A tale of sex and drugs among young Muslims is coming to Britain. It may shock, but their elders shouldn't rush to take offence.
This week sees the UK publication of a book about Muslims which, I can safely say, is absolutely unique. It's a novel called The Taqwacores. Though I fear our literary elite may sniff at it and the more conservative Muslims will be offended, it has already gained a cult following in the States and earned some recognition over here in The Sun. In the words of the publisher: "The Taqwacores is to literature what the Sex Pistols were to music."
I have been awaiting the book's arrival with more than a little interest because I accidentally had a hand in bringing it to Britain ... but perhaps I should start at the beginning.
Its author, Michael Muhammad Knight, might be described as the Hunter S Thompson of Islamic literature. An American of Irish-Catholic descent, he converted to Islam at 16 after reading the biography of Malcolm X. At 17, he went off to Pakistan, spent six hours a day studying religion, came into contact with Afghan refugees and almost joined the Chechen fighters. But then he changed his mind, went back to the US, became disillusioned and turned into a punk Muslim.
In case you're wondering what a punk Muslim is or how to become one, I'm not entirely sure either, but in Knight's case it means being "that guy at a party who just stands in the corner and talks shit about everyone".
That includes raising hell with the Muslim establishment. He claims to have stink-palmed Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) and other Muslim celebrities, and he wrote a series of reports about the Islamic Society of North America's conferences (2003, 2004, and 2005) in a style reminiscent of Rolling Stone magazine.
In an interview in 2004, he highlighted the similarities between the Muslim community and (you'd never guess) George W Bush: "He's anti-abortion, anti-gay and stands for everything that makes standard Islam as hard and mean as standard Christianity."
According to one account, Knight took to visiting his local mosque only at night when there was no one else around, and eventually got a key which enabled him to sleep there. It was while dossing in the mosque that he started writing stories and his first book, Where Mullahs Fear to Tread - completed at the age of 19 - gained the distinction of being banned by religious authorities in Singapore.
His second book, The Taqwacores, is the story of some punk Muslims in Buffalo, New York, sharing a house together. Their living room serves multiple functions as a prayer room and party venue - and for the purposes of the former, they have knocked a few bricks out of the wall to serve as a qibla. Their life together mixes sex, dope and prayer in roughly equal amounts, plus near-religious devotion to Islamic-punk taqwacore bands - the sort of musicians who forfeit their street cred the moment they start becoming popular.
This is the point where fiction turns into fact, because at the time the book was written taqwacore music didn't really exist. It does now, as a result of the book. The word "taqwacore" is a combination of "hardcore" and "taqwa" - an Arabic term usually translated as "piety".
Today, the best-known taqwacore band is The Kominas (a Punjabi word meaning "bastards"), and some of their lyrics are here. One of their most controversial songs, Rumi Was a Homo, attacks Siraj Wahhaj, a prominent Brooklyn imam who was accused of homophobia.
Although The Taqwacores is now studied in courses at several American universities, it took some time for the book to be formally published. Initially, Knight made photocopies of it at his local Kinko's store and distributed them himself in the car parks of mosques.
Eventually, the book went on sale by mail order through Alternative Tentacles, a record label in California which trades under the provocative slogan: "Keeping the Homeland insecure since 1979".
I came across the book one day while browsing the internet, found an extract here, and ordered a copy. When it arrived ... well, I have never read anything quite like it, before or since.
Early last year, I was chatting to a friend in London who works in publishing and told her about The Taqwacores.
"Mmm ... sounds interesting," she said, and promised to read it. The next thing I heard, one of their staff had gone off to the States, tracked down Knight and signed up the British rights.
So now, it's here. I'm a bit apprehensive but I hope British Muslim organisations will be sensible about it and think twice before protesting. They complain - rightly - about being stereotyped in the media, and The Taqwacores is a powerful antidote to that (which is one good reason why it should be read and circulated as widely as possible).
The book is an easy, funny read but, at another level and without labouring the point, it's also profoundly challenging. It addresses - in a way that's shocking but ultimately positive - questions of identity that are faced, to some extent, by all young Muslims growing up in the west.
Of course, there will be people who insist that the characters in the book are not "true" Muslims. I'm guessing, but I think this is the main point Knight wanted to raise. How do you define a "true" Muslim? On what grounds? And does anyone have the right to judge?