“The Taqwacores is a startling expose of the Muslim youth scene in the US, as recorded by a member of a commune filled with Muslim punk-rockers in seedy, rundown Buffalo, New York, all with their unique takes on Islam.”
Is there an American Islam? A growing cultural underground in the spirit of ’68 cannot be ignored.
Just when you’ve finally written off America as a lost cause, someone called Obama Barack is poised to be president or Michael Muhammad Knight’s The Taqwacores becomes a bestseller. The latter is a startling expose of the Muslim youth scene in the US, as recorded by a member of a commune filled with Muslim punk-rockers in seedy, rundown Buffalo, New York, all with their unique takes on Islam.
Umar is “straightedge”, though covered in halal tattoos, including 2:219, referring to the proscription in the Quran against drinking alcohol. Rabeya, the sole female occupant of the house, wears a burqa, and has never been seen by most of her friends. She is also an ardent feminist and a fan of the punk group Propagandhi. Fasiq is a hashishiyyun, often to be found on the roof with a Quran in hand. His usual companion is Jehangir, who tells drunken tales of the taqwacores (hardcore pious) in “Khalifornia” and punk Islamic philosophy to anyone who’ll listen.
All four perform wudhu and use whatever is at hand as a prayer mat. A hole smashed into the wall marks qiblah, the direction of Mecca. Jehangir plays the call to prayer, adhan, on his electric guitar from the rooftop. Every Friday afternoon Islamic kids, punks and drop-outs gather at the house for jumaa.
Jehangir is a tragic romantic, believing in an open and inclusive Islam. At parties, Umar stands disapprovingly at the back of the room, and refuses to allow beer and drugs in his truck, if not the communal space.
Taqwacore is a genre of punk music inspired by Islam and its culture, originally conceived in the novel, and includes such groups as The Kominas, Vote Hezbollah, and Secret Trial Five. There is not a definitive taqwacore sound, as artists incorporate various styles, ranging from punk to hip-hop, and musical traditions from the Muslim world; the Kominas describe their sound as “Bollywood punk” while Al-Thawra uses the term “raicore,” based on Arabic Raï music.
Raised Irish Catholic, Knight’s first exposure to Islam came when he was 13, discovering Malcolm X through the lyrics of the hip-hop group Public Enemy. Shortly after reading Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, Knight converted officially and at 17 went to Islamabad, Pakistan, to study Islam at Faisal Mosque. After a disillusionment with orthodox Islam, Knight wrote two books, Where Mullahs Fear to Tread and The Furious Cock, which he printed as xeroxed ‘zines. Knight originally self-published The Taqwacores in a spiral-bound, xeroxed form and gave away copies for free in mosque car parks. It has been hailed as a Catcher in the Rye for young Muslims, and Knight is called the Hunter S Thompson of Islamic journalism. Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, NPR, BBC, and The Daily Star (Lebanon) reviewed it favourably and it has been taught in courses at many universities.
The central conflict of the novel is the clash between orthodox and Sufi approaches to Islam, inclusiveness versus exclusiveness. One side of this is represented by Jehangir, Rabeya, Fasiq, Muzammil, their friends, and later the taqwacore bands vs. Umar, Yusef’s own doubts about his religion, parents and traditional imams, and official Muslim organisations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The Umars reject what they see as characteristic of kufr (an unbeliever or atheist), be it drink, drugs, elicit sex, failure to observe certain traditions, and so on. They demand a specific adherence to Islamic teachings. By contrast, Jehangir longs to find a place for everyone. Not everyone agrees — Rabeya stops short of Jehangir’s idealistic beliefs, Yusef often doubts whether they are all really Muslim.
Rabeya’s lay-it-on-the-line dialogue has been adapted in the Rapture Project, an ongoing puppet show dealing with religion in American culture and politics. In one passage of the novel she gives a Friday sermon and leads the mixed gender group in prayer, which inspired author Asra Nomani to organise a mixed gender prayer in 2005 in New York and led to a movement in support of women as imams.
Knight also wrote the graphic novel Blue-Eyed Devil: An American Muslim Road Odyssey, in which he traveled over 20,000 miles by Greyhound bus in 60 days, searching for a true American Islam. It was hailed as today’s On the Road. In the book Knight attempts to uncover the true identity of W D Fard, the mysterious founder of the Nation of Islam, who was believed by that movement to be Allah in person. It also contains narratives of Knight’s encounters with various figures of North American Islam, such as Irshad Manji, Asra Nomani, and the Hasan family, founders of Muslims for Bush. Knight describes his experience as an original member of the Progressive Muslim Union’s board of directors and his disillusionment with the Progressive Islam movement, rejecting the term “Progressive Muslim”.
Knight is a talented writer, with an eye for revealing and amusing detail. His depictions of Jehangir and Ayyub are both funny and appealing, and it is no wonder the novel was quickly snapped up by rumanni filmworks and will soon be a feature film.
His forthcoming novel, Osama Van Halen, features The Taqwacores’ Amazing Ayyub and Rabeya, who take Matt Damon hostage and demand that Hollywood depict Muslims in a more positive light, while Damon argues that they’re “playing into that same terrorist paradigm and furthering a neo-conservative perception of Islam.”
Knight is criticised for his participation in woman-led prayer, provocative articles, disrespectful attitude toward leaders of the American Muslim community, open admission of past apostasy, heretical attitudes, embrace of the Nation of Islam and Nation of Gods and Earths and often rebellious treatment of the Prophet Muhammad.
He developed a reputation for his “Muslim WakeUp!” articles, particularly accounts of the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention, in which he wrote of giving a “stink palm” to famous imam Siraj Wahhaj and Cat Stevens and engaging in a romantic encounter with a young Muslim woman. Commenting on woman-led prayer at his ProgressiveIslam.Org blog, Knight wrote — among other scandalous things — “If the Prophet wouldn’t have liked it, then in 2005 the Prophet is wrong.” The comment caused numerous Muslim scholars and thinkers to withdraw from the site, refuse participation, or demand that Knight be removed.
Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/ You can reach him at http://ericwalberg.com/ His Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games is available at http://claritypress.com/Walberg.html