The title, The Taqwacores, a novel by Michael Muhammad Knight, is a combination of the Arabic word Taqwa, describing the balance of love and fear the pious have of God, and the core of hardcore punk. Knight says he chose this name over Islamcore because he felt Taqwa was something bigger than Islam. But as Knight photocopied his novel about a fictional Muslim punk scene in Buffalo, New York, and distributed it from the trunk of his car, he couldn't have known that he was birthing a manifesto.
Knight received a phone call from Kourosh Poursalchi, a 16-year-old Iranian man from San Antonio, Texas. Kourosh was convinced the novel was true, and as Knight tried to explain that The Taqwacores were just a fantasy of his. Kourosh insisted, but I am Taqwacore. And soon there were more.
Kourosh started by putting Knight's poem Muhammad was a Punk Rocker to music. Perhaps an homage to Sheena is a Punk Rocker by The Ramones. He became the lead singer of his band, Vote Hezbollah. More bands followed: The Kominas, Al Thawra, Secret Trial Five, Fedayeen and others.
Two movies have been produced based on The Taqwacores. The first was a documentary by Omar Majeed titled Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam. The film follows Knight and numerous bands as they celebrate their first US tour, TaqwaTour 2006. Then Sena Hussain of Secret Trial Five shocked organizers at the Islamic Society of North America convention when they crashed the stage with a frenzied rendition of their first and only song of the night, Middle Eastern Zombies. She finished by smashing the guitar and screaming, Music is Haram. The film concludes as Knight and The Kominas (Punjabi for Bastards) bring punk to the streets of Lahore, Pakistan.
The second was a film adaptation of the novel by Eyad Zahra featuring music by The Kominas. The film premiered this year at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Michael Muhammad Knight was raised an Irish Catholic, and accepted Islam as a teenager after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. For him conversion itself was an act of rebellion against an abusive, schizophrenic father. The story of Abraham held special meaning for Knight, whose own father had held a knife to his throat as a young boy claiming direction from God. Like many converts, his initial devotion was extreme. My standard of what it meant to be Muslim became so unreachable that when I fell short, I gave up, says Knight. Some call it salafi burnout.
Taqwacore is an expression of Knight's search for an Islam where someone as strange as him can be authentic. It's about giving people a chance to be complicated Muslims, says Knight. Perhaps Knight's message is best expressed through his character Jehangir Tabari, the martyr of the novel. We have plenty of Muslims who aren't afraid to die. Mash'Allah - but now Muslims are afraid to f***in' live! They fear life, y'akhi, more than they fear shaytans or shirk or fitna or bid'a or kufr or qiyamah or the torments in the grave, they fear Life!... You can run after Life. You can live and f***in' love it and still have Taqwa bursting out your guts.
Omar Majeed tells Illume that the way Taqwacore is portrayed in Knight's novel and the way the real Taqwacore scene has shaped up are very different. Knight's vision was idealized, while in reality, things are more complicated.
For some, the movement is essentially political. Many in the scene describe a personal transformation after 9/11 that inspired them to either be more public about being Muslim, despite not being particularly religious, or to be more outspoken politically. Secret Trial Five is an all-female band named for five Canadian Muslim men imprisoned on secret evidence. Al Thawra's (Arabic for The Revolution) songs deal with many political issues in the Middle East and lead singer Marwan Kamal is a committed anarchist.
The one thing they all have in common is the willingness to challenge everyone, from homophobic Mullahs to warmongering Western politicians, says Majeed. Although he insists no one person can define the Taqwacore movement, or predict where it is going to go.
By expressing his struggle with being an American trying to find his place in Islam, Knight tapped into the frustrations of many Muslims struggling to find their place in America, and perhaps the struggle of anyone trying to find their place in a chaotic contradictory world.
For many a major piece of the Taqwacore puzzle is rejecting the impossible standard imposed on them by their parents, and coping with the contradiction of being one kind of Muslim in the mosque, and another kind of Muslim out in the world. For them, Taqwacore means daring to be authentic no matter how harsh the criticism.
Taqwacore is repeatedly described by it's participants as a safe place. A safe place for the misfits of Islam to practice some personal integrity free from social pressures, whether that means a turban or a mohawk, a burqa or a bikini. A safe place for Muslims who don't conform to experiment and find a way to straddle two cultures. A safe place for an Islam that is big enough for the individual.