The bad boy of Islam is all grown up — and he might be badder than ever.
Michael Muhammad Knight, a writer and Islamic scholar, has ruffled American Muslim feathers in the 19 years since his conversion at 15.
He discovered Islam through hip-hop and Malcolm X, converted in upstate New York, studied Sunnism in Pakistan and Shiitism in Iran, and flirted with revolution in Chechnya. He’s argued for female-led prayer and been accused of heresy and disrespect toward the Muslim community. He’s staged a wrestling match against a friend posing as a prominent Muslim.
A controversial figure and a captivating writer, Knight’s latest, the confessional Why I Am a Five Percenter, was released last week by Tarcher/Penguin Publishers. It follows on the heels of a more academic study of the Five Percent movement — also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths. Five Percenter thought has shaped the ideas and language of many East Coast rappers that matter today, from the Wu Tang Clan to Jay-Z.
In the 1960s, Five Percenters broke away from Islam because they believe that the black man is God, white men are devils, and the imaginary all-powerful God in Heaven doesn’t exist. You can probably guess why many Muslims say they’re guilty of Islam’s highest crime, shirk, associating earthly things with God.
In an interview with Boulder Weekly, Knight discussed why he felt drawn to the movement, how it affects him as a white man and whether he’ll wrestle again.
Boulder Weekly: What projects are you currently doing?
I’m studying in North Carolina. I just finished a Master’s program on Islamic studies at Harvard, and now I’m going to get a Ph.D in Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina. The Research Triangle (an area North Carolina bounded by UNC, Duke and North Carolina State) is the best place in the country for Islamic studies.
How did your interest in writing come about?
I wanted to be a writer my whole life. At one point I wanted to be a pro wrestling promoter, at one point a cleric, but writing was always there.
Taqwacores was my first real foray into getting my words out and trying to find an audience for it. In the last 10 years it’s been like an addiction, a compulsion.
I can’t imagine myself not writing and it complicates life. I spent two years in a master’s program and writing two books in that time. I’m a grad student and I need to be sharpening my sword as a thinker and a scholar but at the same time, I’m always wanting to write.
BW: You mention in Why I Am a Five Percenter that you started off studying the group, and gradually found yourself identifying with them. What was that like?
Michael Muhammad Knight:I wasn’t intending to have a conversion experience. I think you just need to check yourself when you’re researching, especially because in that kind of field work I was getting close to something that no one had given a lot of serious thought to. There had never been an intense examination of the Five Percent.
Not only that but people had so much negative discourse around the Five Percent — either ‘They’re violent and militant and hateful and racist and they’re all criminals,’ or, ‘Yeah, there’s a thought on religion but it’s not legitimate because it’s made-up American contemporary stuff, and if you want something with real meaning you have to go to the classical tradition of Islam over 1,400 years.’
BW: When did you start feeling more a part of the community than a researcher studying it?
MK: I would say towards the end of my project that I was working on (2007’s The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop and the Gods of New York) I had an affection for them.
It had become something that I had sympathy for, but I didn’t think of myself as a participant.
It was really after the book came out and people started responding to it that I began to really rethink my position. I had internalized some of this stuff. People would ask me about it and I would explain why it can be meaningful and I found it was speaking to me at the same time.
In the book, I mention that Azrael named me Azrael Wisdom, which is Azrael Two. When the book came out gods would address me as that. They would say, ‘Peace, Azrael,’ ‘Peace, Azrael Wisdom.’ So it’s like, OK, for some people I’m in and that’s just it.
The first book is sympathetic but I’m a detached researcher. The first one my stuff stayed out. This one, my personal shit is all it is.
BW: Was it easier for you, as a convert to Islam, to adapt Five Percenter thinking than it might be for a person born into a Muslim family?
MK: Yeah, totally, because there’s a question of territory and inheritance. A Pakistani-American Sunni Islam carries a certain inheritance and there’s a certain territory in question. For me there’s a different territory.
I have a tradition I’m adopting, a distinctly American Islamic tradition. For example, I think the idea of Islam being an approach to racial injustice is distinctly American. People will project that onto early periods — “Oh, Islam taught racial equality from the very beginning’ — but I think that kind of reading itself to some degree is very modern and American.
BW: How do you hope white readers approach Why I Am a Five Percenter?
MK: I would hope on some level it’s a portal into a world they don’t get to see. Even in diverse places, whiteness is still a fish in water. You could be in New York City and still be so ensconced in your whiteness that you can’t look beyond it at all. I would hope that this book offers that and I wouldn’t limit it to people who are just surrounded by other white people.
BW: Why do many rap artists who are influenced by the Five Percent choose to slip references into their lyrics subtly? Why not be more open about it?
MK: Some do express it openly. Brand Nubian is very direct about it. And others, they’re not necessarily communicating in doctrine all the time but they’re using the language of their environment.
In the Wu Tang Clan I think there’s a brilliant use of the language as poetry. Lots of artists talk about ‘my old earth’ — they’re talking about their mom. (In Five Percenter rhetoric, “Earth” is equated with the concept of woman.)
There’s so much poetry in the language of the Five Percent and how you can use words and numbers and flip them to mean attributes.
It does say something to people who would read it with that knowledge. There’s kind of an insider politic going on there.
BW: Do you see it in Jay-Z calling himself ‘Jehovah’ and a god?
MK: Jay-Z is a great example of it being an artistic choice and poetry because he’s not a Five Percenter. He’s never been a Five Percenter. But he knows it and grew up around it.
The "H.O.V.A." stuff could definitely have a Five Percenter fingerprint on it because he grew up around people who call themselves god. He has no interest in being a Five Percenter.
BW: Are Five Percenters ever offended to see their language used by others like that?
MK: Everybody can get territorial about their stuff. Some gods would see that as evidence of their contribution. Kind of a tipping of the hat to the Five Percent. On the other hand, it could be an issue of, "You’re not really representing what we live out." So it’s an appropriation thing.
BW: In 2006, a friend of yours pretended to be public figure Ibrahim Hooper, and you held a wrestling match against him. Do you have any other matches scheduled?
MK: My first week at Harvard I wrestled Abdul the Butcher, who is legendary. He’s far and away the most vicious, bloodthirsty man in wrestling ever. In the ’80s, when I was a young wrestling fan, I was terrified of this dude because he wasn’t in the WWF. He was too violent. Every one of his matches ends in bloodshed.
When I was invited to do a book fair in Atlanta they asked if I wanted to something that would grab people a little more. I said, "Abdul the Butcher lives there. I want to wrestle him."
I ended up getting 46 stitches. He’s in his early 70s. There was a blood vessel on the top of my head that got cut. They needed to sew up the blood vessel and then give me stitches.
I was at Harvard and wanted to do well and put my crazy life behind me, and I had to go to class in early September with this hat on to cover up my bandages on my head. But it was a good time. I got to take on my childhood nightmare.
BW: Why was he so scary?
MK: Back then the WWF was like a cartoon circus and Abdul didn’t have that action figure look to him. He didn’t want to just be the bad guy who loses to Hulk Hogan every time. So he just made more money traveling the world and doing all the other leagues. When the chance to wrestle him came up, I knew what it would be. You do bleed. Obviously, wrestling is choreographed, but the blood is real. It’s not ketchup.
He’s 73 years old. I knew I was getting fucked up and that’s how it was going to be.