Punk Piety – "Challenging the orthodoxy of Punk and Islam"

A Muslim meld of punk and piety – The Globe and Mail

It was early September and the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America [ISNA] was about to wrap up in Chicago. About 400 young Muslims had gathered at a Hyatt hotel ballroom for open-mike night, hyped as a wholesome alternative to the vice-land that every big American city inevitably becomes once the sun sets.

The first few acts – Koran recitation, stern spoken-word stylings – matched the hype. But around 3 a.m., with fewer than a quarter of the original audience still around, an all-girl Vancouver punk band took to the stage. A 25-year-old singer with short black hair and a voice like a bar fight asked the crowd: “ISNA, are you ready to rock?”

And no, not everyone was ready to rock on the song Middle Eastern Zombies by Secret Trial Five.
[flashvideo filename=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CpqgrDFeUU /]
(accoustic version not from the ISNA event)

Secret Trial Five is an all-female Canadian punk rock band founded by Sena Hussain after 9/11. The name of the band is derived from a group of Canadian Muslims who currently remain in prison. Together with bands such as Vote Hezbollah, The Kominas, Al-Thawra and Diacritical they belong to a music movement or subculture called taqwacore. Taqwa meaning pious or God-fearing signifying the love and awe for God. Core comes from hardcore or hardcore punk, referring to a punk rock genre that is heavier and faster than early punk rock. Hardcore songs usually are short and very fast (and not to mention loud!) and covering a variety of topics often with a political connotation. Bands such as The Damned, The Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion and Hüskür Dü (in their early times). A particular faction within the hardcore subculture involves the straight edge philosophy of no promiscuity, smoking, drinking or doing drugs.

The name Taqwacores comes from Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores that tells the story of Yusuf Ali. His house, and that of several of his companions, is a safe haven for punk parties and for Muslims who want to remain outside the local mosques for Friday prayers and outside the Muslim Student Organization.
hardcore piety

Umar is “straightedge”, though covered in halal tattoos, including 2:219, referring to the proscription in the Quran against drinking alcohol. Rabeya, the sole female occupant of the house, wears a burqa, and has never been seen by most of her friends. She is also an ardent feminist and a fan of the punk group Propagandhi. Fasiq is a hashishiyyun, often to be found on the roof with a Quran in hand. His usual companion is Jehangir, who tells drunken tales of the taqwacores (hardcore pious) in “Khalifornia” and punk Islamic philosophy to anyone who’ll listen.

All four perform wudhu and use whatever is at hand as a prayer mat. A hole smashed into the wall marks qiblah, the direction of Mecca. Jehangir plays the call to prayer, adhan, on his electric guitar from the rooftop. Every Friday afternoon Islamic kids, punks and drop-outs gather at the house for jumaa.

Jehangir is a tragic romantic, believing in an open and inclusive Islam. At parties, Umar stands disapprovingly at the back of the room, and refuses to allow beer and drugs in his truck, if not the communal space.

The core issue in this novel is the conflict between orthodox, fundamentalist and Sufi varieties of Islam, inclusion and exclusion, an attempt to find a (radical) alternative combined with a public display of complete lack of respect for authorities (in a true punk spirit I may add) by trying to merge hardcore punk with Islam:
Muslim Punk Rock? – India Currents

Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way—the energy perhaps, that comes with knowing the world has never seen such positive force and fury and never would again. Both have suffered from sell-outs and hypocrites, but also from true believers whose devotion had crippled their creative drive. Both are viewed by outsiders as unified cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth.

Taqwacores has become a sort of manifesto (as for example Catcher in the Rye has been) for a range of bands that mix punkrock with (their vision on) Islam but without having a distinctive style of music, which to a certain extent challenges people’s understanding of hardcore traditions. For example Al-Thawra has clear rai influences, while Sagg Taqwacore Syndicate is about hiphop and techno and the Kominas use Bhangra influences. Regarding ‘orthodox Islam’ as a code of to do’s and to don’ts they emphasize personal responsibility and individual piety (with no social restraints) and it is clearly a post 9/11 genre taking up all kinds of political issues that pertain to Muslims in a very harsh, rude, provocative and satirical way. What they do also seem to share is that they appear to be ‘pissed off about everything’ (parents, society, politicians, religious authorities you name it) and trying to resist homogenizing labelling (such as progressive, punk, radical, gay, Arab) of Muslims.
Allah, Amps and Anarchy : Rolling Stone

Vote Hezbollah (the band’s name is intended as a joke) is one of five Muslim punk bands that recently wrapped up a ten-date tour that took them from Boston to Chicago during August and September. The bands, which hail from Chicago, San Antonio, Boston and Washington, D.C., share left-of-center politics and an antipathy toward the president. And all have used punk as a means to express the anger, confusion and pride in being young and Muslim in post-9/11 America.

Twenty-four hours after leaving the Toledo mosque, Boston’s Kominas — Punjabi for “the Bastards” — are playing in a packed basement in a rundown corner of Chicago’s Logan Square. Local punks mix with curious young Muslims — including a few girls wearing head scarves — as Kominas frontman Shahjehan Khan launches into the opening lines of “Sharia Law in the U.S.A.”: “I am an Islamist!/And I am an anti-Christ!” Nearby, mohawked bassist Basim Usmani — whose T-shirt reads frisk me i’m muslim — slaps out the song’s bass line while viciously slam-dancing with a dude in a woman’s burqa.

I’m not really sure if we can speak about a real movement here. My impression is that it is yet too small yet but with the taqwacore tour the bands gained more recognition and also the first taqwacore webmagazine has been established. Needless to say that taqwacore also evokes controversy (always important for a movement), accusations of blasphemy and fear of angry Muslims resulting in censorship, but it clearly has also found a way into the lives of (American) Muslim youth:

The Koran, punk rock and lots of questions – Los Angeles Times

Hiba slips out of the white T-shirt with black letters that read “HOMOPHOBIA IS GAY,” which she wore to Kempner High School, where she is a junior. It’s one of a collection of slogans the 17-year-old has silk-screened on T-shirts in her bedroom, unbeknownst to her parents, both Muslim immigrants from Pakistan.

There are other aspects of Hiba’s life lately she thinks they might not approve of either, like the Muslim punk music she has been listening to with lyrics such as “suicide bomb the GAP,” or “Rumi was a homo.” Or the novel she bought online, about rebellious Muslim teenagers in New York. It opens with: “Muhammad was a punk rocker, he tore everything down. Muhammad was a punk rocker and he rocked that town.”

This much Hiba knows: She is a Muslim teenager living in America.

But what does that mean?

It is a question that pesters her, like the other questions she is afraid to ask her parents: Can she still be a good Muslim even though she does not dress in hijab or pray five times a day? If Islam is right, does that make other religions wrong? Is going to prom haram, or sinful? Is punk?

Hiba loves Allah but wrestles with how to express her faith. She wonders whether it is OK to question customs. Behind her parents’ backs, she tests Islamic traditions, trying to decipher culture versus religion, refusing to blindly believe that they are one.

“Isn’t that what Prophet Muhammad did?” asks Hiba, raising her thick black eyebrows and straightening her wiry frame, which takes on the shape of a question mark when she stands hunched in insecurity. “Question the times? Question what other people were doing?”

Hiba’s hunt for answers has led her to other books too. They line her bedroom wall next to copies of Nylon magazine, one with “Gossip Girls” on its front cover. There’s “Radiant Prayers,” a collection from the Koran, and “Rumi: Hidden Music,” a Persian poet celebrated in parts of the Muslim world.[…]One day, Hiba typed the word “punk” into an online search engine and stumbled across a book by writer Michael Muhammad Knight. “The Taqwacores,” a 2003 novel — its title a combination of the Arabic word “taqwa,” or consciousness of God, and “hardcore” — is about a group of punk Muslim friends: a straight-edged Sunni, a rebel girl who wears band patches on her burka and a dope-smoking Sufi who sports a mohawk. The characters drink alcohol, do drugs, urinate on the Koran, have sex, pray, love and worship Allah.

Hiba related to the main character’s take on his identity, in which the author wrote: “I stopped trying to define Punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. . . . Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth.”

Hiba devoured the book, passing it around to her friends.

I expect that two films will further contribute to the spread of taqwacore:


TAQWACORE! follows Basim and The Kominas on their first North American tour. Along the way, they’ll pick up other Muslim misfits and together they’ll all descend upon Chicago in time to crash the party at the ISNA convention – the largest Muslim event in North America run by top mullahs and imams among the conservative ilk.

Sparks are sure to fly when Basim and his crew show up promoting the ultimate Taqwacore show. In between finding kindred spirits and battling the prejudices of the old guard, TAQWACORE! will chart this explosive new scene attracting Muslims youth all over the globe. Please join us on this intense and insightful thrill ride.

This feature documentary (directed by Omar Majeed and produced by EyeSteelFilm) also features the incident at ISNA referred to above and you can watch a trailer at the website. A second film based upon Taqwacores made by Eyad Zahra is planned for this year.

Al Jazeera English has a very good episode on the Playlist Series on taqwacores featuring taqwacore band Al-Thawra, Eyad Zahra and writer Michael Muhammad Knight
[flashvideo filename=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rbFyBedolM /]
And another fine example of taqwacore band is Sagg Taqwacore Syndicate:

[flashvideo filename=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W71_qVZTADw /]
I’m not sure if it is has reached (mainland) Europe yet and certainly not the Netherlands, but lets wait, see and listen.

There is also a digital ethnography of the taqwacore scene: Taqwatweet

4 thoughts on “Punk Piety – "Challenging the orthodoxy of Punk and Islam"

  1. First of all, usually remind your self from the Islamic dress code. Your clothes need to be extended, loose fitted and not transparent. Muslim females should really also cover their heads having a head scarf (hijab).

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