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The Taqwacores

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Michael Muhammad Knight, The Taqwacores, Telegram Books, 2007

We live in very dangerous times. The War on Terror is being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, with more destinations probably to follow. The US and UK ignored every plea from the international community and relied on spin to begin a war that has no end in sight and is disproportionably killing civilians.

This has all happened because of a theological conflict between two opposing ideologies: Christianity and Islam with the people on both sides who are making this war being fuckwits while the 90% that make up everyone else hopes for a solution.
 
Nobody understands each other, and people are afraid to stand up to lies peddled as truth. If things don’t change, we are fucked.

Michael Muhammad Knight’s The Taqwacores is a step in the right direction. Ostensibly a story about Muslim Punks sharing a house in Buffalo, New York, The Taqwacores is about questioning the values of a society or culture when they appear, on a personal level, to be wrong or outdated.

The Taqwacores is narrated by Yusuf Ali who studies engineering between praying and partying. He lives with Jehangir, the wisest of the group who’s travelled West and seen the origins of Taqwacore; Umat, who aims to follow every literal command of Qur’an; ‘Amazing’ Ayyub who is living as fast as he can and Rabeya, who rejects the thought that women are inferior yet chooses to still wear the niqab.

Yusuf, as a straight-edger, becomes the conductor for the debates that fill the house. His blankness and naivety make him the blank slate for the voiced and varied thoughts of his housemates, and his character arc within the book is his journey towards a sounder sense of self.

If Rabeya is the most interesting character and ‘Amazing’ Ayyub the court jester, it is Jehangir who is the most iconic: the nominal hero of a new wave yet modest of his own growing part within it. The novel climaxes with a Taqwacore concert organised by Jehangir and held in Buffalo at which everything changes for all the housemates.

Knight invented the term taqwacore. It’s a combination of taqwa (the Islamic concept of being continually aware of God) and hardcore. It’s no longer a term, but a movement. Taqwacore bands (the Kominas, Vote Hezbollah) and websites have begun to appear, and Knight has become a reluctant spokesman for Progressive Islam. That’s a label he doesn’t like applied to himself: “My problem with these guys,” he said in an interview, “is that some of them are so desperate to be good Muslims that they’ll stretch their arguments to stay in line with the Qur’an, and it just comes off as weak.”

But Taqwacore is, at its core, the continuation of the punk ethos of wanting to start everything again by cutting away the bullshit around a culture that no longer applies. Or more specifically, Taqwacore, according to Sabina England means: “being true to myself, having my own faith, and interpreting Islam the way I want to, without feeling guilty or looked down at by other Muslims.”

Knight’s follow-up, Blue-Eyed Devil, an account of his journey across the states looking for an American Islam, was hailed by Andrei Codrescu as “today’s… On the Road.” It’s an astute observation that applied to The Taqwacores and the Taqwacore movement. Kerouac’s Beat Generation was, according to his friend John Clellon Holmes, “basically a religious generation” who were “on a quest, and that the specific object of their quest was spiritual.”

The housemates of The Taqwacores and the people they draw to their non-orthodox Islam are, in comparison, explicitly a religious generation, rejecting the influences around them that they feel to be false or irrelevant to their own values. Like Kerouac, Yusuf, Jehangir, ‘Amazing’ Ayyub and Umar are searching for a set of values that they give to the world, rather than the world give to them.

It’s a statement when a government decides on and implements a ban on a book. It says that the ideas contained within its pages are a threat to a status quo and that that idea is something that someone in power would rather a larger population did not think. The Taqwacores was banned in Malaysia, and a kneejerk reaction to its publication around Europe is almost certainly predictable.

But people should read The Taqwacores for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s very good. Secondly, as a global population, people need to start mending bridges and understanding one another. And lastly, the housemates question everything around themselves, and that’s a skill which has become dulled nearly everywhere through fear and propaganda.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Pete Carvill is Senior Editor at 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 16th, 2007.