Ms. Marvel gave fans an origin story for Kamala Khan, the first Muslim superhero in the MCU. Throughout the show’s six episodes, we meet her friends, family, and community and witness her relationships with all of them. Thankfully, Ms. Marvel broke away from many harmful and frankly inaccurate Muslim and Pakistani stereotypes to provide a story that gets representation right.
Muslim Women, Islamic Faith, and Compassion
Media often portrays Muslim women as oppressed by their religion and struggling with their identity. One of the most prevalent examples of this stereotype is the Muslim hijabi girl or woman whose oppression is symbolized by her hijab, which we see in shows like Elite and Bodyguard. Nakia, who is hijabi, is secure in herself with the hijab, not in spite of it. And Kamala is very secure in who she is, too. She is not shown to be chafing under “oppressive” religious beliefs or practices. In Ms. Marvel, Kamala’s religion is present; however, it’s not a source of inner turmoil or struggle. Instead, it is simply a part of her identity.
In addition to stereotypes about Muslim women, there is the tired trope of Islam being associated with extremism. Ms. Marvel avoids this quite well through its characters. Aamir, Kamala’s brother, expresses dedication to his faith from his very first appearance when he’s making dua (prayer). His faith is a part of who he is as a kind, loving man. And just because it’s a big part of his identity, it doesn’t mean he’s more prone to extremist acts than anyone else.
As a matter of fact, the show subverts this stereotype from top-down in the mosque community. Sheikh Abdullah, the imam (leader) of the mosque, is actually rather normal. And why wouldn’t he be? He is wise, compassionate, and truly concerned with the well-being of Kamala and his community. Islam is a religion with compassion at its foundation. Sheikh Abdullah exemplifies this through letting Kamran and Bruno seek refuge in the mosque. He even goes so far as to stall for them in the face of federal agents walking in to find the two fugitives. (And the agents have the nerve to be disrespectful by not removing their shoes!)
Although Sheikh Abdullah’s screen time is brief, his presence helps give more depth to the show’s Muslim representation. In fact, he delivers the line that informs so much of Kamala’s journey: “Good is not a thing you are, it is a thing you do.”
The Joyful Meaning of Allah-u-Akbar
Aamir and Tyesha’s wedding is one of the moments that stood out most in Ms. Marvel in terms of positive representation. The event where the happy couple says their I do’s is called the nikah. It is where the couple declares their acceptance of each other as spouses three times. Tyesha and Aamir enthusiastically accept each other, and Sheikh Abdullah calls for “takbir.” (Takbir is the name for the phrase “Allah-u-Akbar.”) In response, Tyesha and Aamir’s loved ones joyously exclaim “Allah-u-Akbar!” Their joy at the event is palpable, as the shot centers on Kamala herself, saying “Allah-u-Akbar” while the crowd erupts into applause.
“Allah-u-Akbar,” meaning “God is greater,” unfortunately does not get joyful representation on television. Western media almost always associates the phrase with acts of terrorism, especially after 9/11. This falls in line with the stereotypes around Muslims and extremism. To see it proclaimed with such joy and celebration was such a delight. Muslims use the phrase “Allah-u-Akbar” regularly in our prayers five times a day.
I have been a part of ceremonies where “Allah-u-Akbar” is said equally joyously. But to hear it in Ms. Marvel while knowing the history of how media often portrays the phrase was a welcome surprise. There have been many steps towards better representation for Muslim superheroes, like Young Justice and Legends of Tomorrow (RIP), and of normal Muslims with shows like Ramy and We are Lady Parts, that portray Muslims as complex people rather than one-dimensional characters. But seeing Ms. Marvel‘s reclamation of the phrase that we Muslims use regularly meant so much to me.
Muslim Characters in Major Roles and Community Support
There were also multiple Muslim characters who had major roles. This a vast improvement from how TV shows and films have represented Muslims before. In fact, the characters pass the Riz test (a Bechdel test for Muslim characters inspired by Riz Ahmed) with flying colors, and invite more nuance to it too. Each character in the main cast is complex and comfortable in their identity. Ms. Marvel centers on Kamala, her family, and her community.
It portrays a Muslim community that is close-knit and supportive of each other. As a matter of fact, in a particularly emotional scene from the finale, Kamala’s entire community shows up to protect her from Damage Control agents. In the show, the Marvel organization serves as rather pointed commentary (that is too much at some points) on the surveillance and targeting of Muslims by the U.S. government after 9/11. This moment exemplifies the importance of community in Kamala’s life.
The Small Moments Resonate, Too
The nikah scene exemplified Ms. Marvel’s steps towards much better representation than the fanatical terrorist or oppressed woman. But, there were many other smaller touches throughout the show that felt true to me and like a breath of fresh air. I was also taught to always say “Bismillah” (“In the Name of God”) before starting the car, no matter how short the journey. I know how much you have to rush to do wudu (the practice of cleaning yourself before prayer) when you are late to prayer.
The Muslims in Ms. Marvel are comfortable in themselves, just like my family and community. They have such joy in being with each other along with more diversity than we usually see with Muslims on-screen. Tyesha is a Black Muslim revert. While I would have loved to see more of her, I do appreciate her being a part of the main cast and the love she shares with Aamir.
Credit is certainly due to the Muslim creatives. They imbued the show with so many small things that are normal for all of us, but have so rarely been portrayed in entertainment. In a particularly impressive catch, TikToker @watchwithneebz notes that there were 99 title cards throughout the series, and there are 99 names of Allah in Islam. At some points the show did fall flat, especially with the djinn storyline; however, the care put into portraying Islam as simply a part of Kamala’s life is excellent. It ranges from the big things like the wedding to the smaller touches like saying “Bismillah” before starting the car.
Representation on-screen is absolutely not be the only way we create change. But when I first read Ms. Marvel comics seven years ago, Kamala inspired me to search for more stories like mine. Seeing Kamala inspired me to write, as I am doing now, so that others can see themselves in stories as I did. I hope Ms. Marvel can mean something similar for other Muslim girls. And hopefully Ms. Marvel is a signal of change in Muslim representation in TV and film—and in the MCU—that has been a long time coming.