Oh, My Pop Culture Islam: Ms. Marvel’s Respectful Portrayal of Religious Characters

Comics and religion don’t often mix, and that’s why it was so surprising when the new Ms. Marvel burst onto the scene and became such a smash hit. Kamala Khan (i.e., the current Ms. Marvel) and her Muslim family and friends provide a respectful, realistic portrayal of a family of faith that anyone from a religious background—especially one grounded in a strong family and ethnic tradition—can relate to. Of course such a story could have been written about any religious family, because the same thing could have come across if the Khans had been Greek Orthodox Christians like my family, or Polish Catholics, or Orthodox Jews, or Indian Hindus, etc. etc. But it’s extremely important that the series instead chooses to normalize a family of darker-skinned Muslims, as they have been such a persecuted group in the Western world lately. Realizing that a group different from your own is, in fact, simply human Just Like You is the first step in encouraging empathy and in changing attitudes, and Ms. Marvel does a great job with that. Now, I’m not Muslim, nor do I know an awful lot about Islam. I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian with a priest for a father, and I grew up hearing some very Islamophobic opinions from him. It took me a long time to get over that, but it wasn’t until reading Ms. Marvel that I realized that Orthodox Christians and Muslims might actually have a lot more in common than I thought. It’s also just lovely to have representation of a religious character in comics, in which faith is organically woven into the story without being preachy or just surface-level!

Note that I’ve only read through the latest trade paperback of the series (Volume 6, up to issue #12 of the current run). But Saika tells me these points still hold for the latest issues. Mild spoilers up to my current stopping point below!


(via Marvel)

Kamala Khan’s parents immigrated to Jersey City, NJ from Pakistan when Kamala’s mom was pregnant with her and when their older son Aamir was 5. They left for the same reason many immigrants do: to seek better opportunities. In this case, Kamala’s dad was going to grad school at an American university. The family is Muslim, and the parents are attempting to keep their religion and culture alive in their children. They follow many Muslim traditions, such as going to mosque, frequent prayer, and not eating pork products. Like many immigrant families, they enforce cultural rules that might seem strange and strict to the kids’ American friends, such as not letting Kamala be alone with boys. Their dearest wish is for their children to marry Pakistani Muslims from good families and pass their traditions and religion on to many grandbabies. Of course, they run into tensions with their kids, who have to navigate the weird in-between of not being “American” enough for their American friends and not being “Pakistani” enough among their relatives when they go overseas for visits. All of this is 100% #relatable to many immigrant families. Even my own immigrant family shares many characteristics with the Khans. From the weird food customs, to missing out on Sunday morning events because of church, to stricter rules (e.g., more modest clothes), to stumbling over my Greek when talking to my overseas cousins, I know exactly how Kamala feels. It feels like we both have this huge ancient tradition and heavy familial expectations hanging over us, while it seems to us that our American friends can just chill, even if they’re religious too, because most other religions seem more relaxed.

Early in the series, this leads to Kamala having an identity crisis and trying to rebel so she can be like a “normal kid”, as many teenage children of immigrants do. She sneaks out to attend a party that her parents had forbidden her from going to. But once there, she is disappointed. People who she thought were her friends make fun of her. Someone tricks her into taking a sip of alcohol, which is not only illegal as she’s underage, but against her beliefs too. She doesn’t find it fun at all. With all this confusion swirling in her head, it is perhaps not surprising that, when she storms off and encounters the superpower-inducing Terrigen mist, she emerges from it with shapeshifting powers. She can’t control them at first, and ends up unintentionally transforming into her idol, Captain Marvel, a conventionally beautiful blonde white woman. But she finds that being Carol Danvers is overrated, and decides that it’s best to just be herself. You know, like most teenagers figure out, eventually. She recognizes the mockery of her “friends” as racism and her parents’ overprotectiveness as love. To her, it’s worth it to show how someone of her background can be a hero, without any need to hide her face behind Western beauty standards.

The way Kamala interacts with her religion is realistic and relatable as well. She draws upon her faith as a moral grounding in ways that never seem ham-handed; she prays when she needs help; she occasionally quotes the Koran at times when a Christian might quote the Bible, and she remembers sermons by her sheikh (the title given to Islamic clergy in her tradition) when she needs strength during her superhero-ing. Even her sheikh, who at first was cast as a bit of a bore, turns out to be a positive influence who encourages her superhero-ing (though he doesn’t know that’s what he’s doing). The most Kamala can tell him without revealing her secret identity is that she has been sneaking out in order to help people. And instead of telling her to stay home like a good girl, he tells her to “do what you are doing with as much honor and skill as you can.” I’ve had my frustrations with my spiritual advisor as well, but ultimately, he has been wise and helpful like Kamala’s sheikh, supporting me in my decisions rather than, as the stereotype would dictate for conservative Abrahamic faiths, trying to control my life or suppress my aspirations because I’m a woman.


Kamala’s awesome stereotype-smashing pep talk from Sheikh Abdullah (via AV Club)

Kamala also doesn’t entirely let certain sexist traditions off the hook. During a youth lecture at her mosque, where the boys get to sit around the sheikh but the girls have to sit behind a screen “to preserve [their] modesty and dignity,” Kamala questions this separation by pointing out that the sheikh himself once told them that the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina had no partition or separate entrance for women. The sheikh’s subsequent defense of the practice is very weak. It is so important to see this represented in fiction, and then to later see the sheikh supporting her despite these traditions, because it shows that it’s possible for a person to adhere to a faith while still questioning and speaking out against aspects that may be hurtful or unjust. Religions aren’t perfect, but it’s possible to derive value from them without accepting their more problematic aspects. I know I do that, challenging my spiritual advisor on why we don’t have female clergy even though female deacons literally exist in the Bible (like the sheikh, he doesn’t have a good answer), and rejecting my Church’s teachings that prohibit same-sex relationships and marriage. I have literally never seen a person of faith who questions these things, yet retains their faith anyway, in mainstream media before (webcomics don’t quite count as mainstream media yet).

The series’s exploration of religious characters doesn’t end with Kamala, either. Her friend Nakia is an example of a Muslim woman who dons the hijab by choice, even though her own father wishes she wouldn’t wear it (probably because he’s afraid she’ll experience harassment for it), thus completely upending the stereotype that headscarves are “forced” upon Muslim women by Muslim men. Kamala’s older brother Aamir is the most pious character we meet, preferring to dress traditionally and to spend a great deal of time in prayer and in theological reading, to the point that it worries his parents. And Aamir ends up marrying Tyesha, a woman who shows us the convert’s perspective; converting to Islam was her own choice, uninfluenced by her family (who are kind of puzzled by her conversion), and long before she met Aamir. I too have many friends who baffled their families by converting to Orthodoxy, and many religious families know what it’s like to have a particularly pious family member who is viewed as a bit odd but ultimately ends up as a strong religious leader (that’s where I think Aamir is headed). This diversity of perspectives helps show the many ways that religion can be integrated into people’s lives, and yet is all depicted as a normal part of life.


In public, Tyesha chooses to wear a full-length robe that covers her head (it may be a chador), but once she marries Aamir and moves into the Khans’ home, she becomes a part of the family and feels comfortable chilling with Kamala in her PJs while dropping truth bombs. She seems more devout than most of the Muslim women we meet, but this is no barrier to understanding her and seeing her as a fully fleshed-out person. (via Black Nerd Problems)

The series never, ever falls into the harmful stereotypes that people feared it would, such as Kamala needing to “break free” of religious restrictions on women, or even her shapeshifting as a metaphor for “shifty” Arabs, because she doesn’t use it to change her appearance very often, only her size. When a Pakistani boy whom Kamala has a crush on ends up betraying her, it’s not cast as having anything to do with religion. Besides, there are many counterexamples of positive male Muslim role models in Kamala’s life, like her father, brother, sheikh, and even a young man she meets in Pakistan at the end of Volume 6, to counter the stereotype of Muslim men victimizing Muslim women.

By showing this nuanced version of a religious character, Marvel has given us someone who not only normalizes the Muslim-American experience, but also introduced a character that young religious readers of all stripes can relate to. And at the same time, they can develop sympathy and understanding for Muslim immigrant families, which can help to change Islamophobic attitudes. Of course, a comic book isn’t going to change the whole world, but Ms. Marvel is super popular, so it’s already reaching a wider audience than usual for comics. And maybe if this popularity continues, Marvel will make a movie or TV series out of it that will reach even further! Personally, I think Ms. Marvel would make a great children’s cartoon. And then we’d have an openly religious superheroine on TV to help show that religion is normal, Muslim families are normal and not “oppressive”, questioning aspects of your faith is normal, there are many ways to express the same faith, and that there are always points of similarity where we can relate to each other.

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