Taqwacore combines alternative interpretations of Islam with a punk anti-status-quo ethos, probably best known through the U.S. band The Kominas. The third part of Wendy Hsu's four part essay reflects upon on a performance of The Kominas, their forging of solidarity with other Muslim American cultural renegades and how their cultural ambiguity generates discomfort for conservatives, liberals and Christian fundamentalists in the U.S..
This Song Scares Republicans
At the St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in D.C., a concert offshoot from the annual meeting of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) took place. It coincided with the screening of New Muslim Cool (Taylor 2009), a documentary film that follows the life of Puerto Rican American rapper Jason Hamza Pérez who became a devout Muslim activist after abandoning his former life as a drug dealer. Wearing an almost-foot-long purple Mohawk, Basim hopped in front of the microphone (see photo above). He introduced his band by declaring: «It was interesting that when we saw the Facebook listing for New Muslim Cool, we thought, those kids are New Muslim Cool and those (other) kids are «bad Muslims». Basim chuckled and then said, «I’ll let you guys judge how bad we really are».
Basim’s statement not only drew distance from religiously exemplary story of Pérez; it also forewarned the audience, a multiethnic Muslim-majority group of youth [Figure 2], of The Kominas’ «blasphemous» music. A few songs later, Shahjehan announced, «This song really scares the Republicans. This is called «Sharia Law in the USA». The crowd cheers. Shahjehan stomped on his distortion effect pedal, letting his guitar ring with feedback. He threw his back and into the blissful feedback noise. He shaped the noise artfully and projected it with strength at the moment in which chaos and peace converged. Wearing a white kufi, a cap usually worn by Muslim people of African descent, especially in West Africa, drummer Imran raised his arm while holding a drumstick, like a flag. Shahjehan’s guitar feedback bled into a larger bomb like noise created by the rest of the band. Some members of the audience dropped their jaws or covered their mouths. They seemed shocked by the song’s daring lyrics. The others in the audience cheered on and slam-danced across the front of the stage.
As the night deepened, the Atlanta-based slam poet Amir Sulaiman took center stage. A heavyset man wearing a black kufi cap, Amir told his life stories of faith and struggles as a black Muslim living in the U.S. through his impassioned words. Waving his arm, he invoked the words, «I’m not dangerous. I am danger. I’m not fearful. I am fear». He showered the audience with his beads of sweat and heartfelt words, impelled by immense courage and conviction. The crowd drew closer to the stage where the poet stood. The energy peaked at the end of the set when all the performers of the evening joined the poet. Members of the M-Team, a hip-hop duo comprised of two Muslim Latinos (Hamza Pérez’s group) rapped and exchanged verses with Amir Sulaiman. Members of The Kominas resumed their positions behind their instruments forming an army ensemble backing the poet and the hip-hop rhymers.
A Crowd in Tears
A cross-genre jam, the song grew into a trance over the course of nine minutes. It felt like an eternity. Amir Sulaiman chanted the words, «AlHAMdulillah. HAMdulillah. HalleluJAH, yeah, HalleluJAH, yeah, Hallelujah», over strong and steady bass notes ascending and descending – all moving through synchronized cycles of ecstasy. The audience cliques broke up and merged into one. Occupying the left side of the hall, the hip-hop-geared and kufi-capped men, threw their arms up in the air in bursts while swaying back and forth to Basim’s undulating bassline. Loudly, they responded in a chant to Sulaiman’s calling of «Alhamdulilah…Hallelujah….» Congregating the right side of the room were women, some hijab-covered. They added energy into the mix by cheering and chanting «Almaduliah… Hallelujah…» Absorbed by the rapturous moment, the punk slam-dancers transformed their previously ska-skanking bodies into the slow-moving side-to-side wave. Sulaiman elated the crowd further while saying, «I love you. I love you. I love you». This astounding collective power sustained the visceral and the emotional synergy in the room. This blissful and ineffable experience left many of us on and off stage in tears.
In his powerful recitation, Amir Sulaiman syncopated his accenting to the phrase «AlHAMdulillah. HAMdulillah. HalleluJAH, yeah, HalleluJAH, yeah, Hallelujah». The rhythmic repetition of these phrases created a call and response between the poet and his audience structure. The audience recognized the intentional gap in the cycle of repetitions as their cue to respond to the chant. A term mostly used by Muslims, «Alhamdulillah” is an Arabic phrase meaning «praise to God». The meaning of «Alhamdulillah» is similar to that of «Hallelujah», the Latin transliteration of the Hebrew term for «praise Yahweh», used in the Christian context. Juxtaposing two phrases from two different religious contexts – Islam and Christianity, Sulaiman conjured a symbolic inter-faith unity onstage while sonically filling up the space inside a Latino church, in front of a multiethnic audience of myriad relationships to Islam.
Divided into Social Clusters
The Kominas did not compose their parts in the song. The band played the same progression as a looped instrumental track of piano, bass, and drum machine that I found in a Youtube video of Sulaiman’s performance of the song. At the off-ISNA show, The Kominas «rockified» their arrangement, infusing it with an improvisatory spontaneity. Throughout the course of the song, the band built performance energy in the room. Basim played a loop of syncopated bass notes ascending and descending around the fifth, sixth, seventh degree, and the tonic, while supporting the cycle of tension and resolution. Shahjehan played notes in a high register accenting the tonal ebbs and flows. Imran heightened the vigor by playing a drum fill at the end of each cycle. At the end of the chorus chant, Shahjehan signaled the start of the introspective section by a quickly skating and scraping his guitar strings, making a noisy glissando. The band quieted down and receded into the background during the rapid streams of recited words. The instrumental ensemble echoed the emotional intensity of the poem during each chorus chant. The torrent of spontaneous energy and the musical affinity between the performers and the audience, and amongst the performers themselves, resemble the charismatic gospel preaching style in African American churches (Hinson 1999).
Not everyone in the audience who zealously echoed the words of «Alhamdulillah…Hallelujah…» was Muslim-identified. The crowd was divided into a few social clusters. A large group hip-hop-geared African American and Latino men took up about half of the audience. A small group of headscarf-cover women of Arabic heritage stood tightly next to one another near the front of the stage. A mixed-gender, multiethnic group that appeared to be of predominately South Asian descent hovered in the front, standing close to the friends of the band. A few members of this mixed group had shirts that said «Pork Sucks». A group of African American women, some covered in hijab, scattered loosely across the back rows in the audience area. I, as the only individual of East Asian descent in the room, self-consciously tugged myself and my recording devices into The Kominas’ friend circle, swinging my arms and slam-dancing throughout the evening.
These groups all represented the social fringes of the ISNA, an organization that, according to Michael Muhammad Knight, represents «the mainstream, very hygienic and very sterile form of Islam» in the U.S. (Majeed 2009). Basim told me, at the South Street Diner, that the organization has a predominately Arab membership, with the majority of the members being Shia Mulims. The organization has shown political interests in Palestine and the Middle East, and very little interest in South Asian concerns such as the 1947 Partition of India (Khan, et al. 2009). Individuals of South Asian, African American, and Latino heritage and other Islamic sectarian affiliations such as Sunni, as well as those of alternative identifications such as the Sufi Muslims, agnostics, atheists, rappers, and punks are minorities in the ISNA community. The event’s off-site location at a Latino Church, away from the main ISNA convention site of the Washington D.C. Convention Center also signifies the alternative social status and interest of the show’s participants.
At this show, the spatial, social rifts among these differently marginalized groups vanished by the end of the evening. The slam dancers were bouncing back and forth like the hip-hop crew. In a chorus, and in unison, everyone threw up their arms and shouted back the inter-faith message «Alhamdulillah…Hallelujah…», regardless of their faith. Everyone swayed. This event was not about division. It was about union, a union among all the social outcasts within and around the American Muslim communities and within the larger U.S. society.
In his novel Osama Van Halen, Michael Muhammad Knight highlights the experiences marginalized by the Arab Muslim orthodoxy. Knight narrative includes the Sufis, the converts among lower-caste Hindus, Turkish nomads, and Subharan Africans, and other fringe, unorthodox Islamic practices in Black America that was swept under the rug by Arab Muslim cultural elites:
«It also happened in the wilderness of North America, where Islam took new forms – irrefutably black, with its own black scriptures, black symbols and black holy men… This black Islam even spawned strange culture seeds; from the Moorish Science Temple came the Moorish Orthodox Church, with opium-waltzing Walid al-Taha and his student Hakim Bey using the black man’s code to fit their facts, as Norman Mailer said of the Kerouacs and Ginsbergs. Many these days would also view the Progressive Islam scene as a homegrown heresy, and American Muslim women have fired the first shots to create a whole other Islam for themselves. And now even the bums and punks are starting to stand up on the margins – kids like the Kominas’ Basim and dead zombie Shahjehan – to claim their corner» (2009: 68-9).
Similarly, The Kominas looks to these sites of social transgressions to create an alternative cultural space around orthodox Islam. Behind the mission of building networks among individuals in the fringes, regardless of their idiosyncratic relationship to the contemporary Islamic orthodoxy, the band align themselves with an anti-status-quo heterodoxy. The Kominas shatters the stereotype that music is forbidden according to some extreme interpretations of the Islamic law upheld by Western, non-Muslim groups (Blumenfield 2007: 210-1). The Kominas and other Taqwacore-affiliated groups challenge this shallow assumption. Basim said in the CNN interview, «We aren’t [just] some alternative to a stereotypical Muslim. We actually might be offering some sort of insights for people at large about religion, about the world» (Ansari 2009). In an interview with The Kominas, Hussein Rashid, scholar of Islam and American religious life, employs the term «Islamicate» to refer to «things that may be influenced by Islam, but are not necessarily religious» to describe the band’s music (Rashid, et al. 2009).
Building on Rashid’s distinction, I refer to The Kominas’s worldview as a «para-Islamic» perspective. The prefix «para» refers to the position of being alongside, or closely related to. I argue that The Kominas’ music critically engages with the cultural, social, and political milieux around and alongside Islam. The Kominas’ music does touch on topics related to Islam, specifically how it’s experienced, perceived, translated, exoticized, and excluded. But it does not not disembody perceivable religiosity within the Islamic faith, as the press has (mis)construed. This approach, I argue, occupies a middle space between religiosity and agnosticism. This space of ambiguity generates discomfort and anxiety for many, conservatives, liberals, the Christian fundamentalists in the US.
The Kominas insist upon a holistic, polyculturalist view of Islamic cultures: They push the edges of public consciousness, reminding everyone that Islam is not just one religion, generalized, flattened, antithetical to «Western» values and culture. They daringly reveal the fringes of how these living cultures associated with Islam intersect with issues of race, ethnicity, nationality, globalization, war, politics, media, pop culture, sexuality, humanism, humor, alienation, love, and other facets of culture and humanity. Retaining a multitude of differences within and around the cultures of Islam, The Kominas’s musical dissent challenges the world to wrestle with the profundity of religion and the inequities of life. And this is how the band reach out to those alienated in the wilderness.
Ansari, Azadeh (2009): «Punk Meets Islam for New Generation in U.S.», CNN.com, August 13 (accessed August 31, 2010), [Link].
Blumenfield, Larry (2007): «Exploding Myths in Morocco and Senegal: Sufis Making Music after 9/11th», Ritter, Jonathan; Daughtry, Martin J (eds): Music in the Post-9/11th World, New York: Routledge.
Hinson, Glenson (1999): Fire In My Bones: Transcendence and the Holy Spirit in African American Gospel, Philadelphia, P.A.: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Knight, Michael M (2009): Osama Van Halen, Berkeley, C.A.: Soft Skull Press.
Majeed, Omar (2009): Taqwacores: the Birth of Punk Islam, DVD, Montreal, Canada: EyeSteelFilm.
Rashid, Hussein, Kaitlin Foley, Basim Usmani & Shahjehan Khan (2010): Taqwacore Roundtable: On Punks, the Media, and the Meaning of ‹Muslim›», ReligionDispatches.org, February 10 (accessed September 21, 2010), [Link].
Taylor, Jennifer M. (2009): New Muslim Cool, DVD, Los Angeles, C.A.: Seventh Art Releasing.
Khan, Shahjehan: personal interview, Boston, M.A., May 9, 2009.
Ray, Arjun: personal interview, Boston, M.A., May 9, 2009.
Ray, Karna: personal interview, Boston, M.A., May 9, 2009.
Usmani, Basim: personal interview, Boston, M.A., May 9, 2009.