Until she was kidnapped, Dana Ibrahim was an average 18-year-old living in the United Arab Emirates, attending university and hanging out with her friends. Then she was thrown into a dark hole in the earth and held hostage. Burrowing through the dirt to escape, she fell upon a box containing a precious gemstone. But this was not just any jewel; it was one of 99 magical Noor Stones that contain the light of ancient wisdom and give those who possess them superpowers never before seen. Dana's stone gave her the ability to see the light of truth in others. By learning to tame its power, Dana becomes Noora—the light to overcome darkness.
Sound like a typical comic book? It is—except that Dana's character is part of the first graphic-novel series starring superheroes gifted with Muslim traits and virtues. "The 99" tells the story of 99 heroes scattered throughout the world, each of whom holds one of the 99 attributes Muslims assign to Allah. Noora "the Light" must unite with her fellow superheroes—including Jami "the Assembler," Jabbar "the Powerful" and Bari "the Healer"—to fight evil. The central struggle is between Dr. Ramzi (the good guy) and Rughal (the villain), who have competing views about the right way to channel the incredible powers of the 99.
Naif Al-Mutawa, the fast-talking Kuwaiti who launched "The 99" in the Arab world last summer and plans to bring it to the United States this spring, seems to be treading on dangerous ground. Last year the publication of Danish cartoons depicting provocative images of the Prophet Muhammad ignited outbursts of violent anger in the Muslim world. But Al-Mutawa insists he is careful on several points. The comics don't show any image purporting to be Allah or Muhammad (though in traditional Islam, representing any human being is considered irreligious and thus taboo). More important, they are praising Islamic virtues, not parodying the faith as the Danish cartoons did. " 'The 99' captures what is happening in this part of the world," says Al-Mutawa. Though the characters are not exactly religious, their power "is just like religion; it can be used for good or for bad." The problem with the villains, who are also Muslim, says Al-Mutawa, is not their faith but how they use it.
Al-Mutawa's claims that the comics are nonreligious seem a bit farfetched. In fact, "The 99" has developed close ties to religious authorities. Financing for the project was led by the Unicorn Islamic Investment Bank in Bahrain, which has a Sharia board of conservative religious scholars who approved "The 99" for Islamic au-diences. Indeed, Al-Mutawa says he has won the support of imams from Kuwait to Bosnia. " 'The 99' seems very partisan," says Gilles Ratier, general secretary of the Association of Comic Book Critics and Journalists in France, who notes that religion as an archetype is familiar in graphic novels. Western-style comics like "Batman," "Superman" and "Spider-Man" have clear Judeo-Christian religious references, while Japanese-style anime refers to Buddhism and other Asian religions.
Will today's young Muslims identify with the Pan-Islamic heroes? So far, between 16,000 and 20,000 copies of each issue—published in both English and Arabic—are distributed in the Middle East, North Africa and a few minuscule markets in Asia and Europe. "These are tremendously exciting [sales figures], as they have matched the performance of our [Arabic-language] 'Spider-Man' and 'Fantastic Four' titles in the region," says Sven Larsen, chief operating officer for the Teshkeel Media Group, a Kuwaiti holding company founded by Al-Mutawa in July 2004. "Believe it or not, we sell 50 copies in Taiwan each month."
They may face a bigger challenge in America, where Al-Mutawa hopes the series can serve as a bridge between Western and conservative Islamic forces. "The 99 are internal and external ambassadors," he says. "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."
At the same time, "The 99" offers kids in the Middle East heroes who look like them and fills a role-model void in the region. Al-Mutawa believes that if young Muslims are not given an alternative, they will gravitate toward the glorification of fundamentalist violence. "This is not what I would want for my sons," says the father of four. "Kids and adults alike need heroes. It is something innate in all humans." Just as Dana's powers allow her to see the light in others, Al-Mutawa's hope is that "The 99" will help the world see Islam in a new light.