On one level, Michael Muhammad Knight’s Magic in Islam is an exhortation to study Islam through psychedelic drug use, rap music, and mysticism. On another level, the whole text is an argument to reframe the ways in which we draw categorical distinctions between orthodox and heterodox/heretical practices and beliefs, altogether. Knight makes the case that even the most fundamental or orthodox positions (be they in Islam or any other belief tradition) are at least in part founded on principles that would be considered heretical, today.
Knight starts the text off working to problematize the term and category of “magic” as a whole, saying that the only things that really distinguish magic from religion are context and practitioner self-identification. This sets the stage for the book’s overarching question of “Is there any such thing as ‘Pure’ Islam?”
From here, he goes in to chapter 2, “Magic In The Revealed Sources,” in which he undertakes a thorough etymological exegesis of the terms and notions for “magic” and “sorcery” as they appear in the Qu’r?n and the ?ad?th. He discusses the shared theological perspectives among 8th century “Abrahamic” traditions (those quotes due to what Knight sees as the fundamental interplay between cultural traditions, making even that label one we have to very mindfully deploy), even going so far as to say that 8th C. Christians and Muslims would have more in common than a Modern Muslim would with an 8th C. Muslim. From here he discusses the gaps in Mu?ammad’s bibliography, saying that filling them makes for a tall task, as certain conceptual contextual knowledge is assumed within the Qu’r?n, with s?ras beginning with phrases like “they say that,” where the “they” is a specific group intended to be known by the audience. When relating this, Knight is very careful about how he discusses the “traditional” and “historical” versions of these accounts, but not for the reasons you’d think.
In Chapter three, “The Force of the Letters,” he talks about textualism and the pre-Islamic practices of taking holy words and phrases and turning them into charms, written on slips of paper or inscribed into metal or pottery. The idea being that the very words would be imbued with the holy power of the one who spoke or wrote them, and since, in God would have created the words and spake them in Arabic, then that would make the very language of Arabic, and even the letters of the Arabic language, holy. This reaching back to discuss Mesopotamian drinking bowls, for instance, is another way in which Knight talk about his overarching project of showing that historical civilizations were always blending and interpopulating their concepts and practices, rather than “clashing” and “consuming” each other, with one winner and one loser that could be clearly distinguished from each other.
Chapter four, “The Stars Are Muslims,” is where Knight investigates the practice of astrology and it’s place within Islam. This question is particularly tricky, because it forces us to ask, “what, if anything, was the 6th-8th Century demarcation between Astrology (colloquially meant as celestial divination, but literally “the study of stars”), Astronomy (the system of rules or laws by which we understand the stars), and Astrolatry (the worship of the stars as divinities in and of themselves)?” There’s and liturgical and dogmatic difference given within Islam and many other traditions, with Astrolatry being expressly forbidden, but in practice there was much more overlap between all three. In fact, while Mu?ammad does prohibit the consultation of stars for information, it was definitely still done by both the laity and priests, with shades of difference being thrown in to say things like “even though we name it and talk to it, we’re really just talking about their laws and rules, not trying to understand the future.” Knight obviously thinks this case is pretty flimsy.
Knight wants to say that the epistemic understanding of the order of things—that is, the relationships of Earth, the Stars, and the Heavens (yes literally plural)—has meaningful effects on the ontological status of those things, and vice versa. What we think they are changes the metaphysical implications of the world in which we live, and that in turn changes what we do and create as a result. This, Knight says, is one vector by which Muslim theologians sought to legitimize the world as seen in the Qu’r?n: to say that it was literally scientifically accurate and that any inaccuracies were merely representations or metaphors. But Knight asks, what if these views on the order of the starts were meant to be understood as literally true? What does that change in the understanding of the world, and what we are meant to take from it? Is the journey of the Prophet through the seven Heavens now meant to be from this universe (First Heaven) rather than this planet? To some higher order metaverse, rather than to the other known planets in this solar system? What we change has meaningful implications.
Chapter Five is where things got intense, for me, as it was about the conceptual overlap between Djehuty, Thoth, Hermes, Enoch, Metatron, Moses, and Idr?s. “Finding Hermes in the Qu’r?n: The High Station of Idr?s” discusses the ways in which all of these personages have versions of their stories in which they are humans who become at least part divine. The synchronicity of the Hermes and Moses Figures as men who go into and come out of Egypt, bringing true knowledge of magic, language, the nature of God, and how to perfect ourselves, merges with the picture of Enoch who becomes so thus-perfected that god makes him into his scribe and his intermediary—Gods spoken voice on earth. These cultural exchanges plus the Qu’r?nic verse, “And we raised him to a high station,” then become the foundation for who and what Idr?s is understood to be. For Knight, there is no such thing as a “Qu’r?n-Only Islam,” because the lives and beliefs of practitioners pull from so many other sources, and even if they didn’t, there’s still the fact that, as mentioned above, the Qu’r?n itself relies on the cultural context of the audience. It makes references that they would have been able to get by their lived experience but for which modern adherents need guidance. And so Idr?s becomes a central figure in the ?ad?th and lived traditions, but this is only possible because of the rich intertextual and intercultural exchanges that make up the context in which that literature was written.
This chapter is also where knight gets really heavily into discussing the interplay of Greek Hermeticism, Egyptian Kemetic practices, and “Abrahamic” traditions. Hermes and Enoch become these hubs for cultural exchange, in which magic and divinity and sorcery and religion become tangled and blossom into what we know of them today. Moses acts not as a direct analogue, but as the model and precedent on which these kinds of things become ideologically possible. Names and the letters that make them up mean that Idr?s is associated with learning and scholarship, writing and education; secret and holy knowledge, here, and the same root as “Madr?s?.” This allows for a linkage of Apocalyptic literature, as well, where we’re literally talking about “Revelation,” and Metatron as “The Angel In Charge of the Veils.” The process of divine revelation, and of using light textual mentions to frame legitimacy for otherwise “fringe” traditions, like the ??bians of ?arr?n and the ??f?s.
These positions (especially the ??f?s) caused a great deal of controversy for saying things like “if God wanted to, he could have created another prophet, after Mu?ammad,” or “we can truly become like god.” This latter idea gets taken up again in chapter seven, “The Coming of the Black God,” wherein Knight discusses the ways in which Islamic traditions and the cultural and religious elements of African American hoodoo and Vodun were intertwined with elements of colonialism, Orientalism, and racist fear. Knight shows how so much of the Christianization of African Slaves was solely about trying to divest said slave from their magical traditions, in which their white slave masters very much believed and which they very acutely feared. As such, with each new generation, we saw an interplay of Christian and African traditions, including Eastern African Islamic traditions. This interplay was simultaneously despised and appropriated by whites for the purposes of making hay of the burgeoning spiritualist movements of the 19th century, with white men styling themselves as having learned Muslim and Hindu secrets of the near and far east.
This theft and recasting, Knight seems to say, is qualitatively different from the cultural interplay at other points in history, in that it was specifically done by a group of the powerful to the groups they were actively enslaving and oppressing. White society was thus telling Blacks and Asians that they themselves could not be trusted with their magical heritage, and so the whites must be the ones to “properly” deploy and safeguard it. Which is, apparently, how we get Shriners. I call this the “Watch Whiteness Work” thread of the chapter.
It was this continual betrayal (piled, of course, on top of the primary diasporic betrayal) that led to so many black churches completely reforming what it meant for them to believe in a god. Many nominally Christian traditions begin to rethink Jesus as the son of God, on the primary foundation that the story told to their ancestors by white slave masters were far more likely to be oppressive lies than liberating truth. “Secret histories” and other revelations of the black Jesus became more widespread, as did concurrent reinterpretations of the nature of God in Islam. It’s at this point that Knight undertakes a thorough exploration of the history of the Nation of Islam, the Five-Percenters, and even the foundations of much of what would become mid-1990’s New York Hip-Hop. I’m not going to go into all of it, but I will say that it, like his earlier book The Five-Percenters, is a good starting point for anyone thinking about an “Occult History of Hip-Hop” project.
I’ve skipped, here, chapter 6, “Your 1/46th Share of Prophecy,” in which Knight gets intensely personal about the role of dreams and visions in Islam. He references his own personal experience with apostasy, drugs (as seen in his previous book Tripping With All?h), and the phenomenological effects of prophetic dreams. This is, in a sense, where he makes his most passionate case for the project of the whole text: There cannot be a clear, clean delineation between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, between dogma and heresy. The very practices that get us to the “orthodoxy” and “dogma” would very likely be considered heretical if they were undertaken by any practitioner, today. Dreams, visions, drug trips, and the things learned therefrom all have scriptural and liturgical precedents, but are considered by many “fundamentalists” to be forbidden or at least uncertain sources of knowledge. Knight contends that this is the fundamental problem with trying to categorise anything as “magic” in a sense of it being so “rather than” being “religion.”
For Knight, the only meaningful difference between the categories of “Magic” and “Religion” “Orthodoxy” and “Heresy” is how they allow you to think, and where and when you stand. But those differences can change everything.
Michael Muhammad Knight’s Magic in Islam is available via most retailers.