By Don Simpson | August 16, 2011
Director: Omar Majeed
Writer/journalist/Muslim convert Michael Muhammad Knight coined the term “Taqwacore” from a combination of taqwa (an Arabic word that translates as “piety” or “god-fearing”) and hardcore. It was Knight’s novel about a fictional group of young Islamic punk rockers, The Taqwacores, that birthed the first wave of Muslim punk rock in the United States. First published DIY, then by Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, The Taqwacores follows groups of Muslim punks in New York as they juggle their religious beliefs with punk rock. Knight’s novel was adapted into a narrative film — The Taqwacores — by director Eyad Zahra and also inspired this documentary — Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam — by Omar Majeed.
Majeed’s documentary follows a handful of the bands who are the immediate offspring of Knight’s novel. Though completely fictional, Knight’s novel provided this merry band of Muslim punks with the hope that other like-minded people may actually exist. Together they travel across the U.S. with Knight in a green bus, like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, discovering comradery — and occasionally some spiritual enlightenment — in between attempts to perform their music for whoever will listen.
The bands of Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam utilize the inherent power of punk rock to communicate their emotions about their home country’s disdain for their religion and their religion’s hatred of their music and lifestyle; but this documentary is less about the music, and more about each individual’s struggle with merging their lifestyles with their religious convictions. Knight serves as their mentor or sage, but even his existential struggles continue to this very day.
The structure and format of Majeed’s documentary may be all too similar to other documentaries about touring musicians, but the content is intriguing enough to make Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam something unique. Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam is incredibly adept at unearthing the smothering walls that organized religions build up around their congregations. This is where the punk ideologies of individualism and non-conformity come into play. According to the Taqwacores, religion is not about hierarchy or mass control, it is about individual worship. You are your own authority, not clerics or priests. Religion should be a source of adrenaline — not an opiate — of the masses. Basically, one should be allowed to worship their god(s) however they want, even via punk rock music.
For another perspective, check out J.P. Chapman’s review of Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam from SXSW 2010. And now you can see for yourself — Lorber Films just released Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam on DVD.