, which is perhaps borne out by the interviewer's own rather bizarre choice of questions ("What about Pakistan makes you blanch?" ?!?). In general, I think Hamid makes some good points, especially on the Indian media's tendency to immediately point at Pakistan whenever there is a bombing -- irrespective of whether the evidence warrants it:

I think India is terrified of looking inside itself because if a homegrown Indian Muslim group has done this in Bombay, you’d have massacres. India is a tinderbox so it’s forced to look outside. Who’s backing the Naxalites? People out of Nepal? Who’s backing the Muslim groups? Pakistan and Bangladesh? There are a billion Indians, many of whom are very upset with the government and could certainly be involved. In Pakistan, we have sectarian bombings all the time. Certainly one could say these are the work of Indian intelligence agencies. Perhaps they are. But I think it’s a mistake to look at these problems in this way and ignore what is often a very strong domestic component. I think Pakistan is right now desperate for a peace deal on Kashmir. Musharraf — like him or not — is bending over to find some compromise. But India is completely uncompromising. It prefers the status quo so any time there’s a bomb in India, it can be blamed on Pakistan. (link)

Well, I'm not sure whether what Musharraf has put on the table regarding Kashmir is really a workable compromise. And overall, I think I'm more anti-Musharraf than Mohsin Hamid is; I'm a little surprised, for instance, that he's not saying anything here about Mukhtar Mai or the status of women under Pakistani law as he considers Musharraf's legacy. That said, his perspective is a helpful corrective to some jingoistic/paranoid images of Pakistan that are often circulated.

* * *

I was also interested in Pankaj Mishra's recent review of Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men. Matar is a Libyan novelist, writing about life under the shadow of Qaddafi. Like Hamid, his book has been getting prominently displayed in the Barnes & Noble stores near my house -- it clearly seems to be doing quite well. Are publishers trying to make it into the "next" Kite Runner?

What's striking from Mishra's review is how personal, even intimate, the novel appears to be, despite the backdrop of state repression, disappearances, and torture. One quote Mishra pulls from the novel struck me as being particularly memorable:

Mama and I spent most of the time together—she alone, I unable to leave her. I worried how the world might change if even for a second I was to look away, to relax the grip of my gaze. I was convinced that if my attention was applied fully, disaster would be kept at bay and she would return whole and uncorrupted, no longer lost, stranded on the opposite bank, waiting alone. But although her unpredictability and her urgent stories tormented me, my vigil and what I then could only explain as her illness bound us into an intimacy that has since occupied the innermost memory I have of love. If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love. (from In The Country of Men; link)

Mishra also favorably reviews Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which is another book that I've had on my "to read" list for quite awhile.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

"The Cow" -- a Sufi Joke

I came across the following in Idries Shah’s Wisdom of the Idiots (Octagon Press, 1970). Idries Shah is an Afghan writer who emigrated to England in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He wrote several books, and was a kind of ambassador of Sufi philosophy in the west (his daughter is Saira Shah, a journalist, and the author of The Storyteller's Daughter). This collection contains a series of short Sufi anecdotes and sayings, some of them almost joke-like.

The Cow

Once upon a time there was a cow. In all the world there was no animal which so regularly gave so much milk of such high quality.

People came from far and wide to see this wonder. The cow was extolled by all. Fathers told their children of its dedication to its appointed task. Ministers of religion adjured their flocks to emulate it in their own way. Government officials referred to it as a paragon which right behaviour, planning and thinking could duplicate in the human community. Everyone was, in short, able to benefit from the existence of this wonderful animal.

There was, however, one feature which most people, absorbed as they were by the obvious advantages of the cow, failed to observe. It had a little habit, you see. And this habit was that, as soon as a pail had been filled with its admittedly unparalleled milk – it kicked it over.

The present-day relevance of this story is:

a) Clearly, the cow is America's desire to spread democracy, and the milk is democracy itself.

b) Clearly, the cow is Pervez Musharraf's commitment to fight terrorism, and the milk is Al Qaeda.

c) There is no relevance, but did you hear the funny story about the cow in West Bengal who eats chicken?

d) Readers, please fill in the blank. What could the relevance of this story be?

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