Thanks to The Taqwacores, the idea of devout Muslims who openly live the sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll lifestyle as much as they hold group prayer and study passages in the Koran is no longer incogitable. The term, coined by author Michael Muhammad Knight, is a portmanteau, taking the Arabic word “taqwa,” or God-consciousness, and blending it with “core,” representing hardcore punk. Released on DVD in April, the film by Zahra is based on Knight’s groundbreaking novel, and provides a fresh and much needed, alternative look at what makes a Muslim a Muslim. Following the book’s storyline closely, the movie opens with clean-cut Pakistani-American student Yusef Ali (Naderi) as he answers a roommate ad at a “Muslim” Buffalo, N.Y., house and unwittingly delves into an unfathomable world where hardcore punk mixes with hardcore Islam. Yusef’s recurrent mouth-agape demeanor is the appropriate expression to sum up the viewer’s nearly surreal experience with this film, which seeks to capsize stereotypes about Muslims with in-your-face imagery.
And the film’s unique approach to Islam is only one of several reasons to watch it. Shot on a shoestring budget, The Taqwacores manages to deliver a well-written script punctuated by sardonic humor, a stellar cast, insightful directing (this marks Zahra’s debut feature-length production), and a soundtrack that any fan of punk or hard rock will no doubt be searching for.
What is most remarkable about The Taqwacores, though, is perhaps not the story itself but the story it created: Knight’s fictional taqwacore music scene sparked an actual taqwacore movement. The bands featured in the soundtrack, The Kominas, Al-Thawra, and others, were inspired by Knight’s novel and formed under the taqwacore header. The influence can be heard in the bands’ lyrics, which sometimes borrow lines from the book. The history the real-life bands have with the story makes the film all the more intriguing and provides a multidimensional backdrop to the events taking place at the Buffalo house.
Despite his housemates’ firm belief in Islam, Yusef immediately finds himself in unfamiliar territory—the battered house’s black walls are graffitied with profanity and blasphemous slogans, an anarchy symbol has been spray painted over a Saudi flag which contains Koranic verse, and nightly parties bring a host of drunken riffraff who mark the house with just about every bodily fluid imaginable. Yusef’s roommates are walking contradictions who have made Islam a daily part of their lives through their own interpretations and the shattering of traditions.
Fasiq (Tran) is an Indonesian skater who often retreats to the roof to smoke pot and study the Koran. The ever-critical Umar (Mann) is a traditional Muslim who has combined Islamic principles with straightedge punk philosophy (chastity and sobriety). Iranian Shia roommate, the Amazing Ayyub (Eryman), has “KARBALA” tattooed across his chest in large, black letters and all the fidgeting and repetitive behavior of a full-blown speed freak. The mohawked and charismatic Jehangir (Rains) becomes Yusef’s closest confidant and our window into understanding what makes up the taqwacore scene. And Muzzamil (Yalda) is an openly gay Muslim man who wears stringed pearls, red lipstick, and tutus with fishnet tights. But perhaps the most interesting character is one who remains faceless and shapeless through the entire film—female roommate, Rabeya (Dewulf), continually wears her Afghan-style burqa, which is decorated with ironed-on band patches and slogan buttons, one reading “dyke.” Despite her extremely fundamentalist appearance, Rabeya doesn’t hesitate to speak about dating and sex, and defiantly strikes any misogynistic verse she finds in the Koran with a black marker.
Regardless of their unorthodoxy, the housemates’ passion for Islam is anything but remote. The group holds weekly sermons and prayers, and their dialogue often centers on their personal interpretations or struggles with Islam. In his novel, Knight, a convert to Islam, exhibits extensive knowledge and compassion for the religion, and that spirit is brought to life in Zahra’s work. The film’s characters provide a warmth and intimacy that mitigates their punk exteriors and the sometimes-rough nature of the story.
Some reviewers have chided the film’s dubious party scenes. They miss the point. The story’s purpose is not to provide a gratuitous depiction of college-age youth. It is also important to note that while the movie’s focus is on religion, it is not in any way a “religious” film looking to proselytize (a misgiving of those who’ve not seen it). Instead, it is a comment on the stereotypes the larger community has cast upon Muslims and the rigid model of piety which Muslims have cast themselves under. Simply put, it is a film about youth who grapple to reconcile the identities they were born to with the ones they have chosen. The world that Zahra and Knight have created is one in which American Muslims who do not fit with any other group find their place—a place where “all the crazy fuckups and rejects in the community (come) together,” as the character Jehangir says. The Taqwacores looks not to alienate, but to provide a space for Muslim youth that has not been provided before.
For more information on The Taqwacores, go to www.punkislam.com.
Knight’s novel also inspired a 2009 documentary, Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, which follows taqwacore bands in a tour across the U.S. and Pakistan. Directed by Omar Majeed. For more information, go to www.taqwacore.com.
Nadia Maiwandi is the Events Editor at India Currents, an “ethnic” Muslim, and a recent taqwacore convert. She can be reached at email@example.com.