The supposed rule of thumb for avoiding controversy in polite society is not to have conversations about politics or religion. Apparently there aren’t many people who can be rational or calm with either topic. Which could go a long way towards explaining why so many people, even those who nominally share his religious beliefs, have problems with Michael Muhammad Knight’s books. Of course, the fact that he converted to Islam as a teenager is probably off putting to quite a number of Americans, but his work is controversial in the Muslim community as well. It seems not many approve of the fact he openly questions those aspects of the religion he doesn’t agree with and his willingness to explore teachings alternative to mainstream Islam.
Although his fiction, The Taqwacores and Osama Van Halen are perhaps more well known to readers at large, it’s his non-fiction; Journey To The End Of Islam, Impossible Man, The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop and the Gods Of New York and Blue Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America which have probably caused the most consternation among those of his own faith. Oh, sure, the fiction books are filled with enough bad behaviour to make most parents think twice about sending their children to university no matter what their faith. However, because they’re fiction they can be ignored and not taken seriously. It’s another matter all together when Knight starts into both the autobiographical stuff of Impossible Man and his analysis of various different Islamic philosophies around the world and throughout history.
Like most converts to anything, Knight went through a period of attempting to be more Islamic than thou, followed by a brief period of disillusionment. (Which, judging by what he’s written about that period, seems to have stemmed more from his own issues rather than his religion) It was when he truly began to settle into his faith, that he began to delve deeper into its history and philosophies. While this included travels through Africa, the Middle East (including making a pilgrimage to Mecca) and South East Asia, it also involved delving into the uniquely American versions of Islam which developed among African Americans. For even though his education in Islam had been in first a mainstream mosque in America and continued in a madrassa in Pakistan, it had been the writings of Malcolm X that had attracted him to the faith in the first place. However, the Nation Of Islam, of which Malcolm had been a member until his split with them shortly before his assassination, he was soon to discover, is considered misguided at best, or a heresy at worst, by the majority of Muslims.
While the Nation of Islam might have been bad enough, it’s an even more heretical group who Knight focuses on in his soon to be published Why I Am A Five Percenter, from Tarcher Books on October 25 2011 and Penguin Canada on October 13 2011. Knight delivers a concise and intelligent history of The Five Percenters, also known as The Nation of Gods and Earths, and their philosophies, while dispelling many of the myths surrounding them — they have been accused of everything from wanting to kill all the white people, to being a front for gang warfare or a terrorist organization. However, as in previous books, his primary concern is to further his very public discourse on Islam and his place in it. To this end he leads readers on a fascinating discussion on the nature of race and religion and a survey course on Sufi mysticism and Islamic studies as he attempts to reconcile his Five Percenter inclinations with his mainstream Islamic beliefs.
The issue of race is a major factor in Knight’s personal journey. As a white American convert to Islam he was doted over by his teachers in Pakistan. For while it was fairly common for African Americans to convert, whites were few and far between. However, both the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters were created by and for African Americans and make no bones about the fact they see white society as the biggest obstacle in the way of their community’s advancement. It’s especially problematic among the latter who teach self-empowerment and self reliance by denying the existence of any “mystery god” and insisting every black man has the potential to be their own god. The answer to where does a young white dude fit into this is another question — what exactly is white? The definition has changed legally over the years in the US from where it used to exclude Irish, Italian and other non-Anglo Saxon Europeans in the 1800s to now where anybody of roughly European stock is considered “white” by all save for white extremists.
In actual fact there is no such thing as a white race genetically or any other way people would like to think. The only Caucasians in the world are a somewhat swarthy group of people, including many Muslims, who live in Eastern Europe in Georgia and other Baltic states. According to Knight, being white is more a state of mind than anything else. Now that may sound like he’s justifying his position, but he freely admits that he’s as capable of being as white as the next person. It’s a question of privilege. As a white male he is far more liable to be accepted by society as a whole than somebody of color. Anytime he wants to he can walk away from his beliefs and be welcomed with open arms by the world at large — something none of the other Five Percenters, the majority of whom are poor people from Harlem and inner cities around America, have as an option.
How many of them can go to Harvard University to study? How many have the luxury to spend hours studying obscure Sufi mystics when they have to put food on the table for their families? Sure there are a lot of poor people who aren’t African American, but history, the history that automatically granted a poor white person higher status than an African American no matter how wealthy or educated, isn’t easily forgotten by anyone and color still designates something. As one of the scholars Knight quotes in the book says, the only people who can afford to be color blind are those whose color has never been used against them.
You may or may not agree with Knight’s assessment of race (I do), but you can’t help but admire his ability for being honest with himself. He spends page upon page analysing the writings of Islamic scholars and mystics and a seemingly endless number of interpretations of the Qur’an attempting to find a way for the Five Percenter’s rejection of a “mystery god” to be accommodated by Islam. However when he presents his ideas to a couple of Five Percenter gods, the elder one reminds him of one of their basic precepts. It’s not just belief in a “mystery god” that allows for oppression and injustice, it’s also the time wasted looking for proof of its existence. Five Percenter’s teach that despite every attempt by society to degrade you and push you down, the universe is yours and you can accomplish anything. You are your own god.
Why I Am A Five Percenter is by turns fascinating, intelligent and funny. While Knight occasionally meanders into what appear to be exercises in religious and spiritual hair splitting in his examination of what he calls nine thousand pages of Sufi mysticism, which he then refers to as so much naval gazing, even that section of the book has its value. Too often Islam is represented as being a single minded monolith, but here we see the diversity of thought and belief which has developed over the hundreds of years of its history. However, that is only a sideline to his main focus: Five Percenters, the history of Islam among African Americans and his appreciation for the former.
Along the way he manages to touch on topics as diverse as race, the nature of religion and the role each of us plays in shaping a religion. He isn’t trying to convince you that his way is the right way, only to tell you about it and why it appeals to him. It’s possible the questions he has struggled with are ones readers might recognize as ones they’ve asked themselves, but he doesn’t pretend his answers will be applicable to anyone but himself. He tells you why he is a Five Percenter, in as much as he can be, but never advocates it or any creed as the answer to anybody’s problems.
Somehow Knight manages to blend scholarship and personal memoir and in the process of teaching us an important part of American history and telling us about his own quest to find a place in the world. All in all, for a book about subjects we’re not supposed to talk about in polite society, a remarkable achievement.