Michael Muhammad Knight’s books bend things. His writings stretch across literary genres, blurring the neat demarcations between identity and faith, and interrogating the boundaries of what is accepted as truth. Knight is an acquired taste, to be sure. Yet, he never fails as a writer to explore the outer margins of American Islamic identity and creative expression. Tripping With Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing (Soft Skull Press, March 2012) is his latest piece of work that keeps on bending.
The book takes us from Knight’s voice as an academic to his experiences with the hallucinogenic ayahuasca tea—a tea which brings about a vision that positions Knight back within traditional Islam.
Knight decided to explore ayahuasca, a decoction from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, knowing that he was going to “break the laws on both sides of my being, my American laws and my shari’a laws…” because “for me to drink means the survival of my America and Islam.” You read this right: Knight tripped out because he desired to return to the root of what it means to be a Muslim.
He starts the book in a crisis as he attempts to reconcile his work as a creative writer with his emerging academic identity. Knight explores this very real dilemma. In a personal interview, he told me that academia almost killed his writing voice. The first part of the Tripping With Allah expounds this new side of Knight, the scholarly persona that drops big ideas couched in academic language like any good Ph.D. student should be able to do. He outlines the links between the rhetoric on America’s War on Drugs with its War on Terror – intriguingly similar discourses, because “Islam and drugs both say so much about America and the nature of America,” because, as Knight writes, “In the post 9/11 era, Islam was positioned as something like a drug, the new poisoning of the mind from which Americans must be protected.”
Knight also delves into the history of drug use, primarily hashish and coffee (some initially considered it a drug), in Islam to demonstrate that his ayahuasca use doesn’t bend too far from an “authentic” Islamic experience. Readers may be surprised that there is a drug history in Islam. He explores how drug discourses are contextualized through race, class, and power in all cultures. Bringing it back to Islam identity, he reminds us that even “fabric is a controlled substance” as the niqab and hijabs are legislated in places like France, for example. If the reader gets anything from these pages, it is that Islamic identity and the concept of “truth” is in constant transformation, never finished, never frozen in time and space. There is something freeing in this realization.
Knight spends much of the book struggling to find his voice. Like many people of faith, Knight writes about the confusion he feels when entering a new cycle of self-discovery and belief. He is candid about this journey, documenting the fear, awe, and insecure apologies that accompany any transformation. Knight stumbles as he tries to reconcile his punk-cum-academic makeover and his dilemma can be read as a metaphor for how many Muslims (and others of faith) develop their religious identity –- the initial childlike acceptance, rebellion, and then a newfound rediscovery of personalized belief after painful spiritual struggle. (For those who know Knight as the The Taqwacores guy, he bids that work a final goodbye. He is moving on. Really.)
He seeks out ayahuasca as a way to solve his emerging personal dilemma – as a way to make Islam real again. Ayahuasa is a spiritual drug, one that is used to heal, not intoxicate. (The plant is a component in some South American indigenous rituals, and it has been effectively used in Europe in the treatment of heroine addiction.) Drinking the tea is a ceremonial experience, as Knight reveals in his brief experience with the Santo Daime church, and it is not something one imbibes for recreation. Vomit buckets are required. Just as many drinkers purge bile, Knight writes how ayahausa is often used a tool to relinquish inner poison on the path to self-discovery.
Knight seeks an Islamic experience with the vine, and he gets it. During his third ayahuasca use, he finally has a vision. Knight goes into graphic detail towards the book’s end about what he sees, something he describes in our interview as “probably the most heretical thing I’ve ever written.”
He experiences the Divine Feminine, the Fatima of Islam, a creative consummation that bleeds forth and expunges what he labels as his “masculinist poison.” The vision is sexually graphic yet spiritually profound. Readers will cringe; perhaps some will need to put the book down for a while, but many will come back invigorated by the powerful possibilities within the Islamic inquiry proposed by Knight’s vision. His experience isn’t “for the boys.” This provocative vision resonates with those seeking an Islam beyond the normative gendered perspectives. No matter how many boundaries bend during his dream, however, he leaves with a renewed appreciation for traditional Islam.
Knight is becoming an academic and he accepts this trajectory in powerful ways. His work taps into a pastiche of drugs, Islam, pop culture to re-contextualize his personal relationship to the faith. He does so brilliantly, embracing a position that many Muslims already negotiate without the eloquent language that he uses to chronicle his own journey. In the end, Knight returns to position of love and enthusiasm for his faith.
Many Muslims, and other spiritual seekers, desire a reset button to get back to a Divine pulse. Knight found his with ayahuasca, and writes that he is now “transformed into a new kind of Muslim.” As in his previous books, he never retreats from deconstructing the big issues of Islamic identity: race, gender, sexuality, and expression. Tripping With Allah opens new boundaries and takes us back to the vibrancy of restored personal belief.
Islamic identity is in need of a global overhaul, and this book is a must-read text that opens a new frontier in identity, theological discussion, and being in the world. Those margins that Knight writes around – the ones that he twists — aren’t so outer space after all. Many Muslims are prostrating towards Mecca in hopes of a restorative experience with their faith. Knight’s Tripping With Allah bends us back to where we need to be.
Deonna Kelli Sayed is an American-Muslim writer. She is the author of “Paranormal Obsession: America’s Fascination with Ghosts & Hauntings, Spooks & Spirits.” She also has an essay featured in “Love, Insh’Allah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women.” Visit www.deonnakellisayed.com to learn more.