Authority and Taqwacores: Boxes Too Small 2

Michael Muhammad Knight
(Wikimedia Commons)
We need the authority of individual conscience, and we also need religious teachers as guides and companions on the spiritual path to help us see our own delusions and mind-traps. Only by nailing individual conscience together with accountability to our guides and companions do we have any chance of breaking out of boxes that are too small for the grandest possibilities of life – possibilities we can but dimly sense and cannot concretely imagine.

We need authoritative teachers and leaders that we trust -- but not so much that we shut down our own conscience. We need to trust our own conscience -- but not so much that we shut out religious and spiritual leadership that can help us see where our egos lead us astray.

Lasting, healthy faith community will recognize each person's divinity and authority -- and the members will recognize the value of legitimate community leadership. The test for any authority – the internal authority of your conscience, or the external authority of a leader and a community, is this: is it maintaining a small box for spiritual truth, or is it working to expand, or explode, the box?

Our project -- the project of liberal religion -- is the difficult and fragile task of community with diversity and taking seriously the work of spiritual development. We live in that creative tension which plays out in many ways.

So let me illustrate that with a story about a very different context.

Michael Knight was born in 1977 in West Virginia. When Michael was age 2, his mother, Irish Catholic, took him and fled from Michael’s father, who was Pentecostal and also mentally ill and abusive. When Michael was 13, he heard about Malcolm X in the lyrics of the hip-hop band, Public Enemy. He started reading more about Malcolm X, and about Islam, converted to Islam, and, at age 17, went to Pakistan to study Islam at Faisal Mosque. Now named Michael Muhammad Knight, he spent several years in Pakistan. He grew gradually disillusioned with orthodox Islam. After returning to the US, he wrote The Taqwacores -- a novel about a group of Muslim punk-rockers living in Buffalo, New York. He imagined the book as his "good-bye," to Islam.

In the novel, the narrator, Yusef, draws parallels between Islam and punk:
“I stopped trying to define punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. They aren’t so far removed as you’d think. Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way – the energy, perhaps, that comes with knowing the world has never seen such positive force and fury and never would again. Both have suffered from sell-outs and hypocrites, but also from true believers whose devotion had crippled their creative drive. Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth.”
Originally, Michael Muhammad Knight was giving away photocopied spiral-bound copies of The Taqwacores. Then in 2003 it was picked up and published by a punk record label. The characters include:
  • Yusef, the first-person narrator, a fairly straightlaced US-born son of Pakistani parents. He has come to Buffalo to study engineering, and his Muslim parents thought it would be more wholesome for him not to live in the campus dorms.
  • Umar, a Straight-edge Sunni Muslim who tries to enforce Islamic rules.
  • Jehangir, a hard-drinking, dyed-red-mohawk-haircut-wearing Sufi punk who announces morning prayers with an electric guitar on the roof.
  • Fasiq, an Indonesian skateboarder.
  • Amazing Ayyub, a shi’a skinhead.
  • Rabeya, the house’s only woman, who wears the full-scale body-tent style of burqa and studies feminist Islam.
And various other comers and goers.

A 2010 film was made from the book
What these kids are doing might not look like Islam to the Ayatollah Khomeini, but they call themselves Muslim, study the Koran, debate about how to interpret it as a guide for their lives, and say their prayers facing Mecca. Some of them drink a lot, smoke hashish, and engage in casual sex. Others of them are in the “straightedge” camp and eschew all those things.

The Taqwacores, became a blueprint for a movement. As a New York Times article explained: Many
“young American Muslims, stigmatized by their peers after the Sept. 11 attacks, [felt] repelled by both the Bush administration’s reaction to the attacks and the rigid conservatism of many Muslim leaders.” (New York Times, "Young Muslims Build a Subculture on an Underground Book," 2008 Dec 22)
So they made their own form of Islam.

Next: Punk Islam Confronts the Tolerance Paradox.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Boxes Too Small"
Next: Part 3: Trade-Offs of Community
Previous: Part 1: Nailing Things Together

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