- Magic in Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight
Edgar Francis, Michael Muhammad Knight, Michael Knight, magic, Islamic magic, pop-culture magic, contemporary magic, contemporary Islam
Michael Muhammad Knight is best known for several books through which he has sought to expand the notion of what "Islam" can mean for [End Page 416] believers and practitioners. His earlier works include novels like The Taqwacores (about punk rock Muslims); memoirs like Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing; and books that combine manifesto, memoir, and history like Why I Am a Five Percenter and Why I Am a Salafi. Like these earlier works, Magic in Islam is aimed at a popular audience and challenges assumptions about what Islam can be. Specifically, in this book Knight asserts that magic is and has been a legitimate part of Islam, despite efforts to create barriers between "religion" and "magic" or "Islam" and "magic."
Knight begins challenging assumptions in Chapter 1, "Introducing Muslim Magic," by describing problems that previous scholars have encountered and created through attempts to define magic. In particular, Knight calls attention to the way that this kind of scholarly definition has been used as part of the effort to control Muslim populations (and others) and to project European Christian superiority. Knight deliberately avoids any one definition of magic or any related term in this chapter. Instead, he uses examples in the next six chapters to argue that magic has a legitimate place in Islam.
In Chapter 2, "Magic in the Revealed Sources," Knight enumerates the many different ways Muslims have interpreted references to different kinds of magic in the Qur'ān and hadīth literature. In Chapter 3, "The Force of Letters," Knight continues this discussion of Islamic sacred sources. Here he provides examples of how these sacred texts and their constituent letters were themselves treated as sources of magic in their own right by various Muslims, including prominent foundational figures in the development of Islam.
While astronomy and the Hermetic tradition predate Islam, Knight illustrates how some Muslims justified both in Islamic terms. In Chapter 4, "The Stars are Muslims," Knight presents different approaches Muslims have taken to astrology and the study of the stars more generally. While some Muslims saw astrology as a form of idolatry, other prominent authorities provided theologically sound arguments to suggest that under God's ultimate sovereignty, the stars still influenced human affairs. In Chapter 5, "Finding Hermes in the Qur'ān: The High Station of Idrīs," Knight traces the pre-Islamic identification of Hermes with Thoth, and Hermes Trismegistus with the Biblical prophet Enoch, and ultimately the association of Enoch with the Qur'ānic prophet Idrīs. This chapter is particularly noteworthy for its thorough but accessible introduction to these developments.
In Chapter 6, "Your 1/46th Share of Prophecy: Dreaming of Muhammad," Knight discusses the importance of dreams and visions in the Islamic tradition. He points out that evidence from dreams or visions of the Prophet Muhammad and other prominent Muslims was actually an accepted and important source of evidence for premodern Muslims, including those [End Page 417] involved in the definition of Islam. Knight even draws on his own experience with dream visions and visions brought on by consuming the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca, a topic he also addressed in Tripping with Allah.
Chapter 7, "Coming of the Black God: Esoteric Revival and American Islam," also draws on Knight's earlier work—in this case, the rise of African-American Islamic movements. Knight connects the rise of movements such as the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, and the Five Percenters to occultist strains in American society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The difference between this chapter and the previous five is jarring, since this is the only chapter to draw extensive evidence from outside the premodern Middle East. Nonetheless, this chapter helps illustrate the diversity of self-identified Muslim groups.
In this book, Knight has taken a wide variety of beliefs and practices that were understood by various names at different times and places, and has presented them as examples of magic in these societies. By...