Knowledge of Self has been particularly influential in hip hop.
Some add it to emceeing, dance, djing, and graffiti as hip hop’s fifth element and I hold that knowledge of self is Black Islam’s central contribution to hip hop music and culture. References to knowledge of self in hip hop draw on the “Lost-Found Muslim Lessons,” taught by W. D. Fard Muhammad to Elijah Muhammad, the first leader of the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad details the meaning and significance of knowledge of self in his book Message to the Blackman in America. In my research I found that three themes Elijah Muhammad emphasized—time, learning, and action—define knowledge of self as taken up in hip hop. In hip hop, the pursuit of knowledge of self emphasizes being well informed about the past, particularly the hidden histories of marginalized peoples, and being well aware of contemporary forms oppression. Knowledge of self becomes an ethical orientation vis-à-vis other human beings, animals, the natural world, and notions of the Divine that encourages a commitment to social change through personal transformation and direct action.
The young Muslims in my study found knowledge of self through hip hop, which meant finding their Muslim identities through hip hop. Some would be surprised that a concept derived from the NOI and interpreted through hip hop could result in Muslim identity (Mainly, because of the ways in which Black Islam is seen as “outside” orthodox Islamic traditions). Yet among the numerous directives in the Qur’an and the traditions of Prophet Muhammad are instructions that humans should reflect, consider, and contemplate the natural world as a means of reaching spiritual awareness. This is precisely how Elijah Muhammad explains knowledge of self. Not coincidentally, the celebrated twelfth-century Sunni scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali also championed the idea in his text The Alchemy of Happiness. In the first chapter, “On Knowledge of the Self,” al-Ghazali counsels Muslims to seek knowledge of self in order to know God: “What art thou in thyself, and from whence hast thou come? Whither art thou going, and for what purpose hast thou come to tarry here awhile?” Like Elijah Muhammad, al-Ghazali also locates knowledge of self in time, learning, and action, which suggests that knowledge of self is an ethic that has a long history in the Islamic intellectual tradition.