Life imitates art. Surely few know that better than author Michael Muhammed Knight. Raised Irish-Catholic, Knight was but a teen when he embarked on a soul-searching trip to Pakistan to make sense of his busted, abusive home life. He converted to Islam and, in 2003, wrote and published the book Taqwacore, whose title combines the Arabic word "taqwá" (for "God consciousness") with "core" for its punk rock reference. Knight's fictional tale of Islamic punks living in a Buffalo, N.Y., squat took on a life of its own when young American Muslims believed it biographical. It even inspired some Muslim kids to form punk bands.
Shot over two years, Taqwacore is a documentary in two acts. The first follows a small pack of Muslim-American bands touring the United States in a converted school bus, attempting to make a name for themselves and their music beyond the assumptions associated with "being Muslim." The tour culminates with a stop at the Islamic Society of North America convention; the bands cause such a stir that they are nearly arrested.
The film's second half picks up six months later, when one of the bands accompanies Knight to Pakistan; it's a chance to bring punk to Islam, and for Knight to visit the mosque where he studied as a teen.
Toronto documentarian Omar Majeed captures a raucous and impromptu atmosphere in the first act; you really get a sense of being at the birth of something real. In his second half, though, that rabble-rousing sense of anarchy and adventure dissipates. The band, broken in Pakistan, devolves into a stoned existence while Knight continues to search for a spiritual solution to his damaged family life. It's all a bit somber until a rooftop concert brings in local Pakistani; the crowd, which might disapprove of nonsecular music, let alone punk and ska, embrace it. And it's Knight who seems the most pleased — his work of fiction becomes flesh and bone before his eyes. Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam is ultimately a guide into a burgeoning subculture filled with all the passion, prejudices and contradictions of a religion (or style of music).
Opens exclusively at The Burton Theatre, 3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238, on July 23.
Paul Knoll writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.