In July 2006, Naif al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti clinical psychologist, launched the first Islamically themed superhero comics. Al-Mutawa began the series “The 99” to provide Muslim children with superheroes with whom they could identify. Perhaps surprisingly, half of the heroes are females. The name of the series stems from the 99 attributes of God outlined in the Qur’an, the holy text of Islam. Each of the 99 heroes embodies one of the attributes and represents some aspect of the core Islamic values. All the characters also come from different countries from around the world and thus represent the diversity of the worldwide Muslim community.
The storyline of the series begins in 13th century Baghdad with the Monghol invasion. In the comic, the Monghols specifically attack Baghdad with the aim of destroying Dar al-Hikma (the House of Wisdom), the great library. In order to preserve the immense body of knowledge in the library, librarians use a solution of King’s water and save the wisdom, tolerance, and spirituality of the caliphate in 99 gemstones, which are then taken to Andalusia. After the attack of Ferdinand and Isabella, the gems become scattered and are lost until the present day. One by one, each of the 99 heroes finds a gemstone which gives the recipient special powers. For example, the character Jabbar (which in Arabic means mighty), a Hulk-like figure from Saudi Arabia, has great strength and Sami (which in Arabic means the one who hears) has superhuman levels of hearing. All these characters, fight against those who try to destroy knowledge and wisdom.
While there is an obvious Islamic tone underlying the series, al-Mutawa says that “The 99” is about ethics and not religious dogma. Moreover, in an effort to remain within religious confines and receive the blessings of religious authorities, Allah and the Prophet Muhammad are not represented and the definite article reserved for the 99 attributes of Allah are not included in the names of the characters.
The series has been featured in magazines around the world including the American magazines Forbes, Newsweek, and Time. Three years after the launching of the series, the comics are published in Arabic, English, and Bahasa Indonesian with rights for the series being sold for seven languages including Hindi, Malaysian, and French. Moreover, there is now a deal to produce an animated TV series based on the comic book and the first of 6 six theme parks around the Middle East opened in Kuwait this past January. Most importantly, the success, in my view, is the positive message of the series according to al-Mutawa: “Human beings have so much more that unites us than separates us. All cultures should be valued and respected. Tolerance and understanding are more powerful than force and conflict.”
What do you think of “The 99”? Do you think that comic-books can serve as a medium to build bridges? Please share your comments.