Through their Sufi Comics imprint, brothers Mohammed Ali and Mohammed Arif Vakil hope to relive their madrassa years and redress “the bad rap that Islam has been receiving” post 9/11.
From King Lear’s Fool to Borat, the apparently dim-witted have been getting away with ridiculing prevalent social mores and those in power . The helpless fool knows no better. He is thus pitied and forgiven. “That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool — that he is no fool at all,” Isaac Asimov had said about the Shakespearean fool.
Bahlool — the titular character of The Wise Fool Of Baghdad — continues the rich tradition of Birbal, Tenali Raman and Mullah Nasiruddin, witty jesters and social critics first introduced to many of us by Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle comics. Bahlool was born Wahab ibn Amra, a judge who lived in the tyranny-filled time of Caliph Harun al-Rashid of Baghdad in the eighth century. He perceived that his life was under threat as he disagreed with the rulers; to distance himself, he chose to take on the persona of a madman, thus shielding himself from the Caliph’s wrath. Wahab ibn Amra became Bahlool Dana (“the wise fool”).
The witty heroics of Bahlool, traditionally narrated in madrassas to teach children valuable life lessons, have now been brought to life in comic format by the brothers Mohammed Ali and Mohammed Arif Vakil, real estate professionals and comic book aficionados. Both Arif and Ali are fans of the Amar Chitra Katha series, as well as other comics like Tintin. “We owe a lot to Uncle Pai,” says Arif. “We wanted to put this story across because that’s what we grew up with.”
The Wise Fool Of Baghdad is the second book from their ‘Sufi Comics’ imprint; the first, 40 Sufi Comics, is a collection of short didactic strips. The entire project began by chance: the brothers needed content for their blog. In 2009, Ali started putting up simple sketches. Buoyed by the positive response, they kept at it, amassing enough material to publish the first collection. With The Wise Fool Of Baghdad, Ali and Arif have chosen to stay with one character through the book, preferring storytelling over simple moral lessons.
At the core of the stories is a criticism of materialism and cruelty. For instance, in “Poor Caliph”, Bahlool wittily forces the ruler to confront the implications of his ruthless, wanton tax-seeking. Ideas of truth, love, justice and altruism also figure prominently: Bahlool often steps in to help an orphan or a poor man who is being exploited. In “Baghdad Legal”, Bahlool uses a clever little manoeuvre to teach a thieving official a lesson. And in “The Sound of Justice”, a mean bread vendor who wants to charge a poor man merely for sniffing his bread is fittingly paid with only the jingling of coins.
The Persian miniature style of painting — with richly detailed backgrounds and non-linear, fluid panels — adds to the reading experience. The inscriptions that follow each story — quoting from the Quran — are by Muqtar Ahmed, who used the traditional method of dipping a reed stick in ink. “The art had to be in tandem with the story. Islamic heritage is rich with art,” explains Ali, observing that a Marvel Comic or Japanese Manga style wouldn’t have been appropriate.
The book was produced because the authors feel the ethical grounding represented by Bahlool is disappearing. “Truth, justice... these values are not just fashionable,” said Arif.
There was another reason: to address the negative press Islam had been receiving post-September 11, 2001, especially from the Western media. “I wish I could say I was doing this selflessly,” quipped Arif. “But there is an injustice happening. The bad rap that Islam has been receiving pains us.” It especially jarred because media outlets were busy painting madrassas as factories of radicalism. (A 2007 study by Yale’s Susan Moeller, analysing U.S. newspaper coverage, found that madrassahs were often portrayed, erroneously, as “seemingly posing almost as great a risk as nuclear weapons.”)
Largely, madrassas are typically centres for basic literacy. The Dubai madrassa the brothers attended was a fond part of their childhood. “The word brings back positive memories; of making friends, reading good stories, good food,” said Ali. “According to the media it was just some kids armed with handguns; so absurd.”
Despite the book being anchored in the Sufi-Islam framework of Bahlool’s character, it’s not so much a theological text as a moral one. “We don’t care about the religion of the reader...the person could be an atheist, it wouldn’t matter,” said Arif.
And yet, despite this nod to universality, there’s a curious lack of female characters in the book. “We have one, two, I think,” acknowledged Arif. He explains that, during that time, women were very oppressed, and hence the absence. In The Wise Fool Of Baghdad, the final comic sees Bahlool berate a man for being upset about having a daughter, not a son. Bahlool points out that the world would be vastly worse without women. (It’s another matter that, in doing so, women are still painted primarily as a source of “support” to males; the woman is valuable because she “reveres” the father, supports the husband, and so on). But they’re aware, Arif said, that to reach a wider audience effectively they would need to perhaps increase the visibility of women.
The duo launched the book at the Bangalore Comic Con Express in September. They also visited the Comic Con in San Diego, and Ali says the receptivity to their graphic novel style has been a crucial factor. The book’s vivid visual style has the white-bearded Bahlool typically seen with a long stick, in tattered clothes, but always wearing a merry grin. Rahil Mohsin’s art animates Bahlool with all his unique expressions — at times sly, at times wise; simultaneously, the caliph’s menace comes alive, as does the feeble concern about Bahlool’s well-being from his relatives.
“Bahlool was a favourite of our Madrassa teachers,” says Ali, the younger of the two, adding that the character’s madness made the stories especially interesting for children to hear. Bahlool’s insanity-tinged wisdom also subverts the idea of a traditionally wise man. “He’s not the all-knowing saint like Gandalf or Dumbledore, saying, ‘Come and ask me, I have all the answers’,” points out Arif. “But he’s still a wise person; he’s not just any fool.”
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