He’s wrestled. He’s found his spiritual awakening with Islam and in 2011 graduated from Harvard University with a Master of Theology degree. He’s written nearly a dozen books, among them one called Blue-Eyed Devil: An American Muslim Road Odyssey, documenting his more than 20,000-mile journey by Greyhound bus to find a true form of American Islam, and Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs and Writing, recounting his experiences with ayahuasca, a traditional Amazonian psychedelic tea. He’s also written for VICE. And not long ago, Michael Muhammad Knight decided to pursue a career in academia. After a year of teaching in the Religious Studies department, Knight will be leaving his position as Visiting Professor to pursue a permanent position in Florida.
“My work [as a writer] eventually became kind of research-oriented, and I stumbled into presenting at a religious studies conference,” Knight said. “I went to dinner that night with the Islamic studies scholars, and someone told me, ‘Look around this room, none of these people could hold down a job at a gas station, like, that’s just not their skill set. They’re not good at anything but getting obsessed with stuff, writing about it, reading about it, talking about it.’ I said, ‘That sounds amazing.’”
In his one year at Kenyon, Knight taught a number of courses, including Classical Islam and Islam in North America and gained a large contingency of dedicated students. The visiting assistant professor of religious studies followed an unconventional path to academia; Knight’s life before Kenyon encompassed his writing and involvement in “taqwacore”, a punk subculture of Islam for which Knight named in his 2003 novel, later adapted into a film, The Taqwacores. The Arabic word “taqwa,” traditionally translates in Islam to piety, but to Knight it connoted a divine transcendence beyond the confines of a specific religion.
The evolution of taqwacore began for Knight while experiencing isolation as a teenage convert in upstate New York. “Growing up Catholic, I saw a wide diversity of Catholics because there were Catholics living in my house,” he said. “But as a Muslim, I only saw Muslims at the mosque.” Primarily through the social networking platform LiveJournal, he connected with other Muslims in the country going through similar struggles to form a community. The media almost immediately took interest because of the seeming contrast between Muslim religion and punk culture, posing challenges toward the evolution of the subculture, which Knight wishes had the chance to develop more organically. Taqwacore shaped the professor’s career as a novelist and, when a friend from the community put him in touch with an editor, led him to write for VICE. His position enabled him to “kind of do whatever weird stuff I wanted,” Knight said. Some of his articles include “Muslims Should Support Satanists” about controversies involving religious freedom at Harvard and “The Post-Hulkmania WWE Network Is Still Racist” detailing diversity issues within entertainment-based wrestling.
Even older than his passion for writing is Knight’s own career as a wrestler. “I’m from upstate NY. I grew up around corn fields. Saturday morning was beef jerky and wrestling, that was it.” Knight sees wrestling as something to keep him connected to his roots in the working class of a college town, a past he feels detached from since converting from Catholicism and becoming involved in the world of academia. “There’s something in the immediacy of it, it’s very visceral, it’s very, just, a bodied, experience… It feeds me a lot,” he said. In addition to wrestling Ibrahim Hooper, the communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Knight wrestled Canadian professional Abdullah the Butcher at the Decatur Book Festival, an event that he recalls fondly despite needing forty-six stitches in his head afterward. “There are times in my life where maybe I’m less happy or less satisfied or less fulfilled…[and] I just imagine telling my thirteen-year-old self, ‘You wrestled Abdullah the Butcher,’ and that pulls me out of it, I’m thankful for that,” he said.
Knight sees wrestling as, in a way, similar to academia. “There’s a lot of times when I listen to academics, and I feel like I’m listening to a wrestling promo,” he said.
Despite a seemingly mixed view of the academic world, Knight expressed gratitude for his experience at Kenyon and amazement with the work ethic and considerate attitude of his students. He recalled asking students whether they would prefer to have a regular class as a distraction or a lecture on Islamophobia in America the day after Trump’s election. One student responded asking him which he would rather do. “I was stunned by that,” Knight said. “I was like, ‘I’m in a good group here.’”
[Photo courtesy of the Kenyon Thrill.]