American Muslim convert and Harvard Islamic studies graduate student Michael Muhammed Knight is an essayist, a novelist, and performance artist who embraces a rebellious, alternative interpretation of Islam. His mission? To “shed antiquated and retrograde seventh-century ideas and make Islam consistent with the liberations of the 21st century.”
In his work and his spirituality, he strives to separate himself from conservatives who view Islamic as a monolithic, uncompromising orthodoxy, a worldview he feels is linked to undemocratic governmental rule.
An account of his travels through the Muslim world, “Journey to the End of Islam” has been published. It profiles the diversity of practice in Islam while critiquing conservative values.
“I had chosen Islam because it was the religion of Malcolm X, a language of resistance against unjust power. But in Pakistan, Islam was the unjust power…Pakistan’s Islam was guilty of everything for which I rebelled against Reagan-Falwell Christianity in America.”
After a glimpse into Muslim cultures across the globe, Knight has a better understanding of its multiplicity. He also has faith in American freedom. “In a weird way, America can save Islam.”
An Islamic punk rock scene is emerging as another dimension of life for Muslims in America.
“In this so-called war of civilizations, we’re giving the finger to both sides,” says the ‘godfather’ of the Muslim punk movement, Michael Muhammad Knight.
“Given punk’s history and values, Muslim punk makes sense,” says the Pakistani-Canadian director of Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, Omar Majeed.
“Punk tends to gravitate toward marginalized voices,” he says. “So it’s no surprise that there are Afro-punks, Latino punks. It’s about questioning authority. The purpose of it is not to be a jerk, but to talk truth to power.”
Canadian documentary filmmaker Omar Majeed recently released his newest film, Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam. Taking its name from “Taqwa,” the Arabic word for “higher consciousness,” Taqwacore is a nascent music scene that both celebrates Islam while rebelling, in typical punk fashion, against the social and political constraints of the religion. “Drunk imams, punk ayatollahs and masochistic muftis” — all seek comfort in Taqwacore’s blend of anarchy and faith, even if those who belong admit to being part of a “minority of a minority of a minority.”
The film follows Michael Muhammad Knight, an American convert who wrote The Taqwacores (2003), a fictional account of Islamic punk rockers. Even though the novel had no basis in reality, it sparked a devoted following, inspiring many to create the world Knight imagined. One of the bands to take quickly to the movement were The Kominas (Punjabi for “bastards”), a Boston-based outfit fronted by Basim Usmani and Shahjehan Khan.
Majeed follows Knight, The Kominas and the Vancouver-based band Secret Trial Five as they tour the United States, singing songs such as “Shari’a Law in the U.S.A.”. The film also captures a performance for the Islamic Society of North America’s convention in Chicago. While a good number of Muslims walk out and security is eventually called, some hijab-clad women bop their heads along.