Piety + punk = Muslim “taqwacore”

KominasIf you like articles that take readers on journeys to places where faith and culture intersect in new and unexpected ways, then you'll enjoy reading Kate Shellnutt's Chicago Sun-Times story, "Young Muslims use punk to loosen their religion."

The notion of Muslims playing punk rock may seem like incongruous cultures -- profanity-laden lyrics following the religion's traditional greeting ("Salaam aleikum"), melodic Middle Eastern strumming punctuates noisy guitar feedback, purple and red mohawks and Arabic-scripted tattoos. But for the second-generation Americans leading this contemporary cultural movement, Muslim punk isn't just an irreverent juxtaposition.

Bands like the Kominas call their blending of Muslim values and music performance taqwacore ("a term that fuses the words hard-core and taqwa, Arabic for piety"). The piety is certainly unconventional by orthodox Muslim standards:

With a rebellious attitude and unabashed criticism of both East and West, Muslim punk highlights the breadth of Islamic practice and piety. For this colorful crew, donning patchwork jackets and taking slow drags from hookah pipes, religion is more personal than institutional or dogmatic.

For the most part, the bands drink and smoke, in excess, despite Islam's prohibition of both. When driving from coast to coast on tour, they're not stopping to break out prayer mats for the obligatory five-times-a-day salat.

But just because they aren't practicing Islam in the traditional way doesn't mean they don't still consider themselves religious Muslims.

"It's infinitely more pious to be true to your heart, because that's where religion really lives," said (one musician).

This kind of faith language sounds familiar to anyone who has spoken to American youth about religion. But the taqwacore bands also exhibit a uniquely Arab angst:

While this generation's immigrant parents remain loyal to their home countries, and Muslims in their 30s and 40s having more fully assimilated into American culture, the taqwacore group finds themselves in between.

"The younger kids are more religious, but also more civic-minded," said Syed Ali, a sociology professor at Long Island University in Brooklyn, who researches second-generation Muslims. "They are very adamant about saying, 'I am a Muslim,' but also adamant about saying, 'I am an American, and I have these rights and no one's gonna screw with me.'"

Kudos to Shellnutt, a grad student at Chicago's Medill School of Journalism, who explored both faith and culture with a sure hand. I only wish she had gone further in explaining the broader Taqwacore subculture, complete with its literature, films, and identity issues.

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