Music from the mosque

Music from the mosque

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled names in the photo caption.

Shahjehan Khan is Muslim.

But while growing up in suburban Boxboro, Khan said his religion didn’t define his identity. Many of his friends were white and he listened to musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Oasis and Green Day. He often skipped mosque on Sundays to go to Guitar Center.

“Before September 11, I was never really conscious of my color or my race,” Khan said. “I was never really conscious of this place where I had to defend it.”

When Khan, 23, reunited with high school friend, Basim Usmani, 24, at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, they founded The Kominas, a Cambridge-based punk rock outfit. Along with about a dozen other bands nationwide, they have been credited with spearheading a musical genre called “taqwacore.” Mixing pounding guitar rhythms with lyrics that quote the Koran, taqwacore has tapped into a Muslim youth disillusioned with some of the religion’s strict religious tenets.

According to Islamic fundamentalism, music, especially when performed with stringed instruments like the guitar, is considered “haram,” or forbidden.

The band has faced criticism from traditional Muslim followers and conservative right wing critics for penning song titles like “Suicide Bomb The Gap,” and “Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay.” One commentator referred to them as “jihadist rappers.”

But Khan said The Kominas’ intention was never molded on a political ideology. Their songs are not solely about religion, but also contain lyrics about Bollywood movies and idle suburban life.

Two of the band’s members are Muslims: Khan and Usmani. Guitarist Arjun Ray and drummer Karna Ray were raised by an atheist father and a Hindu mother. Dan Joyner, the band’s dhol player, identifies with Christianity. The mix in religious backgrounds surprises fans of the band based on its taqwacore label.

“I want listeners to walk away from our music with the notion to not take things at face value,” Khan said. “I was Muslim on Sundays, but the rest of the days I was an American teenager tying to get laid.”

Arjun said being Muslim is a “hot topic” and agrees that the current political climate played a role in their exposure.

“If we were a Buddhist punk band, no one would care – unless we were at war with Tibet,” he said.

Khan said he has visited Pakistan in the past and met people who believe September 11 was “an inside job.” He said America does have its flaws, but he still finds himself in an unusual position: defending America.

“At the end of the day, I’m an American first, whatever the hell that means,” he said.

The Kominas formed after Usmani read “The Taqwacores,” a novel by Michael Muhammed Knight that fictionalized Muslim punk rock bands. At 16, Knight said he converted to Islam after reading the Malcom X autobiography. He became detached from the religion after a trip to Pakistan where he had adopted the strict lifestyle that conservative Islam demands.

“The way I experienced Islam is either you’re in or you’re out,” he said. “I wanted an in-between space and there wasn’t one, either you went to the mosque, or you were cut from the community entirely.”

Knight said the inspiration behind “The Taqwacores” came when he was in college and befriended students who celebrated the “do-it-yourself” punk rock philosophy. It was refreshing to meet people who “tolerated someone who had questions” and didn’t force him to “conform to a certain set of behaviors,” he said.

“They made this big show of not being put in a box,” he said. “With the culture and conditioning I had as a Muslim, I knew if I took the spirit of these guys and put it in a mosque, then there would be a place for me.”

At first, reaction to the book was tepid. After online magazine Muslim WakeUp! published an excerpt, the exposure helped the book get published in 2005.

Once Knight realized an audience existed, he said the book was able to bridge the divides of a scattered community.

“I think one of [the] things [the book] did was give [the community] a name,” he said. “You had a Muslim punk rock kid in Boston and in Chicago and in Texas … We were all able to support each other.”

Knight said taqwacore is best left without limitations because “if you define it, you end up excluding people.” At it’s core, Knight said the genre aims to promote tolerance and acceptance.

“It’s a safe space to be the kind of Muslim you want to be,” he said of taqwacore.””Anyone can feel constrained with their religion.”

Mouaad Lebeche, president of the Islamic Society at Northeastern University (ISNU) said he has struggled with the traditional Muslim view of music. He admits to listening to hip-hop and punk, but acknowledges he must one day give up music.

“I’m not perfect. I have a lot to work on,” he said. “Hopefully if I hope to become as great of a Muslim as I can be, I’ll stop listening to music.”

Whitney Kelting, a philosophy and religion professor, said Islam’s disapproval of music is widely misinterpreted.

“The word that’s being used in Islam is ‘musika’ but that term is not equal with our word ‘music,’ so there are exceptions,” she said.

Certain musical forms like lullabies, work songs, military music and epic praise poems are accepted. Devotional music, or songs with lyrics devoted to Islam called “kavili” are also allowed. In fact, with the pop stardom-like success of “kavili” artists, this form became the Punjabi-interpretation of modern pop music.

Because Islamic debate about music is complex and ongoing, Kelting said many practicing Muslims would accept taqwacore and The Kominas’ brand of punk rock. She said only “the most conservative Muslims” would voice concerns.

Denis Sullivan, who founded the Middle East Center at Northeastern in 2003, said media attention on taqwacore is political and youth being dissatisfied with religion is not an exclusive facet of Islam. Jews, Catholics and Buddhists hold conservative views too, he said.

“It’s a way of denigrating, or showing … that even Muslims are disgruntled with their own faith,'” he said. “It’s youth, being who they are, I would hope [people] make a comparison rather than a distinction. I would hope they would see that youth are youth regardless of their religion.”

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