Book review: "Why I Am A Salafi" by Michael Muhammad KnightAn in-depth exploration of Islam
Being objective about something as subjective as faith or religion is a seemingly insurmountable task. After all, the very idea of religion calls on humans to surrender their objectiveness to a certain extent and accept at face value ideas and concepts that have no rational explanation and very little basis in fact. One of the problems inherent in the study of religion is that source material cannot be described as objective as it is written by either advocates or detractors of the faith.
A convert to Islam at the age of 15, Michael Muhammad Knight has written about his explorations into his chosen faith in a series of fiction and non-fiction books: from African American branches of the religion in "Why I Am A Five Percenter", the Beats of the 1950s and their drug-induced perceptions of Islam in "William S Burroughs Vs The Qur'an" and all points in between. However, none of them have delved as deeply into an analysis of the history and tenets of what being a Muslim is as his new book, "Why I Am A Salafi", published by Soft Skull Press.
Knight's reputation as the inspiration behind Taqwacore (punk Islam) and his writings about using drugs to bring him closer to his God, might make some wonder at this book's title. After all, in recent years, the Salafi have come to be associated with fundamentalist Islam and by extension, extremist groups. Knight's first explanation of the title is typical of his iconoclastic attitudes: the Salafi are now considered outside the mainstream of the faith and since he's always been associated with those outside looking in, maybe this is where he belongs.
However, the reality is far different from his almost flippant explanation. As he explains, the Salafi look to the first three generations of Islam, known as The Companions of The Prophet Muhammad, The Followers of The Companions and The Followers of The Followers, as the authority on the life and actions of the Prophet. The observations of these first three generations have been compiled, down to the minutest detail of the Prophet's day-to-day life, in a massive collection of works known as the Hadith.
Accepting the premise that being closer to Muhammad will bring him closer to his chosen faith, Knight turns to the Hadith but soon runs into a problem. If these accounts of Muhammad's life were originally passed down orally through the first three generations, how accurate are they by the time they've filtered down to our time? Knight cites various scholars and sources throughout the years who make convincing arguments both for and against the same reports on the Prophet's life. So how is one supposed to know what to believe and what to discard?
When a thorough analysis of the Hadith leaves him with more questions than answers, Knight then takes us on a tour of his personal sources: the books and writings that led him to convert and first formed his opinion of Islam. His resources were as diverse as "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" (the book that influenced him to convert) to a translation of the Koran and various texts on "How to be a Muslim". Looking back on these books 20 years later, he realises not only that they were written by people who were not subjective – even the translation of the Koran into English was an interpretation – but that he brought with him personal baggage that shaped the Muslim he became.
In-depth exploration of his faith
Summarising a book like this probably doesn't do its content the justice it deserves. It is almost impossible to depict the scope of Knight's research and thought without delving into the subject matter in the equivalent depth. However, perhaps the details aren't as important as the fact that he has gone to the effort of doing the work. Some might see his questioning of the veracity of various texts as a lack of faith when in reality it's the opposite. His description of how he feels reciting prayers in a mosque or how certain passages in the Koran can make him weep should leave no one doubting the depth and sincerity of his beliefs.
For those used to some of Knight's earlier work, and the somewhat stream-of-consciousness-style narrative he has employed in the past, "Why I Am A Salafi" might take a little getting used to. The pace is much slower as he leads us through his deconstructions, the social/political history of Islam and how the latter has caused various doctrines to fall in and out of favour. He applies the same practice to his careful examination of the genesis of Islam in the United States.
However, there are times when he seems to balk at the constraints academic principles of research have placed upon his writing. You might think this shows a strange split in his personality, but the reality is something different. For most of the book he has tried to intellectualise his faith, but, as he proves to himself and his readers, religion and belief aren't something that can be deconstructed. While texts can certainly be cut up and their histories discussed, they are only the starting point, a basis to build on, for belief.
The wonderful thing about this book and Knight's writing is that his voice never changes. Whether he's dissecting the variety of ways an Arabic word can be translated into English and how this changes the meaning of a text or talking about a drug-induced hallucination, you can still "hear" the whole person. While there can be no denying chunks of this book will take time to digest and assimilate, nobody but Knight could have made them as accessible. Articulate and passionate, he makes what could have been dry-as-dust academia interesting even for a non-Muslim.
"Why I Am A Salafi" may not answer the question it implies in a way anybody will expect, and that some might vehemently disagree with, but it is a book that should be required reading for anybody who has an interest in religion in general and desires to come to better understanding of Islam. This is probably Knight's most sophisticated work to date as it not only continues his personal examination of his chosen faith, but does so in a way that dispels many of the misconceptions about Islam that have sprung up in recent years.
© Qantara.de 2015