[Interview] Absar Kazmi on illustrating humorous comics with a thoughtful message and his take on social media
Equipped with a life-long passion for drawing, and an advocate for faith, moral and ethical issues, Absar Kazmi is founder and illustrator of a clever comic series: Life with the Ahmad Family. In the series he explores a variety of issues evident in Muslim societies, as well as stories and messages that appeal to people of all faiths, ages and backgrounds.
All this wrapped in an often times humorous package, Absar says he wanted to create something different with the Ahmad family: “I wanted to show that practicing Muslim families live real lives; no doubt prayer, fasting, reading Qur’an are all extremely important, but Muslims families also joke with one another, we play football, we go on picnics and we like reading regular books too!”
Absar was born in Pakistan, but spent lot of his youth traveling (and sketching) from country to country, from the animals in the wilderness safaris of Kenya to drawings of superheroes. However he soon gave this up, only to renew this passion in later years of university and married life. He then found a way he could sketch that was Islamically permissible and wanted to pursue both his passion for drawing and passion for his faith, “With the popularity of conventional comics and cartoons amongst the Muslim youth – it seemed that there was a real need for Islamically acceptable comics and other media for the youth” he says.
After a few creative pursuits, in late 2011 Absar was given a platform from Hiba Magazine to develop a cartoon for them to attract a wider audience, and thus Life with the Ahmad Family was born. Read my exclusive interview with Absar as he shares his interesting journey, his take on issues surrounding social media and technology, and even tips for the upcoming month of Ramadan.
How did ‘Life with the Ahmad Family’ come about? What led you to create this series, and why?
That’s an interesting story… About seven to eight years years ago while lying in bed trying to go to sleep I had an idea for a story about a boy who has a really bad day. Since I couldn’t go to sleep anyway, I began to type it out. His day starts out bad, gets worse; soon becomes awful, then horrible, and finally downright abominable! I called the story ‘A Bad Time Tale’ and I named the boy Jamal.
A short while later I heard about an international story writing competition to be held by a well-known Islamic books publishing company. I thought this is the perfect opportunity to see how my story does, so I fixed it up a bit and sent it in to the competition. Alhumdulillah, it won first place!
“I wanted to show that Muslim families also joke with one another, we play football, we go on picnics and we like reading regular books too!”
Now I really wanted to have my ‘book’ published; however, I thought to myself, ‘Why in the world would anyone want to read a children’s book by a completely unknown author?!’ So, I just sat on the idea for a few years… not really knowing how to take it further.
A few years later, in late 2011, Hiba Magazine approached me asking me to develop a character or cartoon for them in order to help them attract a younger audience. I agreed to help them, but didn’t really know where to begin. Then it dawned on me… This could be THE opportunity to introduce Jamal to the world. So I developed a comic about Jamal and his family and called it ‘Life with the Ahmad Family’. I was hoping that this comic would allow me to get people accustomed to the Ahmad Family and then soon I could also introduce ‘A Bad-Time Tale’ to this new audience.
I wanted to get away from the stereotypical Muslim family roles where the father is a stern, elderly man who runs the home with an iron fist and everyone just obeys him. I deliberately made Umm Jamal (the mother) a strong, intelligent, well-educated and organized character who is not afraid to voice her opinion. On the other hand, Abu Jamal is a kind and loving father, who often makes jokes, but at the same time will put his foot down when the need arises. I felt these things would allow everyone to relate to and enjoy the Ahmad Family; not just youngsters, but also adults.
Some of the Ahmad Family comic characters are actually based on people I know or have met in my life. Jamal’s best friend Omar is loosely based on my own brother, who is also named Omar. Umm Jamal is somewhat based on my wife, and Sensei Jameel – who appeared in ‘The Secret to Jamal’s Courage’ – was actually my real life Ju-jitsu teacher.
Initially we were just posting the comics to the Hiba Blog, but soon – as we saw that there is some interest in the comics – we started up our own Life with the Ahmad Family Facebook page. So now people can enjoy the latest comics there also.
Where do you get your ideas and inspiration from?
There is no single source of inspiration of course. I do have a mental list of topics or themes that I would like to address in the comics. Specifically, I try and address ethical and moral problems which I feel plague Muslim societies such as pride, arrogance, dishonesty, racism, etc. I also try and address culture-related issues, i.e. many of the cultural norms which Muslims have begun to associate with Islam. Many of the topics are also based on the time of year or some special event.
“I get many ideas from my own kids… there are many funny things that happen in our own home which give me great ideas for comics.”
I get many ideas from my own kids. I have four beautiful daughters and there is a wide age gap between the eldest and the youngest. So there are many funny things that happen in our own home which give me great ideas for comics.
On one occasion we were all sitting down together and one of my daughters asked, ‘What is semet… semmitry?’ My eldest, responded… ‘Oh, you mean a cemetery? That’s a place where they bury the dead!’ It turns out she actually wanted to know what the word ‘symmetry’ means. This caused a lot of laughter and also gave me an idea for one of the comics. Now and then I also get some brilliant ideas from friends and fans of the Ahmad Family comics.
What topics are you passionate about illustrating and why?
Well, one of the main motivations for creating the comics was as a form of da’wah, not just for non-Muslims but also Muslims. So I try and address issues which I feel are very important for helping to improve the state of Muslims. I try as much as possible to focus on moral and ethical issues. For example, yes it’s obligatory to make salaah, fast in Ramadan, etc. However, in a very famous hadith Rasool Allah (SAW) said: ‘I have only been sent to perfect good morals’. So how about keeping our promises? Being honest in our business and other dealings? Treating our spouses and children well? Being kind and considerate with our neighbours?
What challenges are there in creating a comic, and how do you overcome them?
The main challenge is Ideas!! Coming up with really good ideas for a storyline is the biggest challenge!
It only takes me a few hours to illustrate the comics, but to come up with a really ‘hard hitting’ concept that is also humorous or entertaining sometimes takes me days.
” I try and address ethical and moral problems which I feel plague societies such as pride, arrogance, dishonesty, racism”
Besides that, I am at a slight disadvantage as compared to many fellow artists out there because I don’t have any formal training. So, each day is a challenge in order to improve my work and each day you try and learn something new.
Your Privacy comic explores some face-to-face social interactions compared to interactions with people in the cyberworld. What do you feel are the issues we face with social media/technology today?
That was a comic I did in response to some of the new social media trends that are being adopted by all social media users; Muslims and people of other faiths.
I am sure most of us would agree that there are many pros and cons for Muslims when it comes to social media; just like any other technology.
There is a HUGE potential for da’wah using these tools as is evident by the work of Sufi Comics, Life with the Ahmad Family, and many bigger initiatives which are sincerely trying to change people’s perceptions of Islam and encouraging them to adopt the Islamic way of life. Many people have, alhumdulillah, accepted Islam just because of some of the good Muslims they have interacted with on social media or perhaps the lectures or articles they have read on the same platforms.
However, as with any tool we use, we need to be very careful to maintain certain limits. I am personally very uneasy about this new ‘selfie’ culture that has spread among the youth – letting the entire world see what they are doing. I think this is leading to a very ‘self-absorbed’, ‘me, me, me’ attitude where we constantly feel the need to tell everyone what we are up to. Furthermore our moods and self-worth are now based on how many likes we got for that ‘selfie’ we posted. Many people actually become depressed when no one likes their new picture. This is extremely dangerous I feel.
As for me, although I am active on Facebook, my posts are limited to the Ahmad Family comics or some lecture or video which I have seen which I feel is very important for others to also read or benefit from. I don’t post any pictures or videos of myself or my family members. Alhumdulillah, I have a very rich life offline; and I in no way feel the need to share my personal details or experiences with strangers. It is dangerous and completely unnecessary as far as I am concerned. But hey… that’s just me! :o)
I like how you use humour in spiritual reminders and contemporary topics. Overall what tone, ways or techniques in your comic series are effective in getting your messages across and why?
Humor is one factor; however what I have found is that the main ingredient for making an Ahmad Family post go ‘viral’ is a storyline that the audience can immediately relate to.
One comic I recently did involved Abdullah (Abu Jamal) who had gone over to Waleed’s house for dinner. And – as many hosts in our Muslim countries do – Waleed kept forcing Abdullah to eat more and more, despite Abdullah’s pleading. Finally when Abdullah asked why Waleed won’t listen to him, Waleed informs him with an evil smile that he is actually taking revenge on him, because Abdullah acted the same way some time ago when Waleed came over for dinner.
The audience seemed to love this comic… I think because all of us have experienced this before with a well-meaning Muslim host. And all of secretly wished at the time we could take revenge!
We know the Ahmad family live in a small town with people of different races, cultures, religions and nationalities. What do you feel we could do to create a more understanding and tolerant community/society?
One thing I have noticed about many Muslims living in multicultural societies is that they keep to themselves and don’t interact much with their neighbours, colleagues, etc. When they do interact they never want to discuss religion. Of course this will lead to confusion and sometimes suspicion about Islam.
We need to be proud of our Deen, have good relations with our neighbours and now and then bring up the topic of Deen with them and tell them what we believe. During Ramadan, bring them iftaar once in a while; during ‘Eid tell them about ‘Eid and why we are celebrating. I’m sure our non-Muslim neighbours would be very appreciative and perhaps even be impressed with Islam when they see that Islam encourages taking care of neighbours, cleanliness, discipline and devotion to God. What better way to develop tolerance?
In some comics you’ve illustrated the etiquettes of eating and prayer from Islamic traditions. Do you feel your comics have universal messages that can appeal to people of all faiths and how?
No doubt a minority of the comics might be very specific to Muslims; however while developing most of them I do try and keep in mind what people of other faiths might have to gain from them. For example, there are certain comics that deal with bullying in Jamal’s school, or students cheating from one another on homework. Any youngster who is going to school, or his/her parents – whether Muslim or non-Muslim – would be able to relate with these stories.
“Humor is one factor; however what I have found is that the main ingredient for making an Ahmad Family post go ‘viral’ is a storyline that the audience can immediately relate to.”
Similarly, some time ago there was an episode dealing with hijab where Fatima (Umm Jamal) explains the wisdom behind hijab to her non-Muslim friend Lucy. So, Alhumdulillah, I do think that these comics can be very beneficial to both Muslims and people of other faiths. Allahu A’lam.
Some of the comics are just plain funny and don’t really have any real connection to religion at all… which I feel are universally beneficial. Again, this goes back to one of the main reasons for developing the comics which is to show that practicing Muslims do lead regular lives and face many of the same challenges that everyone does.
I liked your recent ‘Ramadan Prep’ comic. Can you share with us some tips on how to prepare for the upcoming month Ramadan?
Ramadan is the month of Qur’an. And the fasting of Ramadan and proper reciting of Qur’an go hand in hand in our improvement, development and guidance as believers. Allah (SWT) says about the Qur’an in Surah Al Baqarah vs. 2: ‘This is the book in which is no doubt guidance for the Muttaqeen.’ Meaning only those who fear Allah, who have taqwa, can gain guidance from the Qur’an.
When discussing fasting, Allah (SWT) says: ‘O You who Believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed on those before you so that you may gain Taqwa.’ (Surah Al Baqarah).
So we see an extremely amazing connection. To gain guidance from the Qur’an you need taqwa, but where do you get this taqwa? From fasting (done properly). So the month of Ramadan is a beautiful program that Allah has given us to gain taqwa and gain guidance from the Qur’an. During the day we fast in order to gain taqwa and at night we stand in tarawih and listen to the Qur’an and insha Allah gain guidance from it.
My sincere advice to all my brothers and sisters for this Ramadan is… don’t waste your time! Sisters especially, please don’t spend so much time in the kitchen! Plan in advance how you will maximize the usage of your time this Ramadan to sit with the Qur’an; recite it, understand its words, teach it to your family and listen to it during tarawih!
What has your journey been so far, as in your experiences and the feedback that you have received?
Masha Allah, overall the journey has been extremely rewarding. 99% of the feedback we have received has been extremely positive. Sometimes young kids (and even a medical student!) write to me and send me their drawings and ask me for my advice on how they can pursue a career in illustrating. Sometimes parents will write to me just to say thanks for helping to provide a halal and funny alternative to regular comics.
Masha Allah, we now have people from all over the world asking us if they can translate our comics into their native languages and promote them there. A Latvian sister is already translating and posting Ahmad Family comics in Latvian. Some Brazilian sisters have also begun translating them into Portuguese.
We have now also begun introducing other Ahmad Family products for kids, e.g. colouring and activity books, posters, etc. May Allah accept our efforts… Ameen!
Overall what do you hope to achieve in the future? Anything that we should look out for?
Well, with Life with the Ahmad Family, I just sincerely hope Allah (SWT) grants us success in changing people’s perceptions about Islam and Muslims as a result of these comics. I hope and pray that people begin seeing Islam and Islamic morals and ethics as a real force for changing society for the better. If we achieve this, then Alhumdulillah, we have done our job.
“Sometimes young kids (and even a medical student!) write to me and send me their drawings and ask me for my advice on how they can pursue a career in illustrating.”
As for what to expect in the future, alhumdulillah we are now coming out with a printed version of the comics. So now both young and old will be able to purchase the comics from a bookstore and read them comfortably on their couches and also share them with friends and families. Insha Allah, the first comic should be available a little later this year.
Last but not least what do you think about Sufi Comics?
Tazkiyyah (self-purification) is a very important part of our Deen which I think many of us overlook. Allah (SWT) says in Surah Al A’laa: ‘The one who purifies himself has already succeeded’.
Masha Allah, Sufi Comics is helping to refocus our attention towards this extremely important spiritual side of our Deen and thus they are playing a critical role. I pray Allah (SWT) continues to guide the brothers and sisters at Sufi Comics and grants them success in encouraging Muslims to constantly do their tazkiyyah as taught by Allah and His Noble Messenger (SAW)… Ameen!
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Images copyright and courtesy of Absar Kazmi