Muslim Punk Rock: A Mashup of Piety and Politics

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Kim Badawi / Reflux Pictures

Basim Usmani of the Kominas rocks out in Chicago, in a scene from the documentary Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam

When Jimi Hendrix smashed his guitar in the 1960s, it was clear he was attacking the Establishment. When a Muslim punk rocker smashes up a guitar outside an American Muslim convention, the now-standard rock 'n' roll trope gains a few new meanings. These young punks are taking on every establishment going: Muslim, American and Muslim American. "In this so-called war of civilizations, we're giving the finger to both sides," says the godfather of the Muslim punk movement, Michael Muhammad Knight, in Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, a new documentary by Pakistani-Canadian director Omar Majeed. As a mashup of piety and politics, hard-core music and anarchy, the Muslim punk movement makes the Sex Pistols look like Fleetwood Mac.

The guitar-smashing episode occurred in 2007 after a crowd of Muslim punks were thrown out of the Islamic Society of North America's open-mike night. They had shocked attendants at the meeting — North America's largest annual Muslim gathering — not just by cranking up their amps, swearing and screaming their lyrics, but also by having a woman sing onstage. In the documentary, young women in hijabs are shown staring open-mouthed at first, then rocking out and yelling, "Stop the hate!" The concert then comes to an abrupt halt when the meeting's organizers, backed by Chicago police, step in, deeming it "not Islamically appropriate." Afterward, the punks smash their guitars and begin an ironic, anti-authority chant outside: "Music is haram [forbidden]!"

In their small but burgeoning scene — there are only a handful of Muslim punk bands in the U.S. and Canada — rebellion is an act of piety. Strident as their sound can seem, it is, in spirit, in harmony with other rebellious voices that are rising amid the breakdown of authority in the Islamic world. Whether they're the voices of Muslim feminists going back to read the Koran and the Hadith as documents of liberation, gay Muslims working out a theology that embraces homosexuality or even the millions of Muslim youths trusting Islamic chat rooms — which one British Muslim leader has dismissed as "Sheik Google" — over the local imam, they, like Muslim punks, are expressing a growing dissent with the Islamic world's mainstream theologians.

It was Knight, an American convert, who first articulated a vision for a Muslim punk scene in 2002, when he wrote a novel about it called The Taqwacores. (The title combines the words taqwa, Arabic for "higher consciousness," and core, from hardcore.) He then received an e-mail from a 16-year-old Texan Muslim, Kourosh Poursalehi, who was in a band called Vote Hezbollah, asking how he could get in touch with the mohawked Sufis, skater punks, burqa-wearing riot grrrls and skinhead Shi'ites in the book. When Knight told him it was fiction, Poursalehi responded, "Well, then I'll make it real." With Knight's help, he began contacting like-minded Muslim musicians on the Internet. Soon, Muslim bands from across the U.S. and Canada decided to put together a tour in a green-spray-painted school bus. Among the performers were the Kominas, a Boston group fronted by Pakistani Americans, and Secret Trial Five, a Vancouver band fronted by a lesbian, Sena Hussain.

Given punk's history and values, Muslim punk makes sense, says Majeed. "Punk tends to gravitate toward marginalized voices," he says. "So it's no surprise that there are Afro-punks, Latino punks. It's about questioning authority. The purpose of it is not to be a jerk, but to talk truth to power." The scene has certainly managed to rankle both Muslim and punk traditionalists. "There are Muslims who think you're not supposed to be rude if you're pious, you're not supposed to be playing music," Majeed says. "Punks have told [Muslim punks] there's no room for God or religion in punk. If there is, it's like, 'You're a fool, you've been co-opted by the Man.' "

For Knight, punk's rebellious ethos echoes the rebellious spirit of Islam, which, when it began in 7th century Arabia, directly challenged everything from the Meccan economic power structures of the day to the prevailing tribal views on women. Knight's novel opens with a poem, which Poursalehi set to music and which has become an anthem of sorts for the scene: "Muhammed was a punk rocker/ You know he tore s___ up/ Muhammed was a punk rocker/ Rancid sticker on his pickup truck." For Knight, now a graduate student in Islamic studies at Harvard University, the richness and elasticity of Islam has allowed a Muslim punk scene to develop and now flourish. "The energy of punk is about tearing down," he says. "But I don't want to just be tearing something down. I want to build, to do something positive."