It should go without saying that Islam is a beautiful religion, deserving of reverence and respect. Sadly and disturbingly, we live in a world where this still needs to be said. So in this age of increasing (and terrifying) intolerance, we need Kamala Khan. In this young Muslim, first generation Pakistani-American teenager who becomes the new Ms. Marvel, G. Willow Wilson has created the single most important hero of our age. This is the most overtly theological post I’ve done so far and, as such, it’s very personal. Exploring the intersection of the joy of comic books, living a life of faith, and teaching theology leads me to explore part of the very core of who I am.
Kamala Kahn has come to mean very much to me in a very short amount of time. Ms. Marvel was the very first non-Star Wars comic I read once I got back into the game. She was calling to me long before I read her comic though. I’d heard about this new, Muslim, Pakistani-American superhero on NPR and read all sorts of articles about her and, as such, I was dying to know who she was and how the book felt. Then, on Christmas night 2015, after the familial visiting had come to a close for the day, I settled down in my parents’ family room with a fantastic gift and began reading No Normal, the first trade paperback collection of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel.
Much as Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael are books that cause you to divide your life into “Before I read…” and “After I’ve read…” categories, so too was G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel a comic revelation. The Alchemist changed the way I saw God, life, and the human relationships. Ishmael changed the way I saw our society. And Ms. Marvel changed the way I saw comic books. I had no idea they could DO something like this.
As I read on I finally got to meet Kamala Khan, the young woman who was turned into an Inhuman and gained polymorph powers in the wake of the Terrigen Bomb explosion. From the first page of the first issue, I found a comic that does a brilliant job of presenting the true nature of Islam and Muslim believers. Here is a young girl who wrestles with how her faith calls her to live. She isn’t always aware of the why of her actions and she also struggles with being different from her peers as a result of living her faith. This tension isn’t just a Muslim experience either. Rather, it is intimately familiar to anyone who’s tried to live their faith in a culture that makes you feel different for doing so.
We see that Kamala’s faith not only shapes her life but it’s also a driving factor in why she becomes a superhero. As I devoured the volume I realized this book was incredible. This book was captivating. This book was important. Given the shape of our world, I think we might need Ms. Marvel even more than the 616 Marvel Universe does.
The intolerance towards and misinformation about Islam in our culture is a trend that needs to change. For over 1400 years, Islam has lead believers toward an intimate communion with God. Yes, there are extremists who do horrible things but to demonize an entire faith for the actions of extremists is irrational. And if you think it necessary, then Christianity hasn’t been an acceptable religion for almost a thousand years. After all, the Qur’an says a war can be just or unjust but never holy. But Pope Urban II created the idea of a “holy war” in 1099 with the First Crusade. Christianity has centuries of crusades and inquisitions in its past. If you reject Islam due to violent actions, you must (logically) reject Christianity as well. But to do so in either (or any) case is ridiculous! Extremists may taint our view of a faith but the faith itself remains a beautiful avenue to the Divine. We have to stop pretending that seeing it in any other light is okay.
A few years ago I was at my favorite local coffee shop doing some lesson planning. (Please note, this story is 100%, true with nothing changed or exaggerated.) I was working on a lesson for my World Religious course and had my copy of the Qur’an sitting on the table beside me. My head was bent to my reading when a man (in his early sixties) came up behind me. Out of the blue he told me, “Islam isn’t actually a religion you know.” Stunned both by the content of the comment and the sudden interruption in my work I looked up to say, “Well…there’s over a billion people in the world who would disagree with you.” The man continued, “How can you call anything a religion where the mothers are commanded to chop off the hands of their daughters? It’s true! They all do it! Every mother chops off the hands of her daughters.” He really said/believed that. For real. I’m not making this up. I didn’t point out the GLARING logical inconsistency that if, as a child, your hands were chopped off you’d have no hands with which to hold anything to cut off your own child’s hands. What I did say was, “Uh…they don’t actually do that.” He protested, saying he read it in a book. I told him I was absolutely certain he was incorrect and, perhaps, he needed to check the sources of the books he was reading.
He persisted in his argument and we went back and forth for awhile, trapped in a seemingly endless loop of illogical accusations, when (by the grace of God!) my phone rang. The electric company was calling to telling me they were sending someone to fix the problems I was having at home. I told this gentleman that I was sorry but I had to leave. Never was I happier to hear from the electric company! But this man represents a growing number of people in this country and this world who think whatever random, rambling crap they want to believe about Islam is actually true. In a post-9/11 world, our understanding of Islam is more important than ever. And people like this coffee shop guy (and the ones who write the “books” he reads) aren’t helping. But Ms. Marvel is exactly what we need! The more accurate, authentic, well rounded depictions of Islam we have in our culture the better.
Before we go any further it’s worth noting that Kamala’s faith is but one rich and beautiful dimension of this comic. I’m going to focus on the theology and the importance of how it’s presented because that’s my focus given my studies and profession. There’s so much in this comic and one of the strengths of G. Willow Wilson’s writing is that she presents all of it with a perfect sense of balance. Kamala’s faith, the social justice issues, the ideas of intolerance and inclusion, are central to the book – but the reader never feels accosted by that information. For those looking for so much more than your average comic, they find it. For those who aren’t, they still get a great super hero comic…and hopefully the subtly learn something along the way too.
In the Terrigen Mist, Kamala has a vision of Iron Man, Captain America, and Captain Marvel. Surprised, she asks, “Captain America…Iron Man…Captain Marvel? You speak Urdu?” Captain Marvel tells her, “We are faith. We speak all languages of beauty and hardship.” Then she asks, “Who do you want to be?” and Kamala says she wants to be Carol Danvers. She awakens in a cocoon and immerges looking like Carol Danvers in her old Ms. Marvel costume. Kamala (and the reader) quickly learn she isn’t Ms. Marvel per sey but rather she has polymorph powers that allow her to take different shapes. She learns quickly that being Carol Danvers isn’t all she dreamed it would be.
However, that realization brings with it new questions. Given the weird world she’s entered and having the strange powers she does, what will Kamala do? Who will she become? When her friend Zoe falls into the river Kamala has to make her decision – does she do nothing or does she try to save her ? In this moment, it’s the Qur’an Kamala immediately turns to for inspiration as she takes her first steps into the world of superheroing.
Kamala sees, “There are always people who rush in to help. And according to my dad…they are blessed.” Her work as a hero, from the very beginning, is seen as doing the work of God and as such is something that brings blessings. That is a powerful revelation and frames the book in a new light. To see the superhero as doing the work of God takes the hero’s quest to a whole new level. Why is this the right thing to do? Because it’s what God wants. I think we all need to learn that lesson – the most important question in our lives should be “What does God want me to do?” and Kamala teaches this to her readers.
This question is so important! If you’re a person of faith, what can be more important than living a life in accordance with God’s will? What God calls us to do should shape all of our actions in the world. Too often we don’t see the truth or (more accurately) we see what we want in our faith as opposed to what God actually calls us to. We lie to ourselves to excuse us from our religious duty. But Kamala doesn’t back down, regardless of the consequences. This makes Kamala’s example all the more important to us.
Beautifully, it’s actually equal parts Kamala’s family and her faith that inspire her heroic actions. Contemplating the consequences of breaking her curfew for superhero duties, Kamala reflects, “Ammi and Abu taught me to always think about the greater good. To defend people who can’t defend themselves, even if it means putting yourself at risk.” Kamala has a loving, caring family that she trusts and looks up to. She also has a rich faith life. It’s to her family and God that Kamala looks to try and figure out how to live. It’s not just a healthy picture of Islam Ms. Marvel offers. Rather it gives the readers a vision of a healthy life.
The comic also gives us a picture of the best possible type of minister in Sheik Abdullah. Sheik Abdullah meets with Kamala because her parents are upset that she’s sneaking out and staying up late without telling them why. He presents the perfect model of someone offering religious advice and guidance. He doesn’t chastise her. He understands and accepts who she is. And he encourages her to do what she can with courage, strength, honesty, compassion, and self-respect. This is exactly what a servant of God’s should do. This is a beautiful picture of Islam and ministry…as well as an ideal model for all who seek to serve God.
Frustrated with not knowing how to do that, Kamala appreciates Sheik Abdullah’s assurance, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” She finds just that in none other than Wolverine who shows up when she battles the Inventor’s mutant alligators. She geeks out as any good comic nerd would upon meeting Wolverine and he, in turn, helps teach her how to be a hero. Incidentally, this is another fantastic part of Kamala’s character. She’s as big a comic nerd as anyone reading her book! So, for the reader, this isn’t just the story of a young girl who gains powers, struggling to follow her faith and be a hero. It’s the story of someone who loves the Avengers as much as we do struggling to do all of those things.
Kamala and Wolverine have an important conversation about violence. She asks if she can help people without hurting people. Wolverine tells her “the pain’s gotta go somewhere” – either the adversary or her. Kamala says, “I don’t want to believe that.” Logan replies, “You’re young.” This exchange raises an interesting point, worth considering. Is the belief that you can help without hurting naive? Or is it the cynicism of old age that makes us believe it’s impossible?
In addition to wanting to avoid hurting others, Kamala has some important observations about the disconnected, self-involved way in which we live. Blown away by how no one’s aware much less doing anything about so many missing kids, she muses, “A problem has to get pretty gigantic before anybody notices anything at all. That’s half of heroing. Noticing things. Noticing and not being afraid. Because when you decide not to be afraid, you can find friends in super unexpected places.” Awareness. Acceptance. Inclusion. These are the traits of a hero – the hero we need. And the beautiful thing is we don’t need Terrigen Mists, gamma rays, radioactive spiders, or a mutant gene to gain these all-too important powers. We just need the will to live that way.
The quest for acceptance and inclusion ring throughout Ms. Marvel’s adventures. An Inhuman attack serves as a brilliant metaphor for the issues Islamic Americans face in our country. Kamala battles the (hilariously) named Kaboom and she laments how the actions of evil Inhumans will reflect poorly on all Inhumans. In the same way the X-Men often serve as stand-ins for the oppressed minorities in our country, G. Willow Wilson uses Kamala’s status as an Inhuman to illustrate the frustrations of Muslim Americans. Kamala laments, “Just when I was getting comfortable with the idea of being Inhuman…I find out even aliens have their fanatical extremists.”
Her fight with Kaboom ends with Kaboom on a stretcher and that bothers Kamala. She continues to struggle with the violence associated with superheroing, even (perhaps especially) the unintentional violence. She laments, “I’ve never hit somebody that hard before. Not hard enough to really hurt them. I’ve fought robots, giant alligators, some guy named Loki… Never somebody who was weaker than I am. Physically weaker, I mean. Somebody who couldn’t get up after I knocked them down. Even though she was attacking innocent people…I feel pretty gross about it.” This too is vitally important. When we become comfortable with violence, pain, and death, we can do nothing to make the world a better place. We live trapped in the shadow of the death our apathy allows. And we certainly can’t follow God’s plan with our eyes accustomed to the darkness in our world.
Her struggles doesn’t stop her from trying though. In the wake of the birth of the All New, All Different Marvel Universe Kamala finds herself living her dream as part of the Avengers. Seat at the big-kid table aside, she still fights for the oppressed. Hope Yards – a redevelopment community sweeping through Jersey City – has stolen her image to use in their redevelopment campaign for Jersey City. Kamala wrestles with what that means, but it isn’t the most pressing problem she faces. Regardless of potential libel issues, Hope Yards is pushing out the “undesirables” in her neighborhood. It is not difficult to guess who’s left living in the newly revitalized neighborhoods. Hope Yards’ “new downtown revitalization project” will raise rents, force local residents out of their homes and businesses, and whitewash once thriving ethic neighborhoods. They are also comfortable with racial profiling as the Hope Yards security team harass Kamala, her brother Aamir, and his girlfriend Tyesha who are just standing on the sidewalk. The security team assure them there’s cause as this was once a “bad neighborhood” and they need to make sure Kamala, Aamir, and Tyesha have a “purpose” for being there.
This isn’t something Kamala can let stand. While not expressly stated in the text, Kamala is following God’s call to side with the widow, orphan, alien, and all the oppressed who live on the margins of society. This was a central component of Muhammad’s mission as it must be with anyone who authentically follows the God of Abraham.
Kamala’s aided not just by her faith and family. She’s smart too. As she begins to learn how to use her polymorph powers, she uses the rules of physics to understand just what she can do. As she grows she reasons, “Force equals mass times acceleration. So more mass equals…more force. Righteous.” Her strength comes from her size so the bigger she is, the greater her mass, the more strength she has. In a similar vein, when she tries to figure out how to get across the river she realizes, “Surface tension. If I expand the weight of my foot across the widest possible area, I can float. I’d take credit for this, but it was originally Leonardo Da Vinci’s idea. Problem is, he couldn’t embiggen his feet.” She’s faithful. She’s intelligent. She’s competent. She’s an amazing role model.
This, it turns out, is exactly who Kamala Khan is and this is why she’s so important. She’s an intelligent young woman who fights for Jersey City and the people who can’t stand up for themselves. She follows the call of God and the model of her family in an attempt to honor both as Ms. Marvel. Critical acclaim and fan response to this character have taken Kamala to the center of Marvel’s universe. Now, as an Avenger too, she’s even more in the spotlight. Kamala’s center stage…and we need her there!!! This is how we respond to the intolerance and ignorance in our world. I can think of no better role model for readers, young and old alike, right now than Kamala Khan. Nor is there a hero who represents something of greater importance. We need more examples in our popular culture of people who use their intellect and reason, who honor God and family, and who show us how to step outside of ourselves in compassionate action for the other. Thank you G. Willow Wilson for giving us Kamala Khan. The world needs Ms. Marvel, probably a lot more than we think.