For superhero enthusiasts, The 99 comic series presents yet another opportunity to join in the adventures – metaphorically speaking – of larger than life conquerors of evil. For the whole world, however, The 99 presents an unprecedented opportunity to understand and appreciate the religion of Islam.
Inspired by the 99 attributes of Allah (God), Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa created The 99 largely in response to growing anti-Islam sentiment in the last decade. Instead of devolving into a state of Islamophobia, Dr. Al-Mutawa wanted the world, especially in the wake of the September 11 attacks, to start viewing Islam as a religion that espouses benevolent heroism instead of terrorism and violence.
In line with previous superhero comic books, The 99 follows the lives of 99 seemingly ordinary individuals from different parts of the world. Each one, however, becomes endowed with the ability to embody one of the 99 attributes of Allah through gemstones that fortuitously fall into their possession. Nawaf Al Bilali, for example, was just another Saudi Arabian teenager until he stepped on a landmine whose explosion embeds shards of a hidden gem into his skin. Afterward, he becomes inexplicably powerful and is renamed Jabbar the Strong. Other characters include Noora the Light, Fattah the Opener and Widad the Loving.
According to myth, the gems originated in the city of Baghdad centuries ago. At the time, Baghdad was the world’s undisputed seat of knowledge and learning. A Mongol raid led by Hulagu Khan, however, compelled the Caliph of the city and the librarians of the Dar al-Hikma Library to absorb all the city’s knowledge into magical Noor Stones, which they whisked away to Andalusia – a fortress of knowledge. Unfortunately, one of Andalusia’s caretakers, Rughal, tried to use the gems to make himself powerful. His failed attempt led to the complete incineration of Andalusia. Fortunately, the other caretakers managed to salvage the Noor stones from the remains of the building. To prevent such an event from reoccurring, the Noor Stones were scattered throughout the world, each one lying in wait for a person worthy to wield its power.
Unfortunately, those who find themselves in possession of the Stones do not always use them for benign purposes. Just as other superheroes battle not just with villains but also with their own weaknesses – i.e. the Hulk and his rage – each of the 99 have to face the difficult task of discerning the path of good from the path of evil. In other words, The 99 is not merely a fictionalized rendition of tenets of Islam but an insightful microcosm of our lives; that is, The 99 teaches us that it takes a lot of willpower to be best person we can be. After all, it is much easier to not even try.
Despite being dubbed by some as “a Comic inspired by Values,” the biggest issue concerning The 99 is not the degree to which it inspires moral living among its young readership. Instead, critics and supporters alike should seriously consider the effect a religiously inspired comic series will have on the message of as ancient a religion as Islam. When trying to bridge culture through media, there is always the risk of diluting one’s beliefs for the sake of political correctness and of course, profit margins.
Already, The 99 is receiving severe opposition from conservative elements in the Islamic community. In Saudi Arabia, publication and dissemination of the comic series is prohibited and in Kuwait, an accentuated divide has developed between progressive Muslims and adherers to fundamental Islam. While the liberal side – elementary kids included – has praised The 99 for showing a benevolent side of Islam, fundamentalists fear that younger generations will learn to look up to fictitious superheroes instead of Allah himself. Others are simply worried that the action in the series will only affirm popular belief that Islam espouses violence.
Despite sparking controversy, The 99 will go a long way in showing people, especially from the West, that the Muslim World is both open-minded and subject to the same admiration of heroic characters. As one female student at Kuwait University put it, “We understand the West because we have been forced to live in a world dominated by it. The people in the West are only just beginning to learn about us.” For this reason, The 99 is all the more valuable not so much as a canvas that provides the most accurate picture of Islam but as a means to quell fears that Islam cannot co-exist with the rest of the world.