Permission to represent the Prophet Muhammad – the founder of Islam – has had a fraught history. In the modern forms of Islamic orthodoxy, visual depiction of the prophet is all but ruled out, and Muhammad is depicted only as text in the form of a monogram, rather than as an embodied figure that could compel a devotee’s false idolatry. In these instances, his Arabic name can be repeated and rearranged graphically into tapestries or printed into religious or poetic texts. Elsewhere Muhammad is depicted as a red rose, with petals opening out from its center centrifugally. As of 2008, in the city centre of Tehran, Iran, a large mural depicts the prophet ascending to the sky on the back of the mythic Al-Burak – and yet, here too, the prophets face is veiled to passers-by. Even in Dante’s infernal Malebolge, the eighth realm of hell, we find Muhammad in a ditch for those who have specifically caused schism. Here, the prophet appears with his body sliced in half, from groin to chin, his entrails hanging out, demanding his visitor to look inside: ‘See now how I rend me!’
In his new book, Muhammad: Forty Introductions (out next month from Soft Skull Press), Michael Muhammad Knight doesn’t flatten out or efface these representational fissures. Rather, Knight, introduces his readers – via 40 radically diverse iterations – to a Muhammad who consists of ‘an unstable archive of elements that combine, scatter and reassemble in ongoing relation to his (and our) changing contexts.’ Borrowing his form from the Islamic literary tradition of the hadith (which literally translates to ‘news’ or ‘report’), specifically the arba’in, Knight gives the Prophet new life. Through both oral and written forms of transmission, hadiths memorialize Muhammad’s actual statements, his lived habits and his preferences. In this way, Knight not only re-introduces us to the prophet and his teachings, but also to the thick history of scholarship that has attended to his legacy in the form of stories told and retold by those who had once been in his presence.
Muhammad is not just a good book of religious scholarship, but a strange, delightful memoir which intertwines stories about the Prophet (e.g. Muhammad as a grandfather, or an orphan, or as a sexual person, even possibly a gay one) with stories about Knight himself. Knight converted to Islam at age 13, and after realizing that his own heritage was one sutured to white supremacy, fled the US for Islamabad, Pakistan to study Islam at Faisal Mosque, where he forged an alternative lineage within the teachings of Muhammad, adopting the prophet’s name to fit his own daily practice. For Knight, religion isn’t only a form of spiritual or unseen piety, but is material, quotidian and behavioural. Knight ties each of his own life – teaching, writing, forgiving – to a separate hadith, and in doing so, demonstrates how Muhammad the prophet and Knight after him ‘assess personal choices beyond simple questions of permissible or prohibited.’
The book speaks to the diversity of Islamic literature – and by extension, Islamic lives. Knight introduces his readers to the ways in which Muslim men and women live, but also dream and think (readers can look to his 2013 book, Tripping with Allah, for an account of Knight’s somatic – and psychedelic – relationship to religion). Recognizing that the canon of religious texts is always the product of power struggle, Knight compiles the hadiths that have formed Islam’s ‘anti-canon’ – the texts which have previously been considered false or improperly forged. In so doing, Knight’s 40-hadith collection engages the various forms of Islamic cultural expression that have fallen through the cracks, which address questions of gender, sexuality, law, environmentalism, mysticism and other forms of living a contemporary Islamic life. In one striking sequence of hadiths, Knight retells the story of one Muhammad’s later wives, A’isha, as a crucial figure in the initial construction of the religion; rather than as a prop for patriarchy, only ever recognized as the prophet’s sacred child bride, or erased from literature together, Knight memorializes a tradition of hadiths that demonstrate the ways that A’isha stands as a founder of Islam herself.
Sidestepping the reifying modes of portraiture that have so often attenuated the teachings of Muhammad, Knight expands the periphery by which Muhammad can not only be taught, but lived with, as both a discursive and embodied force. In so doing, Muhammad: Forty Introductions produces and creates the artefact that Knight seeks to present: a guidebook into the teachings of Muhammad for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, one which works with historical instability in a way that does not shroud its promise but instead uses it as a chance to dislodge the parameters of permissibility so closely tied to the act of worship.
Michael Muhammad Knight, Muhammad: Forty Introductions (2018) is published by Soft Skull Press.
Main image: Michael Muhammad Knight, Muhammad: Forty Introductions, 2018, book cover. Courtesy: Soft Skull Press