From Traditionalism to Taqwacore: Islam as you’ve never seen it

In August 2012, six Sikhs were shot dead in their temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The attacker, who reportedly had a 9/11 tattoo on one of his arms, believed that his victims were Muslims. A few weeks ago, Erika Menendez, 31, pushed Sunando Sen, an immigrant from India, to his death on a subway track. Menendez, who was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, said she killed the man because she had “hated Hindus and Muslims” since 9/11.

Tragic in themselves, these attacks on Sikhs and Hindus — mistaken for Muslims — point to a much bigger problem, i.e., the failure to differentiate, not just between the non-Western religions, but between Muslims themselves, and the very diverse array of opinions and beliefs among devotees of Islam. Islam is a complicated subject, and, overwhelmed, it may be easy for people — Muslim and non-Muslim — to think of it as monolithic. In some cases, though, the oversimplification of the faith has been intentional, sometimes by those who mean well, and sometimes who wish to portray “real Islam,” as they would call their own interpretation, as inherently violent. Yet, throughout history, Islam has had — and still has — different schools of thought and interpretation. And they can be radically different. Below are just a few.

Detail of "The Two Sides Of Reality" by Ahmed Moustafa

Detail of “The Two Sides Of Reality” by Ahmed Moustafa

Reformism and human rights

The Western media has tended to talk about a “moderate Islam,” compatible with human rights, as a buffer against “radical Islam.”

Among, and perhaps the best-known of, the “reformist” Muslim authors — who interpret Islam in light of human rights — is Canadian-born Irshad Manji.

Manji promoted, or popularized, the Islamic notion of ijtihad (“effort”), the tradition of studying and reinterpreting the texts to come to new understandings, applicable to the time.

As part of her own ijtihad, Manji established “The Moral Courage Project” to challenge the Islamist view of the religion, and has worked with a liberal imam, who has issued fatwas enabling young Muslims to make their own decisions, outside the scope of tradition. For example, the imam has issued a fatwa declaring that young Muslim women can choose their own husbands, even if their intended spouse is non-Muslim.

When Palgrave/Macmillan cancelled a contract to publish Quran: a Reformist Translation in 2006, after initially enthusiastically receiving the project, Manji stepped in to host a pdf version of the interpretation on her website. Critics of Manji claim that the best-selling author does not represent Muslims, but only appeals to Westerners. This seems to be demonstrably untrue. Quran: a Reformist Translation was downloaded several million times from her site, including in countries where the translation is banned.

Shi’ism and Shi’ite Esotericism

In 2012, Manji visited Indonesia to launch her latest book Allah, Liberty and Love. Members of the extremist-Islamist Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI) demonstrated outside the Institute for Islamic and Social Studies (LKiS) Foundation in Yogyakarta, where she was speaking.

The author suffered minor injuries as she left the building. While Manji’s tribulation was reported in the Western media, the defense of the author by other Muslims was not. Hearing about the attack, as AsiaNews reported, members of Banser, the militia of the (Shi’ite) Nahdlatul Ulama, turned up to protect the headquarters of the Free Journalist Alliance in South Jakarta when she was speaking there. According to AsiaNews, NU member Aan Anshori, said that Manji “speaks of freedom [Hurriyah], Justice [‘Adalah] and social equality [musawwa]. Ideas that these groups [that attacked Manji] do not adhere to.”

Shi’ite Muslims have routinely come under attack by Sunni terrorists while traveling through Pakistan and Afghanistan on pilgrimages. Like Sufism, this branch of the religion has traditionally been more mystical, quietist, and esoteric.

The majority of Shi’as are “Twelvers,” recognizing the authority of the first twelve imam, including the twelfth, who is believed, by Shi’as, to have gone into a period of occultation in 329/941. The twelve imams are the spiritual leaders of the community, associated with the ahl al-bayt (family of Islam’s Prophet, Mohammed). This lineage passed through Mohammed’s daughter Fatima and her husband, Ali, both of which hold especially important places in the Shi’ite faith.

According to Shi’a esotericism, the prophet Mohammed is, says says Mohammed Ali Amir-Moezzi in The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism, “both the prototype and the end” of the exoteric aspect of Islam. Mohammed has taught the imams the esoteric understanding of the Koran. They in turn teach this to the community.

Sometimes, throughout history, the inner interpretation has been conferred through an initiation ritual.


It might be argued that Traditionalist Islam originates in the West. The founder of the Traditionalist school of thought was Rene Guenon. A French metaphysician, Guenon had been involved with Catholicism, Freemasonry and even the occult during his early manhood. He subsequently rejected both Roman Catholicism — which he felt had become corrupted by modernity — and the occult, which he regarded as an inauthentic form of spirituality. Guenon nevertheless retained a respect for Freemasonry until the end of his life.

Part of the reason for his rejection of the above forms of religion and spirituality may have been his growing interest in Taoism and Hinduism. Guenon may also already have begun developing an interest in Islam during this period as well.

With his commitment to Islam having grown during the late 20s, Guenon moved to Cairo in 1930, and began openly practicing the faith. There he was initiated into the Sufi Order of Shadhilites, and took the name Abdel Wahed Yahya.

Relatively unknown in the Islamic intellectual world until recently, Guneon’s ideas and influences have been steadily growing, especially through the influence of Iranian-born Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University. Guenon’s works have been translated into several languages, and in 2012 the Iran Book News Agency announced that a Farsi edition of Guenon’s East and West was about to be published.

In the Traditionalist worldview, all religions are emanations of a primordial tradition, laid down by God himself. Accordingly, the practitioners — especially the esotericists — of one religion can, at a certain degree of understanding, encounter an authentic gnosis, which those of other religions can also encounter through their paths. For the Traditionalist, Islam shares essential features with not only Christianity and Judaism, but Hinduism, Buddhism, and other major world faiths.

One of Guenon’s followers was the Swiss-born author and esotericist Frithjof Schuon. He was initiated into Sufism, although he took great interest in other religions, such as Hinduism, and late in life moved to the USA to learn and practice the “native American” religion. For Schuon, though, what was important was the lesser-known esoteric Islam.

“In Islam you have a religion which is like every, any, Semitic religion… a dogma… a theology,” Schuon once remarked in interview, “But there is a hidden, esoteric Islam, which is very open-minded like Hinduism… And this Islam interests me… the mysticism interests me. It’s like Hinduism.”


At the age of seventeen, Michael Muhammad Knight left his home in upstate New York, and went to Pakistan to study in a madrasa. However, Knight didn’t like the religious fundamentalism he encountered, and went through a period of soul searching. Later, he would write what would become the manifesto of Islamic Punk. That was in 2002. At the time, no longer subscribing to the “whole checklist of beliefs,” Knight – a convert to Islam from an Irish, Roman Catholic upbringing – felt he “was an exile, outside the mosque and on the margins.”

Knight was particularly perturbed about attitudes towards women, gays and alcohol that he had encountered while endeavoring to learn more about his faith. But, recognizing that Punk had always exalted the outsider, the musical movement born in the 1970s inspired Knight to embrace his marginalization, and to imagine a new and radically different expression of Islam. This was Taqwacore – from the Arabic word, taqwa, meaning being conscious of God, fused with “core,” from “hardcore.” The Taqwacores, Knight’s novel, was originally Xeroxed, spiral bound, and given away for free.

The Taqwacores is set in a house in Buffalo, New York; home to “burqa-wearing riot girls, mohawked Sufis, straightedge Sunnis, Shi’a skinheads, Indonesian skaters, Sudanese rude boys, gay Muslims, drunk Muslims, and feminists.” Their living room is used for both parties and prayers, with the direction of Mecca indicated by a hole that has been smashed into one of the walls. And, with the sort of blending of spirituality and the profane that we have seen in other subcultures, the Taqwacore renegades mix “sex, dope, and religion in roughly equal amounts.” Knight wasn’t exactly certain if there was a market for a novel about a group of Muslim Punks living in Buffalo, upstate New York. Nevertheless, Knight contacted Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, who began distributing it through his record label, Alternative Tentacles. Then, in 2004, the anarchist imprint Autonomedia took the novel onboard.

Knight had imagined Islamic Punk at the time of writing The Taqwacores. As far as he knew, there was no such scene. But the book caught the imagination of young American Muslims, who began forming Taqwacore bands. For them Knight’s novel was “a manifesto for a new kind of Islamic youth culture that respects women and gay people.”


The first official Taqwacore song is usually considered to be Muhammaad was a Punk Rocker. Knight had written the lyrics as a poem, after leaving Pakistan, and had later published at the beginning of The Taqwacores. In 2004, Kourosh Poursalehi, a then sixteen year-old from San Antonio discovered the novel, set the poem to Punk music, and sent a recording to Knight. The author of The Taqwacores was elated. He had articulated the idea of Islamic Punk, and now he was hearing from people who were putting it into practice. Poursalehi came from a Sufi background, and, although he has been reluctant to discuss it, he accredits the Sufi practice of dhikr (chanting Divine names) with sparking his interest in music. For, Poursalehi, Punk and religion have one thing in common. “In both areas, there’s a strong sense of energy going around and unity almost,” he has been reported as saying. “It’s about people coming together for the same cause and the same concerns.”

Two other new converts to Taqwacore that contacted Knight around the same time were Shahjehan Khan and Basim Usmani, guitarist and lead singer of The Kominas. They had just read Knight’s work, and were impressed. Khan had been a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, but after September 11, 2001, he had felt ostracized, as the cafeteria became ethnically separated and one fellow student told him that Muslims were responsible for all of the world’s problems.

A few days after receiving Poursalehi’s recording – and listening to it over and over again – Knight was on his way to meet Khan and Usmani. A few years later, in 2006, the Taqwacore bands were on the road, touring the USA. Driving from one gig to the next in their tour bus – which Knight had purchased and painted green with small red camels and the word “Taqwa” on the front – they were met with obscene gestures by some drivers they passed on the road. One driver even held a sign, with “Fuck Allah” written on it up, to his window. Still, that wasn’t the end of it. Arriving at the Chicago conference of the Islamic Society of North America, where they had been invited to play, the bands experienced more hostility; this time from the event organizers. Young Muslims in the audience had enthusiastically cheered the Taqwacore bands. However, objecting to Muslim women performing, when the all-female band Secret Trial Five took to the stage, the event organizers called the police, and had them removed.

But, Taqwacore goes beyond challenging fundamentalism and intolerance. It also challenges much of the analysis about Islam and the West, particularly the notion of an unavoidable conflict between “the forces of Jihad and the forces of McWorld” as Benjamin Barber famously framed it – between, in other words, the world of a reinvigorated tribalism on the one hand and globalism on the other.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.