Review: Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam
Born in an Irish-Catholic home to a white-supremacist father, Michael Muhammad Knight converted to Islam when he was 15. He then moved to Pakistan to study Islam at Faisal Mosque, a Saudi-funded mosque with an experience he called “hardcore, austere and uncreative Saudi Islam”. Years later, Michael burned out on the demands of religious dogma and penned the book “The Taqwacores”. The fiction book was a Muslim Punk manifesto that depicted the life of character Yusuf Ali, a decent Sunni Muslim, who lived with punk characters in a house in Buffalo. The house hosted punk rock parties and the other housemates includes a mohawk, and a burqa-wearing riot girl.
Much to his surprise, many of his readers thought that there did exist a Taqwacore community and many wrote to him asking where they could meet such people. The book struck a chord with many young punks who happened to be Muslim and was living in the United States where they couldn’t reconcile their Muslim identity with their punk identity.
Michael realized that there were Muslim punk groups spread around the country, in various states and decided to round them up in a green bus (like in the book) and go on a tour. The film “Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam” documents their journey.
During the Singapore Indie Documentary Film Festival in 2011, I was lucky to have been at The Substation to watch a screening of the documentary with the director, Omar Majeed, in attendance. As with reviews for plays or events written for Muzlimbuzz, I expect my writers to submit their reviews latest 2 days after the said event. And yet, as the editor of Muzlimbuzz, it was difficult for me to write a deserving review of “Taqwacore” (the documentary) because there were so many emotions to string together, and more questions emerged as I wrote a conclusion. As such, it has taken me several months to finally pen this down and I pray that I do justice to not only the film, but also the ideas and experience that I have had to contend with thereafter. (The screening was in August 2011 in case you were wondering!)
Watching the film made me happy, sad, disturbed and comforted all at the same time. And that’s a lot to say for a 1.5 hour production about Muslim punks. The Q&A session post-screening with director Omar Majeed is a gem too and you’ll get to read parts of it below.
At the outset it’s important to set some things straight. When I use the term “Muslim punk”, it refers to punks who were born into Islam. And for some, that’s as far as the term go. Some of them pray, some of them drink, some of them take drugs, some of them pray and take drugs, which can be hard to stomach for most Muslims, I would think (no pun intended).
Most of the time, in Muslim circles and writings, when we are presented to a Muslim, he/she is either a good one or a bad one. If they’re a ‘bad’ one, their Muslim-ness is played down and the opposite holds true for a good Muslim. There is rarely room for the Muslim who does not fit into the mould.
The Muslim experience generaly falls into 2 categories: halal/haram, good/bad, music/none, believer/non-believer etc. But it’s never usually either/or. Muslim-ness is on one large continuum and you can be at any point of that continuum at any given time and at neither point are you ever less of a Muslim. (Assuming the definition of a Muslim is someone who believes and has said the shahadah or was born to Muslim parents.)
So while it was disturbing to see some of the punks smoking pot in the film, I couldn’t pretend that it was not happening in real life and I couldn’t deny them their Muslim-ness. The difficult part was writing about it on Muzlimbuzz, an ostensibly Muslim magazine that has many articles that tries to encourage people to do good and be good, to wake up and pray tahajjud, to attend Islamic classes and events and suddenly, an article about Muslims smoking pot? I would think our readers might be confused.
As an editor, it was a decision that was hard to make but one that had to be taken. I seek comfort in Muzlimbuzz’ Vision that states:
We want to tell your stories, stories that Muslims won’t get to read in the mainstream media.
We want to ask questions.
We want to help create a community of inquisitive minds, those who ask incisive questions, those who read widely and will not say no to another point of view.
We want to live a balanced life. Our writers don’t just sit in the mosques and meditate all day. They are out there, watching plays or movies, listening to music, reading books, playing sports and living just like any regular person. The difference is that we do all these and experience all our moments through a Muslim lens, which you can detect from our writings insyaAllah.[/box_light]
If I did not write this review, someone else somewhere would, and the lively conversation and discussions that might and would ensue would happen somewhere else, and somewhere that probably wouldn’t be a Muslim site. There is no lack of Muslim websites that help increase our knowledge and understanding of Islam and I can easily name a few. But Muzlimbuzz was set up precisely to be a place for English-speaking Singaporean Muslims to come together and talk, so what would good would we be if we didn’t start such conversations to engage the community?
Like his answer to a question after the screening, director Omar Majeed said:[box_light]”I have a lot of respect for people who, you know, for whom Islam, in their practice, in their conservative way, gives them a lot of peace. And there’s certainly no intention on my part, or anybody’s part in the film, to want to step on anybody’s toes. This (the film) has a right to exist. And like it or not, critical of it or not, you think maybe you can’t … 100% embrace it, or it has ideas that are too radical… It has to exist. It has to come out and its inevitable that it has to come out.”[/box_light]
Now that I have gone on a tirade about the roles and purposes of Muzlimbuzz, I shall get to the review proper.
The film starts with the different bands coming together and playing at some shows (some were cancelled, all were pretty rowdy) and for a while it did just that – show bands coming together and playing at shows and smoking, drinking and swearing on the bus. Yet it hinted at a deeper struggle with coming to terms with seemingly incompatible ideas. (A scene shows a doodle that one of them made at the back of the seat. It had a camera and a microphone of their BBC interview with the words “How do you reconcile these opposing forces in your life – you’re so fascinating!”
[pullquote_right]Having a dream of being closer to Allah and not feeling like I could be close enough.[/pullquote_right]
In a particular scene in the film, they were sitting after the many interviews they had had and Michael starts with quoting the media “Oh my god! It’s a brown guy with a mohawk.” That’s all, and it stops there.” Basim then laments, “They alienated people by saying that this is Islamic ideological music… They’re (the media) are misrepresenting us.”
This struggle continues throughout the film and is never really reconciled.
The film gets more interesting when the boys go to Pakistan. Pakistan holds a special significance as Michael studied here when he was younger, and Basim & Shahjahan was also from here. It is here that we see the film start to focus more on Michael. While the others were more interested in playing music, “pissing people off” (something that comes up very often throughout), smoking, drinking and getting high, Michael went out to talk to people in Pakistan, play with the children, and try to get a sense of what life in Pakistan was like.
In a scene I particularly enjoyed, Michael says, “You know the book is full of characters getting wasted all the time, and that being romantic and cool, and it was a fantasy for me but I don’t think that’s what I represent. You know, I’ve never had a beer. I don’t think people know that about me. And I don’t think people see that from the book that I wrote. That’s not what I want to say. ‘F*** religion and get wasted’ – that’s not my message.”
It follows by him saying, “You know, you’re running out of time in life. Every breath, you’re closer to your end. And that’s true of life and that’s true of my time in Pakistan. So you just got to do what you can do with the time you have and there’s no time to f*** around.”
[pullquote_left]”Allah is too big and open for my deen to be small and closed.”[/pullquote_left]
He then went back to Faisal Mosque and said, “I just saw myself here when I was 17. I was really, really hurting back then and I didn’t even know. Pursuing this dream of being a better person and feeling like I couldn’t do it. Having a dream of being closer to Allah and not feeling like I could be close enough. ”
He recounted an experience where the Tablighi Jamaat that he was hanging out with at the mosque (at that time) asked if his mother was Muslim and he said she wasn’t and they said, “We’re sorry brother but she’s going to hell.” When he left Pakistan for home, he was very negative towards his mother. In his words, he was “a teenage son lecturing his mother about alcohol and appropriate attire” and “abusing her”.
As he walked into the mosque many years later, he was greeted by the Imam of the mosque and in an almost dejavu manner, he asked if his mother was Muslim. Unlike the people he met when he was 17, the Imam didn’t inform him that his mother was going to hell, but did tell him to get her to say the shahada and “enter her into Islam”.
The documentary ended with them putting on a free show near the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. Prior to the show, issues about class came up: Western or punk/ska music was for the rich and traditional music was for the poor. Yet as more and more people showed up (with the help of street drummers with the poster pasted on their back and Michael’s relentless marketing as he passed around self-drawn Xerox-ed flyers), the crowd was a mix of young and old, rich and poor.
At the end of the show (which everyone thought was a huge success), Michael called it “loving, benevolent chaos” and how the energy was the same as any punk show in America.
Take-aways from the Film
As I said earlier, it was difficult to write about the film because there were so many issues and questions and close to no answers. But here are some thoughts as I watched the film:
- Everyone has their own journey and no one’s journey is more valid than another’s.
Michael had to go through a difficult childhood and when he thought he found Islam, he was introduced to a harsh reading of it. What followed was his disillusionment with Islam and he thought writing “Taqwacore” was his goodbye, but it wasn’t. He believed in Allah and the Messenger, but he couldn’t live with the Islam he was introduced to, and now he has to live with the book that he has written and what has come out of it.
In the same way, we are all living with our past decisions, no matter how sure we were of it once. It was also a reminder of how we all know something by the way we were introduced to it. I love Islam because I was introduced to the aspects of mercy, love and forgiveness. Michael was not so lucky. And yet, we see that Allah has not forgotten him and Michael is still on a journey and still searching. For many of us, the search never truly ends.
- One word about the film: Honest
Director Omar Majeed made no attempt to hide anything unsavoury or to glorify anything. It was difficult for Muslims to hear about another Muslim telling Michael that his mother will go to hell. It was difficult for me to see the boys taking drugs in one scene, but it warmed my heart to see them praying in congregation in the next. But his directing approach was fresh and the film’s honesty was something I really appreciated.
Islam and Muslims are always shown in the media as either this or that, but this film showed them in all their beautiful, convoluted mess and was not sorry for it.
Some Quote-worthy Moments in the Film
“I think pissing people off is more about making people think… than just pissing them off.”
Marwan Kamel, al-thawra
“Their (kids in his school) idea of Muslims were very narrow. But with punk kids, the differences that I had were celebrated and I enjoyed that a lot.”
Basim Usmani, The Kominas
“When I wrote “Taqwacore”, I never thought I would have a relationship with Islam again. I thought that was my goodbye. And then it turns out it wasn’t my goodbye and know you have to deal with this thing that’s never going to go away. Just wondering if it was even the right thing to do.”
Michael Muhammad Knight
“There’s so many things that get in the way of you doing. Like what people think…. and drugs. And sometimes you just need to knock those stuff down and do.”
Michael Muhammad Knight
“Allah is too big and open for my deen to be small and closed.”
“The Taqwacores”, Michael Muhammad Knight
The Interview with Director Omar Majeed (A Must Read)
Q: What has the reaction been from the mainstream community to the film?
Omar: Do you mean specifically like the Muslim community or general?
Q: Ya, the Muslim community.
Omar: By and large, the response has been very positive. I think this film… it’s not out to take over the world. Its just trying to make its own kind of statement, to just exist. And I think people who seek out the film are all ready to want to see it, have that desire to see it. They are ready for that kind of discussion. We’re not knocking on mosques’ doors and saying “Hey, watch this movie.” And I mean, it’s not like the Taliban are going to watch this movie. So all I’m saying is, the response has been pretty positive. From those who haven’t watched the movie, people who have seen the trailer online, or heard about it, from them I’ve gotten a few unpleasant emails.
But I always imagine that it’s just some 14 year old kid who think he’s a bada** Muslim.
Q: Can you share with us how this film started? Did you read the book then you wanted to make the documentary? Or you already had the film in mind?
Omar: How I came to the film, to the subject, was.. I come from a Muslim background as well. My family are Pakistani. I lived for many years in Pakistan as a teenager myself. So I was interested in, particularly… sounds kind of cliche, but after 9/11, I was interested in exploring these kind of issues to what it means to be Muslim and the kind of world we live in now. I really wanted to try to see if we could hear from a different kind of Muslim voice you know. Not the fundamentalist that we always hear from. And not the big organizations that are always kind of apologising for the fundamentalists.
We as muslims are really trying to deal with that in a real-life sort of way. So I just started researching and wanted to see whats out there, about the young muslims, to see what sort of alternative scenes and of course in my research I came across this book “The Taqwacores” and I read it and I was like, “Woww! This is everything that I’ve been thinking about.”
I contacted Michael who is very open and we chatted and he told me his life story, everything about his dad and all that stuff and again, “Wow”. There’s something here but I’m not sure what. And then he told me, and this is good timing. I was there at the right moment. He said, ‘All these guys are starting to contact me and telling me that they read the book and they’re starting a band.” I was like, “That’s it! Time to round them up.”
Thats why I called the movie “The Birth of Punk Islam’ because I was there when this thing was emerging. There was a potential and I went for it.
Q: Were you concerned about misrepresenting Islam in this movie? For people who are not Muslims?
Omar: Yes, I still am. There’s a balance. You want to represent the truth of the people you are profiling. And as a film-maker…. Quite honestly, I got a lot personally out of my friendships and my times with these guys. They’re taking their journey but I’m there too. The journey was an important one for me. But I’m trying to depict their journey, their statements, their experience. And I don’t want to alienate them.
I have a lot of respect for people who, you know, for whom Islam, in their practice, in their conservative way, gives them a lot of peace. And there’s certainly no intention on my part, or anybody’s part in the film, to want to step on anybody’s toes. This (the film) has a right to exist. And like it or not, critical of it or not, you think maybe you can’t… 100% embrace it, or it has ideas that are too radical… It has to exist. It has to come out and its inevitable that it has to come out.
Q: We saw in the film how they manifested their ‘punkness’ through their music or their dressing. I’m of the opinion that at one point in our lives, or maybe even all our lives, we’re punk in spirit. What’s your opinion on that?
Omar: Oh yeah absolutely! One of the things, you know, its very funny. I cant remember… someone was asking what the Muslim response is. You know where I get the most vitriolic response? It’s from punks. Punks can be seriously fundamentalists sometimes. These guys are like “There’s no religion in punk.” “Their music doesn’t sound like punk.” “They don’t look punk”.
It really opened my eyes to that too. We tend to think of counterculture as free and open and they can become just as restrictive as anything else. And I think one of the the strengths of this film, although sometimes it may be difficult to pitch it to people, is that these people dont necessarily look or act that punk all the time. I mean yeah there’s the alcohol here and there, the stuffed pipe… Its really about the spirit of punk, which goes beyond a mere genre, a music, or you know, what fashion sense you have. In that way, one can find parallels.
I’m reading a history of the Prophet Muhammad right now by Karen Armstrong. I thought it would be a fun thing to do during Ramadan. And the kid (in the documentary) was right. Muhammad (S) was a punkrocker. Really. He was changing the conventions of the time. So you know, punk spirit didn’t start in 1977 with Sex Pistols. I don’t think so.
Omar Majeed on the focus on Michael in the second half of the film:
Michael did start to become more and more the focus of the film. Because I think in some senses, he’s the only Muslim in the group whose spiritual quest was of utmost importance. The other characters, they have a different connection to being Muslim which I think is just as valid but its a different kind of thing altogether.
For michael, it was a spiritual journey in and of itself that he wrote this book, he put smtg out that was very personal and very internal for him. This thing he wrote, like he said, in a place of loneliness, and then it became a reality. And he had to deal with it. He had to deal with his own creation.
And it was very important for me and i was very gratified in the film to sort of see in Pakistan that it wasn’t just gonna be… All of us look at the funny punks on the bus all the time. That’s why I didnt feel like it was complete in that first part. It was very celebratory and it was cool but I felt we needed to go further. You never settle, you don’t say you have the answers. So to me Michael was the only voice of reason when he said “Maybe this was a mistake”.
*Michael is currently taking his PhD in Islamic Studies.
Q: You yourself were born in Canada but your parents are Pakistani and you’ve been living in Canada for a while but you also lived and studied in Pakistan for a while so what was it like for you to go back to Pakistan and shoot this film?
Omar: It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Why do we even do documentaries? Its certainly not for the money. There’s some kind of thing thats driving you on some psychological level. Why do you pick the subject you pick, and these things in the end are very personal.
The 3 characters that come out, that you get the most story of Bassam, Shahjehan and Michael. They all to me feel very much like parts of myself. They all have this history with Pakistan, they all have this ambivalent connection to being Muslim, they all are seekers in certain ways, and they all answer a lot of things about what I was looking for answers for as well. As I said, I got to experience the journey with them. On a personal level its extremely rewarding. Going back to Pakistan meant a lot to me.
You guys live here in Singapore. But you guys probably don’t do some of the things that visitors will do. You live here, maybe you’ve never been to all the tourist places. So going back to a place that you are familiar with but going with a different purpose or going with different people is amazing.
I lived in lahore for many years but I had never hung out at the Sufi shrine. I must have driven by with my mum and she’ll tell me its a sufi shrine and I’ll go “Oh thats nice Mum”. I would never have gone in to see the Sufis twirling and playing the drums and all that if it wasn’t for these guys. I dont think I would have any of these experiences unless I made the film you know. It really opened my eyes in many places.
Q: What do you think is the role of documentaries in starting conversations? Should we have such conversations in the first place?
Omar: I think your question is the answer. You make documentaries to have converstaions. And thats the key – conversations. Not a one-way street. Especially with documentaries. I think most good films open up a conversation between you and the film. You engage in it and it provokes you and you think things through and you come to your conclusions. I think documentaries do that even more so. That’s sort of their mission statement. And that was my intention – just to ask some questions and to see where the conversation will take us.
Q: Did you ever think you’ll end up in Singapore discussing this movie and what other unexpected twists have this project brought you?
Omar: I think the twists urm…. I was nervous about showing the film but I’m less so as I show it more and more. I mean, we’ve had a number of screenings around the world. We screened it in Morocco, and a number of underground screenings in Muslim countries like Pakistan for example. Some guys were at Tahrir Square and they screened the film when all those stuff were happening. (Revolution). I’m amazed more often than not, that the film has a life of its own, and it seems to be something that people seek out.
This screening in Singapore is our Southeast Asia Premier and its pretty amazing and I would love for it to be screened in Malaysia and Indonesia. I get a lot of emails and messages from Facebook from punks in Indonesia who really wants to see it. It isn’t always easy to get the film out there that’s why I’m so grateful to the Substation, and Aishah for bringing me here. I’m so thrilled. This is amazing.