From the Fringe of Islam: An Interview with Michael Muhammad Knight

In some ways, Michael Muhammad Knight is the ultimate Islamic success story; in others, he’s a disaster.

Famous amongst orphaned Muslims—teens and adults trying to find a place in a religion known for stringency—Knight’s first book, The Taqwacores straddles the line between manifesto and coming of age novel. Set in a share house in Buffalo, New York, it details the lives and struggles of a group of Muslim punks surviving at the fringes of Islam. The novel explores the idea of “taqwa”, or “God-consciousness”, and Islam in everyday life, a concern for many of the new generation of Muslims growing up in the West. Knight’s characters, moreover, are equal parts punk and Muslim, from straight-edge Umar and Sufi punk Jehangir, to Shi’a skinhead Amazing Ayyub and the burqa-wearing riot grrl Rabeya.

Seeing the novel as “completely unmarketable”, Knight didn’t seek out a traditional publisher, instead handing out xeroxed copies in parking lots and mailing copies to anyone who asked, until he ran out of money due to the high cost of overseas postage. Beginning life as a sort of Islamic swan song, The Taqwacores is almost as divisive as it is unifying, a strange and eerily appropriate dichotomy reminiscent of modern Islam as a whole. Knight’s unashamed depiction of fringe Islam, and of Muslims—including a suggestion that Muhammad was a pedophile and descriptions of Rabeya crossing out sections of the Qu’ran she finds unworthy—have led to not just a law suit, but a death threat.

Knight, however, is quite sanguine about his critics. “In a way,” he says, “they’re one hundred percent right, because people will say ‘Oh, you’re just making this all up into what you want it to be. You’re treating Islam like a buffet, you think you can take this and leave this out.’ And I just shrug at that. I mean honestly, that’s all anybody does, right? That’s how religion works.”

Hailed as Islam’s answer to J. D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac, he’s fairly unaffected by the praise. “I think a lot of that is one person says something and then it becomes true. So people who haven’t even read it call it Salinger. I think I’m affected by the first person who says something like that, and then the twenty people after it, they’re just you know, whatever.”

The comparisons to Salinger in particular are not surprising; the books are overwhelmingly honest. Yusuf Ali, the narrator in The Taqwacores, is an older, more modern Holden Caulfield, a good son with good values struggling to find his place in the world. Yusuf’s experimentation with a Victoria’s Secret catalog and his fascination with Lynne, a white convert attracted to an unconventional blend of Sunni Islam and Sufism, share a certain wretchedness with the older author’s works.

“The writers that moved me the most were Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson, and no one’s said anything about those two guys,” Knight continues. We chat about Fitzgerald for a moment, and Knight asks if I’ve read Impossible Man. He pulls several books out of a canvas bag, then picks up Impossible Man and leafs through it. “The Fitzgerald thing is all answered in that [the book],” he says, still flipping. “My father was schizophrenic and he believed I was F. Scott Fitzgerald, so that’s what’s in there. That’s just straight memoir.” Settling on a page, he lays the book on the table. “This is it. F. Scott Fitzgerald meets five Desi girls.” Scooping a small yellow leaf off the table, he marks the place, then hands the book to me. For a moment, it’s hard to reconcile Knight, a regular joe in a navy baseball cap sitting across from me at a stone chess table outside the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square with Knight, the author of a book containing scenes so explicit I blushed when reading in public.

Knight, too, seems to feel awkward about the content of his books; in Journey to the End of Islam he describes “The Taqwacores” as “grimy.” Somewhat haltingly, I ask about his choice of words. He shrugs. “I just felt like the scummiest parts of me were coming out, you know? I think a lot of writers in this community wear hijab in their writing, they’re covering themselves in their writing, and I didn’t want to do that, because it would irritate me when I saw that, you know what I mean? And so to me, to have integrity as a writer I had to throw [in] all the stuff I didn’t want people to know. I had to put that out there, so it ended up being kind of grimy, [because] I guess I’m kind of grimy in life.”

Riot Grrls and Reclaiming Islam

Although the story of The Taqwacores ostensibly belongs to Yusuf Ali and Sufi punk Jehangir Tabari, the most realistic, relatable portrait in the book is Rabeya, a feminist student who wears full burqa (with punk band patches) and performs a graphic sex act in front of the audience in the novel’s penultimate scene.

At first glance, Rabeya and her feminist cohorts may seem almost cartoonish, feminism is an overarching theme in Knight’s books; his portrayal of women is both surprising and, again, honest. Yet it was the maleness of Islam, and Malcolm X, that first drew the 15-year-old to Islam. “I grew up without a dad,” he tells me. (Knight met his father, a paranoid schizophrenic, not long after his introduction to Islam; he would later discover his father was also a white supremacist.) “Malcolm X gave me a certain model of masculinity, a certain way to protect women…and I really, really needed that.

“Before that I was obsessed with pro wrestling, you know what I mean? Pro wrestling was like, how I found masculinity. And then it was like Public Enemy, it was a fist in the air and it was Malcolm X, so I got into this like, this idea of what it meant to be a man.”

In recent years, this sort of masculine appeal has given Islam a reputation–perhaps partially deserved–for attracting angry youth such as John Walker Lindh, a 20-year-old American student who joined the Taliban, and David Hicks, a 26-year-old Australian who trained in terrorist camps associated with Al-Qaeda. (Both men were captured in 2001; Lindh is currently serving a 20 year sentence in Indiana; Hicks has been repatriated and lives in New South Wales with his wife, human rights activist Aloysia Brooks.) The difference between Hicks, Lindh, and Knight, it seems, may have been Knight’s mother.

Much like Lindh, Knight traveled to Pakistan to study Islam, though he chose to return to the US rather than continue on a tour of the Islamic world. But Knight’s strong connection with his mother, and the pointed questions about his mother’s status as a Muslim appear to have helped keep him grounded. “I couldn’t betray my mom,” he writes in Journey to the End of Islam, “not like I had when last time around when the Tablighis (followers of a spiritual religious movement) told me that she’d burn in hell and I just nodded.”

When I ask him about his focus on Islam and women, and the sort of scrutiny his work brings to the treatment of women in Islam, Knight pauses; a busker’s rendition of “Take Me Home Country Road” fills the silence.

“My mom was very much abused by my dad,” he says. “He was just extremely violent and awful…It was around like 12 or 13 that I became convinced that I was a rape child…because my mom was in physical fear of my father at all times and so I just put two and two together, like did she have the power of consent at the time I would’ve been conceived? Probably not. So I understood myself as having been conceived in rape.”

“So, I really, really got into Islam for that, as a way of protecting my mom. I wanted to save my mom…[But] the growth that I found from that became crippling ultimately, because all these male responsibilities that the man puts on himself end up becoming like male ownership. It became very destructive for me. Those attitudes, they just became like poison…So, maleness and gender and stuff have been like, from the very beginning my concern with what my Islamic project was all about.”

Despite the incongruity of it, it’s easy to imagine a 15-year-old Knight reading Malcolm X’s autobiography, and relating to X’s philosophy; it’s clear he still respects the complicated and controversial civil rights leader. Yet for all its positives, “The Taqwacores,” and to some extent Knight’s other works, truly are “grimy”. Masturbation and sex scenes worthy of an M-rating are scattered throughout the “The Taqwacores,” while references to holding in farts to remain clean before prayer pop up in Journey to the End of Islam.

It’s this rather startling candor–not just about his home life and personal habits, but his experiences as a convert, and the loneliness that comes with it–that helps bind Knight to his readers. “With Taqwacores,” he says, “I was just really really lonely,” an experience shared by many picking up the book. “I don’t think anyone writes for Muslim kids. The reformers (Islamic scholars seeking to adapt Islam to modern times within the existing scope of religious texts) certainly, most of the people who are like visionaries of the new Islam, they’re not writing for kids…and the reaction to the book really did for me what they say the book did for them.

“Cause kids write to me, teenagers, college age people, whatever, and they say they didn’t think there was anyone like them out there, you know what I mean? And that’s what I felt when I wrote it, and that’s why I wrote it, because I didn’t know there could be complicated Muslims or a community of complicated Muslims.”

When I ask for an example, Knight’s demeanor changes; he’s no longer the laid-back joe in a baseball cap, but an activist describing injustice. “You have some 14-year-old kid who doesn’t know if they believe in God or not, they’re trying to deal with Islam as a human being in real life, and [nothing the reformers] say matters.

“I knew a girl who asked Hamza Yusuf (an Islamic scholar with a focus on classical learning) what to do about her missed prayers, and he told her to pray ten times a day. It’s like they’re just not speaking to the real life of these people. They weren’t speaking to my real life.”

“Did you ever pray five times a day?” I ask, trying to conjure an image of Knight, ostensibly founder of the Muslim punk movement, chronicler of his religious experiences with bhang (a particularly potent form of cannabis), rising early to make fajr, the dawn prayer. Knight half shrugs, then laughs a little. “When I was a teenager I held it up all right, but it was a struggle.”

Taqwacore + Ritual = Hope?

Aside from its five times a day prayer, Islam is not really a religion of rituals–there are proscribed behaviors, such as drinking and smoking, and, famously, creating images of the Prophet Muhammad. But Knight’s books are full of rituals, from riot grrl Rabeya carefully and deliberately editing her Qu’ran and Sufi punk Jehangir “deliberately [rendering] himself ugly with the mohawk and gear” to village Islam, rich with Islamic saints and promise Knight discovered in a 2008 trip to Pakistan.

Asked about the presence of ritual in his books, Knight is pleased. “I actually very deliberately do that,” he says. “Just as a confused Muslim, I seek out new ways to look at Islam. There are a lot of books out there that are just leading what texts mean. ‘Oh, this verse of the Qu’ran doesn’t have to mean this, it could mean something else.’ And that doesn’t change what my daily life looks like. It doesn’t change what my religious life looks like. They’re not really painting a picture for me of a different way of being Muslim than I had. They’re just presenting intellectual positions and kind of ignoring the world…I really deliberately wanted a new way to be Muslim.”

Other Muslims—born into the faith, family Muslims—clearly relate to Knight’s search for a new way to be Muslim. Since the 2003 publication of “The Taqwacores”, Taqwacore has appeared as a punk genre popular amongst Western Muslims in their 20s (The Kominas, one of the first Taqwacore bands on the scene, are good friends with Knight and appear regularly in his later books). But Knight is quick to point out he didn’t invent the genre. “There were Muslim punks in the seventies,” he tells me. “But I guess I gave it a name, and that’s become like a sociological experiment, what happens when you give something a name. All these people turn out that were that. People who were living that before they knew there was a name for it, before there was a name for it, and that becomes real.” The book’s appeal led to its eventual publication with alternative/indie publisher Soft Skull press in the US, while a censored version (labeled “censored” at Knight’s insistence), is available in the UK from Telegram Books.

In a post-September 11 world where some nations are seeking a ban on burqas, it would be easy for the Islamic community to close ranks. But Knight is hopeful for the future. “Just, the things that I’m seeing now, like not even people I encountered through the books but like things that I hear about in the communities, where like they’re starting to recognize Muslim kids can be as fucked up and complicated as any other kids. They’re loosening up a little bit, you know what I mean? Recognizing that they may not have the fantasy image of Muslims anymore.”

“And I think all like these confused kids who growing up didn’t have a space for themselves, now they’re in their twenties they’re making a space for themselves. I’m hoping, though, that they have something good to pass onto their kids,” Knight says. “I think that in 20 years—probably less than 20 years—the Muslim community in America is going to look like any other community. That sounds terrible to some people. [But] I think that like with Christians, with Jews, there’s going to be a spectrum. And there will be room to exist on different places in that spectrum. You know, what I would like to see is–and I think this is already there for a lot of people–is just for Muslims to see each other as family. “