As creator of the popular Islamic-themed comic series "The 99," Tufts graduate Naif Al-Mutawa emphasizes what brings humanity together.
Superman. Wonder Woman. Batman. Many of the comic book superheroes found on the newsstand have distinctive Western personae. So for Naif Al-Mutawa (A'94), Islamic superheroes are just what the world needs.
"The only superheroes were in North America and Japan," he says, referring to Spider-Man and Pokémon. "Why not an Islamic comic book?"
That comic book, an increasingly popular series called "The 99," features teenage superheroes battling the forces of evil with Marvel comic book-style flair.
"The 99" debuted in Al-Mutawa's native Kuwait in 2006 (it came to the United States last year) and according to Al-Mutawa is the first comic series based on Islamic culture and history. The comic's title refers to the 99 attributes of God (or Allah, in Arabic), including "generosity, strength, wisdom, foresight, mercy, and dozens of others that are not used to describe Islam in the media today," says Al-Mutawa.
Al-Mutawa, founder and CEO of Teshkeel Media Group, which distributes "The 99" as well as Arabic versions of Marvel Comics, has long been involved in the world of publishing. A father of four, he has authored multiple children's books, including "To Bounce or Not to Bounce," which was a finalist for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) prize for Children's Literature in the Service of Tolerance in 1997. While at Tufts, he wrote for the Tufts Daily, and he got his start in publishing as a newspaper columnist.
"I had always had a passion for writing," says Al-Mutawa. He's used that passion to craft the intricate story line that makes up the comic book's central premise, one which he says is rooted in history.
"In 1258, the Mongols invaded Baghdad and all the books in the library got thrown into the Tigris River, which changed color. Which color it changed to is a matter of debate," says Al-Mutawa, "but every kid in the Muslim world knows this date."
In the comic book version, the library curators gather the books before the Mongol invaders have a chance to get them then transfer all the accumulated history and knowledge of the library onto 99 mystical gemstones. These gems are then scattered all over the world.
The young superheroes of "The 99" come from a range of backgrounds. Fatah the Opener is a 22-year-old Indonesian man who has become disenchanted with his life. He goes into a secondhand store and happens upon a belt buckle that might contain one of the gemstones. Noora the Light is the 18-year-old daughter of a businessman from the United Arab Emirates. She finds a gemstone and suddenly gains not only the ability to manipulate light, but also to see the darkness in the souls of those around her. Other members of The 99 are discovered as the comic's plotline progresses.
Their leader is Dr. Ramzi Razem, a scholar who has spent years studying historical records and religious stories in his quest to track down the gemstones. He and the young heroes struggle against the villain Rughal, who also seeks the gems. (continued)
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Profile written by Leslie Macmillan for Tufts University
Images courtesy of Teshkeel Comics
This story originally ran on Jan. 21, 2008.