Thinking outside the box: the new generation of Punk Islam

April 12

This week Michael Muhammad Knight presented in Germany his book Taqwarcores, first published in 2004. The author is a converted American Muslim who currently lives in Berlin. The book discusses the birthplace of Punk Islam and the desire of a new generation of Muslims who reject religious ideologies and dogmas. His book reading in Berlin found an interested and curious audience.

Convert Straddles Worlds of Islam and Hip-Hop

He was a “15-year-old white kid with Dad a diagnosed schizophrenic, rapist and racial separatist and Mom fresh off her second divorce,” Michael Muhammad Knight writes in his 2006 memoir, “Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America.” At home in Rochester, he “listened to a lot of Public Enemy and read ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ and by 16 had a huge portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini” on his bedroom wall.
At 17, Mr. Knight, having converted to Islam, was “running around Pakistan with Afghan and Somalian refugees” and studying “at the largest mosque in the world: Faisal Masjid in Islamabad, which happens to look like a spaceship.”

Mr. Knight now writes that his immersion in the world of Five Percenters made him, in a sense, an insider. He does not accept the literal truth of all their claims (and he is skeptical that all Five Percenters do). But he is no longer an outsider looking in.

In his book’s introduction, Mr. Knight offers a bit of advice to other scholars doing fieldwork: “Keep your guard up and keep your distance. You spend that much time with a culture and fail to check yourself, you’ll fall in love and become your subject.”

How will you know when you have gotten too close to your subject? For Mr. Knight, there were clear signs. In 2008, he made the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca. “Here I am,” he told me, “a quasi-orthodox Muslim in Mecca, walking around the Kaaba” — the shrine Muslims around the world face during prayers — “and I am interpreting it through mathematics, the lessons, Wu-Tang lyrics. I had to make sense of that.”

Muslims Meet Punk

The film, directed by Eyad Zahra, is based on a novel by Michael Muhammad Knight about a fictitious Muslim punk scene in the United States. The tale is told through the eyes of Yusef (Bobby Naderi), a preposterously naïve engineering student in Buffalo, whose family is from Pakistan. Yusef moves off campus into a squalid house full of fellow Muslims with some decidedly untraditional ideas about the faith. There are prayers during the day and wild parties at night.

Muslim punk rockers challenge Muslim, American, and Muslim-American establishments with music

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 on Islamic punk opens in theaters

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.