Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa



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.

Hide All

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).

Hide All

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

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

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, 111.

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

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

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.

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

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

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

14 Islam Yakoub, “Bleedin’ Islamophobia”, Q News, 361 (2005), 12; Islam, “The Voyage In: Second Life Islamophobia”, in Sayyid S. and Vakil Abdoolkarim, eds., Thinking through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives (New York, 2011), 65–9. 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); 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); Sachedina Abdulaziz, The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (Oxford, 2007).

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

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), 375–86; Breton André and Soupault Philippe, The Magnetic Fields, trans. and introduced by David Gascoyne (London, 1985).

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); 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); Taylor Charles, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC, and London, 2004) and Appadurai Arjun, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis, 1996). See also Thompson John, Studies in the Theory of Ideology (Berkeley, CA, 1984).

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

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).

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), 529–66.

30 McCorduck Pamela, Machines Who Think: A Personal Inquiry into the History and Prospects of Artificial Intelligence (San Francisco, 1979). 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).

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

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

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

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); 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), 2855; Gramsci Antonio, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. and ed. by Boothman Derek (London, 1995).

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).

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).

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

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); and Debord Guy, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Nicholson-Smith David (New York, 1994). 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).

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, 617.

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), 5175. For a recent biography of Spare see Baker Phil, Austin Osman Spare: The Life and Legend of London's Lost Artist (London, 2012).

50 Gray, The Immortalization Commission, 5.

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

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), 23; and Lane Rose Wilder, Islam and the Discovery of Freedom, with an introduction and commentary by Ahmed Imad Ad Dean (Beltsville and Bethesda, 1997).

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), 411–18.

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

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); 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), 7. See also Wilson, Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy (Brooklyn, 2007).

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), xviii.

72 Knight Michael Muhammad, The Taqwacores (Brooklyn, 2004). 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), 138–63; Gross Cory, “Varieties of Steampunk Experience”, SteamPunk Magazine, 1 (2006), 60–3.

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), 7392.

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).

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).

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 emphasis.

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

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), 127–65.

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); and Jackson Sherman A., Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection (New York, 2005).

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, 389. 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). 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), 1112.

103 For recent studies that challenge such linear genealogies see Devji Faisal, The Terrorist in Search of Humanity (London, 2008); 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), 3151.

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). For anarchism and punk see the relevant essays in Shantz Jeff, ed., A Creative Passion: Anarchism and Culture (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2010).

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.

* 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).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 4
Total number of PDF views: 43 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 252 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.