Michael Muhammad Knight’s latest book is called “Magic in Islam.” But it’s not really about magic or Islam, since it immediately sets out to defy definitions for either term.
“Calling this project ‘Magic in Islam’ is what allows it to … materialize as a book in the world,” writes Knight, who grew up Catholic and became Muslim at 16 after reading Malcolm X’s autobiography. “Now I’m going to do whatever I want. This book is my sandbox to play in.”
A 39-year-old religious studies doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he certainly knows enough about the faith’s fringes to make it work.
Knight imagined a Muslim punk movement into being with his 2003 novel “The Taqwacores,” whose anarchic Sufi and burqa-clad riot grrrl characters also inspired a documentary and Muslim America’s first high-profile woman-led prayer service. He has written a book that subverts the idea of Salafism as Islam’s boogeyman; taken two deep dives into the controversial Five Percenter group, which broke away from the Nation of Islam in the 1960s; and detailed his experiences taking psychedelic drugs to reach the divine in “Tripping With Allah.”
RNS talked with Knight, who recently accepted a position as visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Ohio’s Kenyon College, about his latest book and how it challenges conceptions of Islam. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: In “Magic in Islam,” you say that you were striving to produce a book on Islam that wasn’t grounded in either scripture or Western demands. Why did you choose magic as your alternative lens?
A: Magic is what always gets left out. When we talk about religions and these very firmly crystallized, very rigorously bounded systems, we tend to leave out a lot of what really happens on the ground. Magic as a category is immediately deconstructive. It transgresses borders. It often has a role in the creation of borders, too; look at Protestants calling Catholic rituals “magic,” or Catholics saying that about Jews, or Muslims saying that about polytheists. Magic almost always seems to have a role in this creation of difference.
We have these categories of magic in religion and science, and the differences between them aren’t stable. Astrology passes between religion and science and magic, depending upon the values and prejudices and assumptions of the people looking at it. On the one hand, people would say astrology constitutes magic — it’s superstition, it’s outside of religion, religions forbid it — but then people are using the same technology to argue for the proof of their religion. So in another time period, Muslims, Christians and Jews are all using astrology to prove that their religions are correct. So I was looking at a perforated, very permeable border between these categories. It’s recognizing that using magic as a universal concept, where we can go to any time and place and find this thing called “magic” and talk about it, comes with some problems.
Q: Your work highlights not just the so-called fringes, but the minorities within those fringes. You give space to the often-dismissed Muslim Brotherhood, Ahmadiyya Islam, Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb and the Nation of Islam. Why?
A: When both Muslims and non-Muslims talk about Islam, they tend to leave out a lot of the internal diversity. And that has different consequences, depending upon who’s doing it. So non-Muslims can look at Islam in very generalizing ways and ignore the internal complexity, the internal diversity that Muslims have, the richness of Muslim traditions, and make arguments for various kinds of exclusions or mistreatments or generalizations of Muslims. Internally, Muslims do that also and restrict the possibilities for what it can mean to be Muslim. Looking at what we might call magic today or throughout Muslim traditions, in many cases it seems to expand the possibilities of what is thinkably “Islamic.” And I think that’s a positive social consequence.
I converted to Islam in the ’90s as a teenager, and much of my work is actually arguing with that teenage convert. I had a very, very clear and concrete idea of what Islam was and what it meant to be Muslim. So a lot of my work in the time since is trying to sit that kid down and say, “Look, these things you have very easy answers for? They’re immeasurably complex if you look beyond the pamphlets that taught you your religion.” So I wander, I stumble around. This tradition has so much depth to it, so much diversity, so many different ways of conceiving itself. I don’t pin down an essence to what real Islam or authentic Islam is. I’m running through the mansion, opening up as many doors as I can.
Q: You’ve said you had thought your first novel, “The Taqwacores,” was unmarketable, so you ended up self-publishing and handing out photocopies for free. How did you get to a place where you can get around that for this book?
A: “Magic in Islam” makes for a provocative area of inquiry, and there’s an audience for that. There was an audience for “The Taqwacores,” too; I just didn’t know it when I put it out. I thought, “No one’s going to get all these Arabic terms and all the punk rock and be willing to sit with it through all that.” Magic can be an attractive topic, but once you’re in this book, it turns out I don’t know what magic is. There’s a disclaimer there. I don’t offer a concrete definition of magic. I look at the instabilities. Sometimes people want a very concrete data-oriented introduction, and I don’t give it to them.
Through the lens my academic training at UNC creates, I no longer treat this topic as, “Well, what does Islam say about magic?” as though there’s a clear answer to that — as though Islam has a singular voice, as though there’s even this thing called “Islam” that’s a historically consistent artifact. My training surrenders all of that. Instead, I’m asking what magic and Islam are as imagined and constructed by people in the real world.
I also wrote this as someone who teaches. I’ve been teaching for five years now, and I couldn’t find any introductory-level discussions about these topics. It’s something that would be provocative and compelling for classroom use, so in part, I wrote the book that I want to teach. I spend a lot of time in my “Introduction to Islam” courses undermining the concept of introduction. The students come in wanting to know what holidays Muslims celebrate and what foods they eat, and I constantly reject the idea that Islam has a coherence I can introduce to you in 15 weeks. There’s no organic center from which I could base an introduction. Most introductions seek to give very bullet-pointed, simplistic ideas of what this thing is, and I’m saying that’s always fraudulent.
Q: This was a little tamer than some of your previous work. But are you still expecting any death threats over “Magic in Islam”?
A: What I find for the most part is that if people are willing to read your stuff, they’re already kind of on your side. The problems come from the outward presentation of the book, so what does it look liketo someone that there’s a book called “Magic in Islam”? What are the possibilities for a book like that? So people make judgments without reading it. One thing I like about provocative book titles is that you know which critiques to take seriously.
I actually discovered my filtered messages folder on Facebook last night at 3 a.m. and found all these messages going back years. These are people who aren’t friends with me on Facebook, so it’s a very different audience from those who actually send a friend request before writing. There was a lot of kindness, but there was also a lot of “Say hi to Satan when you’re meeting him in jahannam (hell).” So I occasionally get an internet soldier, but nothing’s happened yet. I’ve been doing this for a while.
(Aysha Khan is an RNS corespondent)