In the fall of 2002, torn up with confusion and alienation over Islam and my failures within it, I began notes for my novel The Taqwacores, which would spill my guts, reveal every heartbreak, defecate on everything that I had held to be sacred, and leave just a shred of hope for myself as a Muslim. I chose to center this fictional treatment of my Islamic experience within the culture of punk rock, because it would allow for characters who held nothing back, absolutely refusing to negotiate with any strictures of organized religion. The spirit of punk, as I saw it, allowed for a “fuck religion” kind of ethos that could be holy in its own way.
Imagine the nastiest, most rebellious things that anyone could say or do with Islam, the kinds of things that supposedly start riots; my fictional punks had to say and do them all. From a superficial reading, my novel’s treatment of the Prophet would seem to leave Salman Rushdie in the dust; but I also imagined there being something cool and beautiful in that, like the lunatic Zen poets who called the Buddha a dried shit-stick. It was a sincere and loving blasphemy, I thought.
I self-published the novel in 2003, and it first wore a bar code in 2004. It was immature and not really all that well-written, but has since been published by more than one house, translated into numerous languages, taught in a bunch of college courses, and has also become the foundation for two films. Its influence with pockets of Muslim youths has been well documented, often problematically.
Apart from its travels among Muslim readers, my novel had a strange second life; non-Muslims were also picking it up. Many of them could relate their own spiritual trajectories to the journeys of the characters; my rebellious and confused Muslim novel said something to them about being rebellious and confused Christians, Jews, and Hindus. But the novel also seemed to attract readers who just wanted to rip on Islam.
I recently did a tour of Germany to support the novel’s new German translation. There were numerous TV and magazine interviews, and one of my readings drew several hundred people. That night, I sat on a brightly lit stage, looking out at a sea of white faces, while an actor read the German translation of my blasphemies. I don’t speak German, but I knew the excerpts. My characters were talking about the Prophet. The sea of white faces laughed hard. I smiled politely. After the event, people came up and congratulated me.
Not every non-Muslim German who read my book was a bigot; but because my middle name is Muhammad, I accidentally made a safe space for bigotry. It’s OK when a Muslim says it, right? There’s a whole industry of Muslims selling Islamophobia to non-Muslims. Without realizing it, I had become one of them.
During my last reading in Berlin, a man told me that my novel’s fantastic reception in Germany was proof that Germans were open-minded and tolerant of Muslims. I answered that my book was populated with Muslims who drank, smoked, fucked, abandoned their communities, and insulted the Prophet; it only offered Europeans their own fantasy of what Muslims needed to become. I told the guy that if Germans wanted to prove their open-mindedness, they could find much more challenging Muslims to welcome into their society. He did not quite understand; but he also suggested to me that Muslims were all anti-Semitic. He said this in Germany, without a sliver of self-awareness. Germany. Then he asked if Muslims could “de-Arabize” enough to become “modern.” Because apparently, there will be no Arabs in the future.
A TV show arranged to interview me at a bar in Berlin or Cologne, I can’t remember which, and the producers couldn’t fathom that I don’t drink. They asked me three times to hold an alcoholic beverage, and then asked if I would at least hold a glass of orange juice. I said sure, but when the interview aired, a quick cut made it appear that I was holding a mixed drink.
I don’t know what to do with this novel. I can’t disown it, because it was my truth at a particular moment, and I still like the guts if not all of the words. But the book still follows me around and I don’t always want what it attracts. Anyway, writing The Taqwacores did offer me a lesson about Islam, because there were conservative Muslims who still welcomed me as their brother after reading it. Just as the Prophet had shown kindness to people who literally heaped garbage on his head, and patience with the Bedouin who pissed inside the mosque, my sisters and brothers have been charitable with me. Peace to them.
Michael Muhammad Knight (@MM_Knight) is the author of eight books, including Journey to the End of Islam, an account of his pilgrimage to Mecca.
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