The 99: The World’s First Muslim Superheroes

Emdad Rahman

Posted Apr 5, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The 99: The World’s First Muslim Superheroes

by Emdad Rahman

“The Islamic world has tabooed itself out of touch with the rest of humanity.  Through a negative selection process, our representatives speak for themselves in a voice amplified so loud by the media, that it leaves the rest of us confused regarding our identities.  Who are these angry vessels of hate and since when do they represent Islam?” - Naif Al-Mutawa, Creator of The 99.

In Saudi Arabia, a massive, hulking creature has escaped from a government holding facility, and no force on earth can stop him.

In Paris, A UNESCO official, psychiatrist and historian, dreams of world peace and chases ancient legends about mystical gemstones.

In the UAE, the kidnapped daughter of a tycoon escapes, bringing with her a gift and a curse - an enduring and ugly vision of a dying world.

And sitting in his dark tower, an ancient and powerful evil, spoken of only in legend, watches and waits for the signs that his true reign is near.

This is only the beginning. For soon, destiny will seek out the chosen from among those once forsaken. 99 gems containing the light of ancient wisdom lie scattered across the world waiting to be discovered. Those who possess the gems will wield untold power never before seen by mortal man. The salvation of the universe set in motion from the beginning of time lies now in the hands of those who dare to strive for it. Led by one man, a man dedicated to discovering the knowledge that was lost, these unlikely heroes and heroines must overcome great odds in their battle against the darkness, both in the outside world, and within their own souls.

They are The 99 and the fate of the known universe depends on them.

1940’s Marvel Comics introduced Egyptian and Arabic characters in their heroes. Marvel had an Arabian hero called “the Arabian Knight” who had a personality conflict with their Israeli superhero, “Sabra”). Dr Naif Al-Mutawa, the founder and creator of Teshkeel Comics was born in Kuwait City, but grew up in New Hampshire.  To him, the difference between the face of Islam as perceived by the Western world – Muslims as “angry vessels of hate” – and the actual tenets of Islam as practiced by most Muslims, is painfully acute.  Al- Mutawa recognized that the actions of radical Islamic sects were not only skewing the perception of Islam to the rest of the world, but were also were becoming a destructive force in the lives of Muslim children.  Al-Mutawa holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, and because of his fluency in Arabic and his proficiency in French, he worked in Bellevue Hospital’s Survivors of Political Torture Unit. 

While working as a clinical psychologist with former prisoners of war in Kuwait and with survivors of political torture in New York City, Al-Mutawa witnessed firsthand the cancerous effects of social, racial, and religious intolerance. This led him to write, illustrate, and publish To Bounce or Not To Bounce, a children’s book designed to introduce children (and adults) to concepts of international understanding and cultural diversity. The book went on to sell tens of thousands of copies worldwide, as well as win a UNESCO award for children’s literature in the service of tolerance. The Success of To Bounce or Not To Bounce led to a sequel, What’s In A Color!? Dr. Al-Mutawa’s children’s books are now used in schools throughout the Arab World. His quest for tolerance and global understanding led him to create The 99.

His goal is to represent the proud and powerful Islamic culture, while avoiding any religious sticking points.  He admits that seeing the culture as something separate from the religion is difficult, but is quick to cite well-known Western models.  But Teshkeel Comics’ lasting contribution to the world, and indeed, the reason Al-Mutawa established the imprint, is the superheroes of The 99. 

The 99 is is deeply rooted in proud Islamic history that every Middle Eastern schoolchild knows. In 1258, the invading Mongolian forces of Hulagu Khan destroyed the great library libraries of Baghdad, including the Dar Al-Hikma was destroyed by the invading Mongolian forces of Hulagu Khan.  This attack was meant to destroy the true power of Islamic society – its knowledge and wisdom, and –  and so to impede the culture’s progress.  It is here the story of The 99 begins. 

Al- Mutawa is harking back to a time when Islam was at its cultural peak.  During this Golden Age of Islam, Muslim cities were centers of learning, commerce, and time, there was widespread Islamic tolerance of other faiths.  With this “better time” shown directly on the books’ pages, it implies, and hopefully inspires, a time of greater peace and tolerance to come.

This is the dawn of a whole new kind of superhero! Discover the secrets of the Dar Al Hikma and the powers of the mysterious Noor stones. Meet the cunning Rughal, the powerhouse known as Jabbar and Dr. Ramzi Razem the man who has devoted his life to finding The 99! Follow the story of Ramzi’s quest and the history of the gems he seeks out.

Dr Naif Al Mutawa: Founder of Teshkeel comics interviewed by Emdad Rahman

ER: Please give us an overview of the 99 and it’s concepts?

NAM: In 1258 we know that Hulaku Khan’s army invades Baghdad and destroys it and that all the books from Dar Al- Hikma library were dumped in the Tigris river and the Tigris turns black with ink. I rewrite that history and I claim that the Mongols invade Baghdad to destroy the library-that was their intent-but the librarian found out and devised a mystical conduit to save the writings of the books by immersing 99 stones in “King’s Water.” But, the Mongols get there first and true to history they dump the books (and true to fiction the King’s water) into the Tigris. The librarians that are able to escape go into hiding and over the course of days and weeks dip the 99 stones into the Tigris and suck up all the information and knowledge and essentially power that we think we have lost as a civilisation. Those stones are referred to as the “Noor Stones” and are smuggled out of Baghdad as three prayer beads of 33 stones each and assemble in Andulusia where they are safe for over 150 years. But in 1492, Granada falls (the last of the Muslim Empire in Europe) it si also the same year that Columbus sails for the New World. So, 33 of the Noor Stones are smuggle in The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria and are spread in the New World-a metaphor for the spreading of Islam without mentioning Islam. 33 are spread of the Silk Route through China, India and South East Asia and 33 are spread in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. And now it is 2007 and there are 99 heroes from 99 countries.

ER: Who is credited with being the brains behind the 99?

NAM: I created the concept and raised money from 54 investors in 8 countries including the US, Mexico, China, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan. I wrote the first iteration of the story and the character guide. Since raising the money I have been able to guide a team of professionals who have written for the likes of X-Men and Spiderman to be part of the team.

ER: What were your favorite comic books growing up?

NAM: Batman, Spiderman and Archie.

ER: Are the 99 more than just entertainment?

NAM: I hope to make The 99 “internal and external ambassadors”. We want to show non-Muslims the positive stuff that comes out of Islam.  That way, hopefully in the near future, all the negative associations with Islam will only be a distant echo” (as cited in Villeminot).  At the same time, the The 99 fills the “role-model void” by offering Muslim children superheroes who look like them and who share their beliefs. Early storylines appear to be centred on finding and protecting the scattered stones, as well as The 99’s battle against the darkness,  both in the outside world, and within their own souls. As with the names of Allah, some of The 99’s heroes are not nherently likable, and, indeed, have frightening power. 

ER: Who do you look up to as role models?

NAM: The Prophet Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him, was a brilliant marketer and strategist. Pat Conroy is living proof that some talent simply cannot be taught. John Lennon was living proof that artists can bring change to our world.

ER: Do we need ‘Muslim’ superheroes?

NAM: Western superheroes have been widely imported into Muslim Islamic communities, but they speak of a world and a value system that is not that of Islam.  This mixed cultural identity, the painful pull of living in two worlds – the past and the present, the west and the east – is a dilemma The 99 attempts to ease.  The 99 is a bold attempt to teach Muslim children about what the culture of Islam truly values.  Furthermore, in a world where Western audiences too often confuse Islam with radical Islamic sects, The 99 will be an important teaching tool for children around the world.

ER: What has been the response thus far?

NAM: Absolutely fantastic.  We have been covered positively as a concept in all the major media outlets world wide. From Time to Newsweek to the New York Times to the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Also newspapers in Brazil, China, India, Italy, France etc…have covered us. The Guardian likened The 99 to the Da Vince Code of the Islamic World. In Kuwait and the UAE The 99 sells as strongly as Spiderman and the Fantastic Four (I know because Teshkeel also publishes those titles.)  Further we have already sold a license to a Spanish company that will be entering the EU market with back to school products based on The 99 for the 2008 school season and we are in talks to finalise a deal to bring the comic to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in local languages. We also hope to be in the US next Fall.

ER: Why have Teshkeel decided to enter this genre?

NAM: I created Teshkeel after creating The 99 concept. Prior to completing my MBA I was a clinical psychologist for 10 years working with war trauma and survivors of torture. My patients came out of the Islamic World (due to my language skills) and I was left with a hollow feeling that our kids had no present day heroes-only historical ones. I wanted to create those heroes.

ER: Have you received complaints from Muslims from a Shariah perspective?

NAM: Only from those who do not understand that Sharia is fluid and open to interpretation. I have received some complaints from those who did not read the books or take the time to understand the work. But on the bright side, the largest stakeholder in Teshkeel right now is an Islamic Investment Bank with a Sharia board that has approved Teshkeel and The 99 concept for Islamic financing. And to put their money where their mouth is, they have invested roughly $18 Million into Teshkeel. Does that mean that every Sharia scholar will approve Teshkeel and The 99-maybe not. But we have had an overwhelming positive response from most.

ER: How did you sell the concept to potential backers?

NAM: Whilst searching for backers for what would become Kuwait-based Teshkeel Comics, I carried with me a 2004 Washington Post article by Jean-Marc Mojon, which described the extreme popularity of a sticker book in Nablus, a major city under the Palestinian National Authority (Fattah).  The sticker book, emblazoned with the words “Infitada Intifada Album,”, holds 229 stickers which depict scenes such as Israeli tanks, weeping Palestinian mothers, and wounded children. I descrribed my work with my patients had made me realise that the people of war-torn, predominantly-Muslim countries were deprived of role models and heroes and . 

ER: Did Teshkeel consult with Shariah Scholars?

NAM: NO! I purposely chose not to in the beginning because I was convinced that had I done so the all the scholars would have to go on would be what they thought I may be doing versus an actual product. Then the worst case scenario is much worse! So I decided to create the product and then get approval which has worked out very well for me considering the recent cash infusion from an Islamic Bank with a Shariah board!

ER: How successful have you been in persuading sceptics that you are onto a good thing?

NAM: The skeptics are on both sides. Those that consider what I am doing as borderline heretical and those that think it is a way to gain influence for Islam in the Western World. I choose not to try to persuade anyone of anything. I create the product, make sure its the best it can be and pray that it has a resonance in the market place. But truth be told-it has been overwhelmingly positive the response that I have received. God only helps those that help themselves. And I was getting tired of sitting on my hands and complaining of those that have chosen to use Islam to further their personal political agendas by being sectarian and holier than thou. The 99 is my way of saying “Hey, this is how I personally choose to portray Islam.” And I hope this is met with others that say “Hey, this is how I portray it.” And eventually those that dominate the headlines today will be nothing more than a distant echo in the near future. It doesn’t work to complain that Islam is being misused. It doesn’t work to fight. What works is to go on your own path because that created more routes and more options for the future generations.

Courtesy of Islam Online -