You could think—as many do—that Michael Muhammad Knight is a provocateur and sensationalist, someone who rattles the cage just to listen to the clanking. And you'd be right to think that. But if that's all you thought, you'd be missing the point.
In the 2013 review of Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing PW called Knight "Islam's gonzo experimentalist." It's a title he earned through his ability to meld Islam, alternative culture, and literary theory in ways that no one else even seems to be trying. Why I Am a Salafi, Knight's latest book publishing in August, begins where his last left off—with Knight picking up the pieces of his religion after a hallucinogenic trip on the psychedelic ayahuasca: the drug "cleaned [the prophet Muhammad] out, or rather cleaned my imagination of him, allowing the two of us to start over," Knight writes.
In Why I Am a Salafi, Knight confronts traditional Islam head-on by dissecting his complex relationship to the many Islamic sects, as well as his own history of religious learning. The title references one of Islam's least-understood and most-ostracized groups, the Salifiyya, widely considered a fundamentalist movement with ties to Saudi Wahhabism. In the Western world, Salafism is often conflated with fundamentalist extremism. But in its most basic understanding, the Salafi is simply the first three generations of Muslims that followed the death of Muhammad—the prophet’s closest followers. This "Golden Age" of Islam is romanticized as the purist generation. For the Sunnis, it is a time that all Muslims should strive to emulate. Coming from a Western, liberal writer, Why I Am a Salafi is an intentionally provocative title.
"People already have an idea of what Salafism is," Knight says. "They have an idea of how it looks in the world, and they have an idea of what it's supposed to look like when you're searching for pure Islam. I think for me to say that I started rethinking the Salafiyya after drinking this Amazonian hallucinogen—that automatically unsettles someone’s expectations. And it leads to the problem of the book: what if drinking ayahuasca really led me to some kind of strict, rigid, Salafi orientation? Like what I had when I was a teenager.”
Knight isn’t writing for everyone; he understands many will not be ready for his message.
Converting to Islam as a 17-year-old after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Knight left the States for Islamabad, Pakistan where he studied at the Faisal Masjid mosque, the largest mosque in the world. His experiences there influenced a radical streak—he contemplated joining the Chechen resistance in Russia—and for years he considered himself Sunni Muslim.
In 2002, Knight self-published The Taqwacores, a novel about marginalized young Muslims who form an isolated community in Buffalo, New York—it has since been made into a movie and has inspired a grassroots movement of Muslims disillusioned with the traditional religious establishment. Eight books later (spanning non-fiction, memoirs, and another novel) Knight has carved out his own niche as the uncompromising voice of Islam from the margins, gaining notoriety beyond his books for articles such as "I understand why Westerners are joining jihadi movements like ISIS. I was almost one of them," which he wrote for the Washington Post, and for a running column on Vice.com. But under this outspoken public persona there is a mind-twisting religious evolution at play in Knight's work.
In 2011, Knight came out with Why I Am a Five-Percenter, which explained his move away from traditional Sunnism and toward the Five-Percenter movement (an esoteric branch of the Nation of Islam). Then, in 2013, Knight moved even further to the edges of Islam with the publication of Tripping with Allah. With his latest book—which strikes off in a different, more academic direction—he directly confronts textual concerns within the Qur'an and attempts to reconcile those stark boundaries that divide Muslim communities.
"In contemporary communities there is a reliance on capital "T" True ways of doing things that doesn't negotiate with culture and doesn't negotiate with history." Knight says. "And I think it's useful to step back and question that, and that doesn't mean throwing it all away."
Knight's forthcoming book will no doubt be controversial for many within the Muslim community. But for Knight the conversation is the point, no matter the personal cost.
"I have a particular set of Muslim relationships that I've been building over the years. I've been doing this for a while now, so I feel like I've developed a certain set of associations with my name. For me to have a book like this, with this provocative title, or that set of intentions, it will shoot me in the foot with a lot of people. But I think the person who sees themselves as a truth-teller outside of community structures and institutions can have an impact on the center. I think they can do important work. I think they can move the center. Because the margins aren't ever as marginal as we think they are."