The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight
Michael Muhammad Knight's The Taqwacores compels the reader instantly with the scrawled song lyrics to “Muhammad Was a Punk Rocker,” the invocation “Bismillahir, rahmanir and so on” (first lines of the Quran), and a tale of a finger lost and won in a bet. At once there is a juxtaposition of punk and Islam, even typographically; the novel’s title is half lower case punk record ransom note lettering and half sweeping calligraphic Arabic font.
Yusef Ali affirms the punk rock of Islam:
I stopped trying to define punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. 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.
The Taqwacores is the evolution of punk and Islam, the possibility that the displacement of punk in a Muslim context and Islam in an American context will save them both.
My punk is located in the suburban latent Christian tradition of Pennsylvania public high school and college, on the margins and within the city: the aimless riding and smoking in someone’s Dad’s car, the failed bands and zines and crimes, the alternating fecklessness and shining eyes. Michael Muhammad Knight’s rendering of Muslim Buffalo punks -- mostly young men in their early twenties -- along a continuum of religious observance feels familiar and true:
One thing I have faithfully observed and noted about punks: they’re all legends, each and every last one of them, in one circle or another. Even if you never see them in the elements of their renown, even in a mere courtesy-handshake between friends of friends in a parking lot, you cannot help but feel an immortal vibrancy, a comic-book kind of costumed exuberance like that parking lot is host to a historic summit or a scene in ten thousand movies we’re living right now.
This is not Catcher in the Rye, as some have claimed, but a true brother to Howl and On the Road with Jehangir Tabari as Dean Moriarty and Yusef Ali as Sal Paradise. Yusef is an engineering student in Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts, a mostly straightedge Sunni Pakistani American, a “Hey, Little Rich Boy,” the chronicler of the taqwacore (taqwa = piety) experience, maybe a poseur, definitely a Muslim with a crisis of faith. Jehangir is
king of the shaheed stage dive. Jehangir who gave tafsirs to the drunken streets. Jehangir who’s up there with the houris in a hollowed pearl sixty miles wide. Jehangir the electric-guitar muezzin drunk and calling us all to stupor-prayer. Jehangir who takes my Islam to its perihelion climax. Jehangir the rustlin’ and ramblin’ cowboy fellaheen. Jehangir star of twenty thousand unborn deens. Jehangir the champ who left us championless like Husain did on those blood clumped Karbala sands. Jehangir whose heroes were Malcolm X and Johnny Cash... Jehangir the new punk laureate after Patti Smith and Jim Carroll. Jehangir the Walt Whitman Iqbal. Jehangir the skinny South Asian golden-skinned and orange-mohawked. Jehangir the walking peak of eloquence.
Yusef is witness and observer. Jehangir is his muse and circling around the heart of the Muslim punk house are Rabeya, the riot grrrl “baggy ninja with various band patches on her flowing burqa,” Muzammil, the liwatacore (gay Muslim punk), Umar, homophobic, sexist, and fundamentalist, Lynn, the blonde dreadlocked vegan apostate in tank tops, Fasiq Abasa, a skater, crust gutter punk Amazing Ayuub, and Rude Dawud.
The Taqwacores is not so much plot or character driven but rather propelled by philosophical and religious discussion. It is essay, rumination, discovery, defining redefining faith, beauty, love, ethics, obligation, and oh, the guilt. Characterization is sometimes sacrificed for exploration of truth. What do we find in religion and music, specifically Islam and punk rock? Does the same philosophical vein exist in both or is there a rejection of philosophy, instead something fervid and visceral, or fascist and nihilistic? How do we define honest adherence to punk and Islam? There is salvation, destruction, control, discipline, and this self-flagellating search for authenticity. Is Umar the “real” Muslim because his asceticism, sexism, and homophobia are buttressed by hadiths? Jehangir in his openheartedness and living, really living, embodies a more permissive, compassionate, mystic Islam and Yusef wrestles with indecision about his correct path. Yusef symbolizes the ambiguity and empty vessel quality that punk can provide those looking for a lens and a guide.
There is an ideological toughness, a dogmatism to hardcore religion and hardcore music. And punk, like Islam, is more all-encompassing lifestyle, rather than a diversion. At least it can be.
Yusef is maddened and divided by an identity struggle, his allegiances and devotions, his heroes, his place in Islam and punk, and the sex.
Once the car drove out of sight I went off the porch myself and walked. Had no idea where I was going or even what time of night it was. Walked up the street and turned the corner. Looked at all the houses, the lights out in every one, wondering what it would have been like to be Umar and walk through neighborhoods in moral opposition to everything, and then wondering whether he had something beautiful that I had lost; had I really reasoned above so much of my religion, or merely sold out for the path of least resistance? It would have been a hassle to pray faithfully five times daily, but Umar did it... But if there was something beautiful in Umar, why did it block him from seeing the beauty in Lynn? She had so much love and faith that she didn’t even need religion anymore. Or she was just lazy... It was so easy to imagine them, each in their standard costumes: spikes, mohawks, burqas, patches, tattoos, sunglasses, porkpie hats, hoodies. And then there was me. What the hell was my place in that zoo?
Knight has given us something wonderful: Introductory Islam, (a dictionary and Islam reference are essential companions for readers unfamiliar with Islamic terminology) a head-on clash of punk and the Quran: pizza box for a prayer rug, baseball bat in the wall for qiblah. And in some ways the only plot here is the late bloom coming of age in learning how to masturbate to Victoria’s Secret.
For a book that has inspired a Muslim punk scene, there is also something here refusing the salvation-bestowing powers of punk and Islam. Yusef ultimately moves back home and we wonder how can we sustain the orgiastic fever of the believer.
The Taqwacores: A Novel by Michael Muhammad Knight