Don’t be fooled by the title of Michael Muhammad Knight’s newest book. Magic In Islam, published by Penguin/Random House, does not have him doing for magic what his first novel, The Taqwacores did for Islam and punk rock. Rather this is a serious, well mostly serious, academic study of the history and antecedents of the Muslim religion.
Knight has gone from being an outside the box, iconoclastic, but always reverent, convert to Islam to an academic teaching and writing about his chosen faith. However, this doesn’t mean he no longer pushes the definition of Islam beyond what most, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are willing to accept. What he sets out to prove in this new book, via his examination of magic in Islam, is how there is no definitive version of Islam which can be used as the basis for saying this is right and this is wrong.
In order to prove his thesis Knight takes us on a history of not only Islam, but the region in which the religion was born. This enables him to show us how the faith did not grow in a vacuum but was influenced by everybody from mythological figures in ancient Egypt (Thoth) and Greece (Hermes). The prophet Enoch of the Jewish/Christian bible evolved into Idris in the Qur’an and Knight traces this figure back to ancient times.
At one point Knight says this book sprung out of a desire to write a response to all the “What Is Islam” books that have been published since September 2001. Most of those books have looked to only one source for their definition, the Qur’an. Knight’s argument is that while the Qur’an is obviously an important source of information for understanding the faith, it can’t be the only one we use to define the religion.
Not only are there countless other writings which are used to define the belief and its practices, like other religions there also exist a myriad of different ways in which belief is expressed. From Mali to North America the various cultures who have adopted Islam have done so through the prism of their own needs and desires. In other words they have made it work for them.
While many would argue against Knight’s thesis that Islam allows for this variety of interpretation, he builds his case carefully with impeccably footnoted sources and documentation. If parts of the book read like an academic dissertation, it’s no wonder, as Knight has recently completed his doctorate. However, while it makes parts of the book drier than what we have come to expect from him, it also makes his points far more creditable.
Of course Knight being who he is can’t help but let his idiosyncrasies peak through. These not only lighten the tone, but also give the facts a human face. Knight is also pretty straight forward about where his personal prejudices lie when he says “… I have no interest in attempting to patrol the limits of Islamic authenticity or “orthodoxy”; if anything, I want to dig secret tunnels or find holes in the fences.” In other words he’s perfectly happy with Islam being the glorious mish-mash it is today.
From China, India, North America, and across Northern Africa, Islam comes in all shapes and colours. From the Sufi mystics of Pakistan to the 5 Percenters in Harlem, New York – they all consider themselves Muslim even though their practices are widely different. In Magic In Islam Knight has done a fine job of proving the religion’s history has precedents for this variety of interpretations.
Like all of Knight’s writings on Islam, this is a thoughtful and intelligent book. Not only does it offer insights and observations we rarely hear, they are substantiated with historical facts and references to legitimate sources – a refreshing change from the constant barrage of poorly researched and badly sourced information we normally receive via the internet and television. Sure, you’re going to have to make a bit of an effort, and maybe even use your brain a bit, in order to appreciate this book – but isn’t it worth it to be properly informed?