Michael Muhammad Knight (MMK) is in New York, my hometown. He lets me pick a place to meet. I walk right by him, because I do not recognize him. I curse him, thinking that he, a New York newbie, has given me the wrong street corner. After I keep him waiting for 30 minutes (because of my mistake), I offer to buy him a cone from The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck. He pays for his. I am not sure where the cone, or his boot, may end up as we talk.
MMK is considered to be the father of the American Muslim Punk Movement. His originally self-published novel, The Taqwacores, was photocopied and spiral-bound. Sold out of car trunks, given away for free, or bought over the internet (like I did in 2003), it was a sensation at the time. It is a sensation now, but for very different reasons. Soft Skull Press released a perfect-bound edition, with minor changes to the content, and it’s amazing what a difference presentation will make. In addition, they are releasing three more of MMK’s books: the sequel to Taqwacores, Osama Van Halen; his travelogue through Muslim America, Blue-Eyed Devil, as he searches for the true identity of Nation of Islam founder W.D. Fard, and his autobiography, Impossible Man.
It’s easier to understand the unease MMK causes when you consider his work together. The Taqwacores was seen as inflammatory by dominant Muslim-American voices when it emerged, packed as it is with drinking, drug use, sex, and Sunni-Shi’ah friendship. But it undeniably captured a sense of what a post-1965 immigrant Muslim community could look like. All the characters are recognizable. It is as much Islam in America as Malcolm X, as Al-Maghrib, or as Muslims for Progressive Values. I do not want to take anything away from MMK, but he did not create a community, he gave it voice. These people existed before his book, but by writing about them, he put them in the spotlight. People have since coalesced around the core community, so he can clearly be credited with helping to grow it.
What he did create, inadvertently, was a Muslim punk scene—as many thought the bands he wrote about were real. The following passage from Taqwacores, captures this ‘unorthodox’ community perfectly:
I was surrounded by deliberately bad Muslims but they loved Allah with a gonzo kind of passion that escaped sleepy brainless ritualism and the dumb fantasy-camp Islams claiming that our deen [religion] had some inherent moral superiority making the world rightfully ours.
A New American Exotic
The Taqwacore movement is the name of the Muslim punk scene. Taqwa means God-consciousness, while the suffix comes from the hardcore community, a subgenre of punk. Perhaps the most famous of the groups to emerge is the Kominas, who have recently gone on tour and have had several articles written about them. Of course, the best reporting comes from smaller venues, although this LA Times feature does capture one of the more important reasons the Taqwacores is infamous now:
Cavicchi said the constant emphasis on the Muslim-punk angle was unavoidable, especially in the context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“However, I would hate to see Taqwacore stall in public discourse as a form of exotica,” he wrote. “Their songs are actually quite catchy, with interesting dynamics and a variety of sound textures, all of which are a testament to their musicianship.”
The book now represents a new American exotic, a testament to the wide diversity of religious, immigrant, convert, gendered, racial, etc. experiences of America that are represented. And it deserves to be taken seriously across disciplines. MMK is not only an amateur anthropologist, but a keen observer of character, and a good historian.
Osama Van Halen, a sequel of sorts to the Taqwacores, is far more fragmentary, and less geared towards a continuous narrative. MMK inserts himself, breaking the wall between fiction and reality. As a story, it is not as strong. However, MMK continues to demonstrate a keen eye for the issues of the Muslim-American community. On page 124, he lays out the following conversation:
”You see,” droned the MSA’s Fonz apparent, “it’s haram for a muqallid to do ijtihad, the same way that it’s haram for a mujtahid to do taqleed.” The other kids nodded like zombies. Amazing Ayyub went over to them and just stood there, waiting for someone to acknowledge him. Saliha rolled her eyes at the oversize machine gun resting on his shoulder.
Amazing Ayyub is a carryover character from Taqwacores and is on a mission to kill zombies. When he walks in on this conversation, it is the typical college conversation of students who believe they are discovering truths that have never been known before, and getting it all wrong. The setting is a post-MSA (Muslim Student Association) event, and some boy is apparently trying to show how intellectual he is, using terms like muqallid (one who follows), ijtihad (independent reasoning), mujtahid (one who does independent reasoning), and taqleed (to follow someone else). The flexibility in these terms makes the statement sound like a truism: one who follows does not think; one who thinks does not follow. However, the reality is very different and the passage is in fact a very erudite criticism of superficial understandings of the faith. There is also an undercurrent of Shi’ah-Sunni misunderstandings present in this statement, and throughout much of MMK’s work.
In his autobiography, Impossible Man, we learn that MMK converts to Islam at the age of 16 and adopts a Salafist (conservative, in popular parlance) stance on religion. He associates mostly with South Asian immigrants, even going to Pakistan for a while, which, I believe, explains his ability to render the immigrant experience so well. He has a crisis of faith that happens as he learns about Shi’ism:
I had been taught to revere that first generation. The Prophet had said that they would be the greatest Muslims of all time, seconded by the generation immediately after them, and then the generation after that, and the generation after that, each a little weaker in the deen than the one before it, until the final days when one could not tell the Muslims from the kafrs. I stood on the far end of a declining history, sixty generations removed from the blessed companions of the Prophet, sixty degrees weaker in my faith. But now I learned that for politics, the owners of that Golden Age would kill the Prophet’s own family and rip Islam down the middle forever.
And here I was, fretting over missed prayers.
I began to understand why Sunnis wished that Shi’as did not exist. For Sunnis, the keepers of what has become “orthodox” or “standard” Islam, the presence of dissenting opinion kills that myth of Islamic unity, the ummah. But there was no such thing as the ummah, at least not since the day the Prophet died. It had always been sects and factions and war.
Those fuckers, they ruined it for me; my great Muslim heroes, the pious forebears, stole the whole religion out of my hands. If they were the starting point for Islamic history, the tradition now looked like fourteen centuries’ worth of turds heaped on a diamond.
Ayyub, the character from both Taqwacores and Osama Van Halen, is Shi’ah, with the word Karbala, the place where the Shi’ah Imam Husayn was martyred, tattooed on his chest. The conflict MMK experiences is played out through the characters in his books, and while not autobiographical, elements of his novels clearly reflect some his own life experiences. Perhaps none is more striking than his urinating on the Qur’an, which he sees as desecrating an idol, and a scene in Taqwacores where a singer urinates on the Qur’an and then recites from it with “absolute sincerity”. The insights that MMK offers on Muslim American life are woven throughout his non-fiction and fictional works. Between Impossible Man and Osama Van Halen, for example, we get one insider’s view of the implosion of the Progressive Muslim Union, the first female-led prayer in the U.S., and a view of the problems with contemporary Muslim-American organizations.
Blue-Eyed Devil, a must for any syllabus on Islam in America, is a different work altogether. It is a travelogue of MMK’s quest to see all that makes Muslim-America prior the 1965 wave of immigration, and tied to the true identity of W.D. Fard, founder of the Nation of Islam. One of the most interesting discussions he has is with a white member of the Five Percent, a group that emerges from the Nation of Islam. To find a white member seems impossible, but MMK not only finds one (who takes the name Azrael, the Angel of Death) but also becomes initiated into their teachings. He also meets with Peter Lamborn Wilson, Hakim Bey, and joins a Moorish Lodge. What he reveals is more than a simple summary could capture, but it is material that is no other single source that I have ever seen. MMK also offers his usual insights to the condition of Muslims in America. He says:
From that point it became easy to hate girls. Since they knew that I was only a man and could be no other way, it was their job to keep my thoughts clean; so who were they to walk where I could see them?
Looking back on it, I think I made shirk to my testicles; I feared them more than I feared Allah.
I’ve gone through some well-documented ups and downs to crawl out of that. Maybe I’m not qualified to write on Islamic feminism, being Captain Handjobs at the ISNA Convention and all; but if this oversexed manchild can pray with a woman and keep his gaze lowered, do you want to be the man who can’t?
The sociology of the pull of conservatism is on display in this particular work. The “threat” posed by difference, whether gender, culture, or theology, can be massaged away by looking for a “true” Islam that makes all other wrong.
Individually, with the exception of Osama Van Halen, all of MMK’s works are fascinating individual insights into the nature of Islam in America. However, there is a value that exceeds the sum of the parts in reading all four books together. OVH works much better in conjunction with the other books. Although not on Soft Skull Press, his book The Five Percenters is an important part of this theme as well. Add in the Autobiography of Malcolm X and you have all the core books for a course on modern Islam in America. Since MMK is an autodidact, he does not see what is happening as unique to Islam in America, but part of larger trends in Islamic intellectual thought. He weaves in references to al-Hallaj, the malamati—Sufis who sought disapproval, lest all they seek was approval—and various theological debates. In the fall of 2009 he will be starting a Masters program at the Harvard Divinity School. His obvious intellectual ability, I think, allowed him to keep his boot and his ice cream cone in the right places.