Review: The Taqwacores

Taqwacores are Muslim punks; and just like kids from any other religious or cultural background, they are reacting against the dictates of their parents and community and searching for their own truth. Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores is set in Buffalo, in a run-down student house on the cheap side of town, where a group of young Muslims live. The inhabitants of the house are pulled between two opposing poles: the anarchic punk philosopher Jehangir, and the strictly observant, yet heavily tattooed Umar.

Our narrator and guide to the Muslim punk subculture is Yusef Ali, a young engineering student, habitually observant, but fascinated by the freedom of the punk ethos. Circling these three are a collection of characters in various stages of debauchery and experimentation: a white woman influenced by Rumi who thinks she might want to convert; a punk Muslim girl who wears a burqa covered with patches for punk bands, a homeless party animal; a Muslim stoner obsessed with Rastafarianism; and, a completely debased 23-year-old frat boy, who hangs around the college scene in search of meaningless sex.

Yusef Ali attempts to navigate his way between the competing currents of observance and debauchery, understanding that the laws of Islam that developed centuries ago in a very different place are not necessarily relevant to his generation living in America today. The taqwacore ethos represents an extreme rejection of the past, that not all the characters are willing to wholeheartedly embrace: all except for Jehangir, a mad-Sufi saint with a mohawk, the Kurt Cobain of Buffalo taqwacore, a 21st century god of love to those with eyes to see.

The plot concerns Jehangir’s attempts to bring the top taqwacore bands from California to Buffalo for a punk rock show that will, he hopes, drop the barriers between non-Muslim punks and taqwacore. As Yusef Ali grows to know Jehangir better, he understands that Jehangir considers himself irredeemably soiled by the sins of the flesh, by alcohol, by life in the 21st century, and the show is his great roll of the dice, his attempt to live by his own terms. Knight succeeds in drawing us so completely into the lives of his characters that some of those who initially appear to be one-dimensional, drug-fueled wastrels are revealed to have considerably more going on in their conflicted lives than their chosen means of release would indicate.

The Taqwacores will be an eye-opening book for anybody who thinks Islam is some sort of monolithic entity with believers inhabiting Stepfordville-like communities no matter where they live, and in the same way, it’ll likely be news to many older, more traditional Muslims. Knight is a vivid and direct writer, and this madhouse and its inhabitants are as real to me as the actual madhouse I lived in during college. This is a book that you power through, it almost demands to be read in one sitting. It’s probably blasphemous, obscene in places, and sure to offend conventional sensibilities of all persuasions, in other words, it’s gripping, very real and utterly fascinating.

Links

Connect with Michael Muhammad Knight on MySpace

NYTimes on Taqwacores

Osama Van Halen — Michael Muhammad Knight’s next taqwacore novel, coming in July ’09

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