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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 October 2014

Faculty of History, University of Oxford E-mail:


This essay explores how particular variants of “Muslim anarchism”, as distinct forms of radical anti-authoritarian religion, subvert conventional approaches to Islamic hermeneutics by drawing on intellectual traditions and discursive strategies external to them. Through recourse to the mutuality between autonomy and automatism, most notably in Western avant-garde and countercultural aesthetics, it elucidates the import of automatic transcendence and retro-futurist imaginaries as novel interpretative techniques for spiritual emancipation in radically libertarian approaches to Islam. My aim is to show how the rich, multivalent concept of automatism, neglected in studies of social and religious phenomena, can be a useful way of elucidating the hermeneutics of specific strands of Muslim anarchism. In doing so, the paper also challenges received understandings of “radical” Islam and the restrictive polarity between militancy and liberalism that has come to frame discussion on global Islam. To this end, I focus on the thought of Peter Lamborn Wilson (aka Hakim Bey), Michael Muhammad Knight and Yakoub Islam.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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I would like to thank Duncan Bell, Faisal Devji and this journal's anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant number ES/J003115/1).


1 Coolsaet, Rik, ed., Jihadi Terrorism and the Radicalisation Challenge: European and American Experiences, 2nd edn (Farnham, 2011)Google Scholar; Ranstorp, Magnus, ed., Understanding Violent Radicalization: Terrorist and Jihadist Movements in Europe (New York, 2009)Google Scholar.

2 Kamrava, Mehran, ed., The New Voices of Islam: Rethinking Politics and Modernity (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2006)Google Scholar; Bayat, Asef, Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn (Stanford, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ramadan, Tariq, Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation (Oxford, 2009)Google Scholar.

3 For example Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji. Like their more traditionally inclined Muslim reformist counterparts, though in divergent ways, they share a focus on the importance of the role of the state and legal and institutional remedies in the promotion of liberty.

4 This tends to centre on the primacy of the four canonical schools of Sunni jurisprudence. It is personified in organizations such as the US-based Zaytuna Institute, now College, and the UK-based Radical Middle Way, and has been associated with a relatively small circle of scholars, some of whom are or have been government appointees, such as the Egyptian grand mufti Ali Gomaa and the Saudi-based Mauritanian Abdullah bin Bayyah, and several of whom have engaged with Western counterterrorist governmental policy agendas.

5 This is a hotchpotch of individuals and groups eager to “represent” a rather ill-defined “moderate” Islam, primarily to Western audiences, reflected most clearly in several of the signatories to the “Amman Message” (Nov. 2004) and the open letter “A Common Word Between Us and You” (Oct. 2007). For a critique of such initiatives see Faisal Devji, “Muslim Liberals: Epistles of Moderation”, 18 Oct. 2007, at, accessed 28 March 2013.

6 The activist scholars Rachid Ghannouci, head of Tunisia's ruling Al Nahda Party, and Tariq Ramadan are prominent examples.

7 Peter Mandaville has also noted this inhibitive polarity but has not focused his analysis on Muslim anarchism. Mandaville, Peter, “Globalization and the Politics of Religious Knowledge: Pluralizing Authority in the Muslim World”, Theory, Culture and Society, 24/2 (2007), 101–15, 111CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Knight, Michael Muhammad, “The Taqwacore Version”, Critical Muslim, 2 (April–June 2012), 7585Google Scholar.

9 See, inter alia, Crone, Patricia, “Ninth-Century Muslim Anarchists”, Past & Present, 167 (2000), 328CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Barclay, Harold, “Islam, Muslim Societies and Anarchy”, Anarchist Studies, 10/2 (2002), 105–18Google Scholar; and Karamustafa, Ahmet, God's Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Middle Period 1200–1550 (Oxford, 2006)Google Scholar.

10 For a recent survey, including an attempt at typology drawing in part on the work of Sharif Gemie, see Fiscella, Anthony, “Imagining an Islamic Anarchism: A New Field of Study Is Ploughed”, in Christoyannopoulos, Alexandre, ed., Religious Anarchism: New Perspectives (Newcastle, 2009), 280318.Google Scholar

11 See, inter alia, Christoyannopoulos, Religious Anarchism; and Adams, John, Non-Western Anarchisms: Rethinking the Global Context (Santa Cruz, CA, 2003)Google Scholar.

12 See, inter alia, Wilson, Peter Lamborn, Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes, 2nd revised edn (Brooklyn, 2003)Google Scholar; Bey, Hakim, T. A. Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchism, Poetic Terrorism, 2nd edn (Brooklyn, 2003)Google Scholar, Bey, , Immediatism: Essays by Hakim Bey (San Francisco, 1994)Google Scholar.

13 See, inter alia, Knight, Michael Muhammad, Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey through Islamic America (Berkeley, CA, 2006)Google Scholar; Knight, Michael Muhammad, The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip Hop and the Gods of New York (Oxford, 2008)Google Scholar; Knight, Michael Muhammad, Why I Am a Five Percenter (New York, 2011)Google Scholar; Knight, Michael Muhammad, William S. Burroughs vs. The Qur’an (Berkeley, CA, 2012)Google Scholar.

14 Islam, Yakoub, “Bleedin’ Islamophobia”, Q News, 361 (2005), 12Google Scholar; Islam, “The Voyage In: Second Life Islamophobia”, in Sayyid, S. and Vakil, Abdoolkarim, eds., Thinking through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives (New York, 2011), 65–9Google Scholar. See also his blog, The Tasneem Project, at, accessed 14 Sept. 2012. In August 2012 some previous notes on the book were removed from his online blog. I have reproduced those which were still available through the internet archive. His Muslim Anarchist Charter is available at, accessed 30 March 2013.

15 Roy, Olivier, Globalised Islam: The Search for the New Ummah (London, 2004)Google Scholar; Mandaville, “Globalization and the Politics of Religious Knowledge”; Esack, Farid, Quran, Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Inter-religious Solidarity against Oppression (Oxford, 2007)Google Scholar; Sachedina, Abdulaziz, The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (Oxford, 2007)Google Scholar.

16 Sardar, Ziauddin, Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam (London, 2011)Google Scholar; Abdul-Raof, Hussein, Schools of Qur’anic Exegesis: Genesis and Development (London and New York, 2009)Google Scholar; Reynolds, Gabriel Said, ed., New Perspectives on the Qur’an: The Qur’an in Its Historical Context, 2nd edn (London, 2011)Google Scholar; Kamrava, Mehran, ed., Innovation in Islam: Traditions and Contributions (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2011)Google Scholar.

17 I use the term “retro-futurist” to denote the juxtaposition of alternative or imagined histories as models for future society, particularly, although not exclusively, those which focus on machine technology.

18 Edwards, J. L. J., “Automatism and Criminal Responsibility”, Modern Law Review, 21/4 (1958), 375–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Breton, André and Soupault, Philippe, The Magnetic Fields, trans. and introduced by David Gascoyne (London, 1985)Google Scholar.

19 Many of the atheistic philosophes of the Enlightenment, however, such as Diderot, Helvetius and d’Holbach, were antimechanistic vitalists who only employed automatism as a mode of critique. In this regard, de La Mettrie, Julien Offray's Machine Man and Other Writings (Cambridge, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; first published in 1748, can be seen as an exception rather than the rule.

20 I use the term “imaginary” as a creative or imagined way of re-envisioning a discourse or practice for ideological purposes, be it literary, historical, technological or social. The concept can be traced to Jacques Lacan's treatment of it as a psychoanalytic category but it has been treated more widely, especially in its social dimensions, in addressing the nature of modernity. See, inter alia, Castoriadis, Cornelius, The Imaginary Institution of Society (Cambridge, MA, 1998)Google Scholar; Taylor, Charles, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC, and London, 2004)Google Scholar and Appadurai, Arjun, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis, 1996)Google Scholar. See also Thompson, John, Studies in the Theory of Ideology (Berkeley, CA, 1984)Google Scholar.

21 For science and spiritualism see Gray, John, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (London, 2011)Google Scholar.

22 Bey, Immediatism; Knight, William S. Burroughs vs. The Qur’an.

23 Wilson, Pirate Utopias; Bey, T. A. Z.; Knight, Blue-Eyed Devil; Knight, The Five Percenters; Knight, Why I Am a Five Percenter.

24 On the deculturation of religion from the perspective of comparative sociology see Olivier Roy, Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways (London, 2010). Roy argues that deculturation “is the loss of the social expression of religion”. Ibid., 8.

25 White European conversion to Islam is a central aspect of Wilson's historical pirate utopias, while in Knight's work race pivots around perceptions of his own white ethnicity and his interest in African American forms of Islam, most notably the Nation of Gods and Earths, or Five Percenters. Yakoub Islam has also broached the issue in his “White, Weird and Wonderful”, available at, accessed 30 March 2013.

26 “Anarcho-Sufi” is a term used frequently by Knight, including to describe Wilson.

27 For its European context see Kang, Minsoo, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (Cambridge, MA, 2011)Google Scholar.

28 See note 19 above.

29 For a sceptical view of human free will see Libet, Benjamin, “Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8 (1985), 529–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 McCorduck, Pamela, Machines Who Think: A Personal Inquiry into the History and Prospects of Artificial Intelligence (San Francisco, 1979)Google Scholar. For the concept of self-replicating machines, see von Neumann, John, Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata, ed. and completed by Burks, Arthur W. (Urbana, 1966)Google Scholar.

31 Haraway, Donna, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York and London, 1991)Google Scholar.

32 See, inter alia, Bostrum, Nick, “A History of Transhumanist Thought”, Journal of Evolution and Technology, 14/1 (2005), 125Google Scholar; and Moravec, Hans, “When Will Computer Hardware Match the Human Brain?”, Journal of Evolution and Technology, 1/1 (1988)Google Scholar.

33 Prince, Morton, The Nature of Mind and Human Automatism (Philadelphia, 1885), 132CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Edwards, “Automatism and Criminal Responsibility”.

35 Derrida, Jacques, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. from the French by Betty Kamuf (New York, 1994)Google Scholar; Lacan, Jacques, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’”, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, in Muller, John P. and Richardson, William J., eds., The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading (Baltimore, 1998), 2855Google Scholar; Gramsci, Antonio, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. and ed. by Boothman, Derek (London, 1995)Google Scholar.

36 Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 179.

37 Petrilli, Susan and Ponzio, Augusto, Semiotics Unbounded: Interpretive Routes through the Open Network of Signs (Toronto, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 Al-Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, trans., introduced and annotated by Malcolm. E. Marmura (Provo, UT, 2000).

39 Wiener, Norbert, God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion (Cambridge, MA, 1964)Google Scholar.

40 Geraci, Robert M., “Apocalyptic AI: Religion and the Promise of Artificial Intelligence”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 76/1 (2008), 138–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Pre-dating the surrealists by a century as a critique of artificial society, automatism was also deployed by Romantics of the early nineteenth century. See, for example, Heinrich von Kleist's “On the Marionette Theater” (1810).

42 For classic statements of Situationist thought see Vaneigem, Raoul, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. Nicholson-Smith, Donald (Oakland, CA, 2012)Google Scholar; and Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Nicholson-Smith, David (New York, 1994)Google Scholar. For an alternative recent history see Wark, Mackenzie, The Beach beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (London, 2011)Google Scholar.

43 As André Breton described the term, “The marvellous is always beautiful, anything that is marvellous is beautiful; indeed, nothing but the marvellous is beautiful.” Breton, What Is Surrealism?, 167.

44 Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, 170.

45 Breton, What Is Surrealism? 49.

46 Un Chien Andalou (1929) is the classic filmic example of such projections. A collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, it was described by Buñuel as the result of “conscious automatism”.

47 Khatib, Kate, “Automatic Theologies: Surrealism and the Politics of Equality”, in De Vries, H. and Sullivan, L. E., eds., Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-secular World (New York, 2006), 617–33, 617CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 It is interesting to note genealogies of heresy which tie anarchism to Pelagianism. See Richard Fitch, “The Pelagian Mentality: Radical Political Thought in Fifth-Century Christianity” in Christoyannopoulos, Religious Anarchism, 2–29.

49 See Nadia Choucha, “The Surrealist Manifestos, Automatism and Austin Osman Spare”, in Choucha, Surrealism and the Occult: Shamanism, Magic, Alchemy and the Birth of an Artistic Movement (Rochester, NY, 1991), 5175Google Scholar. For a recent biography of Spare see Baker, Phil, Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London's Lost Artist (London, 2012)Google Scholar.

50 Gray, The Immortalization Commission, 5.

51 Paterson, Isabel, The God of the Machine (New York, 1943), 84Google Scholar.

52 The invisible hand of the market is also intimately connected to that of God in radical free-market approaches to Islam and deployed as a legitimization of capitalism. In such anarcho-capitalist readings, neglected in analyses of the ideologization of global Islam, the writings of Paterson's fellow libertarian Rose Wilder Lane play a significant role. Both were also close correspondents of Ayn Rand. See, inter alia, Ahmed, Imad Ad Dean, “Islam and the Free-Market Economy”, Economic Affairs, 29/2 (2009), 23CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Lane, Rose Wilder, Islam and the Discovery of Freedom, with an introduction and commentary by Ahmed, Imad Ad Dean (Beltsville and Bethesda, 1997)Google Scholar.

53 Houtsma, M. T., Arnold, T. W., Basset, R., Hartmann, R., Wensinck, A. J., Gibb, H. A. R., Heffening, W. and Levi-Provencal, E., eds., E. J. Brill's First Encyclopaedia of Islam 1913–1936, 9 vols. (Leiden, 1927–93), 411–18Google Scholar.

54 Edgar, Iain R., The Dream in Islam: From Qur’anic Tradition to Jihadist Inspiration (Oxford, 2011)Google Scholar; Felek, Ozgen and Knysh, Alexander D., eds., Dreams and Visions in Islamic Societies (Albany, NY, 2012)Google Scholar.

55 See Knight, Blue-Eyed Devil.

56 See, for example, the essays on Wilson in the Journal for the Study of Radicalism, 4/2 (2010).

57 Bey, Immediatism, 7.

58 Bey, T. A. Z., 78.

59 Bey, Immediatism, 10–12.

60 See Kinsella, Michael, Legend-Tripping Online: Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong's Hat (Jackson, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Knight, William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an, 201–8.

61 Wilson, Peter Lamborn, Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam (San Francisco, 1993), 7Google Scholar. See also Wilson, , Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy (Brooklyn, 2007)Google Scholar.

62 Wilson, Sacred Drift, 8.

63 Ibid., 8.

64 Ibid., 70.

65 Bey, Immediatism, 4.

66 Bey, Immediatism, 53, 55.

67 Wilson, Sacred Drift, 55–80.

68 Bey, Immediatism, 9.

69 Ibid., 36.

70 Bey, T. A. Z., 62–3, original emphasis.

71 Burroughs, William S., Cities of the Red Night (London, 2010), xviiiGoogle Scholar.

72 Knight, Michael Muhammad, The Taqwacores (Brooklyn, 2004)Google Scholar. This scene is explored in the films Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam (2009), a documentary by Omar Majeed, and The Taqwacores (2010), a feature-film adaptation directed by Eyad Zahra.

73 Knight, William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an, 236.

74 Ibid., 239.

75 Ibid., 239.

76 Ibid., 240.

77 Ibid., 240.

78 Onion, Rebecca, “Reclaiming the Machine: An Introductory Look at Steampunk in Everyday Practice”, Neo-Victorian Studies, 1/1 (2008), 138–63Google Scholar; Gross, Cory, “Varieties of Steampunk Experience”, SteamPunk Magazine, 1 (2006), 60–3Google Scholar.

79 Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmed, “Islam Sci-Fi Interview with Yakoub Islam”, 2010, available at, accessed 14 Sept. 2012. See also Hankins, Rebecca, “Fictional Islam: A Literary Review and Comparative Essay on Islam in Science Fiction and Fantasy”, Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, 105 (2009), 7392Google Scholar.

80 Ahmed, “Islam Sci-Fi Interview”.

81 Yakoub Islam, “The Steamship Solehah”, available at, accessed 14 Sept. 2012.

82 “I want to make the ship a character in the novel. The choice was whether to make the vessel historical or magical, and in deciding to give the ship a speaking role, for want of a better phrase, I’m plumping for the latter.” Available at, accessed 14 Sept. 2012.

83 Available at, accessed 14 Sept. 2012, original emphasis.

84 See Crone, , “Ninth-Century Muslim Anarchists”; Karamustafa, God's Unruly Friends, and Gray, John, Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern (London, 2007)Google Scholar.

85 See Von Neumann, Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata. For the concept of “memes” as self-reproducing ideas or cultural idioms in society, which draws on genetic science, see also Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene (Oxford, 1976)Google Scholar.

86 Wilson, Pirate Utopias, 187.

87 Ibid., 187, original emphasis.

88 Ibid., 190; Hill, Christopher, “Radical Pirates”, in Hill, Collected Essays, 3 vols. (Amherst, MA, 1986), 3: 161–87, original emphasisGoogle Scholar.

89 Bey, T. A. Z., 96–7; Sterling, Bruce, Islands in the Net (New York, 1989)Google Scholar.

90 Wilson, Pirate Utopias, 200.

91 Ibid., 203.

92 Ibid., 200.

93 Ibid., 145. For a distillation of the divergent ideological uses of pirate history in contemporary scholarship see Caleb Crain, “Bootylicious”, New Yorker, 7 Sept. 2009.

94 Knight, William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an, 104.

95 Knight has returned to Malcolm X in a recent piece, however. Michael Muhamad Knight, “Lifetime's Assassination of Malcolm X”, Vice, 7 Feb. 2013, available at, accessed 31 July 2013.

96 See, for example, the Radical Middle Way's ideological deployment in their “I am Malcolm X” programme of events, available at, accessed 30 March 2013; and the academic seminar at which Tariq Ramadan spoke, available at, accessed 30 March 2013.

97 See Nuruddin, Yusuf, “Ancient Black Astronauts and Extraterrestrial Jihads: Islamic Science Fiction as Urban Mythology”, Socialism and Democracy, 20/3 (2006), 127–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

98 Knight, William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an, 102–3. Knight is known as Azrael Wisdom (Azrael #2) among Five Percenters.

99 Knight, Blue-Eyed Devil, 83–4.

100 For alternative accounts see, inter alia, Curtis IV, Edward E., Islam in Black America: Identity, Liberation, and Difference in African-American Islamic Thought (Albany, NY, 2002)Google Scholar; and Jackson, Sherman A., Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection (New York, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

101 Benjamin, Walter, “On the Concept of History” in Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938–1940, ed. Eiland, Howard and Jennings, Michael W. (Cambridge, MA, 2006), 389–400, 389Google Scholar. The chess-playing automaton was the creation of the Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen (d. 1804). It has frequently been the subject of theological, literary and philosophical reflections, including by Edgar Allan Poe in his “Von Kempelen and His Discovery” (1849) and, more recently, Slavoj, Žižek in The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, MA, 2003)Google Scholar. See also Kang, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines, 176–81.

102 Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (London, 2008), 1112Google Scholar.

103 For recent studies that challenge such linear genealogies see Devji, Faisal, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity (London, 2008)Google Scholar; and Mandaville, Peter, “Global Islam, Subalternity and Urban Islam in the West”, in Deol, Jeevan and Kazmi, Zaheer, eds., Contextualising Jihadi Thought (New York, 2012), 3151Google Scholar.

104 This ethno-cultural factor is captured in Knight's Blue-Eyed Devil, which traces, in part, his own search for the identity of the Nation of Islam founder Wallace Fard Mohammed, itself a subject of some racial controversy. Knight also has a chapter in a recent edited volume among essays which specifically address the cultural politics of race in the punk movement. See Duncombe, Stephen and Tremblay, Maxwell, eds., White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race (London, 2011)Google Scholar. For anarchism and punk see the relevant essays in Shantz, Jeff, ed., A Creative Passion: Anarchism and Culture (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2010)Google Scholar.

105 Knight acknowledges the irony explicitly in relaying a conversation with Wilson: “Peter laughs at that dumb white man dualism of Spiritual East vs. Material West, though we’re both white men who have been guilty of it at some time.” Knight, William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an, 6.