Provocation as a Way of Life

Every movement has its pioneers. With his novel "Taqwacore", Michael Muhammad Knight created a blueprint for an individual youth protest culture in the US: "Muslim Punk". His book is both shocking and provocative. But "Taqwacore" has struck a chord with Muslim youngsters who say it reflects their own conflicts of identity. By Naima El Moussaoui

By Naima El Moussaoui

A flatshare in Buffalo, New York, where the "Muslim Punks" gather for prayers every Friday afternoon. A hole in the wall, made with a baseball bat, indicates the direction of Mecca. Prayer mats are rolled out alongside empty beer bottles and pizza boxes. Anyone can have a shot at being the imam: sometimes it's Rabeya the feminist – a woman who wears a burka covered in various punk band sew-on patches and who only prays when she feels like it.

At other times Jehangir leads the prayers – a permanently drunk guy with a Mohican, leather jacket and an electric guitar slung around his neck. As soon as the sun goes down, it's time for sex, punk rock and partying in this particular house.

​​An everyday scene in the lives of protagonists in Michael Muhammad Knight's novel "Taqwacore", which has now been published in German. The title itself suggests a hybrid culture: a blend of the words "taqwa", which means fear of god, and hardcore.

Rebellion against religion and authority

The book describes a place where two worlds meet: Islam and punk. But there's no collision. They merge to form a new Muslim punk youth culture. The characters rebel against all forms of organized religion and authority.

They create their own brand of Islam, free of religious specifications and regulations. Taqwacore, as first-person narrator Yusef explains, means deliberately being a bad Muslim but still passionately loving Allah. But are they really still Muslims at all? Or have they long become apostates? A question Yusef ponders repeatedly.

The members of this flatshare want to be Muslims, but they don't want to give up their American lifestyle and their anarchic punk attitude – they want to be just that - "Punk Muslim American". Using apparent contradictions they assemble a mosaic, an Islamo-punk identity. This allows them say the words "Alhamdulillah" (God be praised) and "fuck" in the same breath. And it's absolutely fine to read the Koran while smoking a joint.

This world also accommodates female imams and homosexual Muslims. "Allah is so tall and wide, my faith cannot be small and narrow-minded. Does this make me a kafir (an apostate of Islam)? I say: Allahu Akbar. If that's not enough, then I say go to hell Islam, you can keep it!" This is how Jehangir sums up Taqwacore's anarchic approach. There's no such thing as the perfect Muslim, he says. Even the Prophet Mohammed had a dark side: "You can say: Muhammadu rasulullah and still concede that he was a paedophile, don't you think? (...) The fact that Mohammed was a sick guy is actually totally punk rock."

"Somewhere out there, there's a cool Islam," says Rabeya. "You just have to find it." Her black felt-tip pen helps out. She uses it to cross out verse 4:34 of the Koran. "If I believe it's wrong for a man to hit a woman, and the Koran sees things differently, then I couldn't give a shit about that verse." Now she likes the Koran a whole lot better, she says.

She demands freedom and equality for Muslim women. Only she knows why she is completely covered. And it's confusing, because the burka jars totally with her stance. In Michael Muhammad Knight's novel "Taqwacore", she talks about the veiling of women, emancipation, abstinence and female sexuality.

For a long time, she didn't even dare to think about sex, suppressing any hint of desire as though turning off a light. But those days are gone: during a punk music gig at the house, she supplies what has to be the book's most provocative scene – an onstage blowjob while wearing her burka.

"I don't want to undermine Islam"

The novel is a radical statement. Is its author an Islamophobe? After all, his story drags everything that is sacred to "normal" Muslims through the dirt.

"I'm not trying to undermine Islam. I just want to make it possible within my life," says Knight. Now 35, he was raised as a Catholic and converted to Islam as a teenager after reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. He travelled to Pakistan on the age of 17, to study Islamic teachings in mosques and at Koran schools. Living strictly in accordance with the rules of orthodox Islam in Pakistan, he even considered joining the Jihad.

But doubts arose and as time went by, he radically questioned everything - the Koran as well as the Prophet Mohammed. "I was disillusioned by religion, because the Muslim community was not how I imagined it would be," he says. Back in the US, he made new friends at college: "I hung out with punk rockers. They were open, honest and accepted me as I was – and I wasn't perfect. And I thought wouldn't it be great if Muslims had a punk spirit like that."

He wrote "Taqwacore" in the midst of this crisis of meaning and identity – as his personal farewell to Islam. "I felt very lost and lonely when I wrote the book," he says. The work is his blueprint for a "modern" Islam, just as he would like it to be. But what exactly does it mean to be a Muslim? And who sets down the parameters? Questions that run like a thread throughout the novel.

Yearning for a "cool Islam"

The response from the young generation of Muslims in the US shows that he is not alone with his ideas and doubts. To the chagrin of conservative Muslim groups, they received the novel with gusto. Youngsters see themselves represented in the text, because they are experiencing similar crises of faith and identity – conflicts that arise because they are both Muslim and American. They also yearn for a "cool Islam" that grants them their "western" freedoms.

 Foto: Kim Badawi - Reflux Pictures; Lorber Films
Michael Muhammad Knight: "Be a Muslim on your own terms. And tell the world it can go to hell!"

​​In the novel, a Taqwacore community is established with numerous Muslim punk bands. "There was a boy in Texas who thought it was all real. He wanted me to introduce him to the people in the book," says Knight, describing an encounter with one reader. "I told him I'd made it all up. That there's no such thing as Taqwacore. And he said: But I'm Taqwacore and I always was." The boy then went on to form a Muslim punk band, naming it after one of the bands in the novel: "Vote Hezbollah".

"Not all Muslims are the same, and there are many complexities within the Islamic world," explains Knight. Today, he says, he has found his "peace in humility towards Allah". As a devout Muslim, scholar of Islam and writer, he continues to engage with the subject of American Islam.

The heroes of his novel "Taqwacore" transgress boundaries that also present themselves to Muslims in real life. Not all of them fit into the classic scheme and practice their faith – just as in the case of other religions. Some Muslims don't pray or fast, others drink alcohol, party to excess, have extramarital sex, are homosexual, and perhaps eat salami on the sly.

With this in mind, "Taqwacore" also means having the courage to lead an existence as a failed but uncompromisingly honest Muslim. Without a mask that maintains false pretences. Without double standards and self-deception. Without fear of being true to oneself. In this regard, the first-person narrator has wise advice for all Muslims: "If you don't pray, then don't behave as though you do. You don't need to get a complex and think you're worse than all the most devoutly faithful in the world. Be a Muslim on your own terms. And tell the world it can go to hell!"

Naima El Moussaoui

© 2012

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/