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.
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.
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.
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.