Book Review: The Taqwacores (Michael Muhammad Knight)

Michael Muhammad Knight’s ‘The Taqwacores’ is a novel of unusual provenance. Originally photocopied and distributed in mosque car parks, it has since spawned a punk subculture based on the fictional taqwacore it portrayed and, if the blurb is to be believed, has been “confiscated in Malaysia, taught in numerous colleges and universities and cited as an influence in the American Muslim woman-led prayer movement.” Not bad for what is, on one level, just a tale of drop-out punks and counter-culture philosophy.

But really, ‘The Taqwacores’ is so much more than this.

The novel is written from the perspective of Yusef, who is something of an outsider in the punk house where he lives, deep in run-down Buffalo. He shares the house with several other Muslim punks, all with their unique takes on Islam. Umar is straightedge, and more of a religious hardliner than his housemates. He is festooned in halal tattoos: a black X on each hand; star and crescent on one forearm; salalaho alayhe wa salaam, the name of Muhammad, on the other; across his neck, in green, 2:219. 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 Propagandhi.

Fasiq is a stoner or hashishiyyun and, aside from Yusef, is perhaps the most quiet and reclusive member of the household. He can often be found on the roof of the house, Quran and joint in hand. His usual companion is Jehangir, who tells drunken tales of the taqwacores out West and punk Islamic philosophy to anyone who’ll listen.

All four, and many others who drop in and out of the house, observe their religion. They make wudhu, the ritual of cleanliness required for prayer, in bathroom and kitchen sinks. Old pizza boxes in the living room stand in for prayer mats. A hole smashed into the wall marks qiblah, the direction of Mecca. Jehangir plays the call to prayer, adhan, on his electric guitar, the familiar melody reaching out from the rooftop. Every Friday afternoon Islamic kids, punks and drop-outs gather at the house for jumaa, congregational prayer. Before the evening some depart, others arrive, and partying ensues.

‘The Taqwacores’ is a process of exploration as much as a story. Nominally it follows the lives of the residents of the house and their friends, culminating in Jehangir’s dream to bring the taqwacore bands of the West over to Buffalo for a massive gig. More than this, though, it grapples with the questions asked and the problems faced by those caught up in the collision between youth and contemporary American life, their religious upbringing and the more conservative or traditional teachings of Islam. This alone is nothing new, but the collision between punk and Islam is unique.

Four figures are central to this exploration. Yusef is a mostly neutral figure. His parents are wealthy and middle-class, and he has a future thanks to his degree in engineering. He faces his own personal issues and does grow over the course of the novel, particularly sexually, but where Islam is concerned he is often torn between mutual respect for Jehangir and Umar. These two, although nominally friends, occupy somewhat antithetical positions.

Jehangir drinks, smokes and fucks. He is a tragic romantic, in love with life and with the possibilities it offers. He believes in a new Islam, an open and inclusive one. As he concludes a prayer he leads:

“Allah’s too big and open for my deen to be small and closed. Does that make me a kufr? I say Allahu Akbar. If that’s not good enough then fuck Islam, you can have it. Imam Husain said, ‘he who has no religion, let him at least be free in his present life.’ So there you go. Now let’s pray.”

At parties, Umar stands at the back of the room, arms crossed, looking pissed-off. Yusef thinks he likes to be seen as the pissed-off tough guy, but also thinks, by contrast with his other friends, “Umar, he was Muslim. But he didn’t look it.” Umar refuses to allow beer and drugs in his truck. Later he is also suspicious of Muzammil, a sarcastic young Muslim, because of his homosexuality. He often speaks of the good old days, when the house began:

“When Mustafa lived here”, he says, “it never could have looked like this.”

“Back when Mustafa lived here”, Rabeya shoots back, “I could never sit in the living room.”

Rabeya is the fourth of the novel’s key figures. Together with her friend Fatima, they explore what it means to be female, feminist and Muslim. Rabeya is intolerant of intolerance. She is well aware of the threats faced by women, whether from their religion or from the wider society in which they live. Yet she still observes:

“There is a cool Islam out there, Yusef. You just have to find it. You have to sift through all the other stuff, but it’s there.”

The central conflict of the novel is the clash between these different takes on Islam. One side of this is represented by Jehangir, Rabeya, Fasiq, Muzammil, their friends, and later the taqwacore bands, who know that in many different ways they are outsiders to Islam, but have developed their own philosophies on the subject. The contrasting perspective is provided by Umar, Yusef’s own doubts about his religion, the occasional appearance or mention of parents and traditional imams (leaders of the prayer; possibly the closest Islam has to religious leaders), and towards the end of the book the ultra-fundamentalist band Bilal’s Boulder.

The conflict and philosophies of the novel are more simply defined as inclusiveness versus exclusiveness. Umar, Bilal’s Boulder, and the more traditional values they espouse, reject what they see as characteristic of kufr (an unbeliever or atheist), be it homosexuality, drink, drugs, sex, failure to observe certain traditions, and so on. They demand a specific adherence to Islamic teachings.

By contrast, the philosophy exemplified by Jehangir is one that offers a place to everyone. Not everyone agrees – Rabeya stops short of Jehangir’s idealistic beliefs, Yusef often doubts whether they are all really Muslim – but as Jehangir himself says:

“[T]he whole point of taqwacore is that Islam can take any shape you want it to. If we deny a band their spot because we don’t like their attitudes or their interpretation, then we’re no better than all the Conformist Chickenshit imams out there.”

And this, ultimately, is what the novel is about. It is about punk, and it is about what punk means to these people – to all of them. It is about finding one’s place in the world, and whether it is better to accept or reject the differences of others.

‘The Taqwacores’ is a beautiful and intelligent novel, and vital reading for anyone who seeks to understand what both punk and religion can mean.

8 Responses to “Book Review: The Taqwacores (Michael Muhammad Knight)”
  1. JonathanM says:

    Ooooh… nice find. I might have to take a look at it. This is so the type of stuff that SF should be doing.

  2. Shaun CG says:

    Oops, you caught me at my editing!

    Yes, I highly recommend it if you can hunt down a copy. Apparently the UK edition is censored (the areas where something has been excluded are marked ***) so I’m going to try and buy a US copy.

    This review, FWIW, is based on a UK edition someone lent me.

  3. Mark says:

    I’m still waiting for my copy ordered from Amazon two weeks ago, so this is a great appetizer.

    Since i could only order the UK edition, i did some short googling and found out that Autonomedia published the censored passages online:

  4. Shaun CG says:

    Superb find, Mark, thanks very much! I was hoping this might be online but hadn’t found it.

    Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  5. Thanks to your post I do not look like an idiot. I had an argument with someone and this proves I was right. Thanks!

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