By: Mezbauddin Mahtab
Disclosure: I am an author of two books on Quran aimed at Muslim children. My work and all information of my books can be found on my site[i], and thus I have a vested interest in creating a demand for higher quality when it comes to Islamic books for children. This article is also written in response to a recent guest post on MuslimMatters[ii] about Muslim children’s books.
As a Muslim kid growing up in the Middle East, my first exposure to books was Enid Blyton. Yes, we did have the mandatory nursery rhymes (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) and the text books for school, but I got into reading as a serious hobby only after I discovered The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, The Five Find Outers and other fantastic adventure books by this prolific British author.
As I read about children of my age having bike rides in the English country side, and enjoying picnics with cream buns and lashings of ginger ale, and then fall into adventure by tackling Cornish smugglers by the sea cove, I wondered if I would ever see a Muslim character in one of my favourite books. What do you do when you are following a suspect and it’s time for Maghreb prayer? Is it halal for a boy to dress up as an old cleaning lady in disguise to eavesdrop on a counterfeiters’ meeting? And since dogs seemed to be a no-no as a Muslim child’s pet, can Tabby, the cat really help you solve the Case of the Mysterious Letters?
As I grew older, my interests moved on to The Hardy Boys (and yes, also Nancy Drew), and then on to science fiction, fantasy and so on. Sadly, Muslim characters were far and few between and mostly appeared as the bad guys. There seemed to be no books written for the Muslim reader, starring characters he or she can relate to, except for religious books and Islamic history (Stories of the Companions, anyone?).
And that brings us to the quality of these books. Before I can look in depth at the standard of books available for Muslim children, I do want to acknowledge the authors that wrote them and their efforts.
1. They took the initiative to do something themselves rather than wait for another person to come up with the perfect book.
As I can attest to, writing a book is an extremely time consuming process. Not only do you have to engage your creative faculties, there’s editing, working with others for cover design, dealing with the feedback, the publishers, the marketing and list goes on and on. An author who got a book published has spent a lot of their own time and effort, and rather than waiting for others to fill the void, they stepped up to the plate. For this, they must be applauded.
2. These authors have put their best foot forward, and now it’s for others to match and better their effort.
The first work in any field is hardy the best work in that field, but they pave the way for others to follow. These first books created a market and an ecosystem for Islamic books, and now others can reap the rewards.
3. These books never pay the rent.
The market that buys Islamic books for children in the West is a very small market. There is never enough of a demand that a person can make a living writing these books. Most authors do it due to altruistic reasons. For example, Tasnim Nazeer, the author of Allah’s Gifts, wrote the book after losing a child through miscarriage. She wrote the book to promote and appreciate the blessings of Allah, and to inculcate a sense of gratitude for our blessings. The money is nice, and helps validate the work and encourage future work, but it is not the main intention.
When I first started to illustrate verses from the Quran using LEGO© Bricks, it was just a mere hobby. Suddenly, however, my blog started to show a huge spike in the number of visitors, and soon I realized I had a hit on my hands. I recognized that there was a scarcity of the tafseer (exegesis) of Quran in an accessible manner for kids. It was then that I decided to write an illustrated book of Tafseer for Surahs using LEGO© Bricks, and started to investigate the world of children’s Islamic books.
There are quite a few gems out there. Khurram Murad’s The Long Search[iii] is one beautiful book that chronicles the life of Salman, the Persian . His other book, The Desert Chief, tells the story of Thumana Ibn Uthal, and The Brave Boy is the story of Ali ibn Abu Talib . However, as the age level of the reader grows younger, the number of good books becomes scarcer. Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns is a recent book that has been in the news. However, when compared to the quality of non-Islamic books, such as Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, the cupboard looks almost bare.
In my opinion, there are five major reasons for this state of affairs.
1. There are not enough Muslims in the Arts.
As anyone who is of South Asian origin knows, there’s really only two choices when it comes to a career – you are either a doctor or an engineer. For a long time those were the options, and only later did Computer Science, Business or Pharmacy become an option. Arts continued to be an afterthought. It’s not hard to see why – most of those in Arts, especially in the film making or media, would be involved in an industry whose Islamic permissibility was questionable at best. It is a far less stable field of employment, and success was not guaranteed. Much safer, as many reasoned, to be a doctor or an engineer.
2. Those Muslims in the Arts were not “Islamic” minded.
The Muslims who did venture into the Arts were often not interested in producing Islamic material; they were attracted to the industry as it was. Only recently has journalism, film making, writing, music, painting etc. attracted Muslim artists in droves, especially due to a vibrant Turkish, Lebanese, Egyptian and Qatari film industry.
3. A lack of support within the Muslim community.
In addition to a lack of encouragement from Muslim parents in sending their children into Arts, there was also a noticeable lack of support from the community in supporting the work that was produced. I could remember good Islamic books being photocopied wholesale (and illegally) by mosques and schools for distribution to patrons. When questioned on why did they not purchase the book legally, the answer was always “Brother, this is fee sabilillah”. Similarly, when I produced my book, immediately there were those asked for a “free” copy, or a “friend’s discount”, leading me to write on why I would not do that[iv]. Similarly, lecture CDs were copied without any regard to the cost and effort needed to produce that work.If we Muslims wanted quality work, we have to be prepared to pay out of our pocketbooks for that. If we want a quality imam, we need to pay him a decent wage. If we need a mosque to provide services, we need to donate to the mosque. While this support is slowly trickling in, it’s still missing in the vast Muslim world in the East, where books, CDs, TV programs are all pirated with impunity.
4. Frowning on Arts by the Muslim scholarship.
Sheikh Yasir Qadhi has a lecture where he talks about the Omar series by MBC. The series faced a big controversy due to its portrayal of the four Rashidun Caliphs and other characters who some scholars believed should not be depicted. Despite the controversy, it was a huge hit with Muslims and even Sheikh Yasir Qadhi admitted watching the series boosted his imaan[v]. I felt the same way – our history and our religion has some fantastic stories that should be portrayed on the big screen, and in books, and in paint. Similar issues have plagued Muslim artists.Despite the fact that historically there has been depictions of even the Prophet Muhammad , with either his face veiled, or symbolically represented as a flame; historically many scholars have frowned upon visual representations of Prophets and other holy figures, or even of living beings such as humans and animals. While idolatry was a concern regarding images, it takes a huge stretch of imagination to think that a figure painted in a children’s book will cause him or her to start worshipping that painting. Similarly, any body of work that contained art that wasn’t calligraphy, or had music, faced opposition from the scholars. Yet the masses lapped up the Omar TV series, and no lecture by an esteemed scholar could bring our history to life like this series did. When scholars refused to support an artist’s work, it becomes harder to get the ordinary Muslim to purchase and patronize the work.
5. Lack of Professionals in the Field.
Given the fact that there are not enough Muslim professionals in the Arts, and the lack of a sizeable market to support their work, it stands to reasons that editors, writers, illustrators, musicians and others will only be part time in their work. This is not their main source of income and thus their standards can only go so high. Moreover, English is not the first language of many of such folk. This is why many of the English translations of famous works (such as The Sealed Nectar, translated from Ar Raheeq Al Maktum) contain numerous errors, both spelling and grammatical, that can turn off many a reader.
So What Can We Do About It?
The news is not all gloom and doom though. The situation is comparable to the Halal Food industry in the West. Few years ago, it was hard to find a decent halal establishment in major cities (such as Toronto, New York, Chicago) that provided good ambience, had great food and wasn’t the usual biryani/shawarma offerings. Yet, as the demographics shifted to younger, educated, well-off middle class Muslim families who were prepared to pay for a good halal food experience, the market responded. Today in Toronto there are halal steakhouses and restaurants serving a variety of cuisines such as Italian, Portuguese, German, Canadian in addition to the traditional South Asian and Arab fare. The market will follow the dollars and the demand, and one can see the same happening with Muslim children’s books.
Muslims are flooding the arts and media scene. Muslim comics (such as Maniac Muslim who started with humble web origins) are now common, and so are North American nasheed singers and word poets. MuslimFest, a Canadian exhibition that focuses solely on Muslim arts and entertainment, is one of the biggest festivals in North America, and the two day events draws more than 10,000 visitors daily. Meanwhile, more and more diverse books and non-traditional media are being published for Muslim kids, from Islamic themed colouring books to smartphone apps and games with a learning edge. It is not hard to foresee the quality of Islamic children’s books improving. What is needed, from both the public and the scholars, is to support their efforts.
[i] Read With Meaning, http://readwithmeaning.wordpress.com/
[ii] Muslim Children’s Books: An Expose, http://muslimmatters.org/2014/07/09/muslim-childrens-books-an-expose/
[iii] Khurram Murad, The Long Search, http://www.amazon.ca/The-Long-Search-Salman-Persian/dp/0860371379
[iv] 4 Reasons on Why I Do Not Give a Discount (or Give My Book Away for Free), Mezba Mahtab, http://mezba.blogspot.ca/2013/10/4-reasons-why-i-do-not-give-discount-or.html
[v] Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, Looking Back as We Look Forward, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJmrPh2sRuw
About the author: Mezbauddin Mahtab is an IT professional, photographer, blogger, and a devoted husband and father based in Toronto, Ontario. He is the author of Teaching Kids the Holy Quran – Chapter 18: The Cave, as well as Teaching Kids the Holy Quran – Chapter 71: Nuh, both of which tells stories from the Quran using LEGO© Bricks and toys. He maintains a personal blog on A Bengali in TO, and is currently planning his third book on Surah Yusuf.