Journalists & Media: Why I based superheroes on Islam

Posted in Best practices | 03-Jul-09 | Author: Baba Naif

The 99
The superhero characters battle injustice and fight evil

The creator of a bestselling comic designed to show the world the tolerant and peaceful face of Islam has written an open letter to his young sons explaining how the project grew out of 9/11.In the letter, written for the BBC News website, Kuwaiti psychologist Dr Naif al-Mutawa, says his superheroes - inspired by the Koran and known as THE 99 - were designed to "take back Islam" from militants who had taken it hostage.

The comics, which now sell about one million copies a year in several languages, are soon to be made into an animated film by Dutch media company Endemol.
Early last year, Forbes magazine announced THE 99 were one of the 20 top pop culture trends sweeping the world.

My Dear Sons,
Today is 2 July 2009, and if global statistics are correct, I have already lived the first half of my life. Life is short. That is why it pains me when I am away from you.

Few things are as important as your future, but your future is tied to that of every other young child. I am writing with the hope that one day you will forgive me for leaving you as often as I do.

The 99
  • Each of the superheroes, 99 in all, is based on one of the 99 attributes of Allah in the Koran - everything from wisdom to generosity - though they come from a variety of countries, and have different physical characteristics
  • None of them prays or reads the Koran, as they are meant to have equal appeal to children of all faiths
  • The stories hark back to the 1258 Mongol invasion of Baghdad that left the city in ruins and the books from its great library lying in the Tigris river
  • In Dr Mutawa's vision, some librarians escape and place special stones in the river to suck up wisdom otherwise lost
  • Centuries later, the 99 stones are found in different corners of the world by heroes from 99 countries, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Portugal, Hungary and Indonesia
  • Hamad, when you were born in 1997, I wrote the third book in a series that was recognised by Unesco. The series was about reconciling tradition with modernity. Those who were threatened by it banned it. I quit writing at the age of 27.

    Faisal, when you were born in 2000, I was treating survivors of political torture. I worked with disappointed children trapped in the minds of men who grew up to idolise a leader, to see that leader as a hero and then be tortured by him. I started to think very seriously about whom your heroes were going to be.

    Khalid, you were born in New York City, shortly after 9/11. I had already made a decision that I needed to find a way to take back Islam from its hostage takers, but I did not known how. The answer was staring me in the face. It was a simple, and as difficult, as the multiplication of 9 by 11: 99.

    So, at the age of 32, I uncapped my pen to create a concept that could be popular in the East and the West. I would go back to the very sources from which others took violent and hateful messages and offer messages of tolerance and peace in their place. I would give my heroes a Trojan horse in the form of THE 99. Islam was my Helen. I wanted her back.

    THE 99 references the 99 attributes of Allah - generosity, mercy, wisdom and dozens of others not used to describe Islam in the media when you were growing up. But if I am successful, by the time you read this, you will not believe that such an era could have ever existed.

    The powers of THE 99 come from the books of the great Dar al-Hikma library of Baghdad, which was sacked in 1258. The books were from all the world's cultures and religions. A secret plan leads to saving that knowledge onto 99 gemstones that are later scattered throughout the world. These stones fuel THE 99 heroes who are boys and girls from 99 countries.

    Rayan, you were born in January 2006 in the midst of the Danish Cartoon Controversy, which coincided with a positive review of THE 99 in the New York Times. The timing was fateful. Eighteen months earlier, 54 investors from eight countries, representing various religions, committed to invest in THE 99. Their support was humbling. That same year, THE 99 stories appeared as a comic in the Middle East, which led to its being licensed into several languages as far and wide as North Africa, France, Indonesia, South Asia, Spain and the UK.

    Baba Naif
    "Knowing that children will learn vicariously from THE 99 to be tolerant of all who believe in doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, makes me very proud"

    Rakan, by the time you were born in 2009, a lot had changed. By seeking the blessing of an Islamic Investment Bank, we were allowed into the most conservative places on the planet. Places that were resistant to THE 99 opened up their markets to them and supported our work. And THE 99 has spread like wildfire.

    The year 2009 also witnessed the launch of THE 99 village Theme Park in Kuwait. Seeing your brothers on rides that bear THE 99 artwork brought tears to my eyes. It has been hard work but knowing that children will learn vicariously from THE 99 to be tolerant of all who believe in doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, that, my son, makes me very proud.

    By your first birthday, the world will witness THE 99 animated series. Achieving that milestone means that we have achieved our mission of creating globally resonant characters and storylines. In so doing, THE 99 has become the first licensed entertainment property from the Islamic World.

    I told the writers of the animation that only when Jewish kids think that THE 99 characters are Jewish, and Christian kids think they're Christian, and Muslim kids think they're Muslim, and Hindu kids think they're Hindu, that I will consider my vision as having been fully executed.

    Noora (truth seer), Wassi and Jabbar (the powerful)
    Noora (truth seer), Wassi and Jabbar (the powerful): Copyright all pictures, the Teshkeel Media Group

    But my sons, perhaps the most valuable lesson that I want to pass on to you is that THE 99 is only as successful as its partnerships. Without them, we will only be as loud as the sound of one hand clapping. We are off to a good start, but this is just the beginning and I hope that my absences from your lives to spread my message continue to glean great results.

    So again, I apologise, but know this: Only a father's love could have created THE 99.

    THE 99