Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight

I would never have heard of The Taqwacores were it not for a story in The New York Times in December which referenced it. The book has an underground reputation as an Islamic “Catcher In the Rye,” and at times it reads like just that. The title comes from the mixing of the word hardcore with Taqwa - an Arabic word meaning “fear of the Divine.”

The book’s narrator, Yusef Ali, is a Pakistani-American college student living in Buffalo, N.Y. in a house full of Muslim punk rockers. Yes, you read that correctly - Muslim punk rockers. Burqa-wearing feminist Muslims. Gay Muslims. Hardcore punk rock mohawked Muslims. Muslims who wear the Star of David just as Sid Vicious wore the Swastika 30 years before - to provoke. The language is hardcore - profanity and obscenity on virtually every page, drug use, graphic sex. There are passages that are funny but most of them are obscene, even if you’re not a Muslim, and profane if you are.

The plot of the book basically revolves around the interaction of the characters to Yusef, who comes from a much more conservative Muslim background than his friends and fears his interaction with these characters - Rude Dawud, Amazing Ayyub, and Jehangir Tabari, the tragic character who comes back from “Khalifornia” with tales of hardcore Muslim punks and how they will remake the face of Islam:

“I stopped trying to define Punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. They aren’t so far removed as you’d think. 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.”

The book reads sometimes a little too much like a copy of Salinger’s legendary tale of “phonyism.” In fact, Muslim punk bands like Osama bin Laden’s Tunnel Diggers and Bilal’s Boulder didn’t exist until the novel began making the rounds of young Muslims across America. But the familiar story - a detached narrator viewing various mixed-up young lives as they riff on the system they both love and despise, an idealistic loner who dreams of something new “out West” - will end all too familiarly for anyone who’s read “Catcher,” “On the Road,” and various other works of this stripe.

What sticks out most in the characters’ discussions of Islam are its boundaries, and the endless questions that followers have about what they are allowed and what is forbidden - whether it be food, or tattoos, or alcohol, or drugs, or contact between the sexes, or thoughts. Rather than a positive expression of God’s love through action, the characters seem obsessed by a more negative pursuit, namely, what is permissible - how much can I get away with and still be submissive to the will of Allah? That leads to discussions, such as this one between the novel’s narrator, Yusef Ali, and Jehangir, about the how men and women interact within Islam. Yusef asks if men can really be innocent around women, the basis for separation of the genders:

“Maybe, maybe not, who knows. But if you believe that you can’t, and you live like you can’t, it messes you up inside.”
“What do you mean?”
“The more you accept man’s intrinsic weakness, the easier it is to hate girls. Suddenly all your bad thoughts are their fault since they should be known how weak you are and not take advantage of it…”

And much of the novel is caught up in this question of whether these people really are Muslims, by either their definition or the one Yusef learned in his home.

I found myself remembering a quote from Pope Benedict XVI, on why he believed there might never be a Muslim Reformation:

“God has given His word to Muhammad, but it’s an eternal word. It’s not Mohammed’s word. It’s there for eternity the way it is. There’s no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it, whereas in Christianity, and Judaism, the dynamism’s completely different, that God has worked through his creatures...there’s inner logic to the Christian Bible, which permits it and requires it to be adapted and applied to new situations.”

The author, an Irish Catholic convert to Islam, spends a great deal of time on the sins that his Muslim characters commit, but not much time on why they are doing these things - other than “man’s intrinsic weakness.” What I dwelt on, as I read it, was the mixing of Western culture with Islam, which at times bordered on simply finding an excuse, looking for how far one can go. As with much in life and literature, that question - how far can we go? - is couched in the positive but finds application in the negative. We don’t necessarily want to get any closer to God. We want to talk about it while we get further away from Him in spirit.

And what happens when we get there? How do we get closer to God? The idea of submission to Allah somehow gets lost in the submission part. When one character calls Islam not a religion but a perfect system of life, one longs for a whiff that one can even approach God. One longs for grace.

Alfred Kazin, in his 1997 study “God and the American Writer,” observed:

“Starting from embattled lonely beginnings, each church in America was separate from and doctrinally hostile to others. The individual on his way to becoming a writer was all too conscious that it was his ancestral sect, his early training, his own holiness in the eyes of his church that he brought to his writing. He became it’s apostle without having forever to believe in it, in anything - except the unlimited freedom that is the usual American faith.”

If Knight truly believes, as one of the characters says, that Islam will find its true voice in America in the nation’s mixing of cultures, races and thoughts, then its worth noting that Christianity at the same moment is, in large part, doing the same thing: trying to tailor its message to a shifting culture that puts a premium on blurring lines. But the only way Christianity can maintain itself, and its appeal, is by remaining different, by remaining itself. It’s interesting that this requires an act of faith, and trusting that Jesus will be sufficient to draw all to Him. History shows He has been more than sufficient.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I totally agree with what you wrote. I just finished the book myself and thought it was reminding me a lot of On the Road.