Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight (2003)

Lately I've been feeling like all my friends have their lives figured out, and I'm the only one who is still unsure of what I want. I'm 26, and whether this sense of uncertainty is a natural phase or some massive personal defect still remains to be seen. Still, I miss being able to sit around with people and have long metaphysical discussions about ideas and values, about beliefs and philosophy and what things mean. Is giving up this kind of conversation one of the costs of being an adult? If so, for me it's a bitter pill to swallow. I almost want to say we've simply moved into a more cynical era, but that strikes me as something an old person would say.

Anyway, a week ago I watched the recent filmed version of The Taqwacores. It was breathtakingly mediocre --if the director had bothered to actually record ADR I think it would have been miles better-- but it was based on a book I enjoyed and it was filmed at a venue in Cleveland where I've seen shows (Tower 2012). I was in Ohio in early 2009 to visit a very dear friend of mine and I made a stop in Clevo to see Empire and Triceratops play the Tower. I remember there still being Muslim punk graffiti on the walls from when they had filmed the movie.

Watching the film reminded me to dig out my copy of the 2003 book. I couldn't find it, the reason being that sometime around 2005 I lent it to my friend Nate, who is supposedly a working class skinhead and shouldn't be relying on handouts (just kidding Nate, I love you). But seeing as how my room is littered with things I've "borrowed" from people over the years, I consider that loss officially cut and I bought a new copy of The Taqwacores to read. This is the digital age, after all, and Amazon Marketplace (One-Click Ordering; I don't fuck around) is what separates us from the beasts.

Speaking of the digital age --and more pointedly, its attendant hyperbole-- this book has been called "The Catcher in the Rye for young Muslims." Damn! The first time I read this (it's printed on the back of the book) I made a sort of "psh" sound, because although I enjoyed the book very much when I first read it, Michael Muhammad Knight is not the most elegant of authors and the novel could do with a good deal of blocking.

However, the more I think about it, I realize that that reaction was arrogance on my part. This book was written primarily for young Muslims, and not being a part of that group, it's not really appropriate for me to make value judgments about what a work should mean to somebody else. In fact, this book inspired an actual, real life "taqwacore" scene. I went through my second reading of the novel with that in mind, and I found it to be an immense help, not least because it made me quash my incredulity at Knight's oftentimes hopelessly naive and romanticized depiction of the punk ethos and aesthetic.

In terms of this review, that is a very important point. This is a novel about Islam that uses punk as a device, not the other way around. The more you know about something, the more difficult it is to accept contrivances that contradict your individual expertise. The "punk" elements of this book are a contrivance. Knight treats the various punk subcultures (street punk, straight edge, skinhead, etc) as if they were all part of a cohesive melting pot of a larger, inclusive "scene." While on some technical level this may be true, there is no way these characters would run in the same social circles, let alone live together. It is more than a bit ironic that, in a novel that attempts to subvert the misconception that all Muslims are ideologues without individual characteristics, Knight simply lumps "punks" together with a similar disregard. But, as I've said, this is the wrong way to read this novel. It's best to accept the novel's contrivances and allow them to take you where they will, because much like a science fiction novel, The Taqwacores' contrivances are an integral part of its ability to explore the human mind and heart.

The book follows a Pakistani-American college student, Yusef Ali, through a year living in an all-Muslim punk house in Buffalo, NY. Populating the house are colorful characters such as Umar, a straightedge fundamentalist Sunni (with "2:219" tattooed across his throat) who is the novel's main antagonist when it needs one; Jehangir, a street punk Sufi mystic who is drunk more often than not; and Rabeya, the only female housemate, a feminist who wears a full burqa covered with punk patches. Yusef is not a punk; he's majoring in engineering because his parents told him to, he's never had a drink in his life, and he shops at Aeropostale. But he is open-minded, if a little bland, and the novel needs him as a sounding board for the wild philosophies of the characters around him.

And there is a lot of sounding off. It is essentially a loosely connected series of dialogues occasionally broken by something more reminiscent of a "scene." What happens to the characters is not nearly as important as the differing ideologies each of them represents and the conversations they have that express those ideologies in great detail. The effect is similar to the dialogues in Douglas Hofstadter's classic meditation on thought process; Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (not that I'm comparing Taqwacores to Hofstadter's book in terms of content or quality): although the ideas in both books could be expressed solely in essays, they are made more vibrant and easily digestible when presented as a back-and-forth conversation between characters.

There are a lot of ideas thrown around in the book, and I will only skim the surface here. Of all the housemates, only straightedge tough guy Umar adheres to the strict, near-monastic life of sobriety, abstinence, ritualized prayer, and halal dietary laws. A main theme that is constantly pulsating in the background is: what makes a good Muslim? Conversely, what makes a bad Muslim? Is there a prescribed role for women within the community? Is there a place for gays in Islam? Is marijuana strictly forbidden, frowned upon, or permitted? What place do violence, swearing, mixing with nonbelievers, and a myriad of other issues have? I believe Knight addresses and answers all of these questions, albeit to his own satisfaction.

A major issue the book has is its large cast of characters. Some of them are occasionally the impetus for an interesting conversation (The pot-smoking skater Fasiq being one), but generally they feel unnecessary and their presence sometimes derails the proceedings. Do we really need a Sudanese rude boy? A Latino ex-Muslim? An Iranian junkie "skinhead" who is partially homeless? Sometimes it feels like a contrived effort to be inclusive, and frankly the novel would be stronger with a more exclusive focus on Yusef, Jehangir, Umar, and Rabeya. Indeed, the central conflict of the story is that between the dogmatic extremism of Umar and the drunken tolerance of Jehangir. Knight comes down pretty hard in favor of Jehangir, but every character has their say, and as a person who is somewhat prone to judgmental extremes, I think Umar is portrayed quite fairly. That being said, meaningful conflict between these two characters should have happened more often, to the exclusion of the peripheral characters, even if that meant paring down the length of the novel (which, by the way, is a fast 250 pages; I read it in two days).

I have used a lot of space to point out the novel's flaws, and they are many, but the truth is that this is the kind of book that revels in its own flaws. This isn't even a book that was intended for publication; Knight printed out the first copies himself, stapled them, and gave them away for free, zine-style. And although the novel seems a bit clumsy and meandering at times, Knight is writing about a very clumsy and meandering stage of life, both for himself and for his characters. You can't get hung up on specifics when reading this book. Who cares, for instance, that the characters listen to garbage like The U.S. Bombs and Roger Miret And The Disasters? You just need to look past it. (Although I will say that it's criminal that a character like Umar listens to Minor Threat and Youth of Today as opposed to SSD and Judge) The writing can be a little rough (Yusef Ali's responses to a long philosophical soliloquy by another character is typically, "Wow."), but there are genuine moments of inspired creation, like Yusef's first masturbation experience, or a late night trip to a masjid (mosque) where the squabbling characters pray together.

One thing that needs to be pointed out: there are a lot of Arabic and Urdu phrases and expressions thrown around, both in the narration and the dialogue, and unfortunately no edition of the book that I've ever seen has had a glossary. The book is, of course, aimed at Muslims, most of whom I assume are familiar with a lot of these phrases, but for us kafr it is a little frustrating to have to be looking things up all the time.

Despite everything negative that could be said about this book, there are passages that are quite beautiful, and the last chapter or so is simply exceptional. In the final pages Knight breaks from his slightly wrought narrative style into a much looser and satisfying stream-of-consciousness poetic style. If he could have sustained this over the course of the entire novel the book would be unequivocally brilliant. Still, you won't hear me complaining about a thought-provoking book with an outstanding finale.

Do I recommend The Taqwacores? Six years after my first reading, I still found it very engaging, challenging, and enjoyable, but it might have a very different effect on someone that has a different background and values than me. Here's the highest compliment I can pay it: it reminds me of the long conversations I used to have with my friends when we were teenagers, and for me that is lofty praise in the extreme. It reminds me that having an open mind is often better than being sure of oneself. The novel has certainly struck a chord with a generation of young Muslims, and as a means to awaken young minds, you could do a lot worse. Despite being written as Knight's farewell kiss-off to mainstream Islam, at its core The Taqwacores is about individuals finding ways to express their love for their beliefs, and each other, on their own terms. In a society where even our subcultures are constantly trying to pull young people this way and that, I am very happy that Knight's work has hit home with a few of them. 20 year old me would agree.


  1. This sounds pretty fascinating and it is certainly interesting to go back and read a book that you originally dismissed. In regards to your first paragraph, this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emerging_adulthood is a slightly new theory that is somewhat relevant.

    Metaphysical conversations with friends definitely seems to be less frequent, and maybe the 'cost' of adulthood is a lessening of overall availability, but I don't think those discussions are any less relevant or pertinent. It seems more that time constraints and distance prevent them from arising. I find email a great venue for them, albeit it changes the immediacy of the communication.

  2. This book changed everything for me. It didn't turn me into a fan of punk (I like New Wave, never liked punk). I didn't put on a burqa with bumperstickers attached; I'm too old for that.

    What it did do,was make me see that God's idea of Islam (surrendering to the Beloved) is most likely cosmic. I feel closer to Allah now because I trust S/He doesn't accept only the ones who do everything by the Book. Those of us who choose to be authentic and Muslim do not hide behind conformity. We know God sees through all that conformity. We know that God sees we are who we are and we live gratefully because God makes us who we are.

    Islam has plenty of room for all of us.

  3. I'm glad you found some beauty in this book.

    I am by no means Muslim or religious in general, but reading this book was a big step for me in terms of recognizing the ways in which large "movements" have a much broader diversity of thought than is recognized by society or the media.

    One of my best friends in the world is a Muslim who was raised in a Christian household and this book also opened a lot of doors for him emotionally. I think it's awesome that this book has such power to help people realize who they want to be and how to place themselves on the spectrum of Islam (or whatever ideology they subscribe to).

    Anyway, thank you for reading my review!