Michael Muhammad Knight has always been provocative. His mixture of punk-gonzo writing, tripping across the American Muslim landscape in search of its – and ultimately, Islam’s – soul, has always attracted me. Perhaps it is because he writes like Hunter S. Thompson; perhaps it is because I see myself in him – both white converts, both unsure what faith and Islam – that thing – means to us, or what place it should occupy in our worlds. Published in 2015, Why I am a Salafi takes off where the preceding book – Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing – ends: with the downer after a trip. It is the rationalisation of the mystic encounters that ayahuasca produces, an attempt to grapple with the implications of Islam as an encounter, instead of a theology.


This book is the most academic of Knight’s, but it is no less provocative. The title – its implications – are meant to shock, aimed at the majority of us Muslims who claim some safety in opposition to Salafism. Indeed, Knight remarks that Salafism is the ultimate heresy – it is a label that draws condemnation from all quarters, from tariqa-bound Sufis sensing danger to their Tradition, to progressive voices in media outlets who require an intellectual tradition to explain ‘anti-modern’ Muslims.[1] But the title performs more than shock: for Knight, Salafism is the ultimate deconstructionist discourse.[2] It bypasses over a thousand years of Tradition by waving away their claims to authority with historical and contextual explanations, instead investing authority in the Salaf, the three generations following Muhammed’s death. The irony, however, is clear – in bypassing Tradition, Salafism creates its own tradition, one modelled on a different set of intermediaries; as Knight remarks: “Salafism cannot survive its own critique”[3]


Salafism is an entry point into deconstructionist thought for Knight. The book revolves around the central themes of authenticity and tradition, essentially questioning whether either of these can ever fulfil the tasks they set out ahead of them.[4] Knight begins by taking to task the two primary sources of Muslim authenticity and tradition: the Quran and the Hadith corpus. He asserts convincingly that there is a textual untranslatability of the Quran, not just in the process of translation from classical Arabic to a modern language, but also in its inability to convey God.[5] Here Knight utilises the term ‘Bi’la Kayf’ (literally ‘without asking how’), which recognises the inability of language – even Allah’s language – to fully convey His reality. But in this untranslatability, there is also the production of a certain amount of textual and mystical excess, one that will never be fully understood. Within this framework, the Quran is a “chaos that must be brought to order by human effort.”[6]


Neither are the Hadiths much good in conveying a stable sense of reality and, by extension, the Prophet Muhammad. Knight’s focus is not the authenticity of the Hadiths per se; for, if we are to take the deconstructionist arguments seriously, whether Hadiths are authentic or not does not really matter – it is rather how they engage with us that is the process to understand. Thus, Knight is interested in the type of discourse that the Hadith tradition produces. We find the crystallisation of this argument towards the end of the book, where he asserts “I am interested in the structuring consequences of the isnad, the way that building our tradition on isnads produce a way of seeing the tradition itself.”[7] For Knight, isnad produces a tradition – like Hadith criticism – that is ultimately hierarchical, a system that values one ‘branch’ of knowledge over others. Instead, he advocates for a tradition ‘centred’ upon the rhizome, a subterranean stem that was worked into a philosophy of relations by the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari. The rhizome indicates a set of relations with “no roots to serve as a point of origin… every point in the rhizome connects to every other point, allowing for no linear chain, no beginning or end.”[8]


Knight accounts for his own experiences with the concept-image of the rhizome, tracing his encounters with Islam from his conversion at the age of 16 after reading the autobiography of Malcolm X, to his stint as a Fiver Percenter, to the visions of Fatima in his ayahuasca dreams. These all equally produce Islam for him, with equal authority. And we can all create our own rhizomes, mapping out the encounters that have produced this thing called Islam for us. But the rhizome cannot teach me, and throughout the book I often encountered the queer feeling of unfulfillment. Knight consistently deconstructs texts and the traditions which seek authority over them, but then engages with those traditions as legitimate artefacts of Islam. He simultaneously undermines their authority, but wishes for their products. Without the isnad, Knight fails to properly articulate a meaning for Islam outside of its effects on him and his body. I don’t think that Knight is being disingenuous here – rather his radical deconstructionism leaves no room for the making of meaning within the textual tradition, and is thus forced to displace rhetoric from the centre of the Quranic experience. I do not mind that – in fact I think it is absolutely necessary to expand Islamic encounters beyond the purely rational experiences of texts – but still, there must be a hermeneutic tradition, an interpretive tradition that teaches us something.[9] Because without this, we are left with what Knight advocates: to bring one’s own ethics to the Quran.


However daunting it may seem (a reflection of my poor writing skills instead of Knight’s), Why I am a Salafi is especially relevant to anyone interested in questions of authenticity and tradition in Islam. I’d go even further and suggest that this is essential reading for Muslims of all creeds, challenging as it does our common notions around what it means to be a Muslim in the contemporary world, whether you take your authority on the isnad or the rhizome, whether you spend your summers in the cool shade of the mosque or out tripping on ayahuasca in the desert.


[1] A ridiculous idea, all Muslims are contemporary, all are modern (or post-modern, however you wish to understand the contemporary). Michael Muhammad Knight, Why I am a Salafi, Soft Skull Press, Berkeley (2015), pg. 28.

[2] By deconstructuralist I refer to the process that acknowledges that every interpretation is subject to its context; no text exists outside of its interpretation. Thus, every interpretation – in this case of the Quran and Hadith – are really products of the forces that created them, and thus inherently geared towards those needs. Similarly, when we retrieve these texts and their ‘Tradition’, we access them with our own needs and desires in mind; they can never be rid of either their creation nor their retrieval, and are thus not ‘pure’ texts. They do not exist in a void.

[3] Knight, Why I am a Salafi, Soft Skull Press (2015), pg. 33.

[4] The tasks are self-fulfilling: the authenticity wishes to be authentic, and tradition wishes to be known as such.

[5] Furthermore, as Knight acknowledges, translation is both an act of creation and erasure.

[6] Knight, Why I am a Salafi, Soft Skull Press (2015), pg. 77.

[7] Ibid, pg. 309.

[8] Furthermore, Knight says, “Because it lacks a centre, the rhizome cannot have a margin. The rhizome cannot define or uphold notions of orthodoxy or heresy; trees are the better choice for making judgements.” Ibid, pg. 313.

[9] The implication here is that all attempts at creating meaning invested with authority, and are thus automatically disregarded.