Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam

by Latoya Peterson

Taqwacores

“In this so called war of civilizations, we are putting the middle finger in both directions. Fuck you and fuck you.”

“We’re not freaking street preachers and we’re not slam dancing for Allah.”

At this year’s South by Southwest, I only had time to catch two movies.

It should come as no surprise to regular readers that the two I chose were Taqwacore (the documentary) and The Taqwacores (the narrative film based on the novel by Michael Muhammad Knight).

The doc begins with a definition: “Taqwá is the Islamic concept of “God-consciousness” or higher consciousness.”

The “core” comes from from punk.

A Concert scene plays with a woman reciting

“At heart, I am a Muslim,
At heart, I am an American,
At heart, I am a Muslim,
At heart, I am an American artist,
And I have no guilt… “

This stanza appears in both films as something vital and important – the fact that this part of the poem appears in both caused me to become curious about it’s origins.

Interestingly, it comes from a piece by Patti Smith, called “Babelouge”:

But I digress. The Taqwacore doc is a film by Omar Majeed, and if there is any overriding theme throughout the film, it’s the idea that music (and all it represents) is haram (forbidden).

The opening scenes show some of the Taqwacore artists on tour holding a parking lot debate on the idea of music and authority. Ultimately, they advocate that the ideas of imams are just that – ideas, and that the ultimate interpretation of Islam lies within the individual.

Finally, the documentary officially opens, with the familiar riffs of The Kominas‘ “Sharia Law in the USA” – as usual, it is a crowd favorite.

Michael Muhammad Knight appears often in the documentary, often shown speaking to audiences in bookstores, or providing an occasional voice-over narration. He notes:

“I stopped trying to define punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. They aren’t so far removed.”

“Both have suffered from sellouts and hypocrites, but also from true believes, whose strict devotion had crippled their creative drive. ” Both are viewed from the outside as cohesive communities, which couldn’t be further from the truth. You could not hold punk or Islam in your hands.

Knight also explained the motivations surrounding the birth of his novel, The Taqwacores. After being exposed to Islam in Pakistan, he felt secure in his faith but at the same time, emotionally adrift. The demands of organized religion wore him down. He found connection to Islam through punk culture, which preaches nonauthority and focuses on centering and expressing the self. Knight explains that he wrote the novel out of a sense of loneliness – so no one was more surprised than he when he received a letter from a fellow Muslim punk, asking to be connected with the kids in the book.

The musician that reached out to Knight after reading Taqwacores was Kouroush Poursalchi of Vote Hezbollah. When Knight said there was no scene, he replied he’d make one. Other musicians also discuss how they found salvation through punk music. Basim Usmani, of the Kominas, explains that his conversion to punk was an outgrowth of growing up brown and accented in a predominantly white culture. While Usmani was teased for his accent and faith growing up, he says “I felt like, among punk kids, the differences I had were celebrated.”

Ultimately, Kouroush is the force that starts to draw the movement together online, and ultimately, there is enough interest to create a Taqwacore tour. After tricking out a school bus (including an American flag draped over the stairs of the bus, for people to step on), the groups head on tour, adding more groups along the way – including rapper MC Riz. The bus draws a lot of attention, and provides an avenue for discussions of profiling – the traveling band of musicians are often pulled over or identified as terrorists because of the messaging and images stenciled on the sides. (Some called the NYPD, claiming there were propane tanks on the side of the bus.) Interestingly enough, they both discuss this phenomenon and turn it around- once filming a police stop of other civilians.

They make a variety of stops on the trip, but two caught my immediate interest.

The first stop was in Harlem. Since African-American Muslims were not depicted in The Taqwacores (neither book or film version), I wasn’t sure where this was heading. Does these Muslims not factor into his analysis? Or are we associating all things black and Islam in America with the Nation of Islam? I wasn’t sure – but the absence of black Muslims did stand out to me, most likely because they way I understand Islam is heavily linked to black political thought and organizing. However, when the tour takes a break to walk around Harlem, Knight explains that he wanted to share the American Islamic tradition that helped develop his beliefs. He was heavily influenced by the 5 percenters view of organized religion, and how that meshes with punk thinking. He says: “All this divine power that you fear, about being outside of yourself, all this power is within you. You are your own Allah.”

Knight met with black Muslims on the tour, and veers a bit into confession. He discusses his white supremacist upbringing and notes that in addition to preaching hatred, his father was also physically abusive to himself and his mother. In search of an outlet, Knight started listening to Public Enemy. “The anger PE communicated had nothing to do with what I was angry about. But it was anger. Anger with the pride of being right.”

Knight reveals that his father asked if he was consorting with “niggers” because of Islam – he says he believes Islam “is the correction” for his father.

The second major revelation is the entire narrative arc of Secret Trial Five. Sena Hussain, describes herself as an “openly queer drag king and lead singer of a Taqwacore band.”

The best word to describe Hussain is unrepentant: “I’m not going to hold back…or hide anything really. I don’t care what kind of trouble I get into for it.”

With that, the doc shows her writing a song with the lyrics: “Middle Eastern zombies are the worst kind/presidential flesh is what’s on the mind.”

Over the course of the tour, the Taqwacores head to ISNA, largest congregation of Muslims in North America – Knight says it represents “hygienic” Islam. Ingrid Mattison, president of ISNA, appears on camera to say they encourage diversity, not violence or hatred.

The Taqwacores decide to crash the Islamic Convention, and sign up for the talent show. As time wears on, groups express concern about the crowd not feeling it and shake off pre-show jitters.

When their names are finally called, Secret Trial Five takes the stage first. The ISNA organizers are in shock – according to them, the rules state there can be no female vocalists, so while Hussain and company are rocking out onstage, the others are fighting with organizers to keep them from ending the set early. However, a lot of the crowd is feeling the song, including a group of girls who rush the stage. Unfortunately, ISNA has had enough, and they call the police. The Taqwacores start chanting “stop the hate” when the police climb on stage to shut down the performance, but switch over to “Pigs are haram in Islam” after it becomes clear they are being asked to leave.

The reception from within ISNA was mixed. While the organizers cited policy – “I don’t care personally, but our rules say no female vocalists” – other Muslimahs said they found the sound “fresh” and enjoyed the change.

Outside of the tour, some of the most interesting moments stem from the frank observations the Taqwacores crew. In one aside, there is a a venting session from the Taqwacores on the media, showing a montage of interviews and mounting frustration. Knight says most of the media coverage about the movement is “oh look, there’s a brown kid with a mohawk…and that’s it.” They felt misrepresented, with much coverage saying this was Islamic ideological music, which is not the case. They specifically call out an article that had a picture of Basim Usmani crouched down on his cell phone. However, the caption for the photo said “Basim Usmani praying at home.” The overall idea was that media outlets were not interested in telling the truth – only in making profits.

Knight makes an astute observation by saying: “[The mainstream media] don’t engage the difference…they want to lump us all one group like we are all saying the same things.”

Knight discusses the problem in a Muslim context, but it’s a huge problem for all marginalized groups.

Basim was once asked “how does it feel to be Muslim, knowing there are terroists?” Basim replied to the interviewer “How does it feel to be white and know about the slave trade?” They all laugh.

Ultimately, the Taqwacore documentary proved to be proactive viewing – the question of who we are, and how we express ourselves should be familiar with artists, especially those engaging with the world and creating art outside of sanctioned norms.