He ranks among the most venerated historical figures in the world, as well as among the most contested. Muhammad: Forty Introductions offers a distinct and nuanced take on the life and teachings of the prophet Muhammad, using a traditional genre of Islamic literature called the forty hadiths collection.
Hadiths are the reported sayings and actions of Muhammad that have been collected by the tens of thousands throughout Islamic history. There is a tradition in which Muslim scholars take from this vast textual ocean to compile their own smaller collections of forty hadiths, an act of curation that allows them to present their particular understanding of Muhammad’s legacy and the essential points of Islam.
Here, Michael Muhammad Knight offers forty narrations that provide windows into the diverse ways in which Muslims envision Muhammad. He also examines his own relationship to Muslim traditions while exploring such topics as law, mysticism, sectarianism, gender, and sexuality. By revealing the Prophet to be an ongoing construction, he carefully unravels notions about Islam’s center and margins.
|Publisher:||Soft Skull Press, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
From Muhammad: Forty Introductions
Punk Rock and Bedouin Piss
A Bedouin urinated in the masjid, and some of the people rushed at him. Then the Messenger of God, God bless him and give him peace, said, “Do not interrupt his urination.” Then he called for a bucket of water and poured over it.
For where I stand, this could be a good place to start, because there’s perhaps no other ḥadīth that does more to justify my own encounter with the Prophet. Reading of Muḥammad’s kindness and patience with hopes of successfully imitating him, I am hopeless. Instead, I read this ḥadīth as if I were the masjid pisser. As a writer who circulates ideas and feelings on paper, I have a mixed record. Facing a shelf of books with my name on them, I’m afraid of what I might find in my million-plus words. Some of itperhaps much of it, or most of it, or all of it, depending who you askamounts to walking into a masjid and spilling urine in front of better people than myself. In more than one sense, my books are soaked with piss, and they offer a lasting testimony to the most careless moments in both my imagination and my lived experience. These books preserve my tantrums, overconfident rants, unsure wanderings, and wastes of time. Many readers have received them accordingly. My work has provoked visceral responses from my sisters and brothers, perhaps echoing the responses of Muḥammad’s Companions as they witnessed the Bedouin’s offense. Who is this guy?
Beyond the things that I say on those pages, however, my books also provide a record of generosity from Muslims.
Throughout these books, I have often been selfish and heedless in my treatment of sacred things. Even if my authorial voice has grown more polite or academically measured over the years, my positions themselves, flying far beyond the pale of most responsible “orthodoxies,” still amount to a flagrant act of public micturation. Whether written in a provocative punk-rock voice or with a scholarly performance of theory-dropping, I am still too friendly with the wrong sectarian crowds, and in several cases, these “wrong crowds” remain wrong even to each other: no marginalized heretic, of course, is necessarily an ally of every other marginalized heretic. In a few Muslim contexts, my name is piss.
If there’s any blessing at all to walking through Muslim communities as a masjid pisser, it could lie in giving Muslims a chance to act out the prophetic example. Muḥammad shows us the Sunna via his responses to unacceptable people. The masjid pisser sets a stage on which Muḥammad displays his full Muḥammad-ness, telling the tradition, Here’s what I do with this kind of person.
In 2003, I self-published a novel, The Taqwacores, about a community of punk-rock Muslim kids. The story overflowed with the signatures of punk culture: crass language, offensive humor, rebellion and provocation, a proud embrace of blasphemy, and a refusal to apologize or negotiate with the dominant culture’s demands and sensitivities. It was, in many ways, rude for the sake of being rude. If pressed, I could historically contextualize the taqwacore scene within Islamic tradition. These punk Muslims represented a kind of lawless and ecstatic Islam that echoes the misfit piety of dervish groups found across Muslim Asiacommunities such as the Abdāls, who practiced public nudity, indulged in hashish and music, and abandoned the constraints of Muslim legal traditions. Some scholars have in fact defended my work by forging these connections, insisting that even if my punk-rock Muslims defied popular expectations of what Muslims could be, they nonetheless find ancestors of their own in premodern Islam. At the time that I wrote the novel, however, I had never heard of malamatiyyas or qalandars, and felt little desire for “classical tradition” to sign my permission slip: so much of punk’s value came through its promise that we can live unapologetically in our own skins and on our own terms, with or without the endorsement or forgiveness of our elders. No precedent or genealogy was required.
As the novel traveled through a succession of publishers, translations, film treatments, and media attention, I became known in American Muslim communities as the punky guy who wrote outrageous things. To this day, I am perhaps the singularly most problematic writer in the American Muslim universe. In the years after my initial release of the spiral-bound, photocopied Taqwacores, I have often felt uncomfortable with the novel, and continue to pump out books with hope that the new stuff might push my younger work further into the distance. Even at academic conferences, people sometimes seem surprised that I could show up in the expected uniform of a professor and give serious presentations without dropping fuck-bombs or kicking tables over. I won’t outright disown The TaqwacoresMuslims still reach out to me with messages that my work did something for them, and the book has even attracted some accidental conversions to Islambut punk is about being young, and at some point, I became a decade less young than when I wrote it. Time confronted me with the reality of my waste.
Yes, Muslims occasionally write me with anger and hurt, but the overwhelming responseeven beyond Muslims who might share my grievances and struggleshas been charitable. Muslim readers have reached out to say that in my words, they saw someone who must have been wounded by his experience in Muslim communities. They addressed me as their brother and welcomed me into their masjids and homes. In showing compassion and patience with an uncouth voice in the community, they reflected the practice of Muḥammad, who did not fly into a rage when a Bedouin urinated in the mosque. While his Companions lost their heads, the Prophet gently insisted that they let the man finish relieving himself, and then simply wash out the waste with water.
When interviewed about my more controversial work, I am almost always asked a variant of the question, “What response have you received from Muslims?” The inquirers often seem to expector hopethat I’ll feed them tales of outraged “fundamentalists” who express shock and horror at my words, supporting a popular narrative that presents Muslim communities as incapable of dealing with individual self-expression and provocative artand therefore incompatible with popular hallmarks of modernity. Thinking in scripts informed by the Salman Rushdie affair, my interviewers might even hope for stories of death threats and condemnation from a bearded old patriarch in a turban whose stern glare offers an antimodern mirror against the West. I can brush that narrative aside. In my encounters with various Muslim communities, I have received patience and generosity that my work had not earned.
The masjid pisser becomes a teaching moment for Muḥammad, a test for his Companions, and a demonstration of patience and superior manners as the prophetic Sunna. If some readers would see my books as repeating the Bedouin’s behavior in a place of prayer, the response to my books from many Muslims would fulfill the precedent that Muḥammad had established. In my own lived experience as a Muslim, I cannot find a ḥadīth that better introduces Muḥammad and the way that Muslims seek to follow his example today.