x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The godfather of Muslim punk rock

Michael Muhammad Knight's provocative novel about an Islamic band laid the foundations for the real-life Taqwacore scene.

Michael Muhammad Knight photographed at his father's property in Capon Bridge, West Virginia.
Michael Muhammad Knight photographed at his father's property in Capon Bridge, West Virginia.

I saw my first Taqwacore show in a dank Brooklyn basement, a makeshift club with low visibility, lousy sound, and four skinny dudes making a more or less joyful noise unto a dozen-odd sweating punk-rock pilgrims. I had been in this room, or others like it, a hundred times - the exposed plumbing, the vamping singer, the awkward truce between the pit-moshers and the head-nodders, the loud-mouthed, oversized punk-rock chick near the stage, sneering at the straights in the back. Except at this show the singer, the big girl, and most of the audience were one or another shade of brown, and when the band screamed "Suicide Bomb the Gap" - a signature song, it turned out - fans shouted "Jihad!" and everyone looked at each other and laughed. (Some of us more nervously than others.)

The band was the Kominas - "bastards" in Punjabi - perhaps the best known of the Taqwacores, members of an improbable movement whose name mashes together the Arabic word for "seeker" or "God-fearer" and the "core" of hardcore punk. Among the many things that Michael Muhammad Knight did not set out to do in 2003, the year he self-published his scabrous novel about a Muslim punk scene in upstate New York, was to lay the foundation for a new South Asian punk underground. Knight, an Irish Catholic from Rochester who converted to Islam as a teenager after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, had followed a classic convert's course: extreme, self-righteous devotion followed by extreme self-flagellating dejection. "My standard of what it meant to be Muslim became so unreachable that when I fell short, I gave up," he says. His novel, The Taqwacores, was intended as a farewell to his adopted religion. The characters, a motley assortment of Muslim punks of every sect, tendency, and piety, cavil over sex, drugs, women, and stringed instruments, rehearsing the arguments Knight had with others, and with himself. At the end of the novel, its seductive hero, a charismatic Sufi punk named Jehangir Tabari, is beaten to death by a fundamentalist hardcore band at a massive Taqwacore show. Jehangir was a martyr for an impossible dream, a utopian ummah with room for dissidents, apostates, and punks - those who had failed their religion, and those who felt their religion had failed them.

Then a 16-year-old kid from San Antonio, Texas, phoned Knight - who had listed his own phone number on the title page - asking to join up. Knight was bemused: The Taqwacores was a fiction. "But I've already got a song!" the kid said; he'd taken a poem from the first page of the book and set it to music. Soon he'd created a MySpace page for his band, Vote Hezbollah. Meanwhile, in a leafy Boston suburb, two young Desi kids started the Kominas.

And so, like Athena springing from the brow of Zeus, the Taqwacore scene was born. Like most products of the late 2000s, it has been exceedingly well documented. Besides MySpace pages and Facebook groups and dozens of sensationalist articles, there is a coffee-table book of photographs taken during the 2006 TaqwaTour, when the aforementioned groups, plus "experimental doom-crust punk" band Al Thawra, Diacritical, and Secret Trial Five - a Canadian band infamous for their cheerful song Middle Eastern Zombies - spent two weeks on the road in the US. Their guide, bus driver, and number-one fan: Michael Muhammad Knight. That tour was also the grist for Omar Majeed's documentary film, Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam. In March, The Taqwacores - an adaptation of Knight's novel, with an almost entirely non-white cast, featuring Noureen DeWulf as Knight's most outlandish character, the burqa-clad anarcho-feminist Rabeya - premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Like the novel, it concludes with an apocalyptic concert. But in the film, the imaginary Muslim punk scene includes a real-life Taqwacore band, Al Thawra, burning an American flag, playing themselves.

These days, Michael Muhammad Knight - scourge of the Islamic Society of North America, godfather of Muslim punk, a college dropout whose work is regularly denounced as sensational, masculinist and blasphemous - lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, the better to pursue his master's degree at Harvard Divinity School. (Like the characters in his books, Knight is a study in contrasts, which makes him difficult to capture without resorting to cheap ironies.) He lives with his wife, an Indian-American urban planner, and is nearly consumed by his studies. This summer he had to skip most of the Kominas' European tour because he was busy with his classical Arabic class.

Though he would never disavow the novel, The Taqwacores is actually something of an albatross for its creator. This autumn, when the Taqwacores movie gets its theatrical release, the mail will start to trickle in again - yet another wave of budding misfit Muslims who will reach out to Knight in camaraderie, anger, despair, or all of the above. Which is still a miracle, of course. For a man whose dream was for "a mass of Muslim punk rockers to form our own tribe and be confused and conflicted together," the attention is gratifying. And yet? "I'm always going to be the Taqwacore guy," Knight told me ruefully. "It's never going away. People respond to the story, and I respond to them, and it starts the cycle all over again."

It's a curious destiny for a book that Knight was convinced no one would ever read. Certainly, it's an odd duck of a novel, a pulpish fiction loaded with references to obscure punk records and laced with Arabic phrases that only a believer wouldn't have to look up. (Later editions include a glossary.) But those untranslated Muslimisms are a crucial part of the riddle that is Michael Muhammad Knight. For his audience, in his mind at least, is made up of other Muslims.

The oddest thing about Michael Muhammad Knight is that his transubstantiated dream of a Muslim punk-rock scene may be one of the least interesting things about him. Since 2004, he's published nearly a book a year, including two remarkable books of travel writing, an ethnography of an obscure but influential African-American religio-cultural movement, a memoir, and another novel featuring characters from The Taqwacores, the awesomely named Osama Van Halen. And though the estrangement factor has subsided over time, all of his books document - or enact? - his search for an Islam that has room for someone like him, an Islam in which he would make sense. That would have to be a pretty weird Islam, truth be told. But then the history of Islam in America is already weirder than you might think.

Muslim America as we know it is largely the product of two events. The first was the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which opened the floodgates to Muslim migrants in great numbers. Most of those came from the Indian subcontinent; despite the still all-too-common conflation of "Arab" and "Muslim," many of the Arabs who came to America were Christians. Less celebrated, perhaps, but equally important, was the mass conversion of African Americans to Islam in the late 1970s, one of the largest in American history.

In 1975, when the long-time leader of the Nation of Islam died, his son made the decision to dissolve that black nationalist institution and embrace Sunni orthodoxy, bringing the majority of the Nation's followers along with him. (The Nation of Islam led by Louis Farrakhan - the one that Public Enemy rapped about, setting a young Michael Knight on his journey - is actually a splinter group, or revival, if you prefer, with a fraction of the membership of its predecessor.) Today African Americans comprise between a quarter and half of American Muslims.

These two stories are rarely told together, not least because the Nation of Islam, despite its name, was less an organised religion than a Garveyite project of racial uplift with a belief system heterodox in the extreme. The Nation was founded in Detroit in 1930 by WD Fard, a racially ambiguous salesman of silks and hats who taught his customers that Islam was the natural religion for black people. After Fard's mysterious disappearance in 1934, the movement was led by the thin-lipped, fez-capped Elijah Muhammad, who venerated his predecessor, blasphemously one might say, as "Allah in person". The Nation provided cultural ballast to a despised people by turning American racism upside down. In its remarkable cosmogony - worthy of that other child of the 1930s, the superhero comic - black Americans were the descendents of "Afro-Asiatic man," who had ruled the planet with wisdom and justice for thousands of years, until a mad scientist's secret experiment produced the ultimate biological weapon - white people - who proceeded to destroy the ancient civilisation and enslave its masters. The Nation's eschatology warned that the days of white supremacy were numbered, and when the revolution came, it would come from above, in the form of an armada of space ships (the "heavenly wheel" espied by the prophet Isaiah) piloted by Afro-Asiatics in exile.

  Knight's project, then, is to knit together these two stories, and more besides, bringing together the sundered sects and fashions of the American Muslim experience. Very possibly it is the sort of thing that only someone like him could accomplish ? a passionate, compassionate outsider, a white convert whose encounter with Islam was "socially South Asian and intellectually black". Knight's personal Islam synthesizes Wahabbism, Shiism, the Nation of Islam, the Nation of Gods and Earths, and, well, punk rock. It's the product of an epic journey, from Rochester to Islamabad, from Harlem to Mecca.

One of the most frequent critiques of Knight's work is that it is adolescent- in its abrasiveness and its earnestness, and especially in its treatment of sex. When I mentioned to him that some readers have trouble with the sex in his second book, Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America, he nodded. "In my writing I was living out things that I had deprived myself of. I had deprived myself of the right to be a teenager, and I caught up with it later on." That book includes "A Complete History of My Troubles With Urination", a short essay on the teenage Knight's obsessive-compulsive ablutions.

One can be turned off by Knight's excesses, if one is so inclined. But there is something winning about the unflinching way that he scrutinises himself and the world. Much of the pleasure of his prose derives from his palpable enthusiasm for his subjects - for his characters, especially - and the unfeigned empathy he brings to his treatment of them. Standing before Elijah Muhammad's grave in Thornton, Illinois, Knight pictures Elijah in 1930, still "a factory grunt at American Wire and Brass Company, trying his best to feed a wife and kids" when he met WD Fard - and then imagines Elijah four years later, "scared that his whole world was crashing down as he drove Fard to the airport in a Model T Ford, not knowing where the Master would go or if he'd ever see him again - with Fard assuring Elijah that he didn't need him any more".

Sometimes Knight's almost preternatural sensitivity is informed by his life story. One of the most arresting sections of Journey to the End of Islam follows Knight's struggle to make peace with the story of Abraham's sacrifice. In the story, Abraham is wracked with doubt, but finally submits to God's will, does the deed - only to find that God has put a ram in his son's stead. For Knight, this story, in particular the Qur'anic detail that the Devil "tempted" Abraham away from God by begging him not to slash his son's throat, is almost literally unbearable. (Readers of his previous books may recall that when Knight was a child, his father held a knife to the little boy's neck, insisting that God had revealed to him that the child was the spawn of the Devil.) Though Knight ultimately finds a way to understand Abraham's sacrifice (not for the first time with reference to Star Wars), he can't help but think about what happened next. "What a sad family. Try to imagine them sitting together in the years after these things, is there any laughter? Peace be upon them."

Knight likes to say that his favourite book is Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio - precisely because nothing really happens; it's just all these disturbingly vivid and fully realised characters. This will not come as a complete surprise to readers of Knight's novels, which are long on atmosphere and short on plot. But his non-fiction books, while digressive and meandering, have more definite arcs. Blue Eyed Devil is a series of travelogues, culminating in a six-week Greyhound pilgrimage to the holy sites of American Islam - and a quest for the true identity of WD Fard, who some believe was an itinerant Pakistani preacher, who returned many years after his disappearance to guide his wayward creation back into the Muslim mainstream. Impossible Man is the tale of Knight's formative years and his increasing estrangement from the character he finds himself playing: "The guy who lived in a mosque in Pakistan, got kicked out of his old college for running a fight club in the dorms, engaged in written correspondence with Charles Manson, and went to school for free because his dad was insane." (Impossible Man is probably Knight's most accessible book; it is, if nothing else, less insular than his other texts, and features some incredibly powerful writing, especially about his father. It's also quite funny, especially if you're a nerd; the chapter that relates his flight to Pakistan, is titled "Traveling Through Hyperspace Ain't Like Dusting Crops, Boy".)

Knight's most recent work, Journey to the End of Islam, is a book of pilgrimages - back to Pakistan, to Syria and Egypt, to Ethiopia, to Saudi Arabia, for the Haj. It's a completely worthy successor to Blue Eyed Devil, an epic concatenation of everything that has come before in his writing, from the Taqwacores to the Nation of Islam to WWF wrestling to Star Wars. (In Pakistan he meets up with Basim and Shahjehan from the Kominas, who've started that nation's first punk rock band.) But it is also full of new researches into meteors, folk religion, medieval commentary, and comparative mythology. More than anything, it is a compendium of spiritual exercises, Knight's deeper-than-ever engagement with traditional Islam, but informed and enriched by a decade's worth of heterodoxical investigations.

It is also, finally, a reckoning. His Haj, Knight told me in Somerville, was about learning how to be human to people. Ghosting his travels, this time, was a girl, and the next stage of his convert's journey, as he prepared to marry into a Muslim family. The book ends in California, planning the wedding in San Jose, where the gyre winds a final time as Knight discovers that the man who will officiate their wedding was an associate of the late Muhammad Abdullah - the very same migrant Muslim that some believe to have been WD Fard.

The day I visited Knight, he was still high from a trip the day before to attend the annual meeting of the Five Percenters - the Show and Prove - in Harlem. He was still wearing the T-shirt, with the smiling face of the group's long-dead founder on the front; the words "TEACHING THE BABIES SINCE 1964" in purple on the back. Knight has been attending meetings for years now, since his correspondence with a jailed Five Percenter first stoked his curiosity in the group.

The Five Percenters had broken off from the Nation of Islam in 1964; the group took the secret teachings of the Nation and began imparting them to street kids. The name derived from one of Master Fard's Supreme Wisdom Lessons, which taught that 85 per cent of people were effectively asleep; that 10 per cent knew better but chose to do wrong; and that the remaining five per cent, the poor, righteous teachers, struggled against the odds to awaken the sleepers. Also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths, the Five Percenters and their numerological system, the Supreme Mathematics, achieved a certain renown in the 1990s - thanks to members including rappers and musicians from Rakim to Erykah Badu to the Wu Tang Clan.

Knight was welcomed, tentatively at first, into their circles. He went on to write a book on the Five Percenters, by far his most serious effort, and it was received positively. By now most people knew who he was; many of them had read his work. Knight knew the Supreme Mathematics (in fact, he used them to great effect during his Haj) and had even received a righteous name, Azreal Wisdom, from an old friend of the group's founder. Though the Five Percenters were quick to insist that they practiced Islam as a culture, not a religion, Knight's trip reminded him of what religion as ritual, as communal affirmation, could be.

At the Show and Prove someone had asked him: do you consider yourself one of us? Are you a Five Percenter? And he couldn't honestly say, one way or the other. He was and he wasn't. Sitting with him in his living room, listening to the story, I saw an opening. So are you a Shi'a, then, I asked? This was not completely random: Knight's apostasy from the Sunni Islam of his conversion had led to him to all kinds of sects and tendencies, especially the one practised in Iran. Muharram, the mortification of the flesh practiced by male Shia to mourn the bloodbath at Karbala 14 centuries ago, had long appealed to Knight, the punk, and ex-wrestler. During his Haj, he'd reaffirmed his Shahada in the Iranian tent. "Am I Shi'a?" he laughed. "Sometimes." What are you then? I asked, half in jest. "That," he said, "is a complicated question."

Perhaps he is simply an American Muslim. In The End of Islam, Knight reflects on the destiny of religions in America; how, "under a constitution that defined religion as a personal choice? every religion had the chance to become American - if it was willing to negotiate." Catholicism had once been an immigrant religion, its believers suspected of dual loyalties. But the most dramatic story of Americanisation belonged to Judaism. "As early as the 1820s," Knight wrote, "American Jews were petitioning their rabbis for sermons in English, shorter services, and new prayers that spoke to their own lives. These changes led to the rise of Reform Judaism, today's largest denomination of Jews in the United States, a direct offspring of the Jewish American experience."

There isn't such a sect of Islam in the United States. But there are blue-eyed devils with righteous names and lady imams. And there are, for real, Muslim punks. Basim Usmani from the Kominas has said that it was reading The Taqwacores, with all its outrages and blasphemies, that made him feel comfortable calling himself Muslim. For now, that might be enough. Michael C Vazquez is a senior editor at Bidoun.