Michael Muhammad Knight on Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and WritingPosted: April 15, 2013
Love, Inshallah is excited to debut our first podcast!
LoveinshAllah.com editor Deonna Kelli Sayed recently interviewed author Michael Muhammad Knight about his new book, Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing, where he discussed his spiritual use of the hallucinogenic plant, ayahuasca, and the struggles between his writing voice and emerging academic persona. Deonna produced the following podcast, where Mr. Knight revealed his inspiration for the book and how the ayahuasca experience changed him.
Click to listen or read the transcript below.
Michael Muhammad Knight (MMK): I have this really consistent need to be scared. There are times when, in every project, that I feel that I’m going too far. Oh, this is the time I’ve cross the line, but there is also something exhilarating about this. I don’t know what that is all about.
Deonna Kelli Sayed (DKS): This is Deonna Kelli Sayed. I’m with author Michael Muhammad Knight in a crowded coffee shop discussing his new book, Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing. There are other conversations going on around us, oddly appropriate, as his books always have a lot going on in them.
Tripping with Allah is no exception. Knight discusses his experience with ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea known to some indigenous groups in South America. Ayahuasca’s use is a spiritual exercise. This isn’t a fun tea to drink: the side effects such as vomiting, nausea may be unpleasant. But the purging is thought to be part of the spiritual nature of the plant’s power. And during a transitional time in Michael Muhammad Knight’s life, he sought out its healing properties. In doing so, he had an ayahuasca-summoned vision.
MMK: You know, I have this crazy vision that is possible the most heretical, blasphemous, challenging stuff that I’ve ever written. I don’t spare any of the details. But it leads me to this somewhat conservative place, because where I’m at right now, I pretty much just want to read hadith all day.
DKS: This is The Taqwacore guy talking, the one whose writing career was launched by his 2002 novel depicting a group of punk Muslims challenging traditional Islam through. The novel synthesized an Islamic punk movement, and was followed by a motion picture and a documentary. Knight says that now, a decade later, he still gets emails about the “Taqwacore” scene. His first book follows him around: academics study it. People all over the world read it. Eight books later written on very different subjects than that first novel, Knight is beyond ready to move on. He tells me that he just isn’t that Taqwacore guy anymore, and in Tripping With Allah, he says good-bye this one of this Taqwacore characters.
MMK: I think that it is really kind of crummy to be thirty-five years and to disown your twenty-five year old self. But, you know, I am not twenty-five anymore, and I don’t want be twenty-five years old. I don’t want to be defined by something I wrote ten years ago.
DKS: Tripping With Allah is who Knight is now: a Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies, a prolific writer, and someone who often struggles with these varying aspects of his identity. While doing his Masters work at Harvard, he encountered an unexpected challenge in balancing where he was in life.
MMK: Academia was just crushing my ability to let go and just feel it and chase and it go off a cliff with it and go with it. I couldn’t do that anymore.
I was struggling to find the voice for this book for a long time, and I think that comes out on almost every page, I think. There where many different issues I was facing on everything from my writer’s voice, being in academia, and even where I found myself in regards to the Muslim community, and what that all means.
DKS: In many ways, Knight’s very personal struggle isn’t that different from what other Muslims feel. Many are struggling to articulate who we are between multiple identities and in complex ways we understand our spirituality. But, I ask Knight, why a book on Islam and drugs?
MMK: It was during my Masters work at Harvard that I first heard about ayahuasca. I was going to seminars and reading thousand of pages in each course. Really treating my Islam as something spiritless. Really training myself as an academic to check my personal self at the door, to the extent that that is possible. And just be a critical reader. In terms of having a living relationship to the Tradition and to take personal meaning from it, the critical training isn’t always on your side. So I wanted what auyahusaca was promising to do – to shake things up and to make it real again.
You know, I would drink this psychoactive, hallucinogenic tea, and that would justify the book. This crazy drug thing happens, filled with lessons and weird stuff, and that is the reason the book was written. And for a long time, I didn’t think that was actually going to happen.
DKS: Part of Knight’s desire to “make it real” was an effort to really engage Islam differently, to understand Prophet Muhammad in a new way.
MMK: This was a guy who went up on the mountain and had what people would call an insane experience.This was a guy who got on the buraq and flew up through the clouds. And we really don’t want that Muhammad today. We want the state builder, the person who gave us an economic program. We want the ideal father. We don’t want the guy who flies around in the clouds.
As a grad student, it was really easy for me just get into the study of Islam in that way and forget the guy who flies through the clouds. Ayahuasa, the way it was presented to me, promised that kind of experience. I wanted to get on the buraq. I wanted to fly around.
DKS: After a couple of disappointing, soulless encounters with ayahuasca, Knight finally experiences the Mother of All Visions. Literally.
MMK: On the back cover of the book, it says that I am seeking vision of Fatima,the daughter of the Prophet. And, I get it. You know, it happens. At first, I think nothing is going to happen. This sucks. I kinda pass out. And when I regain consciousness, I’m up there or it is down here. I’m with Fatima and all of this masculine poison — she is just pulling it out of me. It is all in there and she is just pulling it out.
She is there walking me through a lot of different stuff. I think a lot of people would be OK with just that. But the details just go off the chart in terms of potentially offensive material.
DKS: He has this vision that allows him confront a lot of issues he had relating to his father, who passed away almost two years ago. For those unfamiliar with Knight’s work, his father is a major part of his narrative and in his journey to Islam. Knight’s backstory is this: he is the product of marital rape from a father who was a white supremacist schizophrenic. But not only does this ayahuasca experience help Knight in his relationship with his departed dad, the vision reveals the connective tissue between Knight’s past and his Islamic identity.
MMK: What the vision allowed for me was to reconstruct the Prophet. You know, because, historically I’ve had a lot of issues that all kinds of people have being someone in 2013 reading about the Prophet. It difficult. There are a lot of details that are hard. I don’t always know what to do with him.
I am not a Qu’ran only Muslim, and I really no longer understand that the Qu’ran only thing.
Muhammad matters to me. What the vision did was it healed a particular version of him. I’m carrying around this image of the Prophet and he is a wounded person. There is a lot of stuff that is getting pulled out of me in the vision, as it relates to my dad, this kind of masculinist poison, I see that afflicting this particular vision of him.
In the course of my ayahuasca vision, that is getting pulled out of him also.I have a picture of the Prophet, a post-ayahuasca Prophet, you know.
DKS: Tripping with Allah is for the grown-up Taqwacore, the spiritually intrepid. Knight’s vision is a metaphor for so many other people of faith trying to find that ecstatic experience that helps open the God box. Like any good trip, there are a lot of people who just won’t be able to go along for the ride. But, for Knight, that is OK. He’s found his peace.
MMK: With my other stuff, I do a lot of challenging things. I always try to end at a good place. It is like jumping off a bridge and hoping to end up at a good place. I go as far as I can go, and then I end up OK.