Tripping with Allah by Michael Muhammad Knight
Originally published 2013 ‘Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing’ is authored by Michael Muhammad Knight. A convert to Islam at the age of sixteen, having read ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ Knight has explored the identity of the American Muslim, and hi own adventures, in numerous works, including ‘Osama Van Halen,’ ‘Journey to the End of Islam,’ and William S. Burroughs vs. The Qur’an.’
Knight has been described as the ‘Hunter S. Thompson of Islamic Literature’—a tag he himself challenges and places within the dialogue of his text—but, in terms of pharmacography, there is an interesting similarity: namely, an uncanny ability to create a three-way dialogue between themselves (the subject-authors,) society, and the drug experience. The level of Knights critical engagement with the state of society, his role within it and the intersecting place of hallucinogenic substances provides the reader with an insightful and often cutting perspective. Knight, completing his Masters, considering his PhD, a Muslim who questions his religion, and, most importantly, a human being, considers the complications of being, and doing, these things in Twenty-first century America.
Ostensibly, the text is about his undertaking an ayahuasca ceremony with the Santo Daime tradition. He furnishes the reader with a decent cultural history of the ayahuasca-using, syncretic Christian group, with its roots in South America, and its modern, expanding, place in the suburbs of America. Yet, moreover, the narrative is an exploration of him, as a Muslim, attempting to write a drugs book about his experience, and it is this that helps drive the narrative and underlay the themes of the book: themes of expectation, deliverance, and cultural-ambiguity and social derision.
The writing-drugs connection has a very long history in the Western tradition, going right back to ancient Greece when pharmakon—a drug of cure, poison, aphrodisiac and potent ambiguity—was used to describe not only substances but also writing, rhetoric and philosophy: “There’s reason that Zoser has not yet written his book, and it’s not just that marijuana kills your ambition and makes you happy doing nothing. The problem isn’t his drugs, because people who take drugs can also write books; the problem is that writing isn’t his favorite drug. Drugs are his favorite drug. Writing isn’t what makes him crazy” (Knight 255). Here, it is interesting to note, Knight slightly reverses the typical reading. Usually pharmakon is understood through the effect of writing, once completed, on other people, however, for Knight, it is the act of writing in itself that is cast as the drug. In this sense, he is imbuing more recent ideas of habitude and addiction to the nature of writing.
The hallucinogen class of substance made some scientific impact prior to the 1950s but it was not until afterwards that they began to make inroads into the popular socio-cultural make-up of the Western world. The psychedelic revolution began and ended in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it left a sub-cultural movement that has existed in various forms ever since. Evangelical psychedelia, most obviously perpetrated by Dr. Timothy Leary, still lingers in many quarters (even though the upper echelons tend to distance themselves from such behaviour.) Knight, who has such a conversation with his friend ‘Zoser,’ is very clear, indeed cutting, about such attitudes and their underlying premises when it comes to conversion:
Right, what the whole continent of Africa needs is LSD. Mass tripping will end all injustice and oppression and restore our fragile world to its proper balance. If there’s any truth or wisdom in that, it’s buried under so much toxic white privilege that I won’t even bother trying to rescue it. Telling poor people that drugs will save them is as empty as the promise that “positive thinking” will save them. Forget Leary. Peace to the Black Panthers who kicked his ass out of Algeria (Knight 119)
Indeed, as a new shamanic wave of cultural infiltration takes place, via the popularization of ayahuasca, with its promise of ego-healing and spiritual, ecological reconnection, similar assumptions could be seen as at work. For instance, while it is the Western political mould that is often cited as the cause of spiritual poverty and egotistical behaviour, the advent and evolution of shamanic traditions actually appear to be bending them into this mould, as opposed breaking them. Ayahuasca gets hidden under psychiatric discourse that has been utilized for adjusting people to exist in the Western world—social poverty is buried under “toxic white privilege”. Knight also writes:
Traditionally, the shaman was seen as a mediator between supernatural forces and a group, often a specific tribe or clan [but] as shamanism crosses the equator in both directions—with shamans finding patrons in the Northern Hemisphere and spiritual tourists retreating from New York into the rain forest—shamanism becomes Dinobot Island. It is no longer a bridge between the spirit and the group, but instead between the spirit and the individual, or between the individual and his or her innermost self (Knight 212)
As one breaks down the Western-driven ego and delves into the innermost self, one is merely fuelling a self-obsession, and away from the community aspects of shamanism’s prior functionality. Furthermore, the West does not fuel strong egos, this strange mistermed myth of ‘individuality,’ but actually fuels weak egos that are blindly obsessed with themselves, and unable to successfully transform society through unique expression. Perhaps if the magic of ayahuasca could be turned into transforming the spirit of the group, the community, then it could aid in the breakdown of the aforementioned Western trope of ‘individuality’. As it is, self-obsession is a tool of collective madness that keeps individual expression homogenized and in line with Western society’s hierarchical structures.
Knight correctly notes that there has been very little discussion between the Islamic tradition and ayahuasca-use in literature. Usually, it is Christian and shamanic symbology, mixed in with the New Age fascinations of Eastern spiritual traditions, but Knight hopes to see Allah. He has an interview before the ceremony to deem whether he is fit to undergo the experience and is told that, for all the Christian structure of Santo Daime, it is embracing of all traditions. Knight gives the reader some wonderful historical and philosophical passages on the complicated relationship between Islam and intoxication—very insightful—yet, as ayahuasca is deemed medicinal it appears to fit (although, as he also notes, individuals tend to find a form of Islam that suits them, not the other way round.) In the end, though, he has something of a let-down and experiences very little in his Santo Daime experience.
Undeterred, however, Knight is arranged another more expensive, Hollywood-style, ceremony with less stricture. In this second experience he does not see Allah, but instead his daughter Fatima, with whom he has a dialogue, which introduces some interesting discussion on the role of woman in Islam and the extent to which religion itself, and any psychedelic drug experience, is in fact catered around the individual—the typical Western (and, so it seems, Middle-Eastern) trip.
In conclusion, this is, I would argue, the finest piece of ayahuasca literature written to date and, like all good drug literature, it’s not really about the drug itself at all. Instead of simply peddling tired psycho-analytical theory, spiritual evangelism, or a thorough-bred self-obsession (though Knight might like to think he touches on this last one!), like so many other works do, Tripping with Allah is sound social comment, engaging story-telling and a perfect blend of popular culture, history and opinion. Overall a great book and an excellent work of pharmacography.