I had a really strange experience while reading William S Burroughs vs. The Qur’an, the latest book by Michael Muhammad Knight, published by the Counterpoint Press imprint Soft Skull Press. I was almost finished with the book and all of a sudden came across my own words staring back at me from the page. It was surreal to find myself being quoted in somebody else’s work to begin with, but even weirder to see how the words dovetailed with Knight’s theme.
The quote was from my review of his book Journey To The End Of Islam and I had said something along the lines of how if more people were as brave and honest as Knight was in discussing their religion the world would be better off. He freaked out. “The brave and honest porkshit is artistic and spiritual sabotage. When someone puts that psychic poison on you how can you ever write a word?” That might sound like he’s being ungrateful, even petulant, but in the context of the book it actually makes perfect sense and I get where he’s coming from. For while his books have been all about telling people all about his quest to find himself within his religion, people have started looking to him as if he’s the answer to that question for themselves.
In William S Burroughs Vs The Qur’an Knight details how his search for his place in Islam inevitably led him to an earlier generation of white Western converts to Islam. In particular he tells of his attempt at writing the definitive biography of his Anarcho-Sufi hero and mentor Peter Lamborn Wilson, also known as Hakim Bey. The first part of the book is taken up with his recounting his times spent with Wilson and excerpts from the biography he’s destined never to finish. We learn that Wilson’s Islam has its sources in both the experiences of Burroughs and other Beats (Paul Bowles, Alan Ginsberg and the rest) in Tangiers during the years of the International Zone and the Moorish Science Temple of America founded by Noble Drew Ali of Chicago.
While I can understand Knight’s attraction to the idea of an Islamic lineage with white American roots, the more he begins to detail Wilson’s life and experiences the more I began to wonder whether he was clutching at straws looking to this guy as any sort of spiritual guide. From his experiences with LSD guru Timothy Leary to his wanderings through India he seemed more intent on discovering his capacity for ingesting drugs than any sort of spiritual advancement. It isn’t until he ends up in Iran in the 1970s that he even settles to any sort of apparently serious spiritual advancement. Even that is tainted by the fact that the group he joins, The Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, is described by Knight as “a politically ambitious mystico-fascist cult” whose purpose seems to be give the then Shah of Iran the veneer of spirituality.
However, while his association The Academy raises some doubts in Knight’s mind, it’s not where or who Wilson studied with that’s important. It’s how he studied and his experiments with various sects and forms of Islam that Knight identifies with. Then there is the whole issue of lineage. In Islam a spiritual teacher’s credibility is increased by those he sites from previous generations as being the sources for his wisdom. Wilson traces his lineage back to Medieval times and the leader of the alleged drug crazed sect notorious in the West known as the Assassins, Hassa-i Sabbah, via William S Burroughs. The sect was famous for their doctrine of Qiyamat which cancelled all religious laws that, according to Wilson, was a call for all Muslims to realize the “Imam of his own being”.
For Knight this more or less says each of us our are own god, the basic tenet of the African American Islamic group the Five Percenters with whom he identifies. However, there’s a twisted secret buried at the heart of Wilson’s Islam that makes it impossible for Knight to see him in the same light anymore. Although a good part of William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur’an shows us his attempts to find a way that Wilson’s writings endorsing pedophilia are merely some sort of shock tactic or an allegory of some kind (after all, the great mystic Rumi wrote a poem about two women who had sex with a donkey), he can’t escape the fact that his mentor sees nothing wrong with an adult man having sex with a child. Knight even goes to the extent of writing his own homo/erotic Islamic science fiction story (of which excerpts are included) in an attempt to see if he can see a way of justifying his mentor’s disturbing writings.
Over the balance of the book, amid segues into excerpts from the above mentioned story, Knight describes among other things, his horror at discovering that he’s becoming a mentor figure to young Muslims who have been reading his books. They’ve taken his descriptions of his struggles with identity and his fiction as instruction. They write to him for advice and thank him for being a role model. In a sort of fit of desperation to find direction he heads off to the backwoods of West Virginia to his late father’s “Unabomber” shack and creates his own personal mosque amidst the squalor. Living on tinned tuna he experiments with using the cut-up writing method espoused by Burroughs as the way of finding a text’s hidden meanings on the Qur’an. This involves literally cutting up a work’s text and then putting it back together randomly.
Reading this book within the context of lineage and mentors I have to wonder if its not a deliberate attempt on Knight’s part to scare people away from looking to him as a mentor figure. While he’s written about other periods of his life when he felt lost, specifically when he returned from studying in Pakistan and rejected the fundamentalist values that his teachers there had attempted to instil in him, he has never seemed so insecure in his faith before. However there’s a certain amount of ambiguity as to when the events described in the book took place. The only real clue as to the time frame it represents is at the end he is talking about whether or not he will write the recently released Why I Am A Five Percenter or vanish from the pages of mainstream publications into the world of academia.
Perhaps the most telling point in the book is Knight’s description of an impromptu gathering with some friends. Gathering together at a basketball court they sit around and talk about their faith, what it means to them, and how they try to “live” it. Knight ruminates on how maybe this group should form their own “sect” but concludes it was the very spontaneity of the gathering that allowed them the freedom to express themselves. Any attempt at formalization, even to arrange times for them to get together and talk again, would begin to encroach on that freedom and lead to the creation of a hierarchy and rules, all the hallmarks of an organized religion. It puts his balancing act of being a Muslim, and his rejection of the structure religions by their nature impose on their followers, into stark relief.
A person can spend all the time in the world searching for mentors and gurus or reading the collected works of every mystic and Imam whoever put pen to paper in an attempt to justify how you practice your beliefs and it won’t matter. It all comes down to trusting yourself and being willing to accept that your beliefs can exist independent of any structure. Knight doesn’t tell anybody they should follow his lead — this is what works for him. While he takes obvious pleasure in studying the words and teachings of both the Sufi saints of the past and current groups like the Five Percenters, it seems like it’s more for the sake of the knowledge he acquires through the study, than in the hopes he will find a place where he fits in.
Michael Muhammad Knight is a liar and a coward. Michael Muhammad Knight is honest and brave. What difference does it make? His writing will either offend or inspire you, and in places it might even do both. But no matter what, he will always make you think for yourself, force you into having an opinion and reach your own conclusions. Knight might reject the idea that he has anything to offer in the way of guidance, but he does offer his readers one something few other do — he never once tells them what to do or leads anyone to believe he has the solution to whatever ails them.