Tuesday, November 01, 2011

why i am a five percenter

I just recently finished Michael Muhammad Knight's latest book, "Why I Am A Five Percenter". I liked parts of it, but in the end it was disappointing. On the plus side, I was curious to learn more about the history of the Five Percenter movement but Knight had already mapped out much of the story in his earlier book The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip Hop and the Gods of New York. Also interesting and informative was Knight's discussion of how earlier generations of Muslims unpacked words and letters in ways not totally dissimilar to how Five Percenters use the Supreme Mathematics or the Supreme Alphabet.

Some of the less satisfying aspects of "Why I Am A Five Percenter" might have been resolved with a more accurate title. (I would have suggested "Sacred Drift(er)" after Peter Wilson's anthology.) The book is less a confident conversion narrative and more of an affectionate ethnography. Less, Paul on the road to Damascus and more, the Prodigal Son who still hasn't found his way home. (Also, the occasional digs and swipes against Sherman Jackson didn't really endear him to me either.) Knight is caught in some limbo between Sunni Islam and the Five Percenters but not really belonging to either (although at the moment he seems more comfortable calling himself a Five Percenter).

In many ways, Michael Muhammad Knight is a kind of updated version of Hakim Bey /Peter Lamborn Wilson. Bey's participation in the Moorish Orthodox Church (inspired by Noble Drew Ali's movement) parallels Knight's association with the Five Percenters. And both have clearly done a fair amount of travelling (physically and spiritually) in the Muslim world. It might be interesting to find out what Michael Muhammad Knight will do a few years down the line after having more experiences and education under his belt, especially if he's reached some kind of religious and cultural equilibrium point.


Jacques Williams said...

Michael's novel Taqwacores resonated very powerfully with me (even though I'm probably a good forty years older than its usual audience), at a time when I was finding my way back to Islam after a hiatus of many years. He's clearly had some experiences at the hands of institutional Islam that have hurt him very badly, but I think the central message of all of his writing is the idea that nothing you can do can disqualify from loving Allah (swt). I pray that time and further study may bring him to a more complete perspective, but, regardless, he is valuable to our community.


Abdul-Halim V. said...

Thanks for the comment. Oddly enough, I actually haven't read Taqwacores. I have read Blue-Eyed Devil, Journey to the End of Islam, and the last two books on the Five Percenters. I agree with your analysis.

For me personally, one of the things which made me more excited about being Sunni was realizing that "the idea that nothing you can do can disqualify from loving Allah (swt)" is actually the orthodox Sunni position in a deep way.

A hadith which comes to mind regarding this point is:

Narrated Umar bin Al-Khattab: During the lifetime of the Prophet there was a man called Abdullah whose nickname was Donkey, and he used to make Allah's Apostle laugh. The Prophet lashed him because of drinking (alcohol). And one-day he was brought to the Prophet on the same charge and was lashed. On that, a man among the people said, "O Allah, curse him ! How frequently he has been brought (to the Prophet on such a charge)!" The Prophet said, "Do not curse him, for by Allah, I know for he loves Allah and His Apostle." [Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 8, #771]

Anonymous said...

I haven't finished the book yet but I found MMK's ideas on race very problematic so far. He seems to be saying that religious racism is justified based on the behaviour of the intended target.

If this is the case then he's still playing the role of Eminem in 8 Mile that he references. He's basically saying, "Most of these guys interpret the story of Yakub literally, but my understanding of this theology is so much deeper and more sophisticated than theirs that I've discovered the true metaphorical meaning".

Abdul-Halim V. said...

In terms of how MMK talks about race, I wouldn't necessarily embrace everything he says but I do respect his honesty. He definitely seems to recognize that he benefits from white privilege and he isn't afraid of talking about his own conflicted position in the world. Between talking about his white supremacist father to identifying with a group whose catechism calls white people devils, he's is certainly willing to put himself on blast.

I do agree with you that he seems to distance himself theologically from the beliefs of the mainstream Five Percenters, but I wouldn't necessarily call him arrogant. My sense is that he wants to overcompensate for his racist father so much that he wants to identify with the Five Percenters in spite of his theological reservations.

Anonymous said...

I don't think he's being arrogant either. My point is that he sets up this archetype of white people adopting other cultures and then believeing that they can live out that culture better than the people born into it. He says he's against it but then he's actually doing it on a cosmic scale himself.

Ame_Nohara said...

Thanks for the review. I was curios why you declared MMK as a Sunni rather than Shi'ite? The last work of his that I've read was 'Journey to the End of Islam', and throughout it it seems he was going from Sunni Islam to Shi'a Islam/Five Percenters. I read his works for he is the notion that believing in God and the Prophets makes you a Muslim, and I would like to know how he comments on Sunni/Shi'ite in 'Why I am a Five Percenter.'

Abdul-Halim V. said...

In terms of the Sunni/Shia it's probably better to let him speak for himself, but I'm not sure if I would necessarily call MMK Sunni in the sense of being orthodox or being clearly Ahl al Sunnah wal Jammah.

But when he first stated practicing Islam, he began in Sunni circles and when he refers to Muslims outside of the lineage of Elijah Muhammad he points to Sunni references more so than Shia ones.

bingregory said...

What does he say about Sherman Jackson? I'm not likely to read any of MMK's books, frankly, but I'd be curious if he has a specific criticism.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

MMK doesn't really engage in a criticism of Sherman Jackson for any of his really distinctive or characteristic views.

MMK had a brief interaction with Jackson at a conference where Knight describes Jackson in a mildly uncharitable way. And then in a number of other places in the book, he uses Jackson as a kind of foil representing the negative things Knight wants to say about orthodox Sunni Islam.

bingregory said...

Ah, ok then. I feel like I've done my due diligence to his work by reading your reviews, so thanks.