Michael Muhammad Knight‘s The Taqwacores is a clunky novel: Knight has an artless style, his characters tend to be more talkers than doers, and their collective vision of punk rock never seems to look past 1983 (though somebody in the Buffalo group house where it’s set has a copy of Mermaid Avenue lying around). But like so much punk literature, it gets over on sheer enthusiasm and nerve, and it’s not hard to see why the book practically invented a subculture out of whole cloth: Since it was self-published in 2003 by Knight, a converted Muslim, its vision of a then-mythical Islamic punk scene in the United States has inspired a happening-for-real Islamic punk scene. The Taqwacores then found a home with an indie publisher, got another one in the U.K. (though not without some censoring), and gets a bigger publishing platform this month through Soft Skull Press, following features on Knight and taqwacore in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
The story, for me, is surprising and heartening. My interest in punk was always more as a reader and a listener than as any kind of participant—I thought I had a pretty sweet gig back in the mid-’90s when the East Bay Express would regularly send me to cover Gilman Street shows—but there was a lot of great reading in that world. Big clunky books like Joe Carducci‘s Rock and the Pop Narcotic and slim personal fanzines like Cometbus—the latter of which seems the obvious model for The Taqwacores. Aaron Cometbus was an East Bay punk whose zine was stuffed with personal stories about roadtrips, breakups, arguments, and shows, bolstered by the author’s willingness to go anywhere and hang with anybody, even if it ended in disaster. Especially if it ended in disaster—winding up broke in, say, some crummy Seattle neighborhood with a busted bike and a disappeared friend—because at least you had a story to tell later.
Cometbus was never much on religious doctrine. But that’s the kind of spirit that The Taqwacores‘ narrator, Yusef Ali, is channeling. A shy Pakistani-American studying engineering at a Buffalo-area university, he lives at a run-down house full of Muslim punks to avoid having to live at a more traditional Muslim student center. The house’s (and the novel’s) design puts Yusef into conflict a variety of philosophies about Islam—most powerfully in Umar, a strict constructionist about the Koran (“2:219” is tattooed on his neck, referring to an ayat regarding drinking and gambling) and Rabeya, a young woman who wears a burqa but who excises passages she disagrees with from her Koran. She tells Yusef why she struck an ayat that prescribes wife-beating, though he argues that the passage can be interpreted numerous ways:
“Yeah Yusef, I know. I went through that ayat up and down. I looked at what all the scholars said, even progressives like Asma Barlas; did you know that in that context, the word daraba might not even mean ‘to beat?’ It could also mean ‘to prevent.’ Sure, I did all the gymnastic tap dancing around that verse a desperate Muslima could do. Finally I said, fuck it. If I believe it’s wrong for a man to beat his wife, and the Quran disagrees with me, then fuck that verse. I don’t need to stretch and squeeze it for a weak alternative reading, I don’t need to excuse it with historical context, and I sure as hell don’t need to just accept it and go sign up for a good ol’ fashioned bitch-slapping. So I crossed it out. Now I feel a whole lot better about that Quran.”
If the novel seems too carefully engineered to set up these arguments, that’s the point—to arrange a push and pull over doctrine, heritage, culture, sex, and freedom. Indeed, the novel culminates in a sort of punk-rock summit over doctrine that ends with one of the more provocative incidents of gobbing at a concert imaginable. To that end, The Taqwacores works more as a manifesto than as a work of fiction, but how influential would the book be if it were merely a manifesto? How many Islamic punk bands would come together if Knight simply groused about the lack of them? The best way to create the world you want, Knight argues, is to show people your model for it. That seems especially true for Islam: Knight knows a closed-off culture when he sees one, and he makes Yusef a stand-in for that closing off; he’s so out-of-touch with himself that he needs somebody to shove a Victoria’s Secret catalog in his hands to give him license to masturbate. That scene is there for a reason—however crude a metaphor it might be, it’s symbolic of Knight’s argument that a culture evolves only when it recognizes that it’s free to use its imagination.
Soft Skull publishes Knight’s memoir, Impossible Man, in April. For a sense of taqwacore in action, Al Jazeera English aired a segment on it last month: