Muslim American communities have undertaken many efforts to add nuance to the public’s impression of Muslims. The Brooklyn Arts Museum held their Muslim Voices series last summer, and Boston recently held a Muslim Film Festival, and Altmuslimah itself has established a regular photographic campaign. For good reason, much of the energy in these projects is used to show the beauty and diversity of Muslims; however, there is definitely room to show the messiness within the Muslim community, and Michael Muhammad Knight is one writer filling this gap.
In his new novel Journey to the End of Islam, Michael Muhammad Knight writes on the complex relationship between what he sees as cultural Islamic practices, a new wave of corporatized Islam. The book is provocative, disjointed all over the place, and ultimately satisfying.
As Mike’s work indicates, when living one religion in a society full of other religions, one person’s behavior is often boiled down to orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy; it is assumed that by association we would know for certain who represents the “real” Islam. Time and again, realities like heresy, moral equivocation and hypocrisy remind us that removing every Muslim who is not in the ideal state of faith (that is, everyone) from representations accessible to non-Muslims in the media, arts and culture does not acknowledge reality. Knight has devoted his work thus far to flinging the skeletons out of our collective closet, to face the muck and inconsistency of ourselves and modern Muslim predicaments.
In his first major work, The Taqwacores, Knight takes us to a place on the margins of the American Muslim landscape. At his fictional punk Muslim house that eventually spawned the real-life taqwacore movement, idiosyncratic, substance-using young people gather to riff on Islam, to pray, to chug. What I’ve come to understand about Mike’s writing is that his writing is his catharsis, his expression of dissatisfaction with how Muslims make coreligionists different from themselves feel marginal and illegitimate.
After Knight’s first two books, on topics as varied as The Five Percenters to a Taqwacores spinoff, Osama Van Halen, Journey to the End of Islam continues Knight’s self-reflective journey with his embarking on a trip to Pakistan for the filming of a Taqwacores documentary. Here is a sampling of the challenges faced by Knight & Co.: dealing with the paranoia of making a widely-misunderstood statement about the Prophet (involves defecation); comparing his formative time in years past at the Saudi-funded Faisal Mosque in Islamabad to the hash-fueled explorations of various Sufi shrines in Multan and Lahore; and the peculiarities of staging punk concerts in the latter’s Red Light District.
Knight then takes us to Syria, where he introduces a whole host of historiographic debates and religious figures from Islamic history. He is particular driven by the tension between his attachment to tawhid, or God’s unity, and the mystical and shrine-based worship he sees around him. He uses Ibn Tamiyya and Ibn ‘Arabi, two giants of Islamic thought, to make his point: “I needed an inner Ibn Tamiyya voice to keep my Ibn ‘Arabi in check. My personal Islam was an octagon in which the two of them swung on each other and went for gogoplata chokes.”
Ethiopia serves as an embodiment of the gray areas that Knight sees between orthodoxy and syncretistic local variations in practice. The book includes some unique insights into the kinds of practices that take place in Harar, a sacred Muslim city. Knight also poses tough questions about delegitimizing the practices of one group of Muslims or another: “Someone could say that the remnants of ancestor worship, remnants of animal totemism, and intoxicating sacred leaves weren’t “Islamic,” but what else were they in a town of a hundred mosques and shrines?”
Throughout his journey, Knight goes onto many interesting, wide-ranging tangents on Islamic history and American Islam. He doesn’t, however, explain specialized terms when he introduces them, which is a common criticism of his previous work from non-Muslim readers in particular.
The second half of Journey is dedicated to Knight’s experience going on the hajj. It has an engaging if not caricatured cast of characters: the Pakistani brothers Mohsin and “Hater Uncle,” the perpetual contrarian to Mike’s desire to explore the different facets of Mecca and the hajj. And the various fascinating stories of the hajjis of various ethnic backgrounds who he interacts with at Mecca, at Medina, the Mount of Arafat, and the Stoning of the Devil at jamarat. All along the way is his signature rephrasing of religious issues into everyday language. One of note is when Knight says “the Devil can get you just by acting as your hype-man.” Typifying his experience on pilgrimage, Knight is racked with uncertainty as to the reasoning behind the hajj rituals, and confronted frequently by signs expressing the Saudi’s discouragement of prayers at shrines and significant places in the Prophet’s life.
At the same time, his narrative seeks to expose corporatized trends of the hajj itself. From receiving a government booklet giving definitive answers on belief and unbelief, to eating lunch at a Burger King where “the LCD message at the register read, ‘HOLY MOSQUE HAVE IT YOUR WAY.’” The black cloth, or kiswa, covering the Ka’ba costing two million dollars to produce each year leads Knight to wonder whether “five hundred years from now, we might be making tawaf [circumambulation of the Ka’ba] around a giant Pepsi can.” While he isn’t the first to be unsettled by these trends, it certainly comes in this book with an additional punch.
What do we get from reading Journey to the End of Islam? A story of the internal complexities and inconsistencies of one Muslim’s life, which serves as a symbol of the American Muslim community’s layers more broadly. I recently had a friend ask whether American Islam needs a Michael Knight. This book is yet another example of why my answer is, yes.
Abbas Jaffer is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah