Review of Why I Am A Five Percenter
By Al Tesshin Billings
I just finished reading Michael Muhammad Knight’s new book, “Why I Am a Five Percenter.” This is a follow-up to his previous, more academic, book on the Five Percenters, their history, culture, and beliefs centering on New York City that he wrote back in 2007.
Knight became well known a few years ago by the unique virtue of having accidentally created a movement in reality that he wrote about fictionally first. He is the author of “The Taqwacores,” a novel about young, American punk Muslims. He depicts these Muslims being followers of a punk-rock movement of Islamic bands as they struggle to find their Islamic identity in an American context. This wholly fictitious vision was inspiring enough that a number of punk Islamic bands actually formed after the book was quietly distributed in samizdat editions, bringing the vision to reality, at least to some degree.
Knight has also written a number of other works, such as Blue Eyed Devil, about being a white American convert to Sunni Islam living in a post 9/11 era. That work is an excellent travelogue of road tripping from mosque to mosque across America. He has also written another of travelling to Mecca on Hajj and the people he met along the way.
When I read his initial work on the Five Percenters, “The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop and the Gods of New York,” I was gladdened to see the level of sensitivity to the history of this movement that he paid. Knight seemed very sympathetic to their attempts to grapple with their beliefs, the role of these beliefs in their lives as Black Americans, and their relationship to the Nation of Islam. It turns out that, actually, he became more than just sympathetic, though it developed mostly in the years following his encounters that enabled him to right his first book.
For those that don’t know, the Five Percenters, who sometimes refer to themselves as the Nation of Gods and Earths, are a Black American spiritual movement (I won’t call them a “religion” because I don’t think they’d want that) that has historical roots in the Nation of Islam, the American Black Muslim organization that so many know because of the fame of Malcolm X. In 1963, Clarence 13X of the Nation of Islam (NOI) had a personal revelation concerning himself, reality, and the nature of the lessons that he had learned from the NOI. He declared himself to be “Allah” and began to preach to folks he met in New York City during the following years. The primary group who took up his teachings were Black gang kids who had some affinity to the ideals put forth by the Nation of Islam without necessarily being affiliated formally with it. When Clarence 13X (whom I will call “Allah” henceforth) called himself “Allah,” he was not identifying himself with the Allah of Islam as popularily understood. His conception of “Allah” was as the “best knower” with the understanding of the true nature of things and it was not an exclusive position. He regarded this knowledge and realization as the rightful inheritance of the Black man, who had been deceived, even by the NOI, as to his own nature. Allah spoke against the very idea of a monotheistic God, a “mystery god” to use the parlance of the NOI, the unknowable spook of mythology that people assign their beliefs to and use to justify their actions. In his conception, we (though more specifically Black men as he taught) are all gods, if we know the truth. These gods are not supernatural beings but people who have realized their godliness as whole beings. Allah preached a message of self-reliance, education, knowledge, and wisdom based on the 120 lessons (known as the “Supreme Wisdom Lessons”) that were the basis of the Nation of Islam’s teachings but given his own understanding of them. These Supreme Wisdom lessons are in the form of dialogues between Wallace Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammed, who founded the Nation of Islam and who regarded Farad as Allah. Allah took these lessons and added a spiritual mathematics, called the “Supreme Mathematics,” which interelated the meanings of words and numbers, along with a “Supreme Alphabet.” This is a form of what my occultist friends know as gematria where words have numerical equivalents and numbers have word meanings, so one can interchange back and forth between them, allowing one to assign meaning to numbers encountered, to combine them to form other meanings or numbers, and to use them as the basis of investigation. The term “Five Percenter” is a reference to a teaching originating in the lessons that 85% of the world lives in ignorance of the nature of themselves and the world, 10% know these truths but use them to dominate others, and 5% know the truth and are righteous, acting to lead the way for others. Allah’s followers are thus in the five percent while the other religious leaders of the world, who preach of illusory or incorporeal gods, are of the 10%.
I’m not going to do justice to the depth of the Five Percenter teachings here and I mean no offense to the places where (quite likely) my summary and understanding may be wrong. This is just a little history and context in which to understand the book.
Allah was assassinated in 1969 by unknown parties but his followers continued to work with his teachings, converting others to their truth, and building upon them. Unlike many groups in these sorts of circumstances, they did not insitutionalize themselves, staying rather a loosely grouped set of related individuals, teaching and learning from each other based around the Allah School in Mecca, a building given to the school by the New York City government during the 1960s as the basis for Allah’s work educating the community. They retain this building to this day and this was one of the places which Knight met Five Percenters and got to know their teaching while working on his earlier book, especially during their annual gatherings there.
What I found especially interesting about this book is how much aspects of it mirrored my own sense of religion and spirituality, along with the desire to come to grips with these, as concepts and lived realities, while living in our world today. Knight is a convert to Islam. He grew up a white kid in upstate New York surrounded by people who hated blacks, based on his comments. On seeing the movie of Malcolm X’s life and being exposed to rap music (Public Enemy, specifically), he converted to Islam. The Islam that he converted to was Sunni, which is the most common form of Islam and what we, in the West, are really thinking of when Islam is mentioned to us. This is the form of Islam prevalent all over the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, with the exception of Iran and parts of Iraq, which are largely Shiite. Knight learned Arabic, went to school in Pakistan, and freely admits could have easily wound up as John Walker Lindh, taking up arms as a Jihadist in Afghanistan. He was talked out of doing so by a teacher in his school (who thought he was smart and could do more good by writing) but Knight’s experience mirrors that of a certain segment of converts. On returning to the United States, I got a strong sense that he had a lot of difficulty in figuring out the line between traditional Islam, as presented to him in the Middle East, being a Euro-American convert, and living in a pluralistic world exposed to all sorts of philosophies, ways of thinking, and ways of interacting with the world. Knight is clearly a smart guy and is quite consciously aware of the situation that he found himself in. When you read “The Taqwacores” and works like “Blue Eyed Devil,” you can see he’s struggling with identity and how does one live as a Muslim without simply aping what has been handed to him or pretending he’s living in pre-modern times. For myself, as an Euro-American convert Buddhist (by way of more than 15 years of Neopaganism), his struggles speak to me as well. I have to walk the line of what really is Buddhism, questioning the traditional teachings, deciding which teachings, when dealing with a 2,600 year old tradition, are applicable or important in my experience today without just being a dilettante who skims the surface. For both of us, we’re the inheritors of traditions that come from outside the cultures in which we are raised, which puts us at a distance from the teachings. This is both useful, in evaluating things abstractly, but also leaves us at a remove from people who grow up in a tradition.
The impetus for Knight to write “Why I Am a Five Percenter” was his realization after he wrote “The Five Percenters” that their influence on his life wasn’t going away. He found himself drawn again and again to the Supreme Wisdom lessons and the teachings he had learned while studying them. He points out that this is one of the dangers of studying a group and getting in their heads in order to know them. They get in your head as well. Much of the book is Knight explaining Five Percenter teachings, contrasting them with traditional Sunni teachings, and then going over how he balances between them or how he can related to the Five Percenter teachings while still identifying as a Sunni Muslim. How can you both submit to Allah (God), as a Muslim inherently does, while embracing the teachings of Allah (the man), who speaks out against mystery gods? How do you relate to teachings which say that the “Asiatic Black Man” is God and white men are the devil while you are a blue eyed white man? What role, if any, does a white convert have amongst the Five Percenters? Knight was given the name “Azrael Wisdom” (meaning “Azrael #2” in the Supreme Mathematics). This was done by Allah’s one and only original white follower, who was named “Azrael” by Allah, and who is still alive today. As Azrael found, there was a role for a white man within the Five Percenters but he is also a historical anomaly. Knight discusses quite a bit how he grappled with the lessons, meant for an audience of Black men, and how to interpret them to be meaningful to himself. In doing all of this, he found both a relationship to these teachings but also the community that has developed around them and Allah’s teachings over the last 40 years, that added meaning to his relationship to traditional Islamic teachings. Knight clearly sees himself as both a Fiver Percenter, in some capacity, but also still a traditional Muslim. He goes over the teaching of a number of Sufi masters in past centuries, showing that it is possible to find idea quite similar to those of the Fiver Percenters in these Sufis’ teachings. He also points out that most Five Percenters would scratch their heads and probably think these miss the point. They don’t struggle with how to submit to Allah (God) while identifying to themselves as gods (but with no real connotations of magic, deity, or the supernatural in their idea of what a “god” is). They see themselves as gods and it is up to them to fix their own lives and the world. No one is going to help them without them helping themselves first. Knight stands in an in-between place as he straddles both the traditional Islamic world and a very American religion.
In many ways, reading about the Fiver Percenters brought me back to my own experiences as a Neopagan for many years. Many of the ideas that Knight relates in this book (and his previous one) would be at home with certain elements of the Neopagan and occultist world. Most Neopagans are overly theistic, which wouldn’t go very far with the Five Percenters, but there is an undercurrent in both Neopaganism and occultism of atheism, which reinterprets teachings, the gods, magic, etc. are forms of philosophy and psychology. Where the Five Percenters grow out of a matrix of black experience, especially the black experience of inner cities in the 1960s and the Nation of Islam before that, most Neopagan thought grows out of the experience of white and Jewish Americans living in urban environments but trying to find religious meaning in beliefs relating to sacredness, the world, and their own personal divinity. While there are significant differences in thought, I think there are a lot of commonalities and both of these very different milieus are struggling with spirituality, empowerment, and myth in the late twentieth century (and now the twenty first century) society.
The book is valuable in watching Knight engage in his balancing act, showing how and why he is a Five Percenter but also how he relates to his otherness, as both a Sunni Muslim and a white American, in this identication. He thinks long and hard (so long and hard that he felt compelled to write a book on the topic) and I feel that watching his thinking caused me to look at my own experience of religion and to see that many of the things with which I have struggled are not terribly unique. I expect that other people would probably find this struggle and Knight’s insights valuable as well.