Review: “The Taqwacores,” Youthful Angst, Muslim-Style

By turns clumsy, thought provoking and funny, "The Taqwacores” follows a young college student in Buffalo seeking to live in a home with fellow Muslims who will help him stay true to his faith. He instead finds himself in a cauldron of inter-faith strife stoked by fans of Taqwacore, a fictional Muslim punk scene based in California that takes its name from “taqwa,” an awareness of Allah, and “core,” from hardcore.

The original novel was self-published in 2003 as a zine by Michael Muhammad Knight, who was raised Irish Catholic, but converted to Islam when he was a teenager, shortly after reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Ironically, Knight wrote the book as his farewell to Islam, but the response to the book helped bring him back to the faith.

Stranger still, his novel about a fictional musical genre spawned an actual Taqwacore movement, including the bad The Kominas, whose songs “Sharia Law in the USA," "Suicide Bomb the Gap" and "I Want a Hand Job" are featured on the film's fantastic soundtrack.

For all its indie charms, “The Taqwacores” gets off to a rocky start as we meet Yusef (Bobby Naderi), a first-generation Pakistani-American, being given a tour of his prospective lodgings. Yusef is so painfully square and the house such an epic dump, that it seems impossible that he would actually move in. It begs for some explanation.

What saves the film is the arrival of Jehangir, played with an electric glee by Dominic Rains, who, with his infectious intensity and towering Mohawk, is reminiscent of Adrien Brody’s career-launching turn in “Summer of Sam.” Rains is just operating at an entirely higher level as the heart and soul of this film.

“Allah is too big, and too open, for my Islam to be small and closed,” he declares when his piety is challenged, effectively summarizing the entire point of the film.

Jehangir is just one of the anti-arch types occupying the house, along with the hardcore straightedge Sunni; the burqa-clad riot girl feminist, an Indonesian skater-punk stoner; and the shirtless Shi'a skinhead. All are given a chance to deliver a soliloquy on their version of Islam.

Each represents a different conflict faced by young Muslims who want to embrace their faith while being true to themselves. It’s a struggle that vexes every religion, as followers are handed a rulebook written thousands of years ago by people dealing with very different realities. For obvious reasons, this struggle within the Muslim community is taking place under a very harsh spotlight.

"The Taqwacores" is a fast-paced, high-energy humanizing look at a side of Islam most American have neither the opportunity nor inclination to consider, featuring what may yet prove to be a breakout performance from Dominic Rains.

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