The Magnificent Seven #3: Halal Punk Rock?
Five days left until CLIConline is switched off. To celebrate the end
of #CLICstory, we present The Magnificent Seven - seven articles that
have been read more than all others, or inspired people to do great
This feature was originally published on 14 December 2009, and is by the most talented writer we've ever had - dirty from Cardiff - now studying in London. We were going to ask her to write an intro, but when we got in touch she was working on her dissertation with a deadline just a few hours away! We're sure it will be as outstanding as everything else she writes, more of which you can find by clicking her username above.
"I stopped trying to define punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam; they aren't so far removed as you think. They both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way."
- The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight
Michael Muhammad Knight took the shahadah (declaration of faith) and converted to Islam at the age of sixteen, after finding out about Islam from hip-hop bands such as Public Enemy and reading a biography of Malcolm X as a child. He regards this as his first act of rebellion, and it certainly wasn't to be his last. Raised Irish Catholic, his mother was fully supportive of his conversion to Islam and, at the age of seventeen, Knight went to study Islam at Faisal Mosque in Pakistan's capital city of Islamabad. Years on, Michael Muhammad Knight is still as unconventional as ever: after being disaffected and exhausted by orthodox Islam and its constraints, he wrote three books that he published himself on Xerox machines and sold out of the back of his car, one of which was a manifesto of things to come. Ex lead singer of the seminal punk group the Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra, picked up this book and soon his label Alternative Tentacles were publishing the novel.
The Taqwacores (taqwa means 'piety' or 'god consciousness' from its original Arabic, while core comes from the punk rock genre of hardcore) is a fictitious novel about a bunch of Islamic punks living in a punk house in Buffalo, New York. Burqa-wearing 'rriot grrls' and drunk punks praying - even women leading prayers - quickly led to fingers being pointed at Knight for blasphemy.
What stood out against the novel's criticism was brilliant imagery, strong character development and some mind-opening parts that raise important questions and criticisms of Islam, the Qur'an and even the Prophet Muhammad (and his marriage to the six-year-old Aisha). Some parts were so controversial that they were edited by its UK publisher (Telegram).
The Taqwacores was a novel where the characters reconciled their faith with their own ideas, raising parts of the Qur'an that (more or less) nobody is willing to talk about, even domestic issues in the West that we're not comfortable with. One character states: "If I believe it's wrong for a man to beat his wife, and [a verse in] the Qur'an disagrees with me, then [beep!] that verse."
Michael Muhammad Knight was not alone in his beliefs, his outlooks and his disillusionment of Islam. Muslim kids were picking up this book all over the US, and soon enough - just like his book - young Muslim men and women were starting punk bands of their own, and pretty soon Taqwacore became a genre of music. There's not one 'sound' of Taqwacore: it ranges from the 'Bollywood punk rock' of the 'punkistani' Kominas to the doom-esque metal sound of Al-Thawra (meaning 'The Revolution' in Arabic). Canadian all-girl punk group Secret Trial Five sing about Middle Eastern Zombies (apparently they're the worst kind!) and the Sagg Syndicate are a rap techno acousticy band. The breadth of music available, inspired by this one book, is phenomenal.
The dream became a reality. A bunch of Taq-X bands went on tour in their green converted school bus, driven by Michael Muhammad Knight himself. The Kominas' song 'Suicide Bomb the GAP' from their debut album 'Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay' is not just written to be provocative. The lyrics are humorous and sarcastic, juxtaposing Eastern and Western culture and religion, raising some good points while they're at it: "Freedom franchises are popping all over / but they choose the wrong targets in jumbled up order / Buy red mercury in a silver can / before they put a swoosh on Uncle Sam / Before the dollar said 'In Coke we Trust'", played over some insanely catchy tunes. Before you ask, yes, Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay is on Spotify, asides from the last track.
Taqwacore isn't just about Muslim kids playing music; in Islam it is 'haraam' (forbidden) to even listen to music, so to go from this to creating and playing politically aware punk songs with mixes of bhangra music is just phenomenal. The drugs, the sex they've all been in Islam; the rebellion has always been present. It's rebellion against the ultra conservative Islam like the Taliban and against Western ideals. Remember when Bush said "You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists"? Taqwacore is a living embodiment of how much that statement is worth nothing. You don't have to be with either of them. Islam is more flexible than we could ever imagine. There's too common a thought where people think that 'Islam is this' or 'Islam is just that', where things are always black and white, when that is entirely not the case.
It's not so much that it's 'Islamic Punk'; it's the ideas and messages that it's spreading and promoting. There's been a large reconciliation of faith with Islam by kids who are turning around and questioning their elders and their parents, practicing Ijtihad , a personal interpretation of the Qur'an in contrast to the (largely) fundamentalist view that many are forced to accept as a child. Being Muslim has never been so controversial as it has now: does anyone remember Shabina Begum, the girl who took her school to the high court over her Islamic school wear?
Taqwacore isn't just a music movement: it's inspired a documentary that was premiered at the Sheffield Film Festival; a motion picture based on the book, planned to debut at Sundance 2010; and a strong and emerging community of Muslims (punk rockers or not) all liberal and ready to discuss Islam in such an open-minded way that's never been seen before. Just check out the Taqwacore blog - it's updated regularly, is sometimes controversial, but always a joy to check out from time to time. The book of Taqwacore even inspired the first woman-led Friday ju'mah prayers to be held in New York.
Watch this space, all of these different movements under the term 'Taqwacore' can only grow, their message spread and their popularity increase and accelerate.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in articles on theSprout are those of the young people of Cardiff, and do not necessarily reflect those of theSprout or any of its affiliates.