Michael Muhammad Knight
Michael Muhammad Knight (born 1977) is an American novelist, essayist, and journalist. His writings are popular among American Muslim youth. The San Francisco Chronicle described him as "one of the most necessary and, paradoxically enough, hopeful writers of Barack Obama's America," while The Guardian has described him as "the Hunter S. Thompson of Islamic literature." Publishers Weekly describes him as "Islam's gonzo experimentalist." Within the American Muslim community, he has earned a reputation as an ostentatious cultural provocateur.
Knight's father, Wesley Unger, was the thirteenth of twenty children born to a Pentecostal preacher in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. A participant in outlaw motorcycle club culture, Unger was mentally ill and abusive, causing Knight's mother to escape with him when Knight was two years old. Knight grew up in Geneva, New York, raised by his mother in a Roman Catholic family of Irish descent. Knight's first exposure to Islam came when he was 13 when he discovered Malcolm X through the lyrics of the hip-hop band, Public Enemy. After reading Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X at 15, Knight's study of Islam intensified and he converted to Islam. It was also at 15 that Knight met his father for the first time since he was two years old; when Knight informed Unger that he was Muslim, Unger told Knight that he was a white supremacist. At 17 Knight traveled to Islamabad, Pakistan, to study Islam at Faisal Mosque. He came close to making the decision to abandon this course of study to join the war against Russian rule in Chechnya.
On August 2, 2009, he married Sadaf Khatri in San Jose, California.
After disillusionment with orthodox Islam, Knight wrote two books, Where Mullahs Fear to Tread and The Furious Cock, which he printed as xeroxed zines. In winter 2002 he wrote The Taqwacores, which told the story of a fictitious group of Muslim punk-rockers living in Buffalo, New York. Characters included a Straight edge Sunni Muslim, drunken mohawk-wearing Sufi punk, burqa-wearing riot grrrl and Shi'a skinhead.
Knight originally self-published the novel in a spiral-bound, xeroxed form and gave away copies for free. The book was later picked up for distribution by Alternative Tentacles, the punk record label founded by Jello Biafra. An encounter with Peter Lamborn Wilson led to The Taqwacores being published by Autonomedia in 2004.
The Taqwacores was intended as Knight's farewell to Islam, but encouragement from readers caused Knight to reconsider his relationship to the faith. The novel has since inspired the start of an actual taqwacore scene, including bands such as the Kominas, Vote Hezbollah, and Secret Trial Five. Carl Ernst, specialist in Islamic studies at UNC, called The Taqwacores a "Catcher in the Rye for young Muslims." The novel has been taught in courses at Kenyon College, Vassar College, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, Trinity College, Sarah Lawrence College, Canisius College, Indiana University, and the Ohio State University.
The Taqwacores' burqa-wearing riot grrrl, Rabeya, and her dialogue from the novel has been adapted in the Rapture Project, an ongoing puppet show regarding religion in American culture and politics. Rabeya, who in one passage of The Taqwacores gives a Friday sermon and leads the mixed gender group in prayer, also influenced author Asra Nomani to organize a mixed gender prayer held March 18, 2005, in New York and led by Qur'an scholar Dr. Amina Wadud in support of women as imams. Knight worked security at the Wadud prayer.
Knight's travel writing for Muslim WakeUp! led him to write Blue-Eyed Devil: an American Muslim Road Odyssey, in which he traveled over 20,000 miles by Greyhound bus in 60 days, searching for a true American Islam. Andrei Codrescu hailed the work as "today's On the Road...pertinent and suspenseful, a mystery rendered in brilliant detail and gorgeous depth...a masterpiece." In the book Knight attempts to uncover the true identity of W. D. Fard, the mysterious founder of the Nation of Islam, who was believed by that movement to be Allah in person.
Blue-Eyed Devil also contains narratives of Knight's encounters with various figures of North American Islam, such as Irshad Manji, Asra Nomani, and the Hasan family, founders of Muslims for Bush. Knight describes his experience as an original member of the Progressive Muslim Union's board of directors and his disillusionment with the Progressive Islam movement. In Blue-Eyed Devil, he claims that PMU considered an alliance with Manji, which he witnessed while having dinner with Manji and PMU founder Ahmed Nassef.
The Five Percenters
Knight's fascination with Fard led him to research the Five Percenters, aka the Nation of Gods and Earths, a movement that broke from the Nation of Islam in 1964. After spending time with the movement's white elder, Azreal, Knight was given the name Azreal Wisdom; in the Five Percenters' system of Supreme Mathematics, it means Azreal Two.
Knight wrote the first ethnography of the movement, The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-hop and the Gods of New York (Oneworld Publications). An excerpt from the book appears in the 90-page booklet included with The 5% Album by Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian, which also features members of Wu-Tang Clan such as the RZA and GZA.
Osama Van Halen
Knight's 2009 novel, Osama Van Halen, features The Taqwacores' Amazing Ayyub and Rabeya, who take Matt Damon hostage and demand that Hollywood depict Muslims in a more positive light, while Damon argues that they are "playing into that same terrorist paradigm and furthering a neo-conservative perception of Islam." Also in the novel, Amazing Ayyub embarks on a mission to rid taqwacore of a Muslim pop-punk band, Shah 79. Amazing Ayyub's adventures include encounters with zombies, psychobilly jinns and Knight himself, who appears as a character in the story. At the end of the novel, Knight is decapitated by Rabeya. Laury Silvers of Skidmore College, who read the manuscript, wrote at progressiveislam.org:
Don't miss the self-disgust. I have read the whole novel. It is extraordinary. The best he has done yet. It is no mistake that his only woman character who was ever fully portrayed and whom he never saw because of her burqa cuts his head off in the end. The story, the novel, is about the writer coming to terms...He uncovers some pretty terrible layers of himself, the characters he has created, the character of himself that sometimes does his dirty work. He knows exactly what it is and he is saying it.
Knight's memoir, released March 2009 by Soft Skull Press, tells the story of Knight's "bizarre and traumatic boyhood and his conversion to Islam during a turbulent adolescence."
From the book's catalog description:
Impossible Man follows a boy’s struggle in coming to terms with his father—a paranoid schizophrenic and white supremacist who had threatened to decapitate Michael when he was a baby—and his father’s place in his own identity. It is also the story of a teenager’s troubled path to maturity and the influences that steady him along the way. Knight’s encounter with Malcolm X’s autobiography transforms him from a disturbed teenager engaged in correspondence with Charles Manson to a zealous Muslim convert who travels to Pakistan and studies in a madrassa. Later disillusioned by radical religion, he again faces the crisis of self-definition. For all its extremes, Impossible Man describes a universal journey: a wounded boy in search of a working model of manhood, going to outrageous lengths to find it.
Journey to the End of Islam
Journey to the End of Islam chronicles Knight's 2008 return to Pakistan, subsequent travels to Syria, Egypt, and Ethiopia, temporary relocation to Cleveland for the filming of The Taqwacores, and hajj in Mecca. Over the course of his travels, Knight compares and contrasts various Islamic interpretations and practices, juxtaposing heterodoxy and orthodoxy while also addressing issues of sexism and racism in Islam. While in Mecca, Knight syncretizes traditional Islam with his Five Percenter leanings, and also reconverts to Islam as a Shi'a in a tent of Iranian pilgrims. Publishers Weekly gave a mostly positive review, comparing the book to "the archetypal American road novel complete with a harrowing episode of cannabis-induced psychosis, a breezy tone...and indifference to whether the reader can follow his references." The review also stated that Knight "probes and prods the boundaries of his faith with unabashed emotion and honesty, even questioning, near the end of his journey, whether he really understands anything about Islam. But the book is most engaging when he turns his gaze outward to make pithy observations on the intersection of religion and global capitalist culture."
Why I Am a Five Percenter
William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur'an
Knight's eighth book, William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur'an was released on April 1, 2012, by Soft Skull/Counterpoint. The book covers Knight's changing relationship with his mentor and hero, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Knight's literary experimentation with the Qur'an using the cut-up methods of William S. Burroughs.
Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing
The book, which is to be released on February 12, 2013, explores not only Islam and drugs, but also Knight's own process of creativity and discovery.
Knight is criticized for his participation in woman-led prayer, provocative articles, disrespectful attitude toward leaders of the American Muslim community, open admission of past apostasy (chronicled in his essay "Forget what is and is not Islam" in Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out), heretical attitudes, embrace of the Nation of Islam and Nation of Gods and Earths, and often rebellious treatment of the Prophet Muhammad.
Knight developed a reputation for his Muslim WakeUp! articles, particularly accounts of the Islamic Society of North America's annual convention, in which he wrote of giving a "stink palm" to famous imam Siraj Wahhaj and Cat Stevens and engaging in a romantic encounter with a young Muslim woman.
At the 2005 convention of the Islamic Society of North America, Knight and the Kominas fraudulently obtained media passes and sneaked into the press conference of Karen Hughes, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the U.S. Department of State. They were taken outside and questioned by a State Department agent, but allowed back in by ISNA officials. It was later learned that the ISNA staff was concerned over Knight's jacket bearing the Alternative Tentacles logo.
In a 2003 Muslim WakeUp! article, Knight claimed to have introduced himself to a member of the United Nation of Islam as "Ibrahim Hooper," the name of the Communications Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Hooper threatened legal action if the act was repeated. In a later article on his trip to Elijah Muhammad's grave, Knight wrote that he had introduced himself as Ibrahim Hooper at the cemetery's office. Hooper again threatened legal recourses. Knight responded by publicly challenging Hooper to a wrestling match. On June 25, 2006, Knight staged his match against Ibrahim Hooper at a punk show in Lexington, Massachusetts, at the home of the Kominas' singer Basim Usmani. The role of Ibrahim Hooper was played by Grifin Tibbetts, bassist of grindcore band Animal Rampage.
Asma Gull Hasan
In October 2007, Muslim Republican author and commentator Asma Gull Hasan filed a defamation suit against Knight and the Kominas, claiming that Blue-Eyed Devil falsely portrayed her as "wealthy, self-absorbed, insensitive and acutely uninformed" and that Knight had influenced the Kominas to write a song depicting her performance of a sex act. "You can't defeat writers by censoring or punishing them, you only defeat writers by outwriting them," Knight stated in a response to The Denver Post. "And she can't do that, so she has to resort to this." In November 2008, the suit was dismissed.
- Maag, Christopher. Young Muslims Build a Subculture on an Underground Book The New York Times. 22 December 2008
- "Current Graduate Students - Department of Religious Studies". Retrieved 2011-10-01.
- Brian Whitaker (2007-03-19). "Punk Muslims". Guardian Unlimited. Archived from the original on 2007-06-27. Retrieved 2008-01-11.
- Sadaf Khatri and Michael Knight Wedding
- Omar Sacirbey. "The Challenges and Growth of Progressive Muslims". APF Reporter Vol.22 #2. Alicia Patterson Fellowship. Archived from the original on 2006-02-06. Retrieved 2007-05-15.
- Carl Ernst. "Novels from Muslim Countries". Retrieved 2007-05-15.
- Omar Sacirbey (2005). "The Challenges and Growth of Progressive Muslims". APF Reporter Vol. 22 #2. Alicia Patterson Foundation. Archived from the original on 2006-01-05. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
- Michael Muhammad Knight (2005-03-19). "Huggable Islam". Muslim Wakeup!. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
- Michael Muhammad Knight (2007-01-01). "The Brawl for it All". Muslim Wakeup!. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
- "Michael Knight leaves the PMUNA". Living Tradition. 2005-08-14. Archived from the original on 2006-03-16. Retrieved 2007-01-11.
- "Lord Jamar "The 5% Album" feat. Wu-Tang Clan's RZA, GZA, Raekwon". Retrieved 2008-01-15.
- "Osama Van Halen - Blackwell Online".
- "Progressive Islam and... Celibacy?".
- - Review of Impossible Man
- Michael Muhammad Knight (2005-09-13). "Invasion of the Taqwa-Punks: The 2005 ISNA Convention". Muslim Wakeup!. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
- Michael Muhammad Knight (2004-01-16). "Peace Offering". Retrieved 2008-01-15.
- Arthur Kane (2007-10-24). "Local author says Muslim writer, band defamed her". The Denver Post. Retrieved 2008-01-15.
- "Levine Sullivan Koch & Shulz, L.L.P In the News". Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, L.L.P. Retrieved 2009-02-01.
- Review of The Taqwacores
- Boston Globe article on the Kominas
- The Rapture Project
- New York Times article on The Taqwacores
- by Mark Thwaite
- Blue Eyed Devil: An Interview with Michael Muhammad Knight by David Hunter
- Michael Muhammad Knight Interview September 23, 2008
- Q&A: Muslim punk author Michael Muhammad Knight talks Taqwacores, Buddhism, drugs, and the future May 8, 2009
- The Bat Segundo Show: Michael Muhammad Knight September 22, 2009
- Q&A: Michael Muhammad Knight on Punk Islam October 17, 2009
- Muslim Convert Chronicles Contradictions In The Faith - Interview with Michael Muhammad Knight by Jacki Lyden December 23, 2009
- Kill Your Patriarchs: An Interview with Michael Muhammad Knight by Hussein Rashid February 10, 2010