March 2013

Alia Akkam


Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing by Michael Muhammad Knight

From the first page, metamorphosis, and the potential promise it may yield, emerges as the theme of Tripping with Allah. This becomes clear when author Michael Muhammad Knight proclaims, "I have to change enough here that I'm a mostly nonfictional protagonist in a mostly fictional universe." So, when he says he's taking a Megabus to Mecca with a pal named Zoser, in actuality the vehicle, the city, and the friend all have different names. Readers will never learn those authentic details, having to settle for fantasy instead, but their importance fades amid Knight's sharp, candid insights on drugs and religion in an increasingly hypocritical modern world.

Knight, a former Catholic who became a Muslim as a teenager, has been anointed the "Hunter S. Thompson of Islamic literature" for his previous works, including Osama Van Halen and William S. Burroughs vs. The Qur'an. Once again, he demonstrates his flair for thought-provoking gonzo journalism in this philosophical meditation that melds self-discovery with an open, curious approach to religion, aptly penned while he was pursuing a master's of theological studies at Harvard University. A single-minded quest grips Knight throughout the book: the desire to drink ayahuasca, the ancient Amazonian brew derived from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, that is at once a shamanistic ritual and psychedelic eye-opener, favored by the Santo Daime church.

In Knight's world, Islam embraces the avant-garde, with Zoser telling him that everything on earth, including ayahuasca, is there for the taking, as long as the effects do not do harm. Religion, Knight observes, can be pulled apart, put back together again, and mixed and matched to establish a system of one's own. "I am a Muslim with plans of tripping with Allah, if Allah so wills, making me simultaneously a participant in two religions of high discomfort in our present America," Knight declares. By drinking ayahuasca, Knight realizes he is breaking both American and Islamic laws, but he also affirms himself under those laws, "because I can only drink as a Muslim, and for me to drink means the survival of my America and my Islam."

Through a series of twenty essays that flit from different perspectives -- whether an organic dialogue about science and religion with Zoser, a straightforward, academic-style recap of Santo Daime's Brazilian forefather, or a conversational maxim like "Self-marginalization is more satisfying when you're not already on the margins" -- Knight parallels the road to ayahuasca-sipping by delving into history, class, and culture, and revealing the religious constructs they create. Perhaps ayahuasca is mighty enough to break down oppressive walls, Knight wonders, when he writes, "By forcing you to deal with your own inner garbage, ayahuasca shows you things about yourself you might not want to see. I wish that a whole country could drink ayahuasca -- not merely every individual citizen of a country, but the country itself, the spirit of the country."

Knight is not simply a restless grad student eager to sample yet another drug. He has no interest in alcohol, because ayahuasca promises more than getting wasted. Unlike LSD, which "is just some shit that dudes made in a lab," Knight seeks ayahuasca to fulfill a deeper spiritual need, one that will hopefully transform him through hallucinatory images and connect him to a female spirit he cannot yet fathom. "The beauty of ayahuasca is that it comes from the earth and nature and offers an encounter with divine plant consciousness," he explains.

Knight cannot indulge on a whim. Before he will be proffered his first cup of ayahuasca, a bona fide member of the Santo Daime church must vet him and ensure that his intentions are legitimate. Then he must travel to share it in the company of those already immersed in its spiritually detoxifying powers. It is a slow process, and by the time he gets off the train in an unnamed town and waits to be picked up by a stranger who will whisk him to her house for a spot of the robust tea he's long been craving, it feels more bleakly realistic than anticlimactic when he describes the scene: "She had said to look out for a tan minivan, but when it shows up, it's still a surprise. Not sure what I was expecting, but I get in the minivan and there aren't any spiritual items hanging from the mirror, and this seems noteworthy... it's hard to register how normal she seems, just a middle-class white lady with a minivan in a small town. She seems nice. The strangest thing about her could be that she's picking up this random stranger at a gas station to ingest hallucinogens in her home." The build-up to Knight's inaugural trip (it takes several unsatisfying tries) is drawn out, but his long-sought, drug-induced state elicits a wild, vivid vision of the prophet Muhammad's daughter Fatima and her husband Ali, that matches his imagination.

While waiting for this moment of enlightenment and ensuing analysis, luckily readers have Knight's pointed questions and proclamations to sustain them. There is racism in American thought on drugs, he notes, just like in a post-9/11 world, Islam itself was positioned as a poisoning drug. What is the boundary between drug and religious sacrament? Why is imprisonment deemed a more humane punishment than flogging? When women flounce around in strip clubs, why is that socially acceptable, but when they choose to wear a veil it's considered backward?

Knight's musings can undoubtedly become repetitive and tiresome, but they are anchored in fact and offer compelling arguments. For example, he refers to a triangle of drug, class, and religion, highlighting how hashish became associated as the drug of choice among on-the-fringe Muslims practicing Sufism. In another instance, although coffee traveled to Europe via Muslim cultures, Knight notes that the coffeehouse was once a shunned establishment, representing competition with the mandatory mosque, and filled with unholy distractions. He then dissects how coffee provides another vantage point for exploring the slave triangle, whose ramifications may still reverberate in today's exclusive consumption of ayahuasca. "The demand for drugs moved history, moved black and brown bodies across the sea to satisfy white cravings. As the Banisteriopsis caapi vine becomes ever more intertwined with a global economy, and this crop is grown by the poor increasingly to serve the spiritual, emotional, and entertainment needs of the rich, will ayahuasca do better than coffee?" he asks.

One aspect of the book that prevents it from becoming a barrage of lofty commentary is the pop culture references that abound. Early on in the book, Knight singles out the "God Gambit" episode of the 1980s cartoon Transformers, mentioning how the character of Astrotrain seems off, that he oddly resembles the character of Megatron instead. The decision to make a last-minute script change and swap Megatron with Astrotrain, Knight points out, most likely was instigated by Hasbro's release of a new Astrotrain toy, hoping to help drum up sales. He then goes on to plump up the scenario with religious context: "The story was driven by economic factors outside its own fictional universe; if you look close enough, our religions work the same way. It's all about rearranging the pieces in a story to sell the right action figure at the right moment."

There is a chapter devoted to physicist and philosopher Avicenna's prophetology, in which Knight skillfully weaves in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He compares the film's bone-swinging ape, who first realizes his power, to Adam, the first prophet. The black Monolith, he continues, represents the Active Intelligence.

Wrestling also plays a pivotal role. Knight gets in the ring in one tedious passage, and uses the sport as a metaphor for writing, but the confession that the death of 1980s wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage aroused more emotion than the killing of Osama bin Laden a few weeks prior, offers a glimpse into Knight's adolescence, and the origins of his complex thoughts, as depicted by a "skinny sixth-grader in purple Macho Man T-shirts, obsessed with wrestlers and wrestlers' bodies" wishing "that a Spirit Ball would float my way and work its magic." 

Other humanizing snatches of the personal make their way to the surface: a schizophrenic father; living off ketchup packets at rest stops; shoveling in protein powders from GNC in an effort to build that sleek body yearned for as child. It is through these fragments that Knight abandons his fictional universe, Islam and drugs fade to the background, and he becomes an everyman. He just happens to be an intellectually stimulated one who wants to transcend himself, and if ayahuasca will let him, get one step closer to finding out where exactly the artifice of religion ends and the torrent of spirituality begins.

Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing by Michael Muhammad Knight
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 978-1593764432
256 pages