Monday, June 29, 2015

Sufi Comics

Islam 101: The rise of Sufi Comics

Sunday, 21 June 2015
    rothers Arif and Ali Vakil are making the religion accessible not only to Muslims but to people of all faiths across the world. Marisha Karwa reports
  • Ali and Arif Wakil
Mohammed Ali Vakil doesn't put it this way, but it all started with an algorithm. Had it not been for an "Amazon suggestion," perhaps Ali would not have come across Michael J. Gelb's How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. For it was after reading this book that Ali took to drawing, and eventually turned the "pastime" into what is now a pet project for himself and elder brother Arif — Sufi Comics.
When he was toying with the idea of doing something concrete with his sketches back in 2009, two childhood memories stood out in Ali and Arif's minds: the staple diet of comics, including Tinkle, that they consumed and the numerous faith stories they had learnt at their local madrasa in Dubai. This is what prompted the now-Bangalore-based bloggers, who work full-time in the family's construction business, to do a "visual blog post" re-telling one of the stories from their faith.Six years after that first black-and-white strip, Arif and Ali's passion for spirituality and comics has manifested into fortnightly web comics that cover wide ground, including forgiveness, cultivating inner peace, how to do business, how to pray and anecdotes on the creator, existence and contemplation. Somewhere along the journey, the brothers added colour to the comics, imbibed calligraphy and Turkish and Persian motifs, published three comic books — 40 Sufi Comics(2011), The Wise Fool of Baghdad (2012) and Rumi (2014) — participated in numerous Comic Con events across India, brought out e-book versions for Kindle and roped in other artist-collaborators, including art teacher Rahil Mohsin. "The content," says 36-year-old Arif, "is in the context of Islam but the message is religion-agnostic. People from any religion and even those who don't follow a religion will find it endearing."
The wise fool of Baghdad
Arif's words appear modest given the vast fan following Sufi Comics garners on social media from a cross-section of readers. Reviews on e-commerce platforms for their books too overflow with munificence approval. Sample this, for instance, by an online reviewer identified as D. Beatty, "... The format and nature of the content also makes it a prime candidate for regular re-reading because there is always something more to learn or improvement to be made in its application, and the comics are so brief and clever that they will not become mundane or boring when seen multiple times."
A panel from 'The wise fool of Baghdad'
The panels of Sufi Comics are deliberately writ with humour, philosophy and charm, but what is most conspicuous is the faceless depiction of religious figures in keeping with Islamic principles, and the frequent quotations of Quranic verses. The quotations, informs 33-year-old Ali, a qualified chartered accountant, serve two purposes. He points out that the foundation of the faith is in the Quran, and so it is central to understanding Islam in all its dimensions. "When we make a statement and give a reference to the Quran, it justifies where it is coming from and how it relates to the religion," says Ali. "Also, often times Muslims and people of other faiths are curious to find out what the Quran really says and the graphics make it easier for them to understand how it all fits in."
A panel from 'The Elephant'
Is this not agonising the elders of the religion? "Not at all. In fact, I got a lot of positive feedback about our comics quoting the Quran because we are not picking stories out of thin air."
And who do they count among their readers? Both Arif and Ali explain that the comics resonate with people across age groups, nationalities and religions. "Among the sections of readers are Islamic teachers who want to share this material with their students because we are all learning visually these days," says Ali. "Then there are teenagers, both Muslims and non-Muslims, who enjoy sharing the comics on social media."
"The comics are for children and adults... A lot of parents also buy the books for their children," chips in Arif, a father of two. "I like to compare our work to a good Disney movie. The whole family can enjoy it and they all have their share of take backs."
What's noteworthy is that in its six-year journey, Sufi Comics' panels have been translated into more than 10 languages, including Tagalog (the Philippines), Norwegian, French and Russian, largely due to the efforts of readers. "Within a year of our first web comic post, someone wrote in asking if they can translate it into Indonesian," recalls Ali. Among Indian languages, Sufi Comics are available in Tamil. "We did start work on translating them into Hindi and Urdu but somehow the collaborations didn't take off. But the Urdu translation is now in progress," says Ali, adding that they are now working to complete the second volumes of 40 Sufi Comics and Rumi.

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