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Brian Whitaker

Punk Muslims

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.

March 19, 2007 4:00 PM | Printable version

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?


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GBR

Sounds terrible.

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SWE

Hi Brian. I just ordered it off Amazon. You owe me £7.19 if its crap!

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Inayat: Just what you need when those MCB committee meetings go on too long.

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GBR

"Of course, there will be people who insist that the characters in the book are not "true" Muslims."

They certainly are not true punks. What a fucking piss poor impersonation: everything they do and say is a copy of what someone else did. (Now what does that remind me of?) I gob on the lot of 'em. Wankers.

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NZL

Brian: "Of course, there will be people who insist that the characters in the book are not 'true' Muslims."

bluejewel: "They certainly are not true punks...."

As Jello Biafra might have said:

This is a song about uniforms.
Police uniforms...
businessman uniforms...
muslim uniforms...
punk uniforms....

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GBR

I'm a Muslim (yeah no shit) who was annoyed at those Dutch pictures of the Prophet because they were demonising all Muslims.

No where you put me on the scale of conservative to moderate Muslim is up to you, but I think i will really enjoy this book.

Judging from the review the Author is not painting all Muslims as Terrorists or wife beaters and that's all I want really.

Also it's pretty obvious he is not out there pimping his neocon agenda like many bloggers and lets face it, there are Muslims like this out there, but NOT ALL.

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GBR

this is a good thing. hopefully young muslims will read it and start rebelling against their oppressive culture. plus, the Kominas are brilliant, I'm listening to one of their songs called "I want a handjob" on myspace.

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GBR

muslimicity: "I'm a Muslim (yeah no shit) who was annoyed at those Dutch pictures of the Prophet because they were demonising all Muslims."

The pictures were originally Danish. The Dutch link must be the Dutchman Theo v. Gogh who was ritually slaughtered on the streets because he 'offended' Islam. Was his murder offensive to you?

"Judging from the review the Author is not painting all Muslims as Terrorists or wife beaters and that's all I want really."

There are hundreds of books and authors out there that hold neutral or positive views on Islam as a culture and religion.

"Also it's pretty obvious he is not out there pimping his neocon agenda like many bloggers and lets face it, there are Muslims like this out there, but NOT ALL."

Of course not all, but enough.

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USA

I've read this novel, and it IS unlike anything I've ever read. I've also seen the UK edition, and unfortunately, you British readers aren't getting the whole story. At the bottom of page 9, there's a note that at the Publisher's insistence, certain words or passages have been removed. So, I looked through the British edition, compared it with my US edition, and found LOTS of instances of juicy bits that weren't in the UK one. Too bad, too, as the essence of "taqwacore" is neatly summed up in some of these bits...

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GBR

Komina does not mean bastard..that is haramzada. 'Komina' is more of a 'tight-arse' but can also be a cruel person.

As for what I thought of this ('baqwas') article..do you really want to learn some more Punjabi swear words!

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GBR

Yay. Coming soon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Taqwacores.

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FRA

I'm waiting for Winkie. He's well 'ard.

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,1210866,00.html

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USA

i'm a pretty conservative muslim woman, and i was surprised to find the author's heart coming through in his work. yes, there are controversial aspects of this book-- but in the end, he is talking about acceptance and respect for all muslims, no matter where they are in life. there are a lot of muslim kids out there who feel marginalized by the community-- knight writes of a space where they can still connect with their traditions and this is what resonates with his supporters. a great read, looking forward to more from knight.

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GBR

Knight stink palmed Imam Siraj Wahaj, not Yusuf Islam. I don't think he's ever met Yusuf Islam (nor would I think he has a beef with him).

Agree with astry, there is much more to Knight's work than might appear at the surface. This burst of creative energy within an Islamic cultural context is something the Muslim world sorely needs right now, even if it pushes boundaries and breaks taboos.

I still have one of his old Kinko'ed copies... I might have to replace it.

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GBR

BABALUGATS,

You're mising the point. Whitaker is here only to promote the book (as he did in his last post, promoting his own). He is not interested in engaging or promoting debate (even if one were to be generous and assume, that is, that he is capable of it).

So, despite the facade of 'openness' there really is only a poemical mind-set. "Comment is Free" . That is all there is to say.

There is little point raising serious issues. For example, whether being a "punk" is actually what is required in late capitalism, in 'liquid modernity' and, therefore, itself a form of conformism. Nope, don't bother. Whitaker, the chamcha of such conformity, really has no idea what words mean: neither 'taqwa' nor 'komina' nor, ultimately, 'punk'.

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GBR

"Knight stink palmed Imam Siraj Wahaj, not Yusuf Islam. I don't think he's ever met Yusuf Islam (nor would I think he has a beef with him)."

Zahed: He stink-palmed Yusuf Islam too (or at least says he did):

"At 3:00 that afternoon Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) sat at the Astrolabe booth giving autographs. I just stood and watched the crowd for a while. Western Islam has its own celebrity culture, just as reverential and absurd as any other. I squeezed in and gave him my stink-palm. Score another one for the good guys."

http://www.muslimwakeup.com/main/archives/2003/09/wrestling_with.php

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USA

Regarding the censorship of the UK edition of this book: Autonomedia has put up a web page with the offending passages intact, with page references. Please go to www.autonomedia.org/taqwa_censorship for more on this.

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GBR

Brian, I stand corrected :-)

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USA

This really is hilarious. Checking back to see that Brian's only reply has been to reference his assertion that Knight did indeed wipe his arse with his bare hand before shaking hands with Yusuf Islam.

Brian you crazy mad rebel without a cause you! That's giving it to the man!! I look forward to shaking your hand soon since you find "stink palm" to be such a culturally rebelious and profound statement.

What are the bets that Brian spent last night tapping his feet incoherently to freshly unwrapped "hardcore" CDs (the volume turned down to a respectable level) while sipping a gin & tonic and pondering his next expedition into ethic "yooof culcha".

Bet you shampooed your hair into a mohawk this morning as well didn't you, you little tear-away!

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