Convert Straddles Worlds of Islam and Hip-Hop

He was a “15-year-old white kid with Dad a diagnosed schizophrenic, rapist and racial separatist and Mom fresh off her second divorce,” Michael Muhammad Knight writes in his 2006 memoir, “Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America.” At home in Rochester, he “listened to a lot of Public Enemy and read ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ and by 16 had a huge portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini” on his bedroom wall.
At 17, Mr. Knight, having converted to Islam, was “running around Pakistan with Afghan and Somalian refugees” and studying “at the largest mosque in the world: Faisal Masjid in Islamabad, which happens to look like a spaceship.”

Mr. Knight now writes that his immersion in the world of Five Percenters made him, in a sense, an insider. He does not accept the literal truth of all their claims (and he is skeptical that all Five Percenters do). But he is no longer an outsider looking in.

In his book’s introduction, Mr. Knight offers a bit of advice to other scholars doing fieldwork: “Keep your guard up and keep your distance. You spend that much time with a culture and fail to check yourself, you’ll fall in love and become your subject.”

How will you know when you have gotten too close to your subject? For Mr. Knight, there were clear signs. In 2008, he made the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca. “Here I am,” he told me, “a quasi-orthodox Muslim in Mecca, walking around the Kaaba” — the shrine Muslims around the world face during prayers — “and I am interpreting it through mathematics, the lessons, Wu-Tang lyrics. I had to make sense of that.”