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Blue-Eyed Devil: An Interview with Michael Muhammad Knight

by David Hunter
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On the surface, Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America seems like it will be a "let's get to know the neighbors" punk-rock companion piece to Paul Barrett's American Islam.  If that doesn't quite describe it, it's because author Michael Muhammad Knight has little interest in finding the familiar in the exotic, preferring instead to make the ordinary seem strange.  A white convert to Islam and self-described "cultural mutant," Knight takes the longer view of American Islam, returning to the story of its origins with enigmatic Nation of Islam founder Wallace Fard Muhammad, and to a time when "American Islam" was still a shocking juxtaposition.  Knight conceives of the evolution of Islamic America as a series of cross-pollinations and random mutations that he continues and embodies.  Over ginger ales, we talked about the maturation of Islam in America and its relationship to, among other things, professional wrestling, progressive politics, and punk rock.

KGB: You wrote a book, Blue Eyed Devil, about a road trip you took in 2003. What were your goals, heading out?

KNIGHT: I was coming off a phase in which I considered myself an apostate. I had gone really extreme into Islam and had burned out on it.  Around 2002 I started trying to work at it again.  Even though I didn't consider myself a Muslim, it wouldn't go away.  And so I realized I was going to have some kind of relationship with Islam, I was going to have to figure it out.

I was getting interested in the idea of Islam being a story that started in America. There are all these different Islams--it's not just one uniform religion. When Islam went to Pakistan it became Pakistani, when it when to Iran it became Iranian. It took on all these different characters. And I was starting to appreciate that Islam in America was an American Islam. It wasn't just a transplanted, immigrant thing, it was something indigenous. So I was trying to find myself as a Muslim, while also engaging that history.

KGB: A lot of the trip is geared around tracking down information about W.D. Fard.

KNIGHT:  He kind of sums it up, for me. The prevailing theory is that he was an immigrant of some kind, whether he was South Asian or Arab or whatever.

KGB: But it's a big mystery.

KNIGHT: Yeah. But he ties together the immigrant experience and the African-American experience of Islam. Minister Fard is the starting point, for me, of Islam becoming a distinctly American thing.  I mean, there was stuff before him and there was stuff after him but without him there's no Elijah Mohammed, there's no Malcolm X, there's no Muhammad Ali. He created Islam in America.

KGB: He started the Nation of Islam.

KNIGHT: Yeah, but he almost created American Sunni Islam, too. Because the largest segment of American Muslims are African American, and if they're not in the Nation of Islam, then their parents were, or their grandparents were. The Nation of Islam built up that African-American tradition of Islam.

KGB: How is the Nation of Islam seen by more mainstream Islam?

KNIGHT: They don't really see the Nation of Islam as being Muslim at all. They get very possessive of what they call Islam. To me, it's nailed in an academic sense. Yeah, the Nation of Islam doesn't teach what all other Muslims of the world teach. But if you go into southern Asia, you'll find all kinds of crazy Sufism. You'll find all sorts of stuff all over the world. So it doesn't really bother me.

KGB: I thought Warith Deen Mohammed had sort of mainstreamed the Nation…

KNIGHT: Warith Deen was Elijah Muhammad's son. He was going in and out of the Nation--he had doubts about who God was, who the devil was. And when Elijah Muhammad died, Warith Deen assumed control of the Nation of Islam. Not only did he reform the teachings toward orthodoxy, getting rid of the white devil stuff, but he also basically detonated the whole organization. You know, "We don't need to have the paramilitary course anymore. We don't need to have all these businesses that lead to money that lead to corruption." And for a while Louis Farrakhan submitted to that. But eventually Farrakhan built up his own power base and revived the old Nation of Islam.

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KGB: When Warith Deen mainstreamed, he changed the spelling of his last name from the way Elijah Muhammad spelled it, to the more conventional “Mohammed.” But you, Michael Muhammad Knight, still spell it after Elijah Muhammad.

KNIGHT:  Well, he was the correct one. There’s no “O” sound in Arabic.  So when people say "Mohammed." or "Koran," that’s not correct. I think Warith Deen was just trying to distance himself from his father any way he could. But, Warith Deen still has his community in what used to be the Nation of Islam's flagship mosque in New York--Mosque Number 7. It's now a Warith Deen, Sunni, mosque. They named it after Malcolm.

KGB: You converted to Islam after reading Malcolm X.

KNIGHT: When I was 13, I started listening to Public Enemy and that's where I first heard about Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad. When I was 15, I read Malcolm's autobiography. And I was getting into all the white devil stuff. I get that. Just being a white American, I get the white man being the devil.

KGB: What does that mean, in terms of how you see yourself?

KNIGHT: To me, being a devil means what you've inherited.  Like me, I am who I am. I'm in control of my actions. I have free will. But I didn't decide my bloodline. That's something I got handed to me.  And, to be white and American, your bloodline is devil. I have Confederate captains in my ancestry. My dad is all into Hitler. Just from talking to my dad, I'm like, "Yeah, I'm the son of the devil." So, I get that. The best I can do is try to slay that devil that's in my blood.

That's what I get out of the Five Percenters. The Five Percenters are an offshoot of the Nation of Islam. They study the same lessons as the Nation. The difference is that the Five Percenters will “teach the devil.” The Five Percenters will make the devil a righteous man. There's a place in that culture that the Nation of Islam doesn't allow that the Five Percenters will allow to a certain extent.

KGB: For Caucasians.

KNIGHT: Yeah. Like, there's a white Five Percenter named Azrael who took me under his wing. He must be sixty years old and he's been in this tradition a long time. He named me Azrael Wisdom.  In their culture “wisdom” means number two, so he's naming me "Azrael Two." He's giving me a new lineage, better than the one that I get from my Dad.

KGB: The Five Percenters is heavy on numerology.

KNIGHT: Yeah, that goes back a ways.  If you read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he's talking about how, when he went to the fight where Ali first won the title, his seat was number 34. And three plus four is seven, and seven is the number of God.  He's building on numbers all through it, saying that seven was his number. It goes back, through the Nation of Islam, through Noble Drew Ali, way back. The Five Percenters are just the tip of the iceberg.

KGB: You come back to numbers a lot in your book.  Is it important to you as well?

KNIGHT: Not in a mystical or superstitious way. For me the numbers kind of shocked my brain into working on things in a different way.

KGB: Like a trigger?

KNIGHT: Yeah. For example, in numerology thirty means "understanding cyphers." The cypher is the circle around your life, your immediate world, your surroundings, and what you're trying to do. If I were about to turn thirty, I would look at what it means for me to have understanding of my cypher. It's just a poetic teaching tool. That's how I look at it.

KGB: When you talk in your book about progressive Islam, you seem to feel like it lacks something.

KNIGHT: I feel like it lacks heart. It had the best intentions in the world, but deep down, progressive Islam--and this isn't speaking of every individual but of what I see when I see the collective--it's not a religious movement. It's a movement of academic-minded people, upper-class people who aren't necessarily religious but they're going to talk about what religion ought to be. It's a bunch of cultural Muslims, maybe with Muslim parents, disillusioned, and here's what they think Islam ought to be.

imageKGB: What do they think Islam ought to be?

KNIGHT: More gender-inclusive, social justice oriented. More tolerant of other ways of life. Which is all cool. I could never disagree with what they say. The problem with progressive Islam is there's nobody who'll open the mosque in the morning. A religious community needs someone to open the mosque in the morning and make sure the bills are paid. Make sure there's someone there at the end of the night if someone wants to pray the late-night prayer. 

KGB: Is that because the type of Muslim who is willing to open the mosque every morning is not interested in progressive Islam?

KNIGHT: Maybe the more hardcore your faith is, the less likely you are to ask questions? But it's hard to say.

I know individuals in the scene who I have great respect for. They're real-deal Muslims. They live it, they believe in it, and they really love it. They don't necessarily get the exposure that other people get because they're not media entrepreneurs.

KGB: So, with progressive Islam, it's a problem of the right people not rising to the top?

KNIGHT: Well, like Jesse Ventura said, "The scum always rises to the top of the water." [laughs]

KGB: He also said that religion is a crutch!

KNIGHT:  Oh, the Five Percenters have an awesome critique of religion.  The Five Percenters say that religion is a crutch.  And this is how religion is used as an agent of oppression.  Because the rich, the bloodsuckers of the poor, the slave-makers, they tell you to sit at home and pray and wait for God to change your situation.  If you’re being oppressed, wait for God to end your oppression. Or wait for God to reward you in the afterlife for enduring it patiently.  The Five Percenters say, Fuck that.  We’re not going to wait for God to solve our problems.  We’re going to be our own gods, and create the world that we want.

KGB: You talk in your book about people who inflict pain on themselves as a way of reaching another level.  And there's this part where you throw yourself on a field of thumbtacks.

KNIGHT: I used to do that in college, get thrown on thumbtacks.

KGB: Right, as a wrestling move.

KNIGHT: In a purely spectator sport kind of way, in a Jackass kind of way. I would get my head split open and bleed all over the place, and I would sit in the shower and watch it swirl around in the drain. I've never been drunk, but the way I felt I can only describe as part of being drunk--the slowness, the dizziness, and being mindful yet not really alert, if that makes sense at all.

KGB: But the moment in the book I was thinking of, you try the thumbtacks and you're alone.

KNIGHT: I was dealing with the Shia tradition of self-mutilation. There was a whole emotional component because I was by myself. It wasn't a gimmick.

When I do it in wrestling, it's a gimmick, for show. But when I'm by myself...I was dealing with Imam Husayn, Muhammad's grandson, in a very Catholic way because I grew up Catholic. And I was thinking of Imam Husayn as hurting for me and suffering for me, so I was going to hurt for him. It was this...relationship I was feeling. And these little, tiny thumbtacks are like nothing. Nothing.

KGB: It doesn't hurt as much as it sounds?

KNIGHT: Not as much as getting your head cut off, arrows stuck through you, trampled by horses, and all that stuff he did.

KGB: And another point you brought them together, wrestling and Islam, you staged this wrestling match.

KNIGHT: Yeah.  When I was writing articles for Muslim WakeUp! I would write these articles in which I would refer to myself as "Ibrahim Hooper." When I was introducing myself to somebody or calling someone for an interview, I'd say, "This is Ibrahim Hooper."

KGB: Who is a real person.

KNIGHT: He's the communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

KGB: So you were using his name to get access?

KNIGHT: No! Seriously, I didn't actually do it; it was just a joke in the article. And Hooper took it so seriously, as though I was actually trying to convince the reader that I'm him, which was stupid, because my name's on top of the article. The dude just has no sense of humor.  He threatened legal action. So I was like, he's a bully, and he wants to have people scared of him.  I'm gonna call your bluff.  Let's settle this in the ring.  So I wrote this piece where I challenged him to a wrestling match.  And then we actually put on the match at a Taqwacores show. We rented a real ring.

KGB: I saw it on the Internet.  You choreographed this whole fight.  It was pretty good.  But that's not really Ibrahim Hooper?

KNIGHT: No, it was this kid from a grindcore band from Massachusetts. That was so much fun.  I got to bleed again. I went to the thumbtacks again. He tried to staple the Saudi flag to my arm. It didn't stick, though.

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KGB: The Taqwacores is this Islamic punk-rock movement that you sort of started.

KNIGHT: At the time I considered myself pretty estranged from Islam. And I wanted to imagine an Islamic environment in which I could belong. I felt all kinds of shame as a Muslim. People say Catholicism is a religion of guilt and Islam is a religion of shame. It's a different feeling--you can't show your face or look people in the eye knowing you have these little doubts inside you.  A lot of Muslim kids end up leaving Islam because they have these double lives that they can't reconcile. So, I was trying to write about a world in which that wasn't a problem.

But the thing is, before that, my whole socialization in the Muslim community was the mosque. I only saw kids when they had their mosque face on. I had no idea that there really were Muslim punk rockers, or that there could be because my view of Islam was as narrow and one-dimensional as you'd get inside the mosque. So after I wrote that novel, I ended up talking with kids who'd read the book, and they were doing the things that I'd written about well before the book was out. That kid was really out there, and there's a kid in DC, kids in Canada, Chicago. Everywhere.

KGB: So it's a scene that's coming together?

KNIGHT: That's the thing, it's like the dots are getting connected.  The book was a socialist event.  There were all these islands everywhere. A Muslim punk kid in Chicago who thinks he's the only Muslim punk in the world. The brown kid in the white subculture. And then he finds all these other kids across the country. There's this whole new space created in Islam.

KGB: Well, that’s sort of “progressive Islam” in a way, too, isn’t it?

KNIGHT: It’s a whole different spirit.

KGB: But it could as easily be called progressive Islam.

KNIGHT: I personally resist it, just because I don’t want to be associated with those people.  I have some dear, dear friends who really believe in that phrase.  I personally don’t.  But I respect them and they respect me. Progressive Islam is purely an academic exercise.  It’s not creating a culture.  It’s professors talking to each other.  What we’re doing is, like, we’re just reflecting the real lives that we have, and empowering others who deal with those same things and have those same kind of lives.

KGB: And you're going on tour with them.

KNIGHT: Yeah, a bunch of bands, piling on a bus. It's gonna be a good time. We're going to ten different cities or so in the Northeast. And on top of that I'm starting to write the Taqwacores screenplay.  I don't know what's going to happen with that. I might need to go into hiding after that--if all that stuff ends up on screen.

KGB: It can be dangerous.

KNIGHT:  Every career path has its occupational hazards. I could be a cop or a construction worker.  I could be, like, a pro wrestler, lose myself to steroids. Or, be a Muslim writer.  There's always occupational hazards.

 

David Hunter graduated from Vassar College in 2001 with a degree in literature.