While New York is embroiled in controversy over plans for a mosque near Ground Zero, one Muslim entrepreneur is hoping a group of 99 superheroes can challenge the perception of Islam among both non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, a clinical psychologist who got his training in New York, created The 99 comic book series so kids could see the positive messages of Islam that are universal among all people. The comic, which is published in eight languages, has already inspired a theme park and will cross over with the Justice League in a DC Comic in October.
"After 9/11, moving back home to Kuwait, I became more and more alarmed at how Islam was being positioned to itself," Al-Mutawa explained. "How Islam is being seen by the West is a very important thing, but I think more important is how Islam sees itself. What happens is, every time something terrible happens like 9/11, that understanding of Islam goes toward the extreme. And kids grow up and they’re immediately fixated on the bad things. You have kind of a regression to the mean, and that mean is very, very, mean."
What resulted is The 99, which Al-Mutawa publishes through Teshkeel Media Group, the company he founded in 2006. Although he came up with the concept on his own, Al-Mutawa has enlisted the help of several comic book professionals to help bring his idea to life.
The story of The 99 focuses on 99 stones that are infused with knowledge and power from the ancient Library of Wisdom from 13th Century Baghdad. The stones, which are spread across the world, choose worthy carriers, who must decide whether to use their powers for good or evil.
While the story itself appears religion-free, the "99" in the comic's title is based upon the 99 attributes of Allah in the Koran, which include things like generosity, mercy, foresight, wisdom and strength. Each of the characters is linked to one of those 99 attributes, such as Jabbar the Powerful, Widad the Loving, and Noora the Light.
"These are basic human values," Al-Mutawa said. "These are very positive attributes that weren't used to describe Islam in the media until we started doing what we're doing. But people, whether or not they believe in a god or whether or not they believe in a religion, they would say that being merciful or kind or generous are good things."The whole approach was inspired by the fact that many American superheroes are also religious archetypes. "Neal Adams explained to me that 'Shazam' was an acronym for six Greek gods. I didn’t know that," Al-Mutawa said. "He explained to me the tradition of using religious archetypes, and it got me thinking. It got me reading."
Al-Mutawa discovered that Superman was sent to Earth in a pod, like Moses was on the Nile, and is sent from above as his father says, "I have sent to you my only son." And just like the biblical prophets have lost parents, superheroes like Batman and Spider-Man are orphans.
"But you never see Batman praying or Superman praying. We don't know what their religions are. They're universal," he said. "So the idea behind The 99 was to pull out messaging in Koranic archetypes that all people can identify with, the stuff that people who are Muslim share with the rest of humanity."
Although Al-Mutawa created The 99 only a few years ago, the concept has grown beyond the limitations of its pages. The 99 amusement park in Kuwait has already gotten more visitors than the sales of the comic, and an animated series is being developed that features the characters. Forbes Magazine described The 99 as "one of the top 20 trends sweeping the globe."
Al-Mutawa was also recently hailed by President Barack Obama at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, praising The 99 for its ability to capture the imaginations of young people through a message of tolerance.
"In October, when DC Comics does this crossover with the Justice League of America and The 99," Al-Mutawa said, "it basically takes President Obama's vision in the real world and implements it in the metaphorical world — in the fictional world."
Check back this week for more of Newsarama's conversation with Dr. Al-Mutawa, as well as the comic book professionals who have helped bring The 99 to life.