Michael Muhammad Knight (United States)
I was raised Roman Catholic. At fifteen, I developed an interest in Malcolm X, which eventually led to my conversion to Islam. Malcolm's autobiography inspired a search for knowledge as well as a curiosity about Islam. I devoured any book on history, philosophy, and comparative religion I could find. I did horribly in high school, as I would sit in chemistry class reading Nietzsche, Will Durant's history volumes, Plato, or the Koran.
At sixteen, I contacted the local Islamic Center. My mother drove me to the mosque and witnessed my official conversion. Before even stepping foot in the mosque I had memorized the prayers and some Koranic suras in Arabic. The imams sat me down and witnessed my shahadah. From that point on, Islam and my independent studies became the focus of my life. The imams were impressed with my thirst for knowledge. Through them I was introduced to a young Muslim girl for an arranged marriage (we never married due to my eventual apostasy). They also arranged for me to study Islam for two months of my senior year in Islamabad, Pakistan.
I returned home with dreams of becoming a respected Muslim scholar. I was working on applications for the Islamic universities in Malaysia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. However, my continual reading caused me to become disillusioned with formal Islam. My world fell apart.
Having been given a key by one of the local brothers, I took to only visiting my mosque at night when no one else was around. I would sit and pray, sit and cry, run and play, or stand on my head in the mihrah. Sometimes I brought a portable word processor and wrote stories. These night visits led to the writing of Where Mullahs Fear to Tread, or The Sleepless Night. The stories are a journal of my painful and gradual apostacy, told through allegorical science fiction tales of Muslims in outer space.
My work is rooted in Islam, the religion I was not born into, rather, the faith I chose to immerse myself in. What my work offers, more than anything else, is that it is something you don't see that much. For Christian societies, works of disillusionment, estrangement, and the like are nothing new. In fact they are cliche. For what is commonplace in America or Europe with Christianity, would get your head chopped off in Saudi with Islam. I feel The Sleepless Night is inherently an Islamic work-a true, fisahillah work of Islam. But it is an Islam that could only be free to flourish in the West.
My ultimate goal, I think, is to break down some of the walls Islam puts around itself. Islam in modern practice can be very rigid, very strict. It wasn't always that way. Islam has a rich heritage of skeptical philosophers, mystics, and humanist scholars who pursued their own truths in relative freedom. The climate in today's Islamic world is much different, largely due to governments' manipulating Islam as an instrument of oppression, combined with resentment of the West and all that it represents. I retain an emotional attachment to Islam, its characters and rituals. But I cannot fall into the formal categorization of Islam anymore. If someone had to ask me of my religion, I would reply that I am a Sufi. A Sufi, though not necessarily a Muslim Sufi. Perhaps an agnostic Sufi, if there can be such a thing. My own personal religion came from Islam. It has Islam at its foundations. However, it escaped that cage long ago.
While in Pakistan, I often visited the Dawah Academy's library, despite continual suggestions from my teachers to "stick with the Koran." After reading some books on Buddhism, I was fascinated with the idea that Buddha was one of the many prophets mentioned in the Koran. I found that throughout my Islamic life, I was searching for knowledge from a wide variety of sources: philosophers, the texts of other religions, history, and so on, but I was always advised to first learn Arabic and master the Koran before engaging in those studies. Then I found Attar's Conference of the Birds and read a line that changed my life: "Forget what is and is not Islam."
This, appearing in a spiritual text, a Sufi text, relating to the search for God. To find Allah, forget Islam. The idea threw me to the floor. Allah without Islam! Staghfirallah!
As I continued studying, certain ideas in Islam lost their power over me. For example, my mother had a dog in her house. I no longer admonished her that the angels would not enter. My female cousin wore shorts in the summertime. I lost my harsh attitudes about such practice. It just did not matter to me anymore.
I still considered myself Muslim, but ignored Sahih Bukhari (the collection of hadith). It made no sense to me and its credibility was shot by my continual reading. Muslims argue that there was a very scientifically sound system for determing the validity of hadith. How sound can any system be for separating real from false gossip three hundred years after all the involved characters have died? Hell, look at the rumor mills in your offices, schools, or even mosques and tell me you have a scientifically sound "he said that he heard from so-and-so that she heard him say such-and-such" system for finding the truth.
The final nail in the coffin was when I started reading Islamic history from the Shia perspective. I learned things that I never see mentioned in Sunni sources: How what Muhammad called "the greatest generation of Muslims" all killed each other over politics. How 'A'isha ordered arrows to be shot at the coffin of Husain. How Fatima was trampled to death by Muslims seeking Ali's pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr. The religion was junked the day Muhammad died.
My reading brought many other issues to light, which have all been touched upon here: Muhammad's marriage to a child, the killing of apostates, and so on.
I am still a spiritual person. I even retain my old admiration for Imam Husain, who was praised by kufrs such as Charles Dickens for his noble, selfless sacrifice. But I cannot call myself a Muslim. I am a free man.