The Taqwacores is a novel about a strange community, to put it mildly. To even try and come up with a single word or a sentence that could capture even the gist of the crew of Muslim punk artists is mindwrecking.
The title, “Taqwacores”, combines taqwa, the Arabic word for “piety,” with “hardcore,” used to describe many genres of angry Western music (and also adult movies). So the protagonist Yusuf Ali experiences “taqwacores” as deep Muslim piety mixed with angry hardcore music (played in praise of God), and mixed with a dose of sex (both soft and hardcore). When I say mixed, I mean piety/music/sex often coincide. The story begins when Yusuf, who comes from an average Muslim family of Pakistani origin, lodges in with a group of Muslim youth in Buffalo. There stops mundaneity. Every trace of the average, the regular, the orderly vanishes. There is not a moment Yusuf’s mind is not twisted and bent. What fascinates him the most is perhaps the burqa-wearing feminist guitar player who leads men in prayer and delivers sermons. A lot of stuff for some Muslims to be angry over. But Muhammad Knight, speaking through his characters, arguing back and forth through their own dialogues, seems to suggest, there are many things Muslims should be angry about such as Osama bin Laden and the likes of him, and their picture of Islam that they try to palm off on other people. The punk crew can rage against things such as the treatment of Muslims in the post 9-11 America as well as the moral-police in a Muslim country who let dozens of women burn inside a building because they would not let streetwalkers see women without traditional hejab (head-cover etc).
Muhammad Knight was born an Irish Catholic in upstate New York and converted to Islam as a teenager. He studied at a mosque in Pakistan but became disillusioned with Islam after learning about the sectarian battles after the death of Muhammad. He said he wrote The Taqwacores to mend the rift between his being an observant Muslim and an angry American youth. He found validation in the life of Muhammad, who instructed people to ignore their leaders, destroy their petty deities and follow only God. In the novel, Muhammad Knight often makes references to various Sufi poets who were rebels of their times. One of the characters even claims boldly that the Islamic messenger Muhammad was the hard core punk artist of his time. The small community sing in praise of his anti-establishment actions, his smashing of false idols etc. The book paints the Muslim punk scene with such flavor I am not at all surprised some readers contacted the author and asked where and when were the forthcoming concerts. (Note: Mark Levine wrote a book about the current rock and punk scene in the Middle East, entitled Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam.)
One can say a lot about why and how disturbing and innovative, and yet how old-fashioned the book can appear in its focus on identity crises, a juvenile ending in which the narrator leaves the practice of Islam while “remaining a human being.” At the surface, the novel seems to be about diversity of Islamic practice in the US and a dramatization of some conceptual struggles within the faith, the novel is dully one-sided in its preference of juvenile (rather than real hardcore) rebellion and dismissal of all other types of Muslims.
One thing that strikes me is the way a community is described. We conceive of community as a gathering of people who have a common ground, a common essence perhaps. Community is often based on myth, be it of religious or secular nature. The motley crew of The Taqwacores indeed have something in common, their love of God. Yet, they are both religious and absolutely against religion. There is nothing they more respect and disrespect as Islam. They absolutely love it, and yet any “ordinary” Muslim would say they disrespect every single aspect of Islam, except perhaps devotion to God himself. To them, to maintain a dose of disrespect to religion is the best way to avoid what Islam is against, the worship of anything but God. They try to demythologize the myth of Islamic community and at the same time uphold it. Their community is not a single thing connected to for instance body, fatherland, nation, leader, language. Any such community, to them, loses the essence of what J-L. Nancy called being-in-common, and the with-together. Even though they believe in God, their “in-common”, their being-in-common does not amount to a substance that absorbs everything. Rather what they share is a strong sense of finitude and a lack of substantial identity, ideal or empirical such. They are inifinitely aware of their finitude, of their lack of infinite identity in the face of the God they worship through they punk rituals (which are not even real rituals because they change from day to day). The interesting thing is that they are not really kids with shattered identities, simply alienated, and all that jazz. They are quite certain in their persuasions and do not hold back in their extreme need to express their positions, spiritual or political. They expose themselves totally, in the true sense of the word: they pose themselves as open to others in the deepest intimacy of their own being. This seems to me what makes their peculiar community, a community that is not society they react against. Community but not society.
In addition, I will add some words from an American convert, Dawud Khuluq, who has more insight into the “taqwacore” phenomenon:
There wasn’t really a genre of “Muslim punk/hardcore” before The Taqwacores came out, which is one of the problems with this particular phenomenon. That book has a lot of elements that are lauded within the story that I find reprehensible that I found reprehensible about the punk and hardcore scenes even before I converted to Islam. Which is why I was vegan straight edge and held an affinity for the Hardline Movement (which was a militant vegan deep ecology ideology). Many members of Hardline converted to Islam and it was through their writings and their music that I came to be interested in Islam.
So in a sense, you could trace the true origins of Muslim punk/hardcore not to the fictional story The Taqwacores that all these newjacks with little actual allegiance and regard for Islam, but to bands like Vegan Reich and Racetraitor. Vegan Reich, in fact, originated the Hardline Movement and was pretty much responsible for the vegan straight edge scene in the hardcore/punk world spawning many bands and vegan and straight edge people in their wake. Hardline was basically a movement with an ideology that adhered to what they called the “one ethic” that all life is sacred and has the inalienable right to its existence. The last Vegan Reich EP was titled “Jihad” and had Surah al-Zilzalah in Arabic and English on the back cover. Racetraitor had Muslim and Bahai members in the band, two of the guys were Iranian-Americans. They actually have some ayat of the Qur’an being recited in Arabic in the background of one of their songs… which is a very grindcore-ish metal sound. They were also vegan straight edge and some members were in the Hardline Movement. You could even trace things back to a side band of the Vegan Reich guys called Captive Nation Rising that was more of a reggae/punk band that includes references to Islam and other religions in its art, liner note essay, and lyrics. The Hardline Movement eventually morphed out of being an exclusively hardcore/punk phenomenon and became an Islamic organization with a definite Sufi/Irfani and Shi’i flavor.
That’s where I’m coming from, and to me the whole book and phenomenon is an insult to all of my friends who come from that background and actually precede by a number of years. I say this primarily because anyone that takes the tenants of the faith seriously and practices it according to what the Qur’an says regarding a number of issues (such as abstaining alcohol, extra-marital sex, and drugs, and actually keeping the prayers regularly) are depicted in a decidedly bad light in The Taqwacores. Proto-facist shaved bald Muslim punk bands that are supposed to be at once reminiscent of Wahhabis and Nazi skinheads; and the straight edge guys like Umar, who is a total a-hole until the last chapter of the book. The people who take Islam seriously and practice the religion earnestly are made the villians; while the characters that regularly break with the tenants of Islam are made out to be the heroes. I also find it ridiculous that they guy has his characters wear Israeli flag stars of David as some sort of vacuous rebellion akin to what some early punks in the 70s did with the swastika… which was a stupid attempt at rebellion, and one that would be met with violence in almost any punk/hardcore scene in this day and age because Nazis are not tolerated in those scenes. They’ve been driven out and have had to create their own Nazi scenes. A band like Screwdriver (a Nazi skinhead band) could never get on the same bill as Agnostic Front or Madball.
Note: The Taqwacores is coming out as a film. Read more at Zabiha News. The picture below taken from this site.