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Al-Mutawa On Art As A Language

For The Heights

Published: Thursday, October 25, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

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Daniel Lee / Heights Editor

Most Boston College students would not know much about comic book superheroes based on Islamic archetypes—but last night’s lecture by Naif Al-Mutawa would not have been any less meaningful as a result.

 Al-Mutawa, founder and CEO of Teshkeel Media Group and creator of THE 99—the first group of comic superheroes born of an Islamic archetype—came to BC for a discussion of his career in art.

THE 99 has received positive attention from the world’s media. Recently, Forbes named THE 99 as one of the top 20 trends sweeping the globe and even more recently, U.S. President Barack Obama praised  Al-Mutawa and THE 99 as one of the most innovative of the thousands of new entrepreneurs viewed by his Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship.

Al-Mutawa began his presentation outlining the evolution of art and its place in society. “For a long time, even in the Christian world, art and religion were one,”  Al-Mutawa said. “And that’s why the Reformation led to the Renaissance—for the first time, art was inspired by religion but wasn’t of religion itself.”

He clarified his main point that art is indeed a language, and throughout history the language of religion has been kept from evolving with society. With the passing of time, people have gradually come to comprehend a vernacular greatly at odds with the language religion intended for us to understand. “The language of the Koran and of the Bible was miracles,” he said. “Today, kids don’t even think in the language they speak versus what they write in. It is a big problem in the Muslim world that 80 percent of Muslims pray in a language they don’t understand.”

His THE 99 comic book series began as an opportunity for Al-Mutawa to “get closer to Islam in his own way.” The storyline is based on the sacking of 13th-century Baghdad and the burning of that Islamic empire’s library, which at the time was the largest repository of knowledge in the world.

He told his audience that the same part of the brain is stimulated when we learn by doing something or through engaging in media. Operating under this notion, he has set out to create a comic series that subconsciously interacts with kids’ perceptions of diversity, unity, cooperation, and multiculturalism. Nowhere in his stories is religion explicitly mentioned, and he includes characters from over 99 different nations that aim to communicate Islamic virtues universal in nature. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or boy... all that matters is the power you have and whether you can help with the problems today,” he said. “This is not about the past or present, but about the future.”

Networks around the world have picked up the comic strip and now broadcast a TV series based on the strip. It still has to overcome significant censorship issues, however. Censors in Saudi Arabia have refused to publish the comics, charging that they use “un-Islamic” content. The U.S. has also presented its share of hurdles to broadcasting, and big-name sponsors such as Lowes have often had difficulty endorsing the series.

 Al-Mutawa hopes to break down some of the linguistic barriers between the Western and Muslim worlds. “Although they are separate cultures, both religions ultimately embrace the same values,” he said. “When we encounter something new, we try to put that experience into an existing scheme. We become lazy. My goal is to open up our minds to something new.”

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