Muslim Hipsters

Environmental Activist Ibrahim Abdul-Matin

On the next Inside Islam Radio Show, Ibrahim Abdul-Matin will discuss his environmental jihad and the Islamic principles that influence his eco-conscious activism. Abdul-Matin will also speak at a public event held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Abdul-Matin, a New York City native and Brooklynite, in many ways represents a new wave of Muslim-Americans born and raised in the United States. Stylish, artistically inclined, and socially conscious, the 34-year-old Abdul-Matin represents a growing number of hip and influential Muslims. These Muslim “hipsters,” prominent in artistic, academic, and social justice movements, often come from urban middle- to upper-class backgrounds and have a strong interest in a particular subcategory of global pop culture.

But let’s take a step back and look into “hipsterism.” While there is a dispute over the origin of “hipster” (hop, a slang term for “opium,” or the Wolof word hipi, meaning “to open one’s eyes”), it’s colloquial use dates to middle-class white American youth trying to emulate black jazz musicians in the 1940s. The word was revived in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (Here’s some more info on the evolution of hipsters.) Whether in the U.S. or other countries, there are a handful of recognizable markers that may identify a hipster: those who ride fixed-gear bikes, wear skinny jeans and large-rimmed glasses (sometimes without lenses) and plaid shirts, listen to indie rock music, and watch obscure foreign films.

So what about Muslim hipsters? Well-established in the U.S. and Europe, they are a growing presence in urban areas of South Asia (India, Pakistan), South-East Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia), and the Middle East (Egypt, Morocco, Gulf states), and every “type” of hipster has a different emphasis or style. The fact that someone is Muslim may or may not have an influence over their hipster type. For example, for Muslims who observe hijab (modest dress and overall attitude in one’s physical appearance), common hipster tendencies such as wearing skinny jeans (without a long shirt covering up one’s thighs and behind) are more challenging to pull off (for both men and women) or are unacceptable all together. For example, there is a growing group of Muslims around the world that are integrating modest Muslim dress with Japanese trends, coining it as Muslim Japanese Gothic Lolita fashion. Here are some examples.

Other Muslim hipsters raised in an Islamic context who do not practice the religion or have divergent interpretations from “mainstream” beliefs and practices (and I use that term loosely) often act or dress in ways that are looked down upon by a majority of Islamic scholars (drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon or wearing tight clothing–a hot topic among young Muslims). In many ways, pop culture and hipster tendencies challenge young Muslims around the world to explore and identify their core values and beliefs.

While only a small percentage of the world’s Muslims identify with hipster culture, their presence has provided those indoctrinated by Islamophobic perspectives with an easier way to understand Islam and Muslims. Hip-hop artists such as Mos Def, The Narcicsyst, and Brother Ali, academics like Reza Aslan, and community- and arts-based organizations such as IMAN and Styleislam have integrated Islamic principles with their artistic and intellectual contributions, creating a more familiar, and thus comfortable space for non-Muslims to learn about Islam and Muslims.

There are those who make fun of hipsters, and the jokes will certainly continue, but hipsterism may be playing a more important role than just style and fashion. Are Muslim hipsters changing your perceptions of Islam?

2 thoughts on “Muslim Hipsters

  1. Reza Aslan listed as a hipster — love it! 🙂 Thanks for posting a definition of the term “hipster” for those who may not know much about it, despite the general obscurity of the description.

    Dr. Sherman Jackson once gave an example of the dress code that the Nation of Islam adopted: the three-piece suit, a classic sign of a successful white man. But, the brothers in the NOI embraced it differently. They made it their own, giving it legitimacy how they deemed fit, to a point that when you saw a black man dressed in a three-piece suit speaking eloquently, you thought, “Does he belong to the NOI?” They made the NOI a mainstream term, and I wonder if Muslim hipsters — though obviously not in a “movement” as the one led by Elijah Muhammad — will serve the same function, in the realm of fashion as well as ideas.