Who Is Muhammad: Subjectivity and our ‘collective memory’ of the last Messenger in Islam

Michael Muhammad Knight’s latest work is a thought-provoking literary expedition that takes the reader from Islam’s early times to modern-day debates.

My shelf of Islamic books contains a couple that might get a second glance – one is titled Tripping With Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing, while another, called Why I am a Salafi, features a green, almost alien-like illustration of a man against a bright yellow cover.

It’s a depiction of Michael Muhammad Knight, the author of both books and though the cover of his latest release, Who is Muhammad? might look more traditional, featuring icons like swords and Turkish teapots filled with Arabic calligraphy, it has the critical, questioning and non-conformist flair of Knight throughout its pages. 

Knight converted to Islam as a teenager in America and at age 17, he left New York to study at a Saudi-funded madrasa part of Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

While the Islam of his late teens was a deeply conservative version, Knight’s views on religion – namely, the diversity and tolerance it encompasses – have broadened immensely over the years.

Now a professor of religion and cultural studies at the University of Central Florida, Knight has written more than ten books about his research and experiences of various Muslim communities in the United States, and beyond.

“Who is Muhammad? is a thought-provoking literary expedition that takes the reader from Islam’s early times to modern-day debates, engaging with a spectrum of Islamic jurists, thinkers and philosophers, along with contemporary Muslim academics and authors such as Kecia Ali, Sa’diyya Shaikh, Scott Kugle and Asma Sayeed”

His latest book, Who is Muhammad? published by UNC Press earlier this month, is by no means a definitive literary rendering of the Prophet Muhammad.

“Who is Muhammad, really, really, really? I think that’s what people will expect to read about, but they’re not going to get that,” Knight tells The New Arab. “The answer depends on whom you ask, and when, where, and why you ask. I don’t have a magical answer for who the real Muhammad is, but people from varying political and religious alignments all want to make some sort of claim on the real Muhammad.”

Written from the first-person perspective and featuring colourful anecdotes interwoven with deep dives into Hadith research, Knight begins this book by tracking his journey and development as a Muslim.

He briefly mentions his captivating teenage conversion story and subsequent relocation to Pakistan, touches on the ayahuasca-fuelled vision he had of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, and also discusses the often sexist and racist attitudes upheld in Muslim cultures and communities.

He believes that many of the issues arising from the puritanical versions of Islam that he has witnessed – and once subscribed to himself – are a result of fossilised interpretations of the Hadith, or sayings and actions, of the Prophet Muhammad.RELATED

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As a professor who teaches introductory courses to Islam, Knight aimed to write a book that he and other educators could use in their coursework. “I wanted Muhammad as I teach him,” he tells me.

In Who is Muhammad, Knight refers to Muhammad as a “fluid, shape-shifting thing,” and recognises his own unique role and position in writing about Islam’s most prolific figure: “Now I’m here, an academic with a weird backstory, attempting to introduce Muhammad in 80,000 words or less. Do you call this an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ position?”

This tension between his human, Muslim side and professional, academic side often feels more like fighting an intellectual battle than maintaining a peaceful balance, reveals Knight, who is completely forthright about any biases he has as the author.

“I have a personal investment in the material, in the Prophet himself, that’s always going to be there. I’m trying to retain a sense of myself as a subjective, invested human being in the world with not only my own knowledge but also my limitations,” he says, adding these limitations aren’t necessarily negative. “There are ways in which uncertainty and realizing my own limitations can be a kind of healing, it can be nourishing and generative for me,” Knight explains.RELATED

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At the same time, he recognises Muslims’ desires to know firm, factual details about the leader of their religion. He recalls a presentation he was once giving about the Prophet’s appearance, described by two conflicting hadiths.

One audience member asked him, “Well, which one is it?” But what interests Knight is not the true shade of the Prophet’s skin, but rather, the circumstances, influences and prejudices shaping the Hadith narrators’ supposed recollections of it.

Knight highlights some debates that Muslims have had over the years, over facets of Muhammad’s life. The famous “Night journey” he had from Jerusalem to Heaven, for instance, is believed by some Muslims to have been a physical journey, while others claim it was a spiritual one. “Did this ‘really’ happen?” asks Knight. “I hope that by now, I’ve made it clear that I don’t have video recordings from Muhammad’s lifetime fifteen centuries ago, and my confidence regarding ‘real’ history isn’t the strongest.”

His candid style of writing makes this book not solely an academic one, but an accessible and relatable read for those outside of academia too. Along the way, Knight uses helpful analogies – like comparing his “loving deconstruction” of the Prophet to disassembling a Kaaba made of Lego Bricks. “We all ‘make’ Muhammad with the tools we have,” says Knight. “We each bring our historically specific eyes to Muhammad, and we see in him what our world enables us to see.”

“Muhammad is the kind of figure who needs a book like this every ten years or so… because it is a continually changing study”

Knight discusses the Umayyad rulers’ critical role in influencing early Islamic knowledge production and writes of the development of “Muslim communal memory” about the fossilised interpretations that have defined much of Muslim orthodoxy, as well as the unavoidable “editorial creativity” of these historical narrators.

“Every historical narrative is a work of fiction, even if the ‘facts’ are right,” he says, emphasising the subjectivities of history’s hadith narrators – including the Companions of the Prophet, who many orthodox Sunni Muslims believe to have been infallible reporters of truths, despite documented disagreements among them. Even the massive Hadith volumes that exist today, he writes, are “encyclopaedias” of mostly decontextualised anecdotes, handpicked and preserved for particular reasons. “Hadith scholars not only preserved the Sunna; they created it,” writes Knight.

For instance, orthodox Sunni Islam as taught to most Muslims makes no mention of the fact that some Muslim historians claim that the Prophet had a taste for “nabidh”, an alcoholic fruit beverage. Knight discusses this in a section with the subheading, “Did he drink?” – a question that conservatives will likely find absurd, even blasphemous.

He points to the fact that some Muslim communities openly illustrate the Prophet in paintings and artwork, which would be deemed “completely off the map” for most orthodox Sunnis. He also writes about “Islamic astrology”, often thought of as occultism rather than a legitimate, Islamically-affirmed mode of knowledge.RELATED

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Who is Muhammad? is a thought-provoking literary expedition that takes the reader from Islam’s early times to modern-day debates, engaging with a spectrum of Islamic jurists, thinkers and philosophers, along with contemporary Muslim academics and authors such as Kecia Ali, Sa’diyya Shaikh, Scott Kugle and Asma Sayeed.

Knight is an invaluable voice in the field of progressive Muslim scholarship, and his writing will encourage critical thinking and broaden mindsets among Muslims who have been raised with restrictive, black-and-white understandings of Islamic history – such as the one he too was exposed to after converting as a teenager.

When asked what he would say to his 17-year-old self now, Knight pauses, and then responds: “No one speaks for everyone.” 

“That was the model that I had as a teenager going to Pakistan – that Islam is this singular monolithic block. I imagined the scholarly tradition as this unbroken consensus because that’s how Muslim community leaders talk about it – and that can stifle our potential for inquiry and for thinking creatively and situating ourselves in this tradition as active agents in it,” he says.

Knight writes that the topic of Muhammad “remains a passionately contested territory” and would probably agree that his book certainly doesn’t tie up any loose ends about the final Prophet of the Abrahamic faiths.

“Muhammad is the kind of figure who needs a book like this every ten years or so,” he says, “because it is a continually changing study.”

Hafsa Lodi is an American-Muslim journalist who has been covering fashion and culture in the Middle East for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in The Independent, Refinery29, Business Insider, Teen Vogue, Vogue Arabia, The National, Luxury, Mojeh, Grazia Middle East, GQ Middle East, gal-dem and more. Hafsa’s debut non-fiction book Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, was launched at the 2020 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

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