Why I Am a Salafi By Michael Muhammad Knight (Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2015. 378 pages.)

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Matthew D. Taylor

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Abstract

Anyone who was not familiar with Michael Muhammad Knight’s oeuvre
and picked up his Why I Am a Salafi based upon the title, thinking it would
be a straightforward explanation and defense of Salafism, would be quickly
disabused of that impression. Knight begins this memoir/theological exploration/
postmodern deconstruction with an extended anecdote about
his experience of praying at a Los Angeles mosque while coming down
from a drug-induced hallucination brought on by his intentional consumption
of Amazonian ayahuasca tea, and the book gets stranger from there.
This transgressive episode of praying while high becomes a touchstone for
Knight in his rethinking of his own Muslimness, the origins of the Islamic
tradition, and his life-journey through a variety of controversial and eccentric
communities on the fringes of the American Muslim community.
In Knight’s previous body of work—from his 2004 novel The Taqwacores
(Soft Skull Press) about punk-rocking, countercultural American Muslims
to his insider-white-man narrative of an esoteric offshoot movement of the
Nation of Islam in Why I Am a Five Percenter (Penguin, 2011)—he has long
cast himself as an experimental Muslim writer challenging established traditions
and organized religion of all kinds. Like some of his other books,
Why I Am a Salafi is difficult to categorize. Framed around Knight’s odyssey
within American Islam and the diffuse trends that contributed to the
development of his distinct perspective, it is part religious autobiography,
part analysis of the nebulous concept of Salafism, and part therapy session.
Indeed, drawing upon his well-established tendency toward bucking trends
and upsetting orthodoxies, Knight quips that in the progressive Muslim
circles he tends to run in, labeling himself a Salafi could itself be a form of
rebellion. “Depending on whom you want to irritate, Salafis could look like
the new punk rock” (29) ...

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