BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 October 2007, 17:18 GMT 18:18 UK
On tour with the Taqwacores
By May Abdalla
BBC Newsnight

An old school bus painted green and decorated with anarchy symbols and "Praise Allah" bumper stickers stands outside a motel on the interstate between Detroit and Chicago.
Basim, lead singer of The Kominas
The bands have fused punk and Islam and taken them on tour

It was bought off eBay for $2,000 by a group of American Muslim punk bands and is functioning as a home for the purposes of their three week tour of the States this summer.

They're part of an emerging subculture called Taqwacore that sees Muslim youth rejecting parts of both American and Islamic culture under the banner of punk music.

Marwan Kamel is an American born Syrian from Chicago who fronts the hardcore punk band "Al-Thawra" - Arabic for "The Revolution" - one of the five bands that are on the tour.

He describes his music as an "expression of anger and disaffection… both at how post 9/11 Middle Eastern people are seen by the West and also the oppression in the Middle East. Basically, neither this nor that!"

A novel idea

Taqwacore was spawned two years ago when Michael Muhammed Knight, an American convert to Islam, wrote a novel about a fictitious Muslim punk scene in New York.

The Taqwacores book cover
Knight wrote the book after a period of disillusionment with Islam
The novel inspired Kourosh Poursalehi, a 19 year-old from Texas who had long been into punk music, to start the first Taqwacore band "Vote Hezbollah" - a name he found in the book.

Since then the novel has achieved a cult following and precipitated several Muslim punk bands with the label "Taqwacore". Their music - sometimes political, sometimes pop - speaks of the experience of being Muslim in America with smatterings of Urdu, Arabic and Quranic verses referencing the various cultures the band members herald from.


When he wrote the novel, Knight had been experiencing disillusionment with Islam having undergone a period of conservatism that took him to the madrasas of Pakistan and a flirtation with the Chechnyan frontline.

In this so-called clash of civilisations, Taqwacore is about sticking the middle finger in both directions"
Michael Muhammed Knight
Author, The Taqwacores
The book's vitriolic criticisms of Islamic culture, discussions of Prophet Mohammed and paedophilia, and descriptions of urinating on the Quran and a woman in a burqa performing oral sex on stage, raised controversy.

But Knight is cautious that the book is not misunderstood as blasphemous. For him it is about asking questions:

"It's not meant to be an attack on Islam - I had 15 years of Islam behind me. I wasn't just some random white guy that wanted to cause trouble. I wrote it because I was hurt and disappointed. It's a vision of the kind of Islam I wanted.

"That's different from drawing some fucked up picture of the prophet. I was as angry about the Danish cartoon as anybody else."


For Knight, bringing punk and Islam together was a way of overcoming the rules of correct behaviours - or "adab" - that govern Muslim's lives.

"Punk has its own adab or etiquette and that is to say 'Fuck you'. The kind of Islam I wanted was a kind of 'Fuck you, I'm Muslim whatever you say'."

Several members of Taqwacore bands playing on stage
The band members are diverse in their opinions and backgrounds
The Taqwacore name comes from the Arabic term "Taqwa" meaning 'god-consciousness' and "core" which denotes a music subculture - although in true punk tradition it's hard to pin down an actual definition beyond its etymology.

The bands are careful to emphasise that Taqwacore is not a coherent ideology in itself, but a rebellion against the American and Muslim mainstream.

"I don't know what Taqwacore is," says Marwan, "it's just something we are doing. Muslims hate us cos they think we just do haram [forbidden] shit all the time. Taqwacore is saying we're here and we're not afraid to be who we are."

For Sena, the lead singer of an all-girl Muslim punk band called Secret Trial Five - the name given to five detained Muslims in Canada - raising awareness of injustices against Muslims is the point of Taqwacore:

"Muslims have a lot to be angry about. But we need to get more of them angry about what is going on. Punk music is a way to do that."

Rebels and misfits

While the bands' members may feel rejected by mainstream Islam, for many Taqwacore has been about learning that authentic Islam does have a place for rebels and historical characters.

The Taqwa tour bus
The $2,000 dollar bargain bus that's taken the bands on tour
"I was somewhat religious until the time I was 14 and began to have sexual urges," says Shahjehan, a guitarist in the band The Kominas - which means "The Bastards" in Punjabi.

"I basically dissociated myself from Islam until I dropped out of [college]. A year later, I read the Taqwacores and realized I had done nothing wrong, despite what I felt inside, that 'trying it out your own way' is about as Islamic as you can get... I believe that uncertainty makes me closer to God than many people who claim to have it figured out."

For others it's about being a Muslim Misfit.

Sena of Secret Trial Five also performs as a drag king:

"I don't ever pray and don't go to a mosque. I'm growing a mohawk so I don't immediately register as a Muslim and I got married to my girlfriend in July. But I can still feel comfortable saying that I am a Muslim. I told my dad and I think he's still ashamed that I'm gay. I still haven't told my mum about the wedding but they are happy that I'm part of the band because they think at least its something to do with Islam - they don't know how political it is though."


It's important to the bands that among their members there's a diversity of opinions, backgrounds and religiosities, including those of several non-Muslim band members who are not Muslim.

"Islam is meant to be proud that it does not have a hierarchy or an intrinsic system of clerics," says Marwan, "but so many people just need dogma… Following religion in your own way is more important than following the acts of others in mindless mimicry."

Most importantly, prompts Shahjehan, it's the fact that most of the time they're just normal American teenagers making music with their bands. "Part of me just doesn't care about any of this shit and just wants to get laid from time to time and laugh as much as possible. Islam will always be a part of who I am because that's the way I was raised. I have been accused of trying to justify my actions and being a terrible Muslim. Who knows, maybe I am and will be subject to eternal damnation."

This report can be seen on Newsnight on Tuesday, 2 October, at 10.30pm on BBC TWO.

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

banner watch listen bbc sport Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific