The 99 is based on the values that Muslims share with humanity – the 99 attributes of Allah in the Qur’an
There must have been a point, perhaps around the 2009mark, when Naif Al Mutawa thought he was on to a winner. His Islamic superhero comic creation, The 99, was being sold worldwide, his face was on the cover of Forbes and his stor was nding column inches in Time,
Newsweek and more. Then came the fatwa. The Islamic characters made their debut in 2006, with comic books printed in both Arabic and English sold across the region, earning Al Mutawa praise from both Dubai’s ruling family and Barack Obama. An animated TV show followed, lasting two seasons, shown in the GCC and internationally; a theme park opened in Kuwait; and there was even a successful partnership with DC Comics where The 99 teamed up with Batman, Superman and the rest of the ustice eague to ght crime. And this was where the problems began.
“I’m actually being sued in Kuwait at the moment,” he reveals. “A case has been brought against me for insulting religion. This isn’t something that has come from the government – in fact, the government has spoken very highly of my work in the past and has just asked me to be part of an investment committee that will support local start-ups. But they have to take the case seriously, so I’m talking with them about that too. These are the two extremes of my world.”
There are other examples of where his work has split opinion. ix years after the comic rst appeared in audi and one month after the TV series had officially nished, a fatwa (Islamic ruling) was issued by Saudi Arabia, calling The 99 “evil” – which Al Mutawa responded to in an open letter in the The National newspaper, pointing out that the comic book had originally been supported by the country and the TV show screened there for two years. Then on the flipside, back in anuary, he was honoured at the Islamic Economy Awards in Dubai for his services to media. It is a dif cult situation, and one that became unsettling for his investors. “They were concerned, and rightfully so,” Al Mutawa admits.
And so to hiding. No new material featuring The 99 has been produced since 2013. Rather than comic books and animation, Al Mutawa has actually spent the time concentrating on psychology practice in Kuwait. But he felt even that might suffer when a threat towards him on social media last summer made international news. “I had a death threat from the Islamic State,” he says. “It was a stressful for obvious reasons, but I was worried for my business too – who wants to see a psychologist who is receiving death threats if you have issues yourself?”
So why might so many take issue with him? Al Mutawa insists that his intentions have only ever been noble, to show Islam in a positive light. “The 99 is based on the values that Muslims share with humanity – the 99 attributes of Allah in the Qur’an,” he explains. “So things like generosity, strength, honesty and mercy, just basic human values. In my story, each of these values has been captured inside a gemstone at some point in the past, scattered across the world, with young people developing powers that relate to the one they have found.”
While the premise may have links to religion, Al Mutawa insists that the adventures and views of the characters never did, and instead the message was about teamwork and the acceptance of those from other backgrounds. “Jabbar from Saudi Arabia has the gemstone for strength, so he is the one with the muscles,” he says. “You might assume he is a Muslim because of where he is from, so it’s a safe assumption, but we never mentioned it. It’s no more religious than some of the Marvel and DC characters already out there. For example, when I rst had the idea, I was
introduced to [legendary comic book artist] Neal Adams. He asked me if I knew what ‘Shazam’ stands for – it’s the magic word that Captain Marvel shouts to use his powers. I said no, and he explained it was an acronym, with each letter being the name of a Greek god – Solomon, Hercules, and so on. I thought it was interesting and wondered if I could apply that thinking to the Qur’an.”
Even Avengers: Age of Ultron features a character with religious connections in Thor, the god of thunder from Norse mythology. But in bringing his characters to the US to launch the TV series and team up with the Justice League, and then to be praised publicly by Obama, well, that, Al Mutawa believes, may have been the turning point. “I felt like I was suddenly in the middle,” he says. “Americans were saying I was trying to radicalise their children, while back home I was being called a heretic and pro-American. What do you do?”
At least the arrival of Islamic superheroes to the States may have inspired Marvel and DC to launch their own Muslim characters in recent years, such as Ms Marvel and a new Green Lantern (see the box below), which for Al Mutawa is a positive sign. “We need more good guys out there than bad, and a lot of the time the West thinks we’re the bad guys,” he adds. “We managed to put positive Saudi and Iranian characters on TV in America, which had never been done before.”
To use another comic book analogy, Dr Al Mutawa is very similar to Spider-Man – trying to be a hero but forever misunderstood, particularly by the media. Recently it was announced that Spider-Man is to appear in the next Avengers movie. Perhaps like him, Al Mutawa is due something of a break.