Taqwacore = Islamic punk rock
But here's the interesting part. The genre didn't really exist until Michael Muhammad Knight wrote a novel called The Taqwacores, which one scholar calls "The Catcher in the Rye for young Muslims." Nearly ten years old, that novel inspired the birth of a small but meaningful youth movement, primarily in North America, of Muslim teenagers interested in adopting the rebellious pose of punk rock while maintaining staunchly Islamic identities. The word "taqwa" means something like piety or faith. Taqwacore bands popped up, writing and performing songs about Islam and using a hardcore punk musical aesthetic.
On Thursday night, UM-Dearborn screened the film version of The Taqwacores, directed by Eyad Zahra, who graciously answered questions after the screening. I encouraged my students to attend and about six or seven of them did. The film follows young Yousef, a Pakistani-American college student who moves into a house inhabited by devotees of taqwacore. Yousef is pious and conservative whereas his new housemates engage in all manner of "haram" (immoral) behavior and challenge Yousef's assumptions about what a good Muslim is. His new mates represent a range of Islamic ideologies. One woman, for instance, wears a full burka covered with punk rock patches and espouses a sexually liberated version of feminism. One is an openly gay man. One loves punk music but believes in a very traditional version of Islam, with men and women socializing separately.
Zahra shot the film with hand-held cameras in a rickety looking house in Cleveland. The movie's as lively and chaotic as the music at its center. At times, the story tries too hard to shock the audience (several scenes are sexually explicit, for instance) but overall it's a challenging and nuanced story that definitely got my students talking. We chatted in the hallway afterward and one student told me our conversation was better than the movie (which he found offensive--but, again, it inspired him to think and talk). I appreciated the range of characters in the film. And in a way, The Taqwacores reminded me of Kevin Smith's Dogma, which is deeply irreverent but takes Catholicism seriously and rolls up its sleeves and engages with church teaching. The Taqwacores did that for Islam, showing, for example, how this group of young people question their beliefs while maintaining their faiths, identities, and even traditions (turning Friday prayer, for instance, into a rotating sharing session in which each member of the community talks about what Islam means to them). They pray, although the call to prayer is played on an electric guitar, sounding a bit like Jimi Hendrix's rendition of the National Anthem. And the film has a sense of humor too. Band names include Hezbollah and the opening credits roll as a song called "Sharia Law in the U.S.A." (can you guess which Sex Pistols song this tune references?) plays on the soundtrack.
I'm awaiting response papers from my students who chose to attend (it was optional) but I'm curious to see how they connect the film to the short story collection we read, Halal Pork by Cihaan Kaan, which also uses an avant garde aesthetic to try to capture the complexities of young, American muslims in the post-9/11 decade.