Ms. Marvel and Muslim Representation

This article is part of a series that will look at the representation of Muslims and Islam in different arenas: media, politics, and culture. Authors will discuss the shortcomings of representation, and invite readers to ultimately question what goals it serves in the first place.

This article contains spoilers for Disney+’s Ms. Marvel.


When Marvel Studios announced plans to produce a show centered around the popular comic book character Ms. Marvel, the news was met with much excitement. The comic series features a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager named Kamala Khan who was given powers via an obscure mist, donning the persona of “Ms. Marvel” to help others and fight crime. The excitement was largely centered around the fact that Muslim South Asians were finally arriving in the mainstream spotlight, that at last there was going to be positive representation for the community on one of the biggest stages. But, as the excitement brewed, so did the apprehension.

As we pointed out in a previous article in this series, Muslim representation has been abhorrent in almost all varieties. Between portrayals of extremism or abandonment of Islamic values, past experience did not lend itself to much optimism for this show. Even though Ms. Marvel was going to be drawing inspiration from source material that was fairly respectable in an Islamic sense, being featured on such a big stage was a cause for concern. Disney currently owns two of the largest pieces of media in our time, Star Wars and Marvel, both properties which have been recently caving to the ever-shifting, flimsy morals of liberal progressivism. While this reality worried many about what the creators of the show would do with Ms. Marvel, the cast itself was also cause for controversy. A few of the cast members playing Muslims are not actually practitioners of the faith. The actress playing Kamala herself, Iman Vellani, is a member of the Ismaili sect, a minority group considered by the scholarly consensus of orthodox Muslims to be outside the fold of Islam. Since the character of Kamala Khan is an orthodox Sunni Muslim, it was thus another cause for controversy. 

The lead up to the show was met with further hesitation. Outside of the Muslim community, many Marvel enthusiasts were not fans of the few trailers and snippets released to the general public, anticipating poor quality. I was on the apprehensive side of the conversation. Despite the series having strong source material (the writer of the comic books, G. Willow Wilson, is an observant Muslim), and being directed and produced by South Asian Muslims, this show is still catering to a larger audience, which entails a diluted version of the original story. After finishing the series, I was pleasantly surprised overall, yet my trepidation was validated. Although there was much I liked from the show, there was more which disappointed me in regards to Muslim representation.

The Good

Considering that the bar is in hell when it comes to Muslim representation in media, the take on Kamala was by far one of the better versions of Muslim representation out there. The characters, rather than falling into the traditional tropes of Muslim representation, portrayed practioners of Islam in a much more positive light. Two key characters representing a religious persona were Kamala’s brother, Aamir, and leader at the local mosque Shaykh Abdullah. Both characters are shown to be very outwardly Muslim, donning modest, cultural forms of dress and large beards, and both are very faith driven. These two characters were positive influences on Kamala’s life, as opposed to the stereotypical wet blankets, to her way of living. On several occasions, Shaykh Abdullah bestows wisdom inspired from Islamic morality and Kamala’s father, Yusuf, quotes from the Qur’an when telling his daughter how proud he is of her. 

The most heartening form of representation was found in the communal aspects in the show. The Muslim community was shown to be diverse, yet united. The masjid was a central location in the series, with non-Muslims recognizing the masjid as a sanctuary, and prayer as well as extra-curricular religious learning were given importance. The show dipped into the various subcultures of the Muslim community as well, displaying to the world that we are not a monolith. Through a problematic chastisement of dua (which is not to be lauded), Yusuf’s early interaction with his son displays the common phenomenon of differing levels of religiosity within a family unit. Seeing the community’s response to a governmental agency’s intervention was also uplifting, emphasizing that decades of this form of scrutiny is not going to rattle us anymore. There is also a very apparent emphasis on family and the importance of family sticking together. Though not given an explicitly Islamic justification for it, maintaining family ties is an imperative in our faith that is demonstrated in the series.

After talking to many young Muslims, particularly South Asians, it was apparent that this show was well-received and being heavily applauded. Just as Black Panther felt like a turning point when it came to representation for Black Americans, the same could be said with Ms. Marvel and its display of South Asian Muslims on one of the biggest entertainment stages. Young people feel inspired to see a superhero who looks like them, talks like them, and struggles with the same problems as them. There might be something to be said, however, about our desire to be validated by stages such as these, which at the end of the day are controlled by people who are not from us, nor have our best interests at heart. 

The Bad

That all being said, Islam was still fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of the show, as the Disney+ series significantly watered down Kamala’s connection to her faith from the comic series. There are little moments here and there as mentioned in the previous section, but they are largely insignificant. There are also plenty of moments where haram actions are fairly normalized, though not as egregious nor vulgar as past representation. The show hit a home run when it came to cultural representation, but Muslimness was seldom a large part of the characters. This feeds into the racialization of Islam, as opposed to representing it as a faith with morality, spirituality, and a legal code. Unique theological practices often create cultural norms, but this was not necessarily prevalent in the series.

In the comics, Kamala’s religion is a motivational force behind her decisions, as opposed to an afterthought or feel-good justification after the fact. Kamala struggles with an identity crisis, as many young Muslims in America do, but still maintains a tangible connection to her faith beyond communal platitudes. She is not just a Muslim out of social conditioning, but out of legitimate conviction and a desire to do good. While the comic series has some substandard moments in this arena, Kamala’s faith plays a central role in her life and superhero career.

In the show however, Kamala’s relationship with Islam is portrayed as largely communal. All her interaction with the religion, outside of a couple instances of reciting the Basmala, comes from other people. Whether it is Shaykh Abdullah giving her advice, Nakia talking about her hijab, or her father quoting the Qur’an, Kamala does not seem to have internalized her faith nor use it as motivation, as opposed to her comic book counterpart. Not to mention that all those religious references were made without explicitly referring to our sacred sources, in fact they seemed to come out of thin air. 

Kamala also encourages a sinful relationship between two of her classmates. Though the promotion of sin has become all too common unfortunately amongst many of our community members, we should not tolerate it in a representation that is meant to be distinctly Muslim, as it violates the ethics we abide by. This is not to critique Kamala’s religiosity nor anyone who might be on a similar level of practice, but it is important to note that if Muslimness is going to be the center of one’s character, one would think that a credible connection to the character’s faith would be required. 

Because of this, many of the references to Islam felt very tokenized. Since Kamala herself is not as invested in her Muslimness as those surrounding her, it was very difficult to see most of the moments where Islam was portrayed to be anything other than superficial. Muslimness was tied directly to culture many times, but never beyond, failing to explore the morality and motivations this religion gives people to do the right thing. 

The show also failed to paint a deeper picture of historical realities, as the manner in which the partition of India was told in the story was very oversimplified and inaccurate. To make it only seem like the cause of partition was the “bad British” and ignore the genuine religious and societal motivations for why something like the largest migration in modern history occurred, does a major disservice to those who did struggle in that time period. Coming from an Indian Muslim background, we must be aware that the reasons why millions of Muslims left a place that was their ancestral home for generations was much more complex than “the British [leaving] us a mess.” 

Lastly, there is another related phenomenon where the Prophet ﷺ is never mentioned in explanations of Islam in popular media, and Ms. Marvel made no exception to that rule. Islam cannot be properly portrayed without our key figure being referred to and held in high esteem. This erasure of the mention of the Rasul ﷺ, whether intentional or not, is a dangerous path to follow and should be a cause for concern. What is the point of representation if it does not properly portray our tenets and values? As I mentioned previously, Islam is not a race or a culture onto itself, it is a holistic and codified set of morals and beliefs which directs us towards submission to God. A representation that supposedly focuses on us but ignores our ethical imperatives cannot truly be considered an accurate representation.

Conclusion

Many will read this article and feel the need to refute it by saying that this show is not about Muslims, it is about American Pakistanis. This point is immediately countered by Disney+’s own description for the show, “Kamala Khan, a Muslim American teen,” with no reference to her ethnic heritage throughout the rest of the passage. Even so, many Muslims do relate to Kamala and her story. If Kamala was portrayed as a niqab-sporting Tablighi, there would be an outcry from the less practicing about how they feel she does not represent them accurately and is too extreme. I am not demanding the show be about Islam, nor for the entire series to take place at the masjid. The overarching point of this critique is to be more aware of what “Muslim representation” actually means and what types of Muslims get to define it.

This critique is also not intended to be a chastisement of Kamala’s personal religiosity, nor of those who may resonate with her relationship (or lack thereof) with Islam. This is a call upon the western Muslim to think critically about what our goals are when it comes to this venue we are applauding. We need to evaluate whether inherently problematic arenas where power players with problematic agendas control the narrative are worth jumping into. The immoralities of Hollywood are well known, and are far outside of our own ethical standards. At the same time, storytelling is a tremendous medium that can contribute legitimate benefits for people. If we choose to traverse these treacherous waters, we need to establish a higher standard to follow. The powers that be are only interested in using Islam for the purpose of tokenization, and nothing beyond that. Islam is antithetical to the dominating culture of society, and will only be displayed for purposes of climbing ladders or soft orientalist versions of diversity. If we are not allowed to truly represent what Islam means, is it worth it to water it down for the sake of palatability? Are we satisfied with cultural superficialities and light references of our religion that simultaneously erase our tradition?

A good mold to follow on religious representation is Marvel’s Daredevil. Widely considered the most popular show of its genre, the three season series excellently portrayed the protagonist’s relationship with his Catholic faith. It was very apparent that the main character, Matt Murdock, had a deep connection to his religion, and used it as a driving force behind his actions. Daredevil also did a wonderful job of displaying Murdock’s struggles with his faith, and his journey eventually overcoming them. The series is not centered around his Catholicism, yet it is always an apparent influence in the show and integral to Murdock’s character.

Representation aside, the show and plot itself was somewhat mediocre. It was certainly entertaining, and a fun introduction of a new character into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The cultural display and Muslim/South Asian specific humor made it more so (cringey jokes aside) and the cast overall did a great job with the characters they were given. However, a couple episodes felt entirely irrelevant to the overall plot, and in a six episode season, that is not redeemable. Most of my blame goes to Disney itself and not the directors. The six episode model for Disney+ shows have consistently failed to hit the mark, and often fall flat due to a rushed plot. This is especially true in the case of Ms. Marvel, where an entirely new character with no backstory is being introduced to us: the pacing of the show was very badly done and the character development felt inconsistent. Nevertheless, Kamala’s introduction into this ecosystem has many intrigued for upcoming projects.

Overall, Ms. Marvel was certainly a step in the right direction — gone are the days of representation past. However, we should not be satisfied if this is the new standard. Our faith and tradition with 1400 plus years of practitioners is worth more than simply displaying us as secular liberals with brown skin and occasional callbacks to aspects that make us “unique.” What makes us unique is our adherence to the Oneness of God and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. This is the crux of our identity as Muslims, and we must ensure that stories explicitly about us involve that crux deeply.


About the Author: Zain Siddiqi is the President of Traversing Tradition. He is a political science graduate with a masters in business management, and also operates a coffee shop. His interests include Islamic sciences, mental health, politics, and history. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

17 thoughts on “Ms. Marvel and Muslim Representation

  1. so funny half the people here think you didnt go hard enough, others think youre being extreme. personally, i hate the marvel ecosystem, but glad this sounds like a show somewhat better than what we had before, and would be comfortable with my family watching this than some reality show nonsense.

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  2. I do not agree with your critique. First off translating a story from the comic strip to television or film is always a challenge for creators. There’s almost always something that’s not “comic book accurate”. Additionally from the sound of your review it seems Kamalas Islamic identity shines through in the comic book but not in the series?
    Did you know Kitty Pyrde, Magneto, the thing, scarlet witch and quick silver were all Jewish comic book characters?
    No because multiple writers including the creators (Stan Lee, who is Jewish himself) didn’t see that their religion as being essential to the story that they’re telling.

    Additionally, I’ve heard critiques of the marvel series Falcon and Winter solider from black Americans. Who say that the only mention of what it would mean for a black man to wield the shield of captain America came in a 5 minute conversation with a black ww2 vet. I’ve heard from some that are amazed and glad to see how much depth Marvel gave to the community of kamala unlike in a series that was meant to touch on topics related to their lives experiences.

    I also strongly disagree about your racialization Issues you have for the series. What are you talking about morality? She’s a teeenager ABCD Muslim going to public school. Is Kamala supposed to be some upstanding Muslim arctype at all times? Do you realize there’s plenty of Muslims growing up in America in the same environment as Kamalas. Going through the same struggles. How many Muslims in high school have morality figured out and are not peer pressured ? How does showing someone who never fails to do the right thing make for good suspenseful television?
    What do you want in terms of spirituality? This is a super hero show? They show her at the masjid praying that’s more than other religion based characters get in comic book adaptations.
    What’s your point on legal code? How many American Muslims in high school know anything able Islamic legal code? How do you portray that on screen?

    Why do you want Prophet Muhammad SAW to be mentioned in a comic book series? How does talking about him in this series make a difference to the plot? This isn’t Ertugrul with a 2 hour runtime with 20 mins dedicated to and actor acting like a shaykh giving wisdom to the youngsters. This is a 30-40 min show with 5 mins dedicated to credits at the end of every episode.
    If you removed any mention of Islam and the prophet SAW I would think this was written by a Christian evangelical nitpicking about every detail trying to find fault in any other television series.

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    1. What’s the point of having a character vaguely religious yet marketing her as a Muslim superhero? If you’re going to make a character a Muslim, it should actually mean something. Otherwise it’s physical diversity with no substantive impact. No one said it has to be a super pious show with a shaykh. The point is that in the comics, Kamala actively attributes her behavior and doing good to Islam. That’s diluted in the show. It’s not just inherent limitations in adaption – the six episode model is just objectively bad.

      Also, you can be defend a show you like without calling anything deemed too nitpicky and extreme evangelical. How is this evangelical? That plays into the moderate Muslim stereotypical nonsense.

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      1. The character is a Muslim name Kamala Khan. What do you mean vaguely religious? There’s Muslims in America that are similar to Kamala in so many ways. Would you say that to their face that their vaguely religious?
        No I’m going to assume you wouldn’t because you’re probably a nice person. Instead you’d want to teach them and improve. This is Kamalas origin story. The charaecter is brand new to the big screen and 10 years old in the comics. She has a lot more time to be developed and flushed out.

        Other comic book heroes have been around for 100 years now.

        What substantive impact do you expect from a comic book super hero? Magneto who is a Holocaust survivor hardly ever speaks of his lived experience. At most he shows his number tattoo on his wrist by the Nazis. There’s probsbly comics that go into his personal struggle.
        Why do you expect an origin story setting up a film franchise that is meant to be a blockbuster skeptical to be substantive? This isn’t a series gunning for the Emmy’s and these aren’t films getting nominated for the Oscars with the exception to the dark knight and Black Panther.

        Kamala doesn’t need to attribute what she does to Islam. She’s a teenage girl still learning. And it’s her father at the end of the series to states a verse from the Quran. When you save a life it is as if you saved all of humanity.

        Yes the 6 episode format sucks. The author doesn’t bother to mention that. That’s the one critique most film critiques had for the series.

        Ms marvel is the highest rated marvel property on Rotten tomatos. This show was made by and for Muslims. Muslims as directors, actors, producers, writers etc. This is just the beginning. They’re the ones that worked their butts off to get this series produced and made. It’s easy to complain about it all than you create something with your own vision. I highly doubt most Muslims who agree with this article know a lick of creating a series for the silver screen.

        Ok as for my evangelical comment. The author mentions why isn’t prophet saw not mentioned? Why does prophet need to be mentioned in this series?
        I am drawing equivalent to evangelicals complaining that movie or series XYZ doesn’t mention or praise Jesus. Why is this necessary in a series that’s based on a comic book?

        How does what I say play into moderate Muslim stereotype? Do we as practicing Muslims need prophet saw to be mentioned in everything that we create? No. So why does a series about a Muslim hero need to mention prophet SAW. They mention hadith they mention the Quran, you can hear tye athan in one episode. Which in that case you can probably hear the prophets name. So there you go you have the mention of the prophet. Why is there a need for a tangential scene bringing up the prophet? There isn’t a narrative reason to do so with the story that was told.

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    2. I’m going to stop responding to you because you clearly didn’t read the article in full, or with the eye required for genuine criticism. The author mentioned the problem with the 6 so format right here:

      “However, a couple episodes felt entirely irrelevant to the overall plot, and in a six episode season, that is not redeemable. Most of my blame goes to Disney itself and not the directors. The six episode model for Disney+ shows have consistently failed to hit the mark, and often fall flat due to a rushed plot. This is especially true in the case of Ms. Marvel, where an entirely new character with no backstory is being introduced to us: the pacing of the show was very badly done and the character development felt inconsistent.”

      The Prophet is an integral part of our lives mentioned in our prayers and dhikr. His finality is literally half of the shahada. It’s not nitpicky to notice this trend of avoiding core theology – literally what defines a Muslim as a Muslim.

      If you want to continue to critique this article, go ahead and write your own piece, but you clearly missed the overarching point that our stories and understanding of the deen – despite the goodness in Ms Marvel – are shoehorned into a liberalizing industry, and that ultimately we have to work towards establishing our own entertainment industries from the ground up. Salam.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sorry I have dyslexia maybe I missed the past where the author touched on the 6 ep part.

        I do not doubt that the prophet is important to who we are as Muslims. But my issue is how do you add something into this series that serves the plot and is not an add-in scene. How do you do Justice to the prophet SAW in a tv series made for such a large audience specifically for comic book fans?
        And I do not have faith that even in the writers of the show added something that mentions the prophet that you type of Muslims would be pleased with it. You guys will say that they’re making a mockery of the prophet saw.
        It’s a damed if you do damed if you don’t situation with you people.

        It’s also low of the author for bringing in the prophet saw for a critique of a comic book series. He probably knew mentioning the lack prophet saw as a issue would trigger certain emotions amongst sincere Muslims and turning them off from a series that’s probably not even something they’d normally watch anyways.

        Some how this is where we are at as Muslims we can’t have nice things and there’s always overly critical people bringing in problems that don’t actually exist.

        Have you seen the Jewish community waste their time complaining about the lack of Magnetos Jewishness on screen? Or in a 90s cartoon episode where he has a manora? No because their community is focused on issues that actually matter to them in the long run.

        And no I’m not going to write an article I’ve basically done so in this comments section and you and all you sheltered Muslim millenials and Gen Z types who think everything should be catered to you and your narrow un inviting portrayal of Islam need to grow up. Use your intellectual minds Allah gave you to make you own fam show if ms marvel isn’t your bloody cup of tea cheers

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    1. you say this like most Muslims in the west know this. Most of them are average TV consumers plugged into the Hollywood-Disney-Netflix pipeline and need things like this to be spelled out. Until we offer better and frankly actually halal books/shows for consumption, better they’re watching this than Game of Thrones or something.

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      1. That’s kind of why we are in such a sad state of affairs ain’t it? These are educated, 21st century Muslims we are talking about with high school, graduate, post-graduate degrees, no? They are very good with their phones, very cool on social media, sophisticated at their jobs, invest their money, trade stocks, take nice vacations etc.

        Oh but it’s too much to expect for them to know their deen, their holy book, the Prophetic example? You don’t say!

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      2. Oh no no, when it comes to Islam, we have to take it very, very easy. Explain it to them like they’re 5-year-olds. Heaven forbid they spend any time to understand their deen and learn to identify things that go clearly against it.

        Or you know what? Silly me, why didn’t I think of this earlier. This is all clearly WAY too much work to ACTUALLY study anything about your deen. How about we moan and complain why Hollywood and the media isn’t infusing their degenerate programming with select teachings from our deen? Like sprinkling things here and there, a hadith here and an ayah there? Create Muslim action figures and superheroes that walk and talk exactly like their non-Muslim counterparts but have a crescent on their cape? And of course, named Jamal or Achmed.

        Kill two birds with one stone. We won’t have to kill the Netflix subscription or turn off the tv and we get a perfect Islamic edumacation!

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    2. Have you read literally any of the other articles on this site? Read the series by Ali Harfouch on the secularisation of the Muslim mind. Consistently critiques liberalism and secularism mollifying the Muslim mind. Your outrage here is misplaced. We have to rebuke the Muslim community for not teaching teenagers their fard al ayn and aqeedah at minimum, but yelling at them to stop watching TV isn’t feasible.

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      1. We’re moaning and complaining precisely because there are Muslims in the media industry now, claiming that what they’re doing is producing more Islamically-aligned or content good for Muslims. That needs to be rebuffed.

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      2. Have you read this, have you read that. Have you read the Quran? Tell me what lahw and la’b mean and how many times the Quran condemns it. No, I must watch my tv and Netflix and social media and I DEMAND my Islamic learning be made available through it!

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      3. Putting pre-conditions on your reformation, nice, bold! YOU decide what’s feasible and what isn’t before even starting. That’s the attitude!

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  3. I never read or watched Ms Marvel so I’m a bit out of the loop but this seems like a fair and nuanced review, I’m glad the representation of Muslims at least wasn’t all bad even if it had problems. JazakAllah kheir

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    1. Thank you Pauline! It’d be great if you watched the show and let me know what you think after as well, I’d love feedback insha’Allah. – Zain

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