Two Indian brothers, known for popularising Islamic stories and deconstructing spiritual advice in an easy-to-read comic-book format, have published their third book – this time on Rumi’s life and works. It is set to be released at Comic Con Bangalore, which runs in India from September 12 to 14.
Mohammed Arif Vakil and Mohammed Ali Vakil grew up in Dubai and often attended Madrasa Muhammadiya, an Islamic school.
“We had the most amazing teachers,” says Arif, 35. “They were working professionals who would arrive at 6am daily to share their religious and spiritual experiences with us.”
“After our family, our teachers have had the greatest influence on our lives,” says Ali, 32.
Little did the brothers know that one day their comic books would find a place in the school’s library.
They say they set off on their spiritual journey early in life. Their paternal grandmother was a prolific religious speaker, as was their father, and that led to frequent discussions in the home about the works of spiritual leaders. It probably explains why, as young men, they longed to share their inspiration with others.
In 2002, after spending 20 years in Dubai, the duo moved to Bangalore, the capital of the southern Indian state of Karnataka. By 2009, they had started a blog that told Islamic stories through comic strips. As the number of stories grew and the popularity of the blog soared, the two men decided to collect their strips into a book. A year later, 40 Sufi Comics (short stories from Islamic history and traditions) was published; it has been translated into 10 languages.
The brothers say they gravitated towards comic strips to depict serious subjects because of the easy appeal of the visual medium.
“It’s not only the youth, but also the older generation, that finds it hard to stay focused while reading heavy academic books,” says Ali.
In 2012, they set up Sufi Studios, a production house in Bangalore. Their second book, The Wise Fool of Baghdad (a collection of stories about an eighth-century scholar who faked madness to avoid persecution), was used by the University of Washington in 2013 for a course on Islam and pop culture.
Rumi is for everyone
Sufi Comics: Rumi is a graphic representation of the 13th-century Persian poet's life and 11 stories based on his work. Each story is followed by sacred verses from the Quran and hadiths, inscribed in Arabic by the leading Indian calligraphy artist Muqtar Ahmed. While Arif and Ali were involved in the selection of the stories and edits, the Bangalore-based comic-book artist Rahil Mohsin did the artwork.
The brothers used Andrew Harvey’s translations of Rumi’s work, but at the same time researched the original Farsi versions of the poems for clarity.
“It wasn’t easy to understand the poems from their English translations, so we roped in a friend, the New Delhi-based Farsi expert Tanzilur Rahman, who helped us understand the original poems,” says Ali.
Once they understood the meanings, it became much easier to work on illustrations.
It was Rumi’s worldwide popularity that led the brothers to create a book about the poet.“What attracted us most to Rumi was that he saw divinity in everything,” says Arif, adding that the flow of the poems was also a plus in creating a comic book. “Rumi’s poems use everyday imagery. They usually begin with a story and have a message towards the end.”
Ali believes the folkloric quality of the verses lent themselves to the short comic-book format.
Spreading a positive message
Ali also wants to set the record straight for “those who tend to misinterpret the poet”.
He says: “Rumi is often quoted in social media as a writer of love poems, but his verses did not portray love between two people – they spoke of his yearning for God.”
Rumi worked on self-transformation and the pursuit of inner knowledge, to feel a sense of spiritual oneness with God. Ali finds this element missing in the elucidation of Rumi’s poems and hopes to address it through his book.
All of the books by the Vakil brothers have received global recognition and attracted readers from diverse communities.
“There is a lot of curiosity about Islam among people of all faiths,” says Ali.
“Our books have been bought by kids and adults alike,” says Arif. “Sometimes people pick them up only because our books carry verses from the Quran.”
There’s also been some interesting feedback from readers who belong to other religions.
“Some people have told us they read a single comic strip in the morning and have a positive message to carry with them all day,” says Arif.
• Sufi Comics: Rumi is available now from www.suficomics.com