99 Reasons to Respect Dr Naif Al-Mutawa

Growing up as an Arab child in an English School, it was impossible not to become completely immersed in the culture of the West which, for a certain point in time in every child’s life, centered on superheroes.

Every child had a favorite superhero, and every superhero catered to the rich imagination of children. Many an argument in the playground emanated from “my hero is better than your hero”. From Spiderman to Superman, Batman to Ironman, the Hulk and many, many others, each hero had an essence that connected with children. Whether it was their circumstances, their way of thinking, their status in their society or even how they dress, all children loved to relate to these superheroes in some way or another.

The heroes we grew up with

From dressing up as superheroes on Halloween, to reading comics, collecting trading cards and most of all playing with action figures, the most favorite imagination stirring activity, superheroes played a very important role in shaping the characters of children. We pretended we could fly, or spin webs, or run really fast or had superhuman strength and in doing so allowed our imaginations to run unrestricted, fully embracing the notion that everything is possible.

More heroes from our childhood

Sadly though, there were very few superheroes of Arab origin; no hero to which everyone could relate to and draw inspiration and strength from;  neither in printed media or on television. Marvel created Dust , a mutant with the ability to transform her body into a malleable cloud of dust. Wikipedia itself cites the following- She is a rare example of a positive Muslim comic book character.  It was a market niche begging to be filled, and sadly for a long time it remained fallow, unattended. In that span of time however, many a disastrous incident took place that harmed the Arab spirit, causing many to feel a sense of shame; Arabs were portrayed in Western Media as terrorists, or at best either simple ignorant goat herders or hefty, spend thrift oil tycoons.

Yes, there is Arabic Media available however, many did not prefer to watch Arabic movies, nor Arabic series as they did not challenge their imagination. They portray only the reality of the world in which we live, the reality that we are all living, day in and day out, and those with an active imagination would much rather prefer to spend their time in a world of fantasy, of might and myth and magic. Hence the Arab identity became more diluted as the generation of children raised in English Schools as well as the rest seemingly shunned their roots to embrace the world of overzealous imagination.

Ask any child what they want to be when they grow up and most would answer without hesitation: Superman; the red and blue American dream, the unstoppable force.

How would an Arab child answer that? We had no superheroes to our name, only villains, and nobody wants to grow up to be a villain.

This market was left unattended, its potential completely and utterly ignored as superheroes were linked to children, and in the minds of many, children did not put food on the table.

Very few people had the foresight to see that superheroes represent qualities and moralities that can teach children at a young age valuable lessons. Much less people actually took their ideas to fruition. Through Spiderman we learnt that with great power there must also come great responsibility; through Batman we learnt that vengeance is never the answer; through Superman we learnt that no matter how strong you are, your upbringing will always shape your decisions.

From a financial stand point, everything from costumes to actions figures, trading cards to animated series and even feature films are possible as long as children feel a connection with these superheroes.

No one that is, until the emergence of Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa and The 99.

Our Superheroes

For those that are unaware; in Islam, Allah (God) has 99 names, descriptions of characteristic traits. Anyone with the name Abd— carries one of those names, “Abd al” means “servant of”, so Abdullah is Servant of God, Abdelrahman is Servant of the Merciful etc.

In his creation, The 99, Dr. Naif takes these names and ties them to stones, and each possessor of a stone can manifest the power to which that name represents; for example, Jab’bar (meaning strong) would have superhuman strength etc.

These traits serve a dual purpose; they teach us more about how to be better human beings as well as teach us more about Islam. How often can you find someone able to recite music word for word, but fail to recite a verse from the Quran? Media bombardment is the answer. Now, the Arab world has something to be proud of; superheroes to relate to, characters to identify with. Traits that can be embedded in the psyche of children that will benefit them growing up. That is the greatest gift we could ask for.

The 99

Although in essence these characters are modeled after Islamic virtues, these virtues can be interpreted by all in the framework of their own religion or beliefs. Hence, it is more a moral compass than an advertisement for Islam. A call for understanding that behind all our differences we are similar. What some call Karma is referred to in Islam as كما تدين تدان (as you do onto others, they shall do onto you), fate is called قدر (Qadar). It is simply a matter of two sides of the same coin.

The characters have stepped out of the comic pages and onto the screen as animated series, and who knows? Maybe a few short years down the line Kuwait will be casting locals for parts in the feature film of “The 99“.

The Arab World now has superheroes, in a time when we need them most, to remind us to be proud of who we are.

And for that, Dr. Naif deserves a standing ovation, for making us M.A.Ps (Muslim And Proud) and for building the bridges that connected the gaps between fantasy, creativity, imagination and reality.

Superheroes can be a great source of education, if we have the ability to listen to and accept these teachings.

August 2011 ( View complete archive page )

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