This past Saturday I had the opportunity to connect with Adil Imtiaz, one half of the two sibling team responsible for the comic book BURAAQ, which stars a Muslim superhero. While he was the illustrator starting out he shared, and continues to share, creative responsibilities with his brother Kamil, and was more than happy to talk to me a little bit more about how this project came to be and why.
Ms. Marvel, as you may have guessed, came up in conversation, and I ended up learning a few things about Islam that I didn’t originally know.
Throughout our talk it was clear that this character and all he presents is a passion for Adil, and that he believes it can, and has done, good things for Muslim youth.
After thanking him for finding the time to speak with me about his work we got right down to questions and answers, the latter of which he was very ready to provide.
Evan: Now I can’t wait to get into talking about BURAAQ, but before we get there would you like to say a few words about yourself?
Adil: Adil Imtiaz is my name. I’m an IT professional, just so you know. And I came here from Pakistan back in 1990; me and my brother and my family. So we’re here with our families and that’s pretty much it as far as my background is concerned.
Evan: Would you say that your interest in comic books began at a very young age?
Adil: Absolutely. Even in Pakistan as kids, my brother and I used to have a stack of comic books by our bedside. Every night we used to read Marvel, DC, superhero stories. We were, and still are, fascinated with sci-fi and superhero stories and characters.
And movies, of course. Hollywood as you can see is all about superhero films. And we used to draw comics and superhero characters as kids. I got sidetracked when I had to focus on higher education, pursuing a career. I had to put it on the back burner so to speak.
Evan: In the PDF I was given to review you and your brother’s mission was very clearly stated, and I’m just going to reiterate it for all my readers:
- To provide a clean, fun (halal) and positive entertainment media alternative for our Muslim youth.
- Reconnect our Muslim youth to Islam and make them feel proud to be a Muslim.
- Enable interfaith dialogue and increase positive Islamic awareness.
- Our principles are based on the Quran, Islamic values, and the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
How long this been in the works? It seems particularly relevant now given recent events in North Carolina [with what I’m going to call a hate crime]-
Adil: Well, no, actually. This is something, the idea was born back in 2009 actually. Especially after 9/11 things changed in the US. And in the media, traditionally, Arabs and Muslims have been portrayed in a negative light in Hollywood, but after 9/11 things really picked up steam; a bunch of crazy people around the world who claim to be Muslims and other agencies at play, not to get into politics…
To get to the point we felt like we needed a Muslim superhero character who kids could look up to and relate to. Everyone loves Superman, Batman, Spider-Man; we loved them as kids and even love them now as adults.
But there was this vacuum. Sitting in a movie theatre or even standing in line to get in I always wished for a Muslim hero or a movie that portrayed Muslims positively, not as sidekicks or villains. So I thought the best way to express ourselves would be through a comic book series.
The first issue came out in 2011, followed by the second issue midway through the same year. Today there’s five issues. Doing this part-time it took a lot of hard work in what free time we had available. It’s a passion of course, and Kamil and I would come up with stories on our own, what to focus on and stay away from.
Evan: Tell us about Buraaq, both the character and the comic he stars in.
Adil: The idea was to have a main character. Of course you have the X-Men and the Avengers, but we thought that maybe we should start with one main character people could relate to and follow instead of a huge group of characters.
So Buraaq is basically Yusuf Abdullah. A young American like any other American. As Buraaq he’s in his early 30s, but growing up in Arizona his father is a Muslim and his mother is a revert [Adil explained later that a “revert” is a Muslim convert, someone who has turned to their natural disposition to worship God -Evan].
Evan: So he’s mixed race?
Adil: Well yes, we never explicitly say where his father is from, but yes. Probably from one of the Arab countries or Turkey or something.
He gets caught in this cosmic event one night after his parents have been killed in a hate crime. He’s devastated and goes out on a desert night and there’s this cosmic event and a storm and a meteor shower. So there’s a combination of these two events and he gets struck and knocked out. He then goes through this transformation on a molecular level.
Then slowly but surely he gains these new powers, an origin just like any other superhero story. He also rediscovers his identity as a Muslim along the way. Growing up as a teen he got lost, wasn’t sure who he was, rebelled against his parents, and was influenced by others around him. After losing his parents he has a spiritual awakening, a reconnection with God.
Now his civilian identity is a young man in his 30s who runs a relief organization. He has friends from all backgrounds: Christian, Jewish, etc. The idea was to show a group of young people standing up for truth, justice, and good causes. You add to that mystery, action, and adventure and you have all the elements that a superhero story needs. Also taking on your conventional superpowered villains and the bad guys.
Evan: As someone who was raised in a Christian subculture, and a religious person myself, there’s often been the observation that art created within that sphere is very often lesser than secular work of the same sort.
Are you concerned that people may view BURAAQ as being overly preachy, or as mentioned not taken seriously by virtue of being a work being created with religion in mind?
Adil: There’s this whole idea, how people will assume that anything secular is “neutral”. Like, being secular means you’re not pushing your ideas on anyone, which is very far from the truth. Any Hollywood movie will have a line ridiculing God or religion in general-
The idea that the world was created by accident, there’s no God or right or wrong, etc. These messages are seen in movies over and over again, in children’s cartoons or films for older audiences.
If you go 50, 60 years back you had movies like The Ten Commandments, cleaner movies with purer messages. Now you have stuff like Exodus [: Gods and Kings] or Noah that leave you scratching your head. It’s like they’re trying to intentionally confuse the masses. So why not bring God back into quote unquote “entertainment”.
I was aware of that mentality, obviously. As soon as people see God or religion they back off. We want to change that mentality. Why does the default have to be secular? Who made that decision?
Evan: On that same note, ideally you want BURAAQ to appeal to everyone and not just Muslim youth (though of course they are one of your target audiences). What steps are you taking to accomplish this?
Adil: Like you said our main audience for this story was always Muslim youth. There are so few characters now that they can relate to. What we’re doing is we’re not trying to preach or give a sermon or talk about religious laws. This is a regular superhero story with action, fun, and adventure.
But our hero is a practicing Muslim. Elsewhere you’ll see a guy walking into a bar and drinking, smoking, he’s cool. Just a tough guy. In the same fashion this guy prays to God and reads the Quran. It’s more subtle and not in your face. There’s nothing to make you think these guys are out to preach.
Evan: Are you aware of Ms. Marvel? I’ve been reviewing every issue as it comes out monthly. It’s the publisher’s best-selling title digitally and has become very popular.
Adil: Absolutely. I read the first one or two issues myself.
Evan: What would you say they’re doing right?
Adil: It connects with kids or teens who are in that situation where they’re from diverse backgrounds or have parents who have “different” religions. People going through that experience will connect with that story.
It’s a very good picture they paint. My only objection, the only thing I’m not such a fan of, is that they show a girl who’s very confused with her identity; she’s not sure about her religion. Yes, she listens to her parents, but she’s not always sure why the rules are there. Obviously she goes through high school life with all of its distractions and temptations-There’s this scene I remember with bacon, which is counter-effective from a Muslim perspective. Overall from my perspective it’s this same narrative where teenagers are confused, not sure if they’re on the right track or not.
Our idea was a bit different from that. We wanted to provide a character who was very confident in his or her identity. He knows what his identity is, he’s not in discovery mode.
And that’s where the problems start. There are so many teenagers who are in this tough situation. Not sure what to do, their parents have expectations, they’re in high school, they see so many alternatives in the world – is there a compromise?
I think for Muslim youth we need someone that’s more confident and more clear in their thinking as to what’s right and wrong.
I understand that this sort of thing happens every day, and that’s fine, that’s one aspect and it clicks with kids going through this confusion, whatever you want to call it- religious upbringing and secular world. I do believe however that there’s a place for someone that they can look up to, someone confident in their identity.
Evan: Given that one of the criticisms Islam faces as a religion is its treatment of women, will there be prominent female characters in this comic? I know that there is one named Becky, but she doesn’t get any lines and isn’t included on the cast page.
Adil: That’s when we first started out. Over the years we kept changing the story, adding more characters. We have recently introduced a strong female character named Imaan who’s a city attorney. You can go to our Facebook page and see her profile there as well.
Not sure if it was mentioned to you, but on Monday [that’s today! -Evan] we’re relaunching our crowdfunding campaign. Our goal is to raise funds for a high quality 3D animated series featuring our character.
Evan: I’ll be sure to add links for anyone interested. On that note, what would you say to convince all of our readers to not only pick up an issue, but support your venture?
Adil: What I would say is that as a parent of two kids myself I see a lot of content on regular TV and in theatres that, at least from my perspective, is very disturbing.
Over the past couple of years there’s been a lot of content, on Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, a lot of weird cartoons with strange ideas and dark humour; you don’t want your kids watching this stuff.
I’ve been watching Justice League and Avengers and even those cartoons have those adult themes in them, they’re not appropriate for kids. If you look at a lot of supeheroines their dresses are kind of like soft porn.
So I guess my message would be for everyone out there, parents, teens, whatever. What we’re trying to do is come up with storylines that are clean, halal, no obscenity or sexual themes, no vulgarity even if it’s subtle – just pure fun entertainment.
The hero is a practicing Muslim but everyone can watch it. Islam promotes universal values in all religions: justice, peace, standing up for the weak and the truth. We’re not preaching anything, just telling a superhero story with action and adventure.
An adult can watch it on their own or with their family. It’s a show I’d feel comfortable letting my kids watch by themselves.
Evan: This is a little bit more of a topical question, but given one of the goals of your work how long do you think it will be before we see an end to Islamophobia?
Adil: Unfortunately, and don’t’ want to sound like a pessimist, I think it’s going to get worse. Simply because of the political situation around the world, the different agencies involved. I don’t think we’ll see an end in the near future. Especially with this abomination in Iraq called ISIS. It’s really pathetic, that’s all I can say.
But this is something that’s been going on for a while now and I think, unfortunately, it’s only going to rise given the current situation.
Evan: To end things on somewhat of a lighter note, do you feel like we need more superheroes with beards?
Adil: Yeah, I think so.
Our hero has facial hair because he’s following the way of the last prophet, peace be upon him. He had a beard, like all the prophets, Jesus and Moses included. It’s the way people used to be more recently as well, in the late 19th century everyone had a big beard.
That’s why we wanted him to have a beard. It would be great to see more heroes with beards.
Evan: Superman actually has a beard now, in DC’s Action Comics.
Adil: Is it trimmed?
Evan: It’s not trimmed, no. I mean, it’s not shaggy, but it’s certainly not short.
Adil: Good, that’s a good change.
Unfortunately we had to bring our interview to a close for the sake of time, but hopefully were able to add to the discourse about religion and its place in art and entertainment before it ended. As mentioned, below are the appropriate links to find out more about BURAAQ and Split Moon Arts, the company the Imtiaz’s created to publish the character. The first and second issues are available as a free download, so if you’d like to check it for yourself before choosing to support their venture it won’t cost you a cent! [EDIT: Also check out the animated promo below the links!]