Naif al-Mutawa was in a London taxi with his sister when she asked when he'd go back to writing children's books. Mr. Mutawa, a Kuwaiti psychologist with two doctorates and an MBA from Columbia University, said the question sparked a chain of thoughts:
To go back to writing after all that education, it would have to be something big, something with the potential of Pokémon, the Japanese cartoon that was briefly banned by Saudi religious authorities.
God would have been disappointed by that, he thought; God has 99 attributes, or names, including tolerance. "And then the idea formed in my mind," Mutawa said. "Heroes with the 99 attributes."
He mixed his deep religious faith, business acumen, and firsthand experience with other cultures to create The 99, a comic-book series about superheroes imbued with the 99 attributes of God. Those traits represent one of Islam's most recognizable concepts.
Mutawa's superheroes are modern, secular and spiritual, moving seamlessly between East and West. They come from 99 countries and are split between males and females. They include Darr the Afflicter, an American paraplegic who manipulates nerve endings to transmit or prevent pain. Noora the Light – a university student from the United Arab Emirates – shows people the light and dark inside themselves. They distribute aid to starving Afghan villagers and battle elephant poachers in Africa.
In November 2006, Mutawa's first comic book hit the newsstands.
Since then, his creation has gained many fans but also faced a rumble of criticism across the Muslim world. Some have disapproved of heroines' makeup and tight clothing. Others view the personification of God's attributes as blasphemous.
Mutawa acknowledges he did not consult a cleric before creating the series. "We should not allow a very limited number of people to tell us how to practice our religion. An Islam where I can be an active participant is the only Islam I can belong to. I believe in Islam and I also believe in evolution," he said.
Over the past year, he has given dozens of lectures around the world, focused on pushing an Islam at odds with no one.
"We shouldn't be fighting globalization," he told a crowd in Indonesia at the launch of the series there last year. "We should be participating in it by putting our own ideas out there."
Worldwide sales of the comic in English and Arabic have yet to exceed 30,000 copies a month, but Mutawa has been inundated with licensing offers. A deal for an animated series by a European company is in the works, Mutawa said.
When Mutawa recently visited a class at the American University of Kuwait, a young student in a black head scarf and makeup told him she was shocked by a scene in which Noora the Light said she was going to go pray to God, even though her hair was not covered.
"Why?" Mutawa asked. "Do you think only people who wear the hijab ask God for help? There isn't just one way to be Muslim. There are at least 99 different ways to be Muslim."