Have you ever noticed how the person who converts to a new religion, or philosophy of any kind, tends to be a whole lot more fanatical about their new faith than those who were born into it? Perhaps they feel a need to prove themselves in order to win acceptance as quickly as possible. Some people adopt a faith in the hope of finding answers to questions they have about life, others because they are desperate to find a place they fit in, while others are looking for something to make order out of any chaos they have lived through. In the latter case it's no wonder a convert becomes doctrinarian; it's such a relief to have order in their lives they'll follow the rules without questioning or doubting their necessity.
When author Michael Muhammad Knight was a teenager he converted to Islam in order to break as much as possible with his white supremacist father. However, when you consider the brief descriptions of his childhood he offers readers in his book Journey To The End Of Islam, published by Soft Skull Press, you have to wonder how much Islam represented a place of order which would relieve him of having to make his own decisions about good and evil and wrong and right. Like Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians who take the word of the bible as law, fundamentalist Muslims take the Qur'an as their rule book to live by. There aren't any grey areas for any of these people; if God says something, it's the law and there can be no disputing it.
While that may work for some people Knight found he couldn't live like that and, thinking to leave Islam behind, wrote his now infamous book The Taqwacores about a group of Islamic punk rockers. Ironically the book became a beacon for young American Muslims who were questioning many of the same things he was. Whether they were gay, straight, female or male didn't matter, they weren't happy with the status quo of Islam, or even what passed for mainstream progressive Islam, but weren't prepared to surrender their faith either. So instead of leaving Islam behind, Knight found himself at the heart of a movement looking to define a new identity for the religion. In Journey he finds himself at a crossroads, trying to decide and define what Islam is to him.
So, in 2008, while the rest of America is trying to figure out whether or not it should elect its first black president, and being Muslim is something Obama is having to deny as if it's something evil and un-American, Knight sets off on a trip that will see him visit shrines, temples, and other holy sites in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and finally to Saudi Arabia and the holiest of holy places, Mecca, to make hajj, in an attempt to discover what it means to be Muslim. We not only learn about the history of the religion and the schisms that have divided the faith almost since its beginnings along the way, but Knight also provides us with an overview of the uniquely American versions of Islam that were fostered by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, the Nubian Islamic Hebrews, and the Five Percenters. However, the major focus of the book is on his internal debate; the fight between his intellect and his heart over matters of faith and politics and how to separate the two.
In Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, and Ethiopia Knight takes us on visits to various shrines, tombs, and other sites of holy and historical significance to Islam. With each site we not only learn about the various figures in the history of the faith, we find out what role they have played in the split behind the formation of its two major sects, Sunni and Shi'a. In Pakistan there's the added confusion of the mystical branch of Islam thrown into the mix as he visits the tombs of a variety of Sufi saints. While strict Islamic practice forbids the worship of graves or humans — even worship of the Prophet Muhammad is prohibited — that doesn't stop people from praying to their local saints or performing other acts of worship that would be frowned on in other places.