An fictional Muslim punk rock scene has become real.
Michael Muhammad Knight's 2003 novel, The Taqwacores, imagined punk rockers who practiced Islam on their own terms. At the time he was writing, Knight, a convert to Islam, had grown disillusioned with his faith.
The word taqwacore was made up, a portmanteau of the Arabic word for "God-consciousness" and hardcore. The novel sold more than 15,000 copies worldwide. It made its way to Texas, where a teenager of Persian descent — Kourosh Poursalehi — read the book and thought the characters were real.
"It came together for me like, 'Wow — I'm not the only one experiencing this,'" Poursalehi says. "There are other kids out there into all this kind of music."
Muhammad, Punk Rocker
Poursalehi took a poem from the beginning of the book called, "Muhammad Was A Punk Rocker," and set it to music — turning silent pages into an real-life anthem for taqwacore. The poem reads, in part, "Muhammad was a punk rocker. He tore everything down."
Poursalehi sent his musical version of the poem to the author of The Taqwacores, who in turn played it for Shahjehan Khan, a young musician in Boston.
"I had a lot of guilt growing up about not doing the right thing or not being a good Muslim or a good Pakistani kid," Khan says. "And it was reading the book that was kind of an assurance that this confusion and maybe disenchantment was normal, and that other people went through it and there was nothing wrong with it."
Khan was also more than a little disenchanted with his American schoolmates at the time.
"On 9/12, the day after 9/11, I was a senior in high school and I was walking to a class or something like that and some random kid was like, 'Yo, what did your people do?'" he says. "And I didn't really know how to respond to that."
His frustration led him to form a band with his friend, Basim Usmani. The Kominas became one of the first real taqwacore bands.
One of The Kominas' first singles was called "Sharia Law in the U.S.A." The song likens Islamic law to the USA PATRIOT Act — a comparison Khan says is only half-joking.
Taqwacore On Tour
Soon taqwacore bands from all over the U.S. began finding each other through social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. Many finally met face-to-face in the summer of 2007, when five bands organized a tour of the northeastern United States. They shared a green school bus with "TAQWA" painted on the front.
In addition to The Kominas, the bands included Al-Thawra. Its lead singer, Marwan Kamel, remembers people in a passing car holding up an offensive sign about Allah. Kamel says music gave him an essential tool to fight back.
"I'm OK with who I am," Kamel says. "It's you that has a problem — that's like a very important thing."
The man who helped start all of this — Michael Muhammad Knight — has himself been singled out by Muslims and non-Muslims for his views on Islam.
"I've gotten that from all kinds of people," Knight says. "I've gotten that from neo-conservative people on their blogs who say, 'Oh this is awesome, this guy's challenging Islam. This guy's hating Islam — he's trying to tear down all that.' And I'm not trying to tear down Islam. I'm trying to make Islam possible in my life."
Beyond American Borders
Since that first tour, more taqwacore bands have formed. They had a showcase at the South by Southwest music festival in March, and two films are being made on taqwacore. The movement has also spread to comic book artists and photographers.
Though heavy metal has made it to the Middle East, taqwacore hasn't spread that far yet. But Knight is confident it will.
"I think you just got to find what people are pissed about and talk about that," Knight says, "and say it in a way that people understand. I think anywhere that people are powerless and angry and hopeless, that they need someone to talk about it."
That's what makes Knight think taqwacore could give youth in the Middle East a voice — a loud voice — to express themselves.