How can we NOT love this film? We’re both in it. No, seriously, we are! Okay, just barely: you can see the backs of our heads in some of the scenes of Michael Muhammad Knight’s reading at The Gladstone in Toronto in early 2009. Director Omar Majeed was there, too, showing some scenes from the then-unfinished version of Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam, a documentary that was released in late 2009. We were thrilled to see those scenes then and couldn’t wait to see the finished film, which we did last year. It's gotten very strong, even stellar, reviews. It's still making the rounds on the festival circuit and tomorrow night, it premieres on the Documentary Channel.
Almost any discussion of this documentary has to start out by distinguishing this film from the very similarly-titled drama The Taqwacores: The Movie, which came out this year. That movie, directed by Eyad Zahra, is based on the 2003 novel The Taqwacores, by Michael Muhammad Knight, which imagined and then spawned a Muslim punk scene…which is what Canadian director Omar Majeed then made his documentary about. Got that? Good.
Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam looks at the very marginal subculture that sprung to life after Knight self-published his provocative novel, a book he says he wrote “from a place of extreme loneliness,” several years ago. Majeed focuses the film around the experiences of Knight and a band called The Kominas (“scumbags” in Punjabi). The first half of the film follows them as they set out on a old school bus to tour around the US, meeting up with the members of the widely scattered North American Muslim punk movement (Secret Trial Five, Al-Thawra, Diacritical, Vote Hezbollah) and doing shows on what was called The Taqwatour. The climax of the first half is their performance at an Islamic Society of North America annual conference, which is met mostly with the disapprobation of the organizers, although some of the audience members are receptive. The ISNA organizers object primarily to the performance of Secret Trial Five, whose lead singer is a woman, Sena Hussain. Apparently one of the main policies for musical performances at ISNA conferences is “no female singers” (whether or not they’re in hijab). The ISNA people finally call in the police, and the bands choose to leave, chanting “Pigs are haram in Islam!” rather than get arrested.
In the film’s second half, Basim Usmani of the Kominas goes to Pakistan, and eventually Knight and Usmani's bandmate Shahjehan Khan haul themselves to Pakistan, too. Khan and Usmani start a band called Noble Drew and try to unleash their brand of punk in a Muslim country with varying results. They explore some of the many expressions of Islam in Pakistan (specifically, Lahore), visiting Sufi shrines and a Shi’a mosque, taking part in a ritual that I’m fairly sure is connected to the mourning of Ashura. Knight travels by himself back to Islamabad, to revisit the Faisal Mosque where he spent time as a teenage convert, getting enough Wahhabi indoctrination to push him almost completely out of the religion. In Lahore, Noble Drew tries to put on a concert that quickly gets shut down, and they struggle to figure out how to connect with audiences in Pakistan. A local friend explains, “In order to make a difference in someplace, you first have to be absorbed in it. That takes time.”
They finally decide to put on a free show on a rooftop overlooking both the beautiful Badshahi Mosque and Lahore’s red light district—one can hardly think of a more perfect location. It’s not easy to get people interested. Someone in the film describes the way musical appreciation tends to fall along class lines in Pakistan: pop music is for the rich people, traditional music is for the poor. And who even knows what the hell this Muslim punk thing is? Noble Drew and their supporters are trying to reach anybody/everybody, and it’s not easy. But they finally manage to attract a pretty enthusiastic crowd to the free concert, and give a really successful, well-received show, which forms the climax for this half.
The juxtaposition of the two very different cultures and worldviews works well, I think; on some level, it’s kind of amusing how uptight and/or ambivalent the North American ISNA scene is, contrasted with how receptive and open the Pakistani audience is. Everything and everyone in the film underlines how complex, how multifaceted, how diverse Islam really is—and you’re only seeing a small fragment of that diversity in this movie. There isn’t just one kind of Muslim, no matter what certain mullahs and media outlets would have you believe. There isn't only one right or good way to be Muslim. And no matter how much cognitive dissonance the notion of Muslim punk might evoke, it still exists. As Knight says at one point, people should understand that “in the so-called war of civilizations, we’re pointing the middle finger in both directions.” Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam looks at some of the challenges in getting that message out there.
The one criticism I think I would make of the film is that as a Muslim woman I would like to have seen and heard a little bit more from the women in the Muslim punk scene. Sena Hussain, the lead singer of Secret Trial Five, gets to talk and sing a bit, and I realize there aren't a ton of women putting out Muslim punk music, but we could have heard more from the female fans, especially the women at the basement concerts and so on. However transgressive it may be for the men involved in Muslim punk, it’s more transgressive for the women. I think there would have been room for it in the film; it’s certainly not overly long at 79 minutes and it’s consistently engaging.
Anyway. I’ve gone on a bit longer than I meant to, but I really enjoyed this film and I want to encourage you to see it. If you’ve got the Documentary Channel (US version), it’s on Saturday, October 23, at 8 p.m. Join the film’s Facebook page to be kept abreast of festival screenings and other opportunities to see it. As Knight says in the film, “There is a cool Islam. You just have to find it. You have to sift through all the other stuff, but it’s there.”