2012-10-22

Yeah, But What Type of Punk Muslim?

Originally, Michael Muhammad Knight was giving away photocopied spiral-bound copies of his novel, The Taqwacores, for free. It was later picked up by a punk record label and published in 2003.

The novel describes the exploits of the of denizens of a Muslim punk house in Buffalo. These include:

Yusef, the first-person narrator, a fairly straightlaced US-born son of Pakistani parents. He has come to Buffalo to study engineering, and his Muslim parents thought it would be more wholesome for him not to live in the campus dorms.

Umar, a Straight-edge Sunni Muslim who tries to enforce Islamic rules.

Jehangir, a hard-drinking, dyed-red-mohawk-haircut-wearing Sufi punk who announces morning prayers with an electric guitar on the roof.

Fasiq, an Indonesian skateboarder.

Amazing Ayyub, a shi’a skinhead.

Rabeya, the house’s only woman, who wears the full-scale body-tent style of burqa and studies feminist Islam.

And various other comers and goers.

Right away, a reader like me is wondering: is this really Islam? I know I’m not in a position to judge who’s really Muslim and who’s just appropriating some of the language because they’ve decided it sounds cool. I’m not in a position to say who is a true Christian or fake one, a true Buddhist or fake one, or even a true Unitarian Universalist or fake one. Generally, I let people pick their own labels. If you self-identify as a Daoist, a witch, or a Jew – or as a woman, or as a man – then, for my money, that’s what you are. What these kids are doing might not look like Islam to the Ayatollah Khomeini, but they study the Koran, debate about how to interpret it as a guide for their lives, say their prayers facing Mecca, and call themselves Muslims.
Yusef and Jehangir (from the film adaptation)

There’s a huge diversity within the group of people who call themselves Muslim. It's good for us to know that, in concrete specifics. Many “young American Muslims, stigmatized by their peers after the Sept. 11 attacks, [felt] repelled by both the Bush administration’s reaction to the attacks and the rigid conservatism of many Muslim leaders.” (New York Times, 2008) They didn’t want either of those two options, so they made a third way, and the novel, The Taqwacores, became a blueprint for their lives.

One Moral of this story: If you don’t like either side in a conflict, make a third way.

There’s even huge diversity among the punk rock Muslims. Some of them drink a lot, smoke hashish, and engage in casual sex. Some of them are in the “straightedge” camp and eschew all those things.

What really is Islam is a central question for Michael Muhammad Knight, and the novel reflects its author’s wrestling with that question. Half-way through, narrator Yusef muses:
“Jehangir’s romanticism just equaled a spiritual, cultural and ideological laziness: in all things the path of least resistance. Allah wills, right? As a mumin [believer] I was ruined. How long had it been since I had attended a real jumaa? In a masjid, with men and women separate and khutbahs from qualified imams? Had I journeyed into apostasy? What did that even mean? We lived in a non-Muslim state where I had no fear of shari’a’s penalty, but there’s more than one way to chop off a head. What would it do to my parents to find out how this house really functioned?”
There’s something very basically American about this wrestling with identity. Who are we? What do the terms which gave meaning to life in the old country mean on this new soil? The way these questions are playing out for the growing numbers of American-born Muslims is merely one of the more recent versions of the basic American story of struggling for identity.

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This is part 2 of 5 of "Punk Islam"
Next: Part 3: "The Unbearable Difficulty of Community"
Previous: Part 1: "Nailings"