On Rock Music: Spiritual Underpinnings

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all Taqwacore on you. But I did want to explore how experiencing the dunya on its own terms made me, well, me. Me the Muslim.

“Free sexuality was an interesting experiment that failed.” -Joni Mitchell
“Free sexuality was an interesting experiment that failed.” -Joni Mitchell

During a strange, difficult time almost a year ago, I found redemption, as I usually do, through books, friends, prayer. But those were things that were just keeping me occupied. I was wondering where I could just be. I was wondering who would listen, what space I needed to be in to be more accepting and forgiving of myself.

So over the course of some snowy, listless nights, in a warm bed I resented myself for not being more grateful for, I watched A History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

The result was a gratifying, warm embrace, one I could sigh and relax into. Because along with marvelling at rock music’s rich African-American origins and seeing legends like Peter Townshend and Tom Petty speak about their pasts and their relationships with music, I found redemption. I found redemption in understanding that not having the dunya as I wanted it, not being able to numb myself, to be an outsider no one quite understands, is the very essence of the spirit behind rock music. At one point in the documentary series, Levon Helm, former member of genre-defining group The Band, said “Sex, drugs…those were the things they were using to sell rock ‘n’ roll, which seems a damn shame, when you get down to it. The music is certainly capable of doing that on its own.”

Santana described just how capable that music is of doing this on its own:

Often, a musician can do to a woman what a lover cannot do to a woman. I’m very flattered that you’re here after the gig, and that you’re knocking on my door, and you’re beautiful and all that. But, at the same time, I cannot do to you what my music does to your soul.

This isn’t just the unlikeliest means of strengthening the case against zina. This is what Muslims need to be mindful of. We need to be critical of our culture of rockstar imams and realize that it’s not the people we should revere so much, it’s their serving as a portal into something much, much greater. They, as individuals as human as we are, cannot do for us what their teachings do for our souls.

Rock also provides a set of motifs for empowerment and personal identity that set it apart from the norm. So the next time a Hitchens-ascribing nonbeliever accuses me of the ludicrousness of my beliefs, I can perhaps give a faith-based version of what metalhead anthropologist and filmmaker Sam Dunn says in Metal, A Headbanger’s Journey:

Ever since I was 12 years old I had to defend my love for heavy metal against those who say it’s a less valid form of music. My answer now is that you either feel it or you don’t. If metal doesn’t give that overwhelming surge of power that make the hair stand up at the back of your neck, you might never get it, and you know what? That’s okay, because judging by the 40,000 metalheads around me we’re doing just fine without you.

Coincidental or not, the parallel to Surah Al-Kafirun is hard to ignore, a parallel that is embodied in its signature verse: “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.”

Our texts, our teachings, remind us that, bad as it seems, the world is temporary. You may hate the world, you may hate yourself for ingratitude, but you have to hold to what’s true by continuously beseeching it, reminding yourself of it. “You’re always cursing,” Santana said, describing the experience of playing the electric guitar, “and you’re always praying.”

Monotheism may or may not lie under the mantle of the profane. But I know music helps. Somehow, without taking away from my Muslim self, it helps the dissonance, it helps the paralyzing feeling that accompanies having one’s internal world not being reflected in her life. “Music doesn’t change the world,” Peter Townshend said in the concluding episode of A History of Rock ‘n’ Roll. “Music changes the way you live in the world. It changes the way you see it, but it doesn’t change the world itself.”

So I dress as I am instructed to, I methodically apply makeup. And if the dread becomes overwhelming, I tune into the radio. Bad Company fills my ears. Literally, and perhaps metaphorically. Either way, I’m temporarily, blissfully numbed.

I later sit in the living area, there in form but not in spirit, waiting for the click of the electric kettle signaling that the water is ready. It’s all part of my rock and roll fantasy.

“So, beta, do you cook?”

“Hm? Yes, occasionally I do, yes.”

“It’s not very hard, and girls eventually end up learning these things over time.”

It’s all part of my rock and roll dream. 

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On Taqwacores

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.