Sunday, October 11, 2009

Muslim Punk Rock?

This article first appeared in India Currents May 2009

In 2004, Michael Muhammad Knight wrote an extraordinary novel called the Taqwacores, which conceived the idea that Islam and Punk Rock “aren’t so far removed as you’d think. Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way---the energy perhaps, that comes with knowing the world has never seen such positive force and fury and never would again. Both have suffered from sell-outs and hypocrites, but also from true believers whose devotion had crippled their creative drive. Both are viewed by outsiders as unified cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth”.

If you’re not completely blown away by the audacity and insight of the passage quoted above, I suppose it’s possible you might not like the rest of the Taqwacores either. You also might not like the fact that this is probably the longest passage that can be quoted without deletions in a family magazine. Knight is an American scatological vagabond poet, in the tradition that began with Walt Whitman, and includes Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, and Allen Ginsberg. These writers all value experience over accomplishment and respectability, and thus are often heavily involved with drugs, sex and alcohol. Their attitude towards authority, and to the very idea of literary style, varies from indifference to hostility. The best of them, however, have styles which emerge from a single-minded devotion to telling the truth as they see it. When such a writer emerges from a social milieu whose story has not yet been told, there is an opportunity for greatness if the writer is up to it.

Knight is such a writer, and his milieu is the world of Moslem-American youth, suspended between two contradictory value systems they can neither fully accept or reject. On one hand there is Punk Rock, mixed heavily with the fratboy slob world portrayed by filmmakers like the Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow. On the other hand, there is the puritanical world of fundamentalist Islam, held up as an ideal by their parents and overseas relatives, and clearly out of sync with the ideals of self-determination (and self-gratification) taken for granted by most Americans. Because neither value systems works well for them, each of the characters in the Taqwacores is attempting to construct their own personal code with different fragments from each.

At one extreme is Umar, who embraces both puritanical “straight-edge” punk and orthodox Salafi Islam, but would be condemned by the latter because of his many tattoos, and his tendency to burst into obscenities when his housemates smoke dope in his pick-up truck. At the other extreme is Jehangir, who repeatedly declares that “Islam can take any shape you want it to.” He wraps his Mohawk in a turban when visiting his relatives in Pakistan, and uses marijuana and alcohol to continually keep himself in an ecstatic Sufi-like trance. There is Rabeya, whose face no one has ever seen because she always wears a burqua. She also sings Iggy Pop songs, reads Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, and blacks out passages she cannot accept in her copy of the Koran. In the middle of all of this is Yusuf, abstaining from drugs and alcohol, who is studying engineering because his parents told him to. He is also trying to resist being seduced by blonde dreadlocked Lynn, who once wanted to become a Muslim because she loves Rumi’s poetry. All of these people live together in a house with a hole knocked in the wall that faces towards Mecca, and a Saudi flag with a spray-painted “A” for anarchy.

Yusuf’s character is what distinguishes Knight from his literary forebears. Ginsberg, Miller, and Thompson were always the center of a self-created chaotic circus. Like Whitman, they celebrated themselves and sang themselves. Yusuf, in contrast, is the still center around which all other action revolves, clearly touched by it but not the initiator of it. It is as if Tropic of Cancer were written from the point of view of Henry Miller’s best friend. Nevertheless, Yusuf is not a mere passive observer, for he hopes and believes that somewhere in this spiritual chaos a new form of Islam is being born. This is what makes him a searcher, not just a spectator, and this search is what provides the subtle dramatic flow beneath the book’s episodic, free-form surface. Despite their differences, all the characters come together as Muslims when they pray. They may use pizza boxes instead of prayer rugs, and need sandalwood incense to cover the smell of beer and vomit in the living room. But Knight’s descriptions of the prayer scenes reveal something authentically spiritual that triumphantly coexists with the excess and the hedonism.There is also Jehangir’s love for a new style of music called Taqwacore—a name derived from the Arabic word for “blessed” and the punk genre called Hard Core. The evocative names of the Taqwacore bands—Burning Books for Cat Stevens, Osama Bin Laden’s Tunnel Diggers-- create a sense of curiosity and anticipation, which reaches a shattering climax when Jehangir produces a Taqwacore concert and meets his favorite bands face to face.

A westerner who reads this book will find his stereotypes about Muslims shattered and turned inside out. Could there be any truth to this portrayal? Young Muslims all over America think so. Many of them deluged Knight with letters, telling him that he spoke to them and for them, and asking where they could find recordings of Taqwacore music. And now for the punch line which begins the articles on Taqwacore in the New York Times and the Rolling Stone: Knight had to say that these bands were a product of his imagination, and many of his readers responded by starting Taqwacore bands of their own. Some even named their groups after the formerly imaginary bands in the book. A few years later, Knight was driving an Islamic green tour bus with five of these bands, nurturing the fruits of his own self-fulfilling prophecy. The reality which is Taqwacore music deserves, and will receive, an article of its own in my next column. But I wanted to devote this column to the book itself, because Michael Muhammad Knight is not only a force for social and musical change. He is also a literary talent of the highest order.

The Taqwacores is available at

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