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Non-Fiction

Excerpt from
“Journey to the End of Islam”

From Soft Skull Press

Michael Muhammad Knight

In New York City

Book 2. Excerpt from beginning.

I came home just before the Democratic convention and the start of Ramadan. Walking through Brooklyn with hunger pains restored Islam as a religion of discipline and clarity, and I even imagined Ramadan as an anticapitalist gesture: No, Wendy’s billboard, I will not try the Double Stack burger! I could see why Elijah Muhammad made his Nation fast during December instead.

Jum’aa at an Arab mosque almost ruined my good feelings. Those guys were Salafi style, the kind of place where men rolled up their pant legs because the Prophet’s garments never passed his ankles, and before prayers a few men wrapped long skirts around their jeans because this meant something too. And the women did nothing, they didn’t exist, no room there for my Muslim girlfriend. The imam gave a long, humorless khutbah all in Arabic, and even when the microphone stand kept falling down he couldn’t crack a smile about it. He lectured us like an angry high school gym teacher, a style that failed to reach me in any language. Even the older Arab men who could understand him looked only half awake and bored out of their minds, like visiting the mosque was just a job, punch in, punch out, do your time.

Sadaf had shown me a YouTube clip of a miraculous child preacher somewhere in the Middle East, just four years old but standing firm in TV studios delivering fire-and-brimstone sermons with his little headdress and everything. There was no way that he actually composed the sermons himself or could even know what he was talking about. The YouTube comments lavished him with mash’Allah and such, but to me the kid looked like a parody. Even worse, most preachers now reminded me of him, especially the guy at this mosque. It was hard not to laugh at the imam as just another toddler acting righteous in his grown-up costume.

I considered walking out on the Friday service, a minor act of apostasy—listening to this guy ramble wasn’t religion for me, it wasn’t anything—but stuck it out on the odds that the actual prayer would feel better. It did, a little. Then I made my way through the crowd and past the door, outside to where the overflowing congregation prayed on sheets of cardboard on the sidewalk.

2.

I thought of New York in Five Percenter terms, since their renaming of the boroughs made train rides feel like hijras. Harlem was Mecca, and Brooklyn was Medina. But I also wanted to see the real Mecca, the heart of it all, to make the hajj and stone the Devil.

Sadaf had been to Mecca as a teenager, on an out-of-season
pilgrimage with her parents.

“What was it like?” I asked her.

“A really beautiful place in the middle of a really ugly place.

I wished it could have been somewhere else.”

“I’m going,” I said. She already knew, but it was still an
intense thing to say. “I’m going to Mecca, is that some shit?”

“Are you going to come back all crazy?” she asked.

“I don’t think so. Why would I?”

“Because that’s what happens.” Everyone had a story of an uncle or cousin who made hajj and came home as a “fundy.” You go to Mecca, take a blast of taqwa to the face and let it explode your brain, and then you come home and can’t let it go. You try to hold onto everything special that you felt at hajj, but it just doesn’t work in the real world, and then you get touchy and uptight. I couldn’t blame anyone for that.

Because only Muslims can enter Mecca and Medina, I needed a letter from a mosque verifying my Islamic credentials. In my whole Muslim life, I’ve only had a real relationship to one mosque, but hadn’t shown my face there in more than ten years. I used to be the darling of the place, but couldn’t face the brothers when I had a rotten secret, those murtad storms raging in my head; so I only went at night to avoid facing Dr. Shafiq, and then I lost my key and stopped going altogether. I remembered one of the brothers telling me that if I missed two Friday prayers in a row, I should make shahadah again as a symbolic reunion with the community; how many Fridays had it been for me?
           
3.

I planned to visit the Islamic Center for iftar, the breaking of the daily fast. Earlier in the day, I called Laury to ask about the old blue van still waiting for me in Toronto, and she told me that Warith Deen Mohammed had died that morning.

Elijah originally named him Wallace, after our master Wallace D. Fard, who had scrawled his own name on Elijah and pregnant Clara’s door and told them it was the name of the baby. The boy would be special, Master Fard knew, the seventh child in the family and destined to become a master teacher.

Like the original Muhammad, Elijah died without officially naming a successor. Elijah had allegedly made statements in support of Wallace, but other hadiths pointed to Elijah’s national minister, Louis Farrakhan, as the heir to the throne. Before Elijah’s passing could spark a Muslim civil war, Wallace publicly declared himself the new leader of the Nation, pushing the rest of the family and Farrakhan to come with him. In Harlem I had bought a DVD of the 1975 Savior’s Day convention held just days after Elijah’s death, with speeches by Muhammad Ali, afro-sporting Jesse Jackson, and the new king Wallace in his paramilitary Fruit of Islam uniform, hoisted on Fruit shoulders in front of a giant portrait of his father. If Wallace wanted to have everything that his father had, his own face on the walls of mosques as the Honorable Wallace Muhammad, he could have. The people were ready to give it to him, but he turned it down.

No one knew what he was going to do, that he planned nothing less than to completely destroy the Nation. He sold off his father’s black capitalist empire, the restaurants and fisheries, and disbanded the Fruit of Islam. He even changed the name of Harlem’s Mosque No. 7 to Masjid Malcolm Shabazz and allowed white Muslims inside. Within just a few years, the tradition as everyone had known it no longer existed.

As Imam W.D. Mohammed—not only renaming himself Warith Deen (“Inheritor of Religion”), but altering the spelling of his last name to achieve more distance from his father—he gently eased the old ways into the background. Warith Deen said that his father had given him permission and blessing to teach whatever he wanted; Elijah knew that the time would come to enter the world community of Muslims. And Master Fard was not Allah, as Elijah had taught; Warith Deen told his Muslims that he still spoke to Fard, but not in a “spooky way”; he just picked up the phone and dialed Fard’s number.

According to Warith Deen, Master Fard had even returned to the Nation of Islam in disguise to help its reformation, undoing his own work. That story had brought me to a Punjabi imam’s grave in Hayward, California, making Sunni du’as for him. It could have been Fard in that grave (probably not), but the story allowed us to reconcile our history and tie it all together. In Warith Deen’s retelling of the story, we could keep his father and Master Fard as Islamic heroes but still name Malcolm the winner, as though Malcolm’s apostasy signaled the true fulfillment of Fard’s mission. Going to Warith Deen mosques today, you still might hear Elijah quoted in a completely Sunni sermon, or old Nation terms like “grafted.” You’ll also hear call-and-response like it’s a Baptist church.

Warith Deen was a diplomat, a bridge builder who shook hands with presidents and popes. As a leader of Muslims in a non-Muslim country, and a community comprised of converts or the sons and daughters of converts, he pushed Muslims to embrace America and find their way in. His father had equated the American flag with “Slavery, Suffering, and Death”—and he was right—but Warith Deen put the flag on his own newspaper’s front page and delivered convocation before the Senate, and he was right too. Elijah’s myths of white devils and black spaceships had uplifted thousands of people, but Warith Deen knew that a perpetual state of war couldn’t move the Nation forward. He did the right thing with his moment in history; but still, thank Allah that Minister Farrakhan broke away from Warith Deen and revived the old Nation, just to maintain the legacy of self-reliance and that damning finger pointed at Uncle Sam. I thought of both men as Elijah’s sons and heirs, the Isaac and Ishmael to our American Abraham, with the father wanting both of them to do exactly as they’ve done.

Excerpt - In Mecca

Book 2. Chapter 40

One of the cool things about hajj was that you could basically visit any Muslim culture just by stepping into a tent. On the street in front of Jabal-e-Rahmah, these cultures clashed in odd ways. I watched a group of Indonesian pilgrims pay an African woman for the right to take pictures of themselves holding her children; one man took hold of a kid’s face and shoved it towards the camera.

A group passed me chanting the labbayk but they sounded so much better than my group, they were singing, and I wanted to know their country. Spotting women with the green, white, and red flag on their backs, I followed them until coming to the Iranian neighborhood.

“As-salamu alaikum,” I said to a man outside the tents.

“Wa alaikum as-salam.”

“Irani?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“You speak English?” He shook his head but took me by the hand and led me into one of the tents, where a circle of brothers sat eating lunch. He pointed at one in the middle.

“How are you, brother?” asked the man.

“I am American,” I told him, “and I accepted Islam at a Sunni mosque, but I have decided that I want to take shahadah as a Shi’a. I love Ali, I love Husayn, and I do not accept what the Sunni brothers have told me about the Shi’as.” And then I just looked at the guy, startled at myself for actually doing this.

“Hajj is a time to bring the people together,” he told me. “Hajj is about the unity of Islam. We have differences, but we are all Muslim.”

“Mash’Allah,” I said.

“Brother, what is your name?”

“Michael.”

“Brother Michael, what is the shahadah that you said to become a Muslim?”

“Ashadhu an la ilaha illa Allah, wa ashadu anna Muhammadu Rasullullah.” I bear witness that there is no god but God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.

“Okay, so all you have to do now is say, ‘Ashadu anna Aliyyun wali’Allah.’”

“Ashadu anna Aliyyun wali’Allah,” I said. I bear witness that Ali is the friend of God. It was easier to bear witness to a friend of God than a prophet, less intellectually complicated.

“Brother Michael,” he told me, “you are now a Shi’a.” We hugged and then he told me the names of each of the Holy Imams, starting with the First Imam, Ali, and his sons Hasan and Husayn. Each Imam had his own special quality; one was the best at worship, one was the master of sciences, and so on down the line. The Twelfth and final Imam, he reminded me, was still alive and waiting to appear.

I couldn’t really communicate with any of the other brothers, but I exchanged contact information with the one who spoke English, and he explained my story to them. They spoke Farsi, but could at least give congratulations in Arabic that I understood. After tea I left their tent. “Insha’Allah,” said the brother as we embraced, “pray for us, that we may have a peaceful situation.” I wasn’t sure what he meant; was he speaking as a Shi’a in Wahhab Land, or an Iranian addressing an American? But I said I would.

Reconverting as a Shi’a wasn’t an inner change, or even a pledge to outer change. I already loved Ali and mourned for Husayn with the Shi’as. Even if I sided with Ali and Fatima against Abu Bakr’s thefts and disrespects, there was no way to return to that moment in our history when these were only political disagreements—the time before allegiance to Ali came with an alternate set of orthodoxies, a different school of fiqh and spokesmen for God.

The Shi’as had started out as the righteous underdogs, but however many centuries later, Twelver Shi’ism was the underdog story that beat all the competing versions. To get this list of Twelve Infallible Imams, they endured the same chaos and power struggles that caused the first schism. When each Imam died, it brought a whole new crisis of succession. The claim of Husayn’s half brother Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya to the Imamate not only rivaled Imams from the Husayn lineage, but itself divided into numerous subfactions as years passed. After the death of an Imam, Shi’as were often divided between followers of the deceased Imam’s son and those who believed that the Imam had not died, but existed in a special state of ghaybat and would return at the end of the world.

When the Eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari, died childless, the Shi’a community followed its previous patterns of ghuluww and division. One faction insisted that the Eleventh Imam had not died, but was placed in ghaybat and would soon return as the Mahdi. The Imam’s chief agent, Uthman ibn Sa’id al-Amri, rejected this claim and said that he represented the Imam’s true successor, who he would keep hidden and nameless. After al-Amri’s death, his son Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Uthman took over as deputy for the Hidden Twelfth Imam, who was now believed to be a son of the Eleventh Imam, possibly only four years old at the time of his ascension to the Imamate. Ja’far Muhammad ibn Uthman led the community as this Imam’s vice president for over forty years, occasionally producing decrees said to be from the Imam. Sometime around the 890s, however, all communication from the Twelfth Imam ceased, signifying his move from the “lesser ghaybat” to a greater one that would last until the end of the world. This “Twelver” sect was the one preferred by Shah Isma’il, first king of Persia’s Safavid dynasty, so it became the orthodox Shi’ism, the foundation of modern Iran.

The Twelfth Imam looked like he started out as fiction and then became real, like a character from my novel getting served papers by real-life lawyers. I only wanted to say that Ali was the wali’Allah, and I didn’t know anything else.

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