Nothing Harder or Better: Boxes Too Small 4

In the Michael Muhammad Knight's novel, The Taqwacores, residents of a Muslim punk house hatch a scheme to host a national gathering of Islamic punk bands. They'll bring punk bands from all over the country together for one big punk Islam festival/concert/party. Jehangir is the primary energy for organizing the project.

There is a controversy in the house about whether to invite a band called Bilal’s Boulder, a punk band that adheres to a particularly conservative and strict brand of Islam. Jehangir is a advocate of open-ness and acceptance – and Bilal’s Boulder represents strict rules and intolerance of any fudging on those rules.

And there we hit that familiar paradox of tolerance: if you tolerate everything, including tolerating intolerance, then you facilitate intolerance. And if you don’t tolerate intolerance, you have become the intolerance. It's a real dilemma, and we all wrestle with it in one form or another. Where do we draw the line between what to tolerate and what we can't?

Jehangir argues for tolerating the intolerance, for inviting Bilal’s Boulder. For him, the openness and inclusivity that he wants to move toward would be contradicted by not also being open to closedness.

Bilal’s Boulder arrives wearing turbans and traditional Arabic attire. They size up the house and announce they won’t sleep on the floor in the house, as all the other bands are – because a woman will be staying somewhere under the same roof. They’ll have none of that. They’ll sleep in their van – even though it’s winter and they’re in Buffalo, and it’s freezing.

The next day, during the concert Jehangir himself is persuaded to perform. Highlighting that tension of individual vs community, Jehangir sings a punk cover version of Frank Sinatra’s, “I Did It My Way.” As he finishes, Rabeya, the burqa-wearing “riot girl” performs an act that seems deliberately planned to disturb, shock, offend, and enrage the strict tough guys of Bilal’s Boulder who, having finished their set, are standing in the crowd. They react violently, and in the melee, Jehangir receives mortal blows.

The advocate for openness is killed by the closedness that he had insisted on being open to. Community is hard, though we so need it.

Since writing The Taqwacores, Michael Muhammad Knight has been drawn toward an offshoot of the Nation of Islam called the Five Percenters, who reject the traditional Muslim belief that God is separate from humanity. Says Michael Muhammad Knight:
“The Five Percenters have a devastating critique of organized religion that, to me, mixes with punk rock because in a so-called punk view of religion, you are your authority, and you’re not entrusting your soul to other human beings. The basic idea of the Five Percenters is that all this divine power that you fear as being something outside of yourself – that’s gonna come down and crush you -- all that power is actually within you. You are your Allah. So rather than entrust your religion to the imams or the priests or whoever, you become the master of your own cipher.”
Michael Knight has also said:
“I can’t fit my deen in a little box because to me, everything comes from Allah. Birds sing Allah’s name. To say Allah is in this book and not that one, or he likes this and not that – do you know who you’re talking about? Allah is too big and open for my deen to be small and closed.”
You are your Allah. Thou art God. Your very mind is Buddha. Sooner or later, every tradition makes its own version of that point. But that, too, can become a box too small: an excuse for egocentrism and spiritual irresponsibility.

We are Unitarian Universalists, people of different beliefs, making community of freedom, recognizing you are your Allah, yet also standing in awe of the reality as given to us, in gratitude of the grace we receive from the universe without earning it: worshiping together as one faith of diverse beliefs and disciplines.

Nothing could be harder than building a way of life in that tension between structure and freedom, commonalities and diversities, authority figures outside you and ego inside you. Nothing could be harder. And nothing could be better.

Let’s do it.

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

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