This is a follow up to the post below, on the film Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam, playing October 3rd and 5th. In additons to my questions for Omar, Shahjehan, and Sena, I had emailed the author of the book that got the whole thing rolling, Michael Muhammad Knight, but I stuck the piece on my blog before he could reply - which he has just done! ...so here's an interview with Michael Muhammad Knight. Go read the other piece first, if you haven't!
Allan: Can you update me as to what current projects are you engaged in?
Michael: I'm still writing, I have a new book coming out--my fifth and final release for the year--called Journey to the End of Islam. It's about my travels through Pakistan with Basim and Shahj, my wanderings to Syria, Ethiopia, and Egypt, the making of another taqwacore movie--the feature adaptation of my novel--and finally, my pilgrimage to Mecca. Through all of this, I'm looking at these various definitions of Islam and finally arriving at a place beyond definition, hence the title.
I also just wrestled Abdullah the Butcher at the Decatur Book Festival and received 46 stitches in my head. My wrestling career is probably over.
Allan: Any predictions for the effect of the movie?
Michael: I think that the movie will be positive. The media attention so far has been pretty simplistic, sometimes to the point that we'd feel insulted. That's just the nature of articles with a 900-word count or news pieces that couldn't go over three minutes. This full-length documentary really gets into the complexities of what we're doing in a way that no one has been able to do.
Allan: Any word to Vancouver Muslims who might be curious about the film? Any comment on Secret Trial Five?
Michael: To Muslims in Vancouver, or really anyone anywhere, I'd just ask that you check out this film with an open mind. Muslims and non-Muslims have both passed judgment on us with little or no information.
Secret Trial Five, in my opinion, justifies taqwacore more than anything.
Allan: Do Taqwacore bands find themselves with much common ground with Straight Edgers, more than other punks? (You quote Minor Threat's "Out of Step" in the book, and their name comes up a few times in the film...)
Michael: I don't think so, because most of us aren't interested in dogmatic moral codes, whether based in religion or music or whatever. But there can be straightedge taqwacores, sure. I'm not against it.
Allan: What are your favourite non-Taqwacore punk bands?
Michael: Rancid, I love Rancid. I've heard people say that I reference Rancid too much, but I like what I like. Tim Armstrong is the punk Johnny Cash, I want to see what he's doing at 70.
Allan: If readers wanted to buy five Taqwacore albums or check out five bands... what do you recommend?
Michael: They're all my friends, I love all of it. I know that it's a cheap answer, but I can't choose among siblings like that. The only officially released CDs are by the Kominas and Al-Thawra. other than that it's a Myspace party.
Allan: Despite being a "blue eyed devil," you seem to be totally greeted with warmth and respect by Muslims in the film. Are there times when your race makes that a problem, though? Just curious...
Michael: It's not about race as much as being a convert. If you're a convert to Islam, sometimes people think that you don't know anything or that you don't have a qualified opinion, or that you lack a sufficient stake in the religion or community to speak for change. There could be a Muslim who never learned anything about his religion outside of mosque Sunday school, but he feels like he's an expert and I'm trespassing on his property.
Allan: What's your favourite part of the movie and why?
Michael: That's impossible for me to answer. Some parts are emotionally wrenching for me, in terms of watching myself, hearing myself. Watching my friends on the tour makes me miss all of them and our big green bus. There's not a single moment that overpowers all of the others, but I'm thankful for the whole thing. I'm thankful for this record of what we did, because I believe that it might actually matter.
Allan: How do I make bhang lassi? Is it potent?
Michael: You have to ask Basim about that one. I'd say that it's potent. This didn't make it into the film, but I had a genuine mystical experience after drinking the bhang. We were at the shrine and I thought that the Sufi saint Hujwiri was talking to me.
Allan: You say at one point in the movie that you intended your book as a "goodbye" to Islam, and then wonder if, now that clearly it ISN'T a goodbye, you did the right thing. Do you mean for yourself, personally? Do you still feel this way? (Because I suspect a lot of the other people in the movie would say you did the right thing in spades).
Michael: I'm feeling more comfortable in my own skin, as a Muslim and a human being, than I ever have in my life. So yeah, I think that things turned out ok. I just didn't know that I could be a Muslim and still claim the right to be confused or question things. Once that opened up for me, I knew that I could stay in the mosque.
Allan: The characters in your book - the imaginary Taqwacores - often use Arabic phrases - phrases of importance to Islam. But it seems like the people in the movie - the real Taqwacores - DON'T; they speak English or Punjabi but use very few Islamic set phrases. Does this mean anything worth talking about, or am I thinking too much?
Michael: In places like Pakistan, where people don't actually comprehend Arabic, they still pray in Arabic. All of the religious terminology is Arabic. I don't really have a connection to "Arab" Islam, as my primary influences are African-American Islam, South Asian Islam, and Persian Islam, but I can't escape the language. In the novel, I didn't use any Arabic phrases that would be unknown to your average South Asian Muslim who doesn't speak Arabic.
Allan: How did you learn to say "George Bush is a motherfucker" in Punjabi? Did you learn it especially for the occasion?
Michael: The word actually meant "sisterfucker" but Omar translated it as motherfucker to avoid confusing North Americans. Before that show, I was hearing the word about a hundred times a day.
Allan: Sorry, I imagine you get this a lot, but what's the ritual where men beat their chests? It looks like powerful stuff. Was that your first time participating - were you spontaneously joining in - or is it somehting you'd done before that trip?
Michael: That's matam, it's a Shi'a thing, an expression of love and grief for Imam Husayn, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, who was brutally slaughtered in the desert of Karbala. The people who killed Husayn were the proto-Sunnis, and Husayn's supporters were the proto-Shi'as. That tragedy destroyed the Muslim community forever. It has deep meaning for me. I've done matam in North America, and I knew what we were getting into when we went to the Shi'a shrine in Lahore.
Allan: Do you feel less lonely in this new community that you helped to create? Do you still feel like an outsider sometimes? Did you ever imagine or hope your book would have this effect?
Michael: I'm just happy to have these Muslims as my friends. I encounter lots of Muslims who feel like they're on the outside for whatever reason, and we can create a safe space for each other. I don't need any of these people to believe what I believe, or share the same concerns or read the same texts. Some of them might be pious and orthodox, others are atheists or heretics. Some may go back and forth between various extremes. It's just love and acceptance, either way. Whatever issues you have with whatever community you came from, I hope you can work them out. But when it's really, really hard, sometimes you just need friends who don't give a shit about any of that mess.
I never dreamed that the book would do this. I needed these people and I thank Allah that somehow we found each other.
Allan: Do you feel comfortable with the amount of attention spent on you in the film, and prepared for the amount the film might further draw in the future?
Michael: When it means being treated like an authority, then no, I'm not comfortable. I don't claim to have any magical answers. There are no magical answers. All I'm saying is to go find it for yourself. I haven't figured anything out.