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On Taqwacores

May 3, 2011

256 pp. Soft Skull Press.

Taqwacores is another mental itch that refuses to go away, so I have decided to make it the focus of my first book review blog. A lot of fuss has been made about the movie, but at first I wanted to read the book. It delves deeply (if not completely) into the overlap between Islamic faith and writerly mode of being, and given how close as it gets to the heart of this blog, I am still dealing with how I feel about it.

I am unable to bash Taqwacores or sing praises of it, for neither of those things would do justice to my conflicted feelings about it. I don’t love or hate this book. It’s written too badly for me to love it. Its publishing story is too remarkable and the spirit at its core are too familiar for me to hate it. Reading it, most of the time, was not a pleasurable experience at all. But it does pull me in opposite directions, and here is how.

Taqwacores was at first self-published and given away for free. For that’s how passionate Knight is about his message. It’s the ultimate small-press book: one that will never be picked up by a big publisher, but one that is so insistent, so driven, so shockingly original, that it needs to be out there. I am so pleased that this book exists. From the minute I picked it up from the bookstore I ordered it from, this small, slender volume was such a pleasure to hold. I am so grateful that we live in times that make it possible for it to exist, for the simple fact that this can be put out there, for better or for worse.

And there are times that it is for the better. I would be loath to deny that there were times when I experienced a sudden relation to its spirit, a blue streak of recognition, a feeling that I am finally being spoken to in the language that I have been yearning to listen to and be addressed in as a Muslim. Muslim sci-fi. Rock music blaring through the house after Jummah’s over. A fully veiled young woman and her feminist diatribes. Co-existence. Inclusiveness. A striving for peace.

Now, all of this sounds very rosy when I recall it, but the means of how this vision gets executed is actually quite tragic. The writing was terrible, the narrator was pathetic, Rabeya was needlessly abrasive, and Jehangir, for all his glory, was just plain tiresome. The literature major in me wept when some potentially powerful scenes were just carelessly thrown together reenactions of children desperately trying to forge their own identity.

And that’s not even where the greater tragedy lies.

What really hurts that to make his point, Knight had to say so much that will alienate most Muslims. I understand its necessity. I understand that to not say the things he says would not make this book true to the spirit of punk. But still. Where does that leave the Muslim artists, those subjected to the writerly mode of being? Do we prop Knight up as one side of the spectrum, grateful that he took it upon himself to serve as that extreme, and then position ourselves accordingly while agreeing to disagree with this approach? As believing Muslims, shouldn’t it physically pain us to encounter some of the things he says in this book? If just reading such things is so wrong, what kind of people would we be if we are involved in the process of creating it?

I severely dislike separating my passion and my faith. But to understand how I experience this book, I must separate the two. The worldly, temporal, literary, book-loving, confessional side loves it, if not for its content then for the simple fact that it exists. But I am just not sure if I want to be the kind of Muslim who creates it.

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