Impossible Man

In 2003, Michael Muhammad Knight published a novel, The Taqwacores, about a movement that didn?t exist — until he wrote a novel about it. Then it did. In that way, one might call him a kind of prophet, at least if one is the kind who doesn?t mind playing fast and loose with sacred metaphors. Knight, when smitten, is far too earnest about the sacred to be labeled profane, but in reading his new memoir, Impossible Man, it’s hard not to notice that his infatuations with the World Wrestling Federation, Star Wars, punk rock, Islam, and F. Scott Fitzgerald bear a striking resemblance to one another. Yes, this is a story about a semi-fatherless kid looking for his cosmic daddy, but it?s also a story about how, in grafting together wildly disparate elements to invent his own haphazard lineage, he managed to create a cross-breed subculture strong enough to support descendants of its own.

Knight is the father of ?taqwacore? — the Arabic word for ?consciousness of the divine? (according to his press notes, anyway) fused with the now ubiquitous ?core,? used to designate increasingly unlikely offshoots of punk rock — an international movement of Muslim punk rockers described in his debut novel of the same name. Both punk and Islam, he writes, are ?a flag, an open-symbol, representing not things, but ideas.? The novel takes place in a house in Buffalo, New York, but alludes to an entire taqwacore scene that includes bands with names such as Burning Books for Cat Stevens, the Bin Qarmats, and Osama Bin Laden?s Tunnel Diggers; its habitu?s talk of taking pilgrimages west to Khalifornia.

Some of the housemates hew closely to a Muslim interpretation of “straightedge,” the subset of hardcore punk culture that looks down on drinking, drugs, and promiscuous sex (of one, Knight writes, ?Straight-edge offered Umar not only an endorsement of Muslim abstinence, but also the heroic stand-tall roughness that he personally craved?). Others maintain that prohibitions on alcohol don?t extend to other intoxicants not explicitly banned by the Qur?an. Still others happily swill beer and also pray five times a day (sometimes on pizza box prayer mats, always toward Mecca, which in the house is designated by a hole in the wall). Most interesting — and transgressive — of all is the house?s only woman, Rabeya, who wears a full burqa covered with punk patches, self-publishes a ‘zine called Ayesha?s Hymen, sings in a band, and leads men and women in prayer.

The novel itself has a pretty punk rock history: Knight self-published it in 2003; that same year, it was picked up by the publishing wing of Alternative Tentacles, the label run by former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra since 1979, followed the next year by a stint at anarchist press Autonomedia. This year, Brooklyn?s Soft Skull press reissued the novel, along with Impossible Man and three other books by Knight to be released in the coming months. A low-budget film based on The Taqwacores is scheduled for release later this year. Meanwhile, the fictional scene described in the novel has inspired an actual taqwacore scene with real bands including the Kominas, Secret Trial Five, and the Sagg Taqwacore Syndicate.

As Impossible Man makes clear, the founder of Islamic punk was born not into Islam but into the house of a white supremacist named Wesley Unger (a surname, Knight points out, that also appears in Fitzgerald?s short story ?A Diamond as Big as the Ritz?; his mother?s maiden name, Knight, appears in a story by Scott?s wife, Zelda). Wesley, traumatized as a child by seeing his six-year-old brother run over by an 18-wheeler he later believed to be the Devil, and further messed up by a stint in Vietnam, was a full-blown paranoid schizophrenic by the time Knight?s mother, Sue, came around. He beat her, made a habit of holding a knife to his infant son?s neck, and virtually imprisoned them both, until Sue — inspired, she later said, by then two-year-old Michael biting his father — got the courage to leave him (?You still had that?spark inside. So I had to fight too.?)

Back home near her parents in Upstate New York, Sue goes to work at a battery factory, marries and divorces another man, and eventually buys a small house of her own. Growing up as a Catholic school kid, Michael seems not to remember much about his father — though he does sometimes think of himself as Luke Skywalker, not quite realizing how much of a real-life Darth Vader his father actually was — but seems inordinately interested in models of manhood, even by the standards of teenage boys. Via the lyrics of Public Enemy, he discovers Malcolm X, then Islam, which he researches with a scholarly devotion he can’t summon for ordinary schoolwork. When he meets Unger again as a young teen, he realizes that conversion would mean simultaneously rebelling against his own father and gaining a new, spiritual one: ?If somehow I could go from being this creepy little bastard?to being a real Muslim, wouldn?t that be a story? People would say, ?Look at that mixed-up kid and what Islam did for him. Allah saved him from his crazy neo-Nazi father — he must have been special, destined for something great.? And then I could be a Malcolm X for white boys in trailer parks, Allah?s Mercy shining through my life.?

While he doesn?t convert any other white boys in trailer parks during his teens (and more often sees the rare white boys as his competition), Michael becomes the token white boy at a mosque a few hours away from his home (and adds the Muhammad to his name). His Islamic mentors treat him with the kindness and intellectual respect he is looking for, and even give him a scholarship to spend two months in Pakistan as an Islamic scholar.

But he also turns into the kind of kid who, for example, tries to protect a girl he likes at school from his monstrous desire and blames her for his imagined transgressions, saying, ?It is my nature to want to violate you.? He concurs with his spiritual leaders that the only solution to the dangers of sexual sin is early marriage and thinks it’s perfectly normal that, at 17, he is in the early stages of arranging a marriage with the only other white girl in his mosque, who happens to be 13. He informs his mother that, had she been Muslim, she wouldn?t have ended up in a brutal marriage, because her parents would have chosen a suitable man ?who would really protect you and provide for you and respect you. That?s why Muslims have stable households and American divorce rates are through the roof.? But it’s probably not accidental that his first real questions about his newfound faith come up when he?s told that his mother, who has actively supported his spiritual life, will not be allowed into heaven. Soon after desecrating his Qur?an in the most sacrilegious — and incidentally, most masculine — way possible, he seems to walk away from his faith, and writes, ?The Allah I wanted was more like a mom.?

It?s probably also not accidental that the only genuine Muslim punk rocker mentioned in his autobiography is ?a bisexual Afghan girl who would dye her hair pink and put a big ring in her lip and sing in punk bands.? When young Michael asks her how she can still consider herself a Muslim, despite ?running around and doing coke and girls and boys,? she tells him, ?You can?t walk away from it any more than I can.?

He writes: ?The way she said Muslim made it weightless; it was now just a love word that didn?t really mean anything. Or it was family, a label that both trapped and blessed us, a part of yourself that you could love and hate at the same time but learn to live with. I wanted there to be more of that girl, a mass of Muslim punk rockers to form our own tribe and be confused and conflicted together.?

In looking for a spiritual father, Michael Muhammad Knight seems to have found the mother of a movement. I’m looking forward to her memoir.