Sufi Comics now share Islamic stories with the world
NEW DELHI // It started as a simple blog by two brothers in Bangalore who wanted to share their interests with family and friends.
"So that's when we thought: Why not the stories we learnt in our madrasa?" recalls Mohammed Ari Vakil, 30.
That was the genesis of Sufi Comics, a webcomic series illustrating the traditional stories of Islam that, in the past three years, has been translated into eight languages, spawned two books and, this year, sent Ari and Mohammed Arif Vakil to Comic-Con San Diego, the comic book industry's largest gathering worldwide.
The first book, 40 Sufi Comics, has sold more than 5,000 copies since 2010 and has found readers as far afield as Australia, Europe and the United States. It will soon be part of the University of Washington's curriculum in a course on Islam and pop culture.
The second book, The Wise Fool of Baghdad, published in October has sold out its first print run of 1,000 copies, with another commissioned.
The brothers lived with their family in Dubai, where their father ran a real-estate business until 2002, when the family returned to India. For most of their time in Dubai, the brothers had attended the Madrasa Al Mohammadiya in Satwa - initially daily, and later twice a week.
"Those were definitely the golden years of our childhood," Arif, 34, said. "They really helped shape our philosophy, and so we thought immediately of the stories we had heard at the madrasa, the friends we made, the teachers we had and how they would make classes so much fun."
Part of the brothers' motivation in starting these comics - which tell stories and parables from the Quran and the Hadith - was also the fallout from the September 2001 attacks on the United States.
"After 9/11, the term 'madrasa' has really been maligned a lot," Arif said. "That pained us, and we wanted to show what kind of madrasa we had been brought up in. But primarily, we just wanted to share these stories with the world. We used to read [the Indian comic books] Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle, and it is the same legacy we are trying to carry forward."
About the same time, Ali was teaching himself to draw, sketching first by hand and then on a Toshiba laptop with a screen that supported stylus art.
One of his biggest influences, Ali said, was the American cartoonist Scott McCloud, who launched his first webcomic in 1998 and has written several books about comics. Ali's web-comic sketches share McCloud's clean, bold lines, his regular rectangular panels and distinctive use of white space.
"The challenge in this was that sometimes the story is a bit abstract," Ali said. "Sometimes we even took a quote and render that in comic format. So for example, we worked with one quote from a Hadith that said: 'Where is God's treasure?' That's very abstract."
Ali also came up with innovative ways to work around the prohibitions concerning depicting the Prophet.
"There's one story where the Prophet has a conversation with somebody who asks him: 'Who has greater right over me? My mother or my father?'" Ali said. "So we did it such that we never show the Prophet, but rather the entire comic is drawn through his eyes. You're looking at this person through the eyes of the Prophet."
Readers volunteered to translate their web comics into Norwegian, Russian, Spanish and Indonesian, Arif said.
The Tamil translator of Sufi Comics is Uma Satish, a Hindu. Living in Bangalore, Ms Satish works for a financial services company. She stumbled onto Sufi Comics because her husband frequented Arif and Ali's blog. Soon she became an avid reader.
"I thought the comics had a universal appeal. They were something I could share with my nephew but also my father," Ms Satish said. "And we don't usually associate comics with moral science, so this was a new format."
Initially, when the brothers suggested that Ms Satish translate the comics into Tamil, she demurred, because she thought the task would require somebody well-versed in Islam.
"But one of the reasons that made me take it up was that I thought the comics really cut across religions," she said. "The format and style and stories of the comics brought out the moderate side of Islam, which you don't often see in the media."
"There's so much in these stories, in fact, that is common to other religions, including Hinduism," Ms Satish said. "That's why I thought it was worth sharing with many more people."