By Robert Tesar
Muhammad was a punk rocker
you know he tore shit up
Muhammad was a punk rocker
Rancid sticker on his pickup truck
-- Michael Muhammad Knight
Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam documents the living manifestation of Michael Muhammad Knight’s fictional account of a Muslim punk house in Buffalo, New York. Knight’s imagined Islamic punk scene, as depicted in The Taqwacores, has become somewhat of a manifesto for young punk American Muslims. Carl W. Ernst, Professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina, has even suggested that The Taqwacores is the Catcher in the Rye of young Muslims. Specifically, the book spoke to a number of young American Muslim musicians and caused many of them to reach out to Knight and other Islamic punk youth across North America. Consequently, in 2007, several Islamic punk rock bands, along with Knight, set out across America in hopes of performing at various venues and eventually ending up in Chicago at the gathering of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).
Before viewing the film, I wondered how a punk ideology and Islam could possibly coexist. It did not take much contemplation before I became aware that both perspectives are married by the feeling of being disenfranchised. The American Islamic punks are part of a counter-culture seemingly even more “counter” than other punk movements of the American musical scene. In this way, they are somewhat of a counter-counter culture. I don’t intend to negate one counter with another; I only want to suggest that this cultural phenomenon is the conglomeration of two fringe cultural groups, making the Islamic punk scene a very interesting anti-establishment phenomenon. These Muslim artists are not only reacting to American culture, they are also questioning Islamic doctrine, as well as engaging the tensions that have developed between American Muslims and certain populations of fearful Americans who are cultivating anti-Muslim sentiment. One featured band in the documentary, The Kominas, articulate this layered struggle in their song, “Sharia Law in The U.S.A”:
"I am an Islamist, I am the antichrist, most squares can't make most wanted lists, but my my how I stay in style, cops chased me out of my mother's womb, my crib was in state pen before age two and the feds had bugged my red toy phone, so I devised a plan for heads to roll . . ."
With such provocative lyrics, it is hard to conceive of how such music might bridge the gap in understanding between cultures. But Michael Muhammad Knight makes a point of saying that this movement is sticking the middle finger up to both Islam and America.
The film begins with glimpses of dirty crowded beer-stained basements full of sweaty ecstatic kids, not all that different from scenes shown in The Decline of Western Civilization, a film that documented the beginnings of the punk scene in the early eighties. However, in Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, the crowd is composed of young women in hijabs (veils that cover the head and chest, most often worn by Muslim women) and young men wearing taqiyahs (short, round, brimless hats worn by Muslim men). This is not to say that all of the audience is dressed in this way, but enough to note.
In such a scene, Islamic rapper, MC Riz calls the listeners to “investigate just what it says, fast, help the poor, and pray God, Mecca, feast, fast and faith, that’s the basics, that’s the base, so how did we get here today?” It might be in such a way these youth have a new way to contemplate the Qur’an, the Five Pillars of Islamic practice, and more broadly, Islam and its integration into a global community.
As the intrepid tour moves from Boston towards their final destination, Chicago, it is very apparent their journey will not be an easy one. Their touring vehicle is an old school bus that has been painted green and decorated with images that cause the contemplative to engage the struggle which exists in the message of the musician’s music.
In Brooklyn, New York, the bus is pulled over because it is thought to be carrying tanks of propane. At a later point in the tour, one of their shows is cancelled due to certain graphics on a concert poster. The climax of the tour takes place at the Islamic Society of North America meeting in Chicago when the bands play the student’s open mic’ night.
After a number of spoken word performances, the bands take the stage to share their Islamic Punk music with their peers. The first band to perform, The Secret Trial Five, led by Canadian Muslim lesbian drag king, Sena Hussain, immediately causes an uproar due to the fact women are not allowed to sing at the so-called “open” mic. Eventually, the police show up and ask the bands to leave the gathering. Adding to the spectacle, in punk fashion, they do not leave without exchanging a few words with the law. As they leave the building, it becomes ironically apparent that one of the musicians prophetically wears a t-shirt that reads, “Frisk me I am Muslim.”
The second half of the film shares the journey of Basim Usmani and Shahjehan Khan as they travel to Pakistan, attempting to bring punk to the Islamic nation. The duo is eventually met by Knight, who at age seventeen had spent a year studying at the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. This portion of the film shows Usmani’s and Shahjehan’s struggle to play shows for the Pakistani public. Though, the difficulty to get and play shows seems at least partly due to their habitual use of hash.
While in Pakistan, Knight, Usmani and Shahjehan travel to Shah Jamal, a Sufi shrine, where Sadhu-looking Sufis chant, spin, and play music in praise of Allah, great and glorious is He. In one interview, a white bearded Sufi teaches Knight that Allah is a dervish (Sufi beggar). So maybe He is also a punk rocker?
When the duo play a show in Islamabad, they are received with different reactions, many of which are quite positive. I found it very interesting that a couple of the men who were interviewed wore t-shirts celebrating, respectively, Led Zepplin and the iconic Che Guevara. While Led Zepplin and Che are not “punks”, they certainly embody an attitude that goes against the mainstream and allowed the punk movement to take shape.
One of the most powerful scenes depicts a large group of shirtless men at the Shi’i shrine Bibi Pak Daman, banging their bare chests in a thunderous boom, causing their flesh to tear and bruise. Knight participates in the ritual, while his two friends hang out in the back of the room surrounded by other men who have decided to keep their shirts on and drum lightly on their breasts.
After many late nights of hash smoking, Knight is confronted with questions regarding his Muslim identity and his connection to Pakistan, so he leaves the two rockers and heads out to try and see the Pakistan he missed during his last stay in the country.
Alone, Knight travels back to the Faisal Mosque. There we see him partake in wudhu (the ritual cleansing or ablution that is done before prayer). I was surprised to see the many wudhu stations that surround a portion of the Mosque. It was clear that the mosque could accommodate a great number of Muslims. At the Mosque, he meets with an Imam who is very pleased to learn of Knight’s status as a Muslim, saying to Knight, “How lucky!”
After Knight returns to his partying Taqwacore pals, they decide to try and put on a free concert in the red light district. Their efforts result in quite the success and it seems that punk music has found a place in Pakistan.
I enjoyed this film. It examines an Islam that seems to be, in appearance at least, much different than what we have studied in the past. However, as the film progressed, I was able to recognize the sentiment of the shahadah the Islamic creedal statement, “there no God but God”, and the tawhid, the oneness that exists within the punk paradigm. Punk rock, even in all its dirt, grime, and anti-authority ideology, is not outside of God and religion.
The attitude of taqwa, with which this sub-punk genre has aligned itself, suggests a “reverence” or “piety” that has been interpreted as God-consciousness. I believe this is a fitting mission for those who participate in the Taqwacore movement. It is impossible to place limits on the Creator, so to try and suggest these artists are outside of the manifestation of God, seems ill-informed and quite subjective. In this way, Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, opened my heart and mind to an Islam quite different than anything I might have imagined, affirming the greatness of God’s manifestations in our lived experience, because it is only God, according to Islam, that will judge us on the Day of Reckoning.
1. Taqwacore -- a subgenre of punk music that relates to Islam. The term was first used by Michael Muhammad Knight in his novel The Taqwacores (2003. The word is composed of the Arabic word taqwa, meaning “piety” or “God fearing” and “hardcore” another subgenre of punk music that is usually faster, heavier, and more abrasive than other forms of punk.
2. Christopher Maag, “Young Muslims Build a Subculture on Underground Book”, The New York Times, 22 December 2008.