Don’t homogenize my hajj!

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


  • Yakoub Gura says:

    Taqwacores was fine in its own punky way and I did admire one or two of the pieces Knight wrote for MWU, but I’m not of a mind to rush out and buy his latest on the basis of this review. His freewheeling, intuitive gonzo might lend itself to intuiting facets of contemporary Muslim culture (and in the case of Taqwacores, creating it), but it feels tacky as a tool for reflecting on the Hajj. An intelligent doubter’s perspective of Hajj already exists in Hammoudi’s “A Season in Mecca”, and although I’m sure many will find Hammoudi harder going, surely one of Islam’s pillars demands a considered response rather than a string of adolescent comment dressed up in punchy prose. I am also forced to question whether Knight’s journey through Islam isn’t evidence that he is as much a Western consumer – in his instance, of culture – as any Pepsified Muslim he disdains.

  • sarahjay says:

    A missed opportunity??

    After reading the review, I am left wondering about Knight???s vision of the world; what it would look like, and if his internal ramblings are meant as a loud and resounding F-U to the institution, reminiscent of so many punk rockers of the 80-90s and subsequent Taqwacores’ followers) or if he is trying to demand for a higher level of consciousness. If the intent is the latter than I question how effective his brazen attitude really is. Frankly, this is a missed opportunity for meaningful dialogue and I am left unsatisfied hearing about two-dimensional caricatures.

    What I find particularly frustrating but perhaps also not surprising is that amongst the Muslim American narratives, the ones that seem to get the most media glitz are the sexiest, leaving many middle-of-the-way stories by the wayside. What about the grassroots movements trying to serve others based on faith? Umma Clinic? IMAN? Etc? DC Green Muslims? Well, of course, none of these stories are sexy, and as Knight proves, there is something captivating about reading an author???s internal turmoil. But the non-sexy narratives have something of deep importance that upon first glance may not seem to offer much to the identity issues Knight so clearly meanders between.

    It???s the difference between a grass-roots group making a meaningful impact in a community by subtlety reframing the focus of Americans Muslims on what they can be rather than what they are not (i.e. terrorists, orthodox drones, etc.) and self-indulgent punk rockers playing from their comfortable garages in the suburbs about ???Rumi being a Homo??? and getting a movie deal. It???s about embracing the connectivity we have with the rest of humanity instead of constantly establishing our independence from everything and positioning ourselves as separate. Ironically, seeing the world as Knight does, pitting heterodoxy against orthodoxy and nothing else actually reinforces that which he rallies against, advocating a different but equally potent prescription for tunnel vision than the orthodox. If we allow ourselves to see only black and white, to only agree or disagree then nothing in our periphery has even the smallest chance to enter our psyches.

  • OmarG says:

    @sarahjay: >>leaving many middle-of-the-way stories by the wayside.

    Middle of the way is exactly that, plus staying in the middle leads one to nowhere and most people want to move towards something or be pulled towards something, not just stand still…to expand the metaphore. Dynamism trumps Staticism.

  • monamoga says:


    It is a mischaracterization to say that grassroots community activism (which is what sarahjay is referring to with IMAN, UMMA clinic, Green Muslims, et al.) is “static.” The only part about it that is ‘middle-of-the-way’ is the individuals doing the activism. And if anything, the term ‘middle of the way’ is used in irony here, because these are actually extraordinary individuals who are *seen* as middle-of-the-way simply because they don’t have “I’m too sexy for orthodoxy” stamped across their foreheads and are not attention-seeking. But they themselves are far from ordinary, just like their projects are far from static.

  • Abbas Jaffer says:

    Thanks for all of your thoughts on the review.

    Sarahjay, the purpose of reviews like this is to give a sense of the author’s angle and tenor in a particular book; not to enable commenting positively or negatively on the corpus of the author’s work without reading the works themselves. I find it dismissive to discount the internal turmoil of someone to claims affiliation with a complex Muslim community and a complicated American community at the same time, and this “meandering” you seem unhappy with???Kerouac and other have used this narrative form to deep effect???why pigeonhole autobiographical writing to a strict narrative form? The “punk rockers,” as this book relates, are not safe in their garages but on the streets of Pakistan amongst other environs, and as the contents of the book show the movie was not made with a studio deal but on a shoestring. And as far as I have observed, Knight’s provocative reflections have not stifled but rather spurred community discussion.

    Monamoga, the stamp comment is too ad hominem to be taken seriously. Name dropping of specific organizations in comments seems an attention-seeking tactic of a kind as well; perhaps branding should not be demonized but wielded responsibly.

    Finally, in the review I phrase my discussion of “orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy” as follows:

    “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”

    The comment is an inference I’ve made synthesizing other information as well as Knight’s writing. Here I am criticizing the reductive forces of labeling which is a violence to ourselves and others, which I believe is a criticism that Knight shares; this statement doesn’t indicate any support of labeling Muslims or others in one category or another. Close reading and checking prejudices are advisable when dealing with sensitive issues such as these.

  • Saadia says:

    I liked some of the points made here, like who represents “real” Islam, and why people wouldn’t want an imperfect and realistic representation that various people could relate to.  Perhaps there is an excessive tendency to put up a facade. Or perhaps there is an idea that life in the home country (for immigrants) was more pure in comparison to the West – I do appreciate the “hasana” (goodness)of my heritage, but in fact, purity or perfection is not a fact at all times and places. There’s enough to reform abroad as well as here.

    At the same time, I’d want someone speaking for me if they are sensitive to my concerns and not hurtful – basic things – and quite aside from one-to-one quibbles.

  • Akenanubis says:

    Having read Knight’s “Journey to the End of Islam” I can clear up any suspiscion that he is freewheeling through through Hajj as some snarky American consumer. The whole book is the journey of a tortured soul coming to understand what his heart tells him is the REAL Islam and how to distinguish that from the Saui packaged version. And there are a lot of Islams, whether anyone likes that or not. Knight’s story is not so much unlike Ali Eteraz’s own young man’s journey and struggle with the spray painted on Islam as the personal inner manifestation of faith emergens from his heart.  I would the book very moving and lovely. Knight has matured wonderfully and become a man, a Muslim man in the truest sense. Although taqwacores was pretty cool, this is his best and most important work to date. He will be a strong and important voice in the future. We can’t look only for the cliched and hackneyed styles of personal piety that can be facked in 30 seconds by anyone.

  • Saadia says:

    Regarding Akenanubis’s reference to understanding faith through one’s own heart, I agree with that. That is a good ruling.

    Yes, there is no packaged version emanating from a country’s mores – especially when its not the country context you reside in.

    But if you are referring to the Saudi style veil, few people wear it over here. Those who do aren’t necessarily made to be overly exotic.

  • Akenanubis says:

    I wasn’t talking about the Saudi veil or any other veil, but rather the Saudi organization of Hajj and how they run it, as described in Knight’s book reviewed here. I am assuming his descriptions are accurate because I have heard them described in much this same way by many, countless other Hajjis and seen it in a variety of documentary films. I have not been on Hajj myself. One day, insh’allah.

  • Anjum says:

    I must echo Abbas’ review and Akenanubis’ comment; even if I didn’t agree with some or much of Knight’s reflections and conclusions, I enjoyed and read the book as an interesting and non-mainstream perspective. He also visited places and experienced them in a way that I probably couldn’t.

  • Saadia says:

    Anjum – Good point. It looks like a book I’d like to read.

  • sarahjay says:


    Thanks for your response to my comment.

    I don???t believe the audience who can engage in book reviews should only be people who have the read the book. My comment was based on the impression your review gave me.  I would think this is the exact public platform to discuss the ???corpus of [an] author???s work,??? either negative or positive. 

    Your review emphatically stated that we need a Michael Knight. This is totally up for discussion. It is a contentious view that involves the authors???  corpus, which is the point I was addressing by saying we should refocus our attention to the more subtle interfaces of Muslims in American culture and realize we possess some amazing gems who can offer much to a currently polarized dialogue.

    And I don???t see how what I said about Knight meandering came off as dismissive. The internal turmoil I described was inferring to the need of refocusing the Muslim American narrative to help more of us engage in meaningful dialogue across self-propagated boundaries. I was describing a missed opportunity on Knight to engage the mainstream. Meandering is a part of the human experience and my intent was not to discredit this. If the point is to get society to move towards a higher level of consciousness, then how effective is to give overwhelming credence to individuals who don???t go beyond their silos? 

    Kerouac may have used the autobiographical art form with success but that doesn???t mean his work was uniformly understood as a necessary or even positive social contribution. And while the autobiographical style you described seems to create an effective narrative, in this case it isn???t about giving exposure to an artistically significant group on the fringe. I apologize to fans of The Koominas, but seriously? Punk rock may have a history of being a socially intriguing means of expression, but this group sounds more like disgruntled adolescents. What makes this especially unnerving is that they are propped up as symbols meant to demonstrate various means of Muslim integration, to confront singular expressions of what Islam is, and to make us think about the lifestyles we push to the fringe. I believe that the approach Knight has taken misses an opportunity to focus on groups that are actually worth being those symbols, specifically those that attempt to broaden what Islam is and who Muslims are by embracing the positive parts of society and contributing meaningfully to it.

    Although I misread your comment on orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy, the condescension about ???checking my prejudices??? was unfitting and unnecessary, especially on such a nuanced topic. 

    I leave you with a quote that encapsulates my point and criticism of Knight in a way that only poets really can and I say this to myself first before anyone else…???mere opposition finally blinds us to the good of the things we are trying to save. And it divides us hopelessly from our opponents, who are no doubt caricaturing us while we are demonizing them. We lose, in short, the sense of shared humanity that would permit us to say even to our worst enemies, ???We are working after all in your interest and your children’s. Ours is a common effort for a common good. Come and join us.’??? ???Wendell Berry.

  • sarahjay says:


    Fair enough.

    I did want to clarify a couple of things. I didn’t say MMK should be the one organizing and highlighting the aforementioned organizations/groups. And, no where did I say that MMK should engage in work he doesn’t believe in.  I was suggesting that our/media’s focus shouldn’t be on him as one of the few breaths of fresh air because there are many out there…

    Sure, he’s sexy, saying “shit on him” about the prophet (pbuh) got him a lot of attention. I get that this was a misunderstood statement. To his credit, he says he could have found better ways to say it. But he does go back to defending it. It’s the snarky attitude that looses me. There was value to what he was saying about not blindly following leaders and using our own critical thinking. But it’s lost to the sheer lack of tact. With that, he fails to engage a larger audience which is unfortunate for his cause. 

    My point was to not say we should homogenize the Muslim American narrative but that we should refocus and potentially find solutions to our identity issues in the middle which doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

    In any event, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I look forward to finishing the book. I’ll be writing an article soon which I hope will articulate my points more clearly.

  • OmarG says:

    @sarahjay: >> But it’s lost to the sheer lack of tact.

    Tact often lets people ignore the speaker. People in power and privilege only respond when they are called out. I don’t expect such people to change; they usually don’t out of pride, “honor” in front of the community, etc. So, calling them out suits me just fine, and apparently it suits Mike, too. So be it and let’s see if it works…

  • sarahjay says:


    Do you think that Obama used a lot of tact in his rise to the presidency? I think he did. Dramatic example, I know, but I am not sure where you drew your conclusion from—-that tact leads to ignoring the speaker.

    And what people are you talking about in this case? I was giving an example of the prophet pbuh so not sure how your comment connects to what I am saying. Maybe you meant Siraj Wahaj because he is cited in the book as saying something negative against homosexual Muslims? If so, I still think tact is necessary to allow both parties to engage in useful and necessary dialogue. Otherwise you are left alienating people who can contribute to what I said earlier, a higher level of consciousness.

  • muqarnas says:

    I enjoyed reading your little exchange and thought I???d chime in.  I side with abbas???s opinion that Muslims need an MMK, but I also understand sarah???s frustrations regarding all those great organizations she mentioned going largely unnoticed for lack of ???sexiness.??? 

    The way I see it, it???s not the function of an MMK to highlight these organizations, as important as they are, or even to connect to them.  To insist that he ???SHOULD??? do that is missing the point of what makes him an important cultural figure for a lot of Muslims.  He???s simply expressing his views, this is his art, and if his views don???t involve advocating for IMAN or whomever, then why should he force himself to do that?  Wouldn???t that be disingenuous and therefore ultimately ineffective? 

    Part of his message is – Who gets to decide what Muslims Should and Shouldn???t be like or what they should and shouldn???t express?  Where is my individual voice in all of that?  He gives voice to the frustration, confusion, and even anger that many young Muslims grapple with when trying to find a balance there.  It???s a very real sentiment, and I don???t think expressing it makes him an attention-hogging media gimmick, nor the whole muslim punk movement for that matter.  He???s being honest, plain and simple, and that is reason enough to support it. 

    There are some days when I want to say f-u to the whole institution too, and there are more days when I embrace it.  And yet I???m still a so-called ???mainstream??? Muslim who supports organizations like IMAN and UMMA and DC Green Muslims whole-heartedly.  And just as those organizations give voice to parts of my Muslim identity, so does MMK.  The way I see it, the more voices out there, and the more varied, the better.  Ultimately our culture grows more inclusive that way, and we are better represented both as a group and as individuals.  I too wish the quieter grassroots organizations got more attention, but I don???t think it???s MMK???s job to give it.  It is however worth discussing how to put the spotlight on those orgs in more effective and sincere ways.

  • muqarnas says:

    whoops, forgot to put “@abbasjaffer and @sarahjay” at the beginning of my comment, in case there was any question as to who I was addressing 🙂

  • muqarnas says:


    Thanks for your response.  I know you???re not saying that MMK needs to be the one spearheading these organizations.  But I was referring to the fact that you do insist many times that he connect and engage with them (ex. Your quote, ???I was describing a missed opportunity on Knight to engage the mainstream.???)  I just wonder, why should he do that?  What???s the point?  You often mention “demanding a higher state of consciousness??? as the reason for everything we should or shouldn???t do.  For the most part I agree, like when it comes to actions we take and efforts we make to improve the society we???re in (activism).  But when it comes to art, I don???t think we can easily judge that one artist is failing to advocate for that state and another is succeeding (or even that we should require the artist to play by these rules).  A work of art may succeed in one viewer???s eyes (meaning that the art is interacting with their psyche in a way that elevates them) and it may fail in another viewer???s eyes. 

    The nature of art is elusive, and therefore incredibly different from grassroots activism, and so I don’t see a need for MMK as an artist to cross over to activism.  I can???t say whether MMK is just ranting or trying to demand a higher level consciousness, and I really don???t care.  Something in me responds to his work regardless of the answer to that question.  It elevates me (and many others) and that’s all that really matters to me at the end of the day.  If he were a straight-up activist on the other hand, then that question would obviously matter a lot more.  And if he were running for President of the US, it would matter even more. 

    But when it comes to art, progress towards a higher consciousness is not always measurable or direct. This progress is highly individual – certain people/books/movies resonate with some people and not with others.  You say: ???Kerouac may have used the autobiographical art form with success but that doesn???t mean his work was uniformly understood as a necessary or even positive social contribution.???  Since when is uniform understanding or positive social contribution (measured how, exactly?) the standards by which art is determined to be meaningful?  Is the point of art to necessarily make a direct social contribution, or is it simply to express something more elusive than that yet just as deeply important to the human experience? 

    Perhaps the bottom line is that you simply don???t relate to MMK and what he expresses, and I do.  You see his efforts as less important than the organizations you mention, and therefore less deserving of the spotlight. I don???t. I can understand you taking issue with media as whole, and its tendency to gravitate towards sensationalism, but that is a larger problem linked to the nature of the human psyche itself and therefore needs to be discussed on that level.

  • OmarG says:

    @sarahjay: yes, tact is great for negotiations, and its great when the tactful speaker is powerful because they can let thier displays of power do all the talking. Tact is not so productive when those in power in our communities run them like fiefdoms and willfully ignore sincerely good ideas for community development. Tact is also perhaps not satisfying when we respond to the efforts of the power elites to force us to act how they exclusively intepret the Quran and Sunnah. Then, all my tact goes out the door, displaced by less nuanced, macho, male-oriented tactics. A tool for every occasion. 🙂

  • katseye says:

    One, I’ve read MMK and I actually exhaled after reading some of his work. I just felt like, gee I’m not the only one who wants to tell the greater establishment to eff off.

    Two, I don’t understand this obsession with the mainstream. The mainstream has done very little for the world. The Prophet Muhammad, saws, as other Prophets were often ridiculed by the mainstream. The founding “fathers” of this country were a group of misfits, and by today’s standards, terrorists. Or even the “great Imams” spent more time behind bars (or in dungeons and towers) than they did free among the people for disobeying the mainstream. While I understand we want to use terms like “mainstream center or mainstream muslims” but that’s a falsehood in itself. We are a very diverse group of people both in heritage and in interpretation of Islam. Mainstream muslim to me sounds like “Muslim Lite” or much worse…

    I guess I see that all this diversity can give us civic groups, the MMK’s of the world, and all sorts of artists and thinkers in between regardless of what we think of ourselves and what we want others to think of us. MMK deals alot with that as do other Muslims and it’s nice to relate to someone.

  • sarahjay says:

    @ muqarnas

    When art is social commentary, it is totally up for conversation and debate. These writings are not left in his diary but rather, meant for public consumption. To put a standard on how art should be interpreted is stifling. I get what you are saying about art but where is the line? Do we write off all art as a vague and intangible expression so no need discuss it, both the positive and negative? I am of the opinion that art is often times left impalpable so that the audience can take from it what they will, coming to their reflections based on their own experiences. We will never be able to get in the head of the artists so this seems like the only viable way to make sense of it. 

    The comment about Kerouac was in response to abbasjaffer. He was stating that Kerouac used the writing style to ???deep effect??? and I was simply saying, not everyone thought so.

  • muqarnas says:


    >>I am of the opinion that art is often times left impalpable so that the audience can take from it what they will, coming to their reflections based on their own experiences. We will never be
    able to get in the head of the artists so this seems like the only viable way to make sense of it.

    umm…that’s exactly the point i’ve been making all this time.  plenty of people take from MMK’s writing something positive, while others take something negative.  so if you are taking something negative from it, leave it be knowing that others are taking something positive from it. 

    for me, the fact that he’s not trying to engage the mainstream is a big part of the reason i like his work.  you are wanting him to engage the mainstream, and are therefore wanting his art to be different from what it is to suit your own interests (which is not so different from trying to put a standard on what art is).  like i said before, i sympathize with your interests, but i don’t think this is the place to deal with them.  Criticizing the media for its sensationalism needs to be taken up with the media, not with MMK.

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