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A Love Letter to Islamic Children’s Books

As a seasoned lover of vintage clothing, I always had this uncanny knack of being able to scan a rail of clothing from across the shop and be instantly drawn to the sole diamond amongst the moth-eaten rubble. Eight years, two children, and a seismic shift of priorities later, I have now developed this sixth sense for children’s literature. In place of Rockit, almost all of my trips to hotspots in East London are now punctuated with visits to the athar-laden Islamic shops to see what real treasures lie – behind the sea of abayas, thobes, miswaks, and monosyllabic shop owners – that I may be able to share with my children. I can visually sort through a bookshelf at record speed and impulsively spot the stories my children will have an affinity with. Each time I’m presented with a trove of books in these Aladdin’s caves of possibility, I find myself entertaining the prospect of finding a book that will contain the promise of Islam in a way that is engaging, dynamic, and relatable to their young minds.
Undoubtedly, these trips have progressed with time. From the early years of my daughter’s birth, my creativity and improvisation skills were tested to their absolute limits with having to replace the bizarre and almost biblical-style language found in the Islamic children’s books of that era with a language and sense of imagination that was consistent with my daughter’s own. All of this, while turning a blind eye to the outmoded and incongruous imagery that accompanied these words in the pre and early Instagram era of Islamic children’s literature. I still consider it a tragic gap in Muslim subculture that, in the mid-2010s, mums did not develop an underground rap battle style scene to display these spontaneous storytelling skills. But then we were enduring the first iteration of bloggers and influencers, so please put some respect on our names.
Of course, with the growth of Instagram and a more digitally literate Muslim population, those rudimentary and prototypical stories have progressed into a slicker, more imaginative, and better articulated vision of a world for Muslim children. We are blessed to have some seriously talented and creative storytellers in our community, as well as some amazing publishing houses.
I have taught my children the meanings and significance of the beautiful everyday duʿā that pepper our language as Muslims through Learning Roots. I have also taught them the most monumental, most emotional, and most beautiful of realities: that we may one day meet our Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam). I challenge anyone to get through a reading of The Prophet’s Pond without turning into a blubbering mess. With the help of Hajera Memon and her publishing house Shade 7, I have walked with my children hand in hand to pre-Islamic Makkah, to the year of the Prophet’s birth, and to witness the miracle of Allāh protecting the sanctity of the Ka’bah. My children and I have had a few laughs with Migo and his mate Ali, and marvelled at the Ramadan moon with the inimitable Na’ima Robert. More recently, I have been able to encourage my children to think beyond themselves and see how they might contribute to a wider goal through Basirah and her basketball friends. These characters and lands and stories have contributed to my children’s understanding of Islam and how it fits into the world they occupy.
But for years prior, as a consumer, I felt like the Islamic children’s book sector was being carried along by the good grace of anxious Muslim parents, desperate to use the ancient and failsafe art of storytelling to connect with their children, helping them project their world and refine their aspirations. To be frank, the need to preserve a sense of dignity reached a fever pitch against a tsunami of negative media portrayals of Muslims. There was a struggle not to give over the hijab or the beard or our entire belief system to the angry mob of the mainstream media to maul into an ugly caricature based on (at best) orientalist fantasies, and at worst vilified, Islamophobic monstrosities.
We need these stories, and more, because we are fighting what appears to be a losing battle in which the very language and imagery we use to define and value ourselves is rooted in Islamophobic ideology. How would my daughter’s perception of her father’s beard develop when the only time she saw it outside of the familiar hue of our home was in the bleached and streaky light of a mug shot on the front page of The Sun with bold and red capital letters emblazoned across as a warning? How could I speak to my daughter about the hijab in terms like modesty, obedience, and even agency when they are entirely sullied by binary and reductive debates that benefit no one?
And so, I still ask myself, how do we reclaim the visual and written web of narratives that we as Muslims have become ensnared in so that Islam at least has a fair chance with them?
Reader, I decided to add to the canon and write my own book.
Building upon my early days of haltingly retelling invented stories to the images of the Islamic children’s books of bygone eras, and the lines of dialogue I had created with my own children, I put pen to paper and exposed my soul to the brutal rejection of the publishing world. Like all mums the world over, I just got on with it.
My story is based on a ʿUmrah trip when my eldest was merely four years old. I was my daughter’s entire world at that age, and everyone else was a mere backdrop to our many exploits. Naturally, she equated the hijab with the most aspirational thing she could conceive of at the time: being her mummy. As we stood in awe and veneration, in front of the Ka’bah, she asked me what I was so fervently doing with my hands raised.
Teaching your children the beauty of duʿā enables you to fall in love with it all over again. It is a unique call to Allāh – the only One that can help us – and that most natural, primordial, instinctive call is unparalleled because it always brings good in whatever package it might manifest itself.
Armed with this new and exciting information, my daughter thought this would be the perfect opportunity to ask for the one thing she felt most deprived of: her own hijab collection. And so we watched on, perplexed, as she made earnest duʿā for all kinds of frilly hijab monstrosities. Totally dumbstruck, we followed her into the markets of Makkah to ensure she felt the power of duʿā. “We are able to buy these hijabs,” I would tentatively add, “because Allāh has given us the ability, doll…” while I tried my best to keep up with her confident strides across the narrow alleyways.
Day three of her turning into the Imelda Marcos of the children’s hijab market, it dawned upon me that, even at this tender age, it might be a good time to expand on what I had taught her about Islam as a perfect system in and of itself. It was absolutely the right time to demonstrate that Islam was also the perfect prism through which to see and shape one’s world. We spoke about the different kinds of duʿā – and aspirations – we should have as individuals. What would transient material objects bring her? This made me think about how we framed concepts such as happiness in our home, and how we saw reward, recreation, and treats. The hijabs that she so desperately wanted at this phase in her life provided an almost literal metaphor for materialism. So, my daughter returned home from Makkah with a few hijabs, but also with a heart full of aspirational duʿā – to be an astronaut, a doctor, to be able to build an extended hijab wardrobe…
Ultimately, with this book I wrote, my aim is to employ the written and visual narrative to leave a lasting impression on children that read it – to sow the seeds through which they will ultimately come to understand that duʿā is one of the most powerful tools we possess as believers, and one of the key aspects of our relationship with our Almighty Creator. Through duʿā, we are enabling our children to develop taqwā, hope, optimism, and, most importantly, resilience. I teach my daughters that when we make duʿā and we don’t get what we asked for, that doesn’t mean our duʿā isn’t granted – there will undoubtedly be something better in it for us. I also hope that, through this book, readers will understand that duʿā is not a discrete and isolated act, but a means for us to achieve continual improvement. Duʿā is an endeavour of trying to constantly better ourselves – that is what defines us and helps us to thrive, not our material possessions.
The background message of this book is one of materialism and transience in an increasingly consumer-driven world. I wanted to teach my daughter that material things will not advance her personal development. Of course, it is vital for children to contextualise their place in the world. In the neo-liberal epoch that we live in, the message we receive both consciously and unconsciously through politics, media, and advertising rests upon the cult of the individual. We are marketed at as individuals and discouraged from seeing the global impact of our consumer habits. As an Ummah, employing tools such as storytelling we should be connecting the dots to demonstrate the wider world to our children so that they can behave more responsibly towards it. While these may be complex themes for young minds, I was able to address them in small and simple ways during my children’s more formative years through personal experiences so that they are able to see the world around them with greater accuracy. This is what I aim to do with this book: present large and important themes through a simple narrative.
My journey from conceiving of it to writing, pitching, and illustrating it has been a long one. One of the consistent pieces of feedback I received was to change the object that the main character Khadijah impetuously returns to purchase. I received endless suggestions as to what the material object could be – toy cars, dolls, etc. – despite it being in opposition to my actual lived reality and experience. This reinforced the need, to me, for a book in which a religious symbol is not in the focus or spotlight, but is just unapologetically part of the ordinary paraphernalia of Muslim life.
I wanted to create a world where the hijab was no longer foregrounded like a strange and foreign object that we are desperately trying to pull the inadequate medium of language and imagery over in order to normalise. I wanted to recreate the original, untainted, unconscious adoration and the flippant approach my daughter originally had for the hijab before she became aware that it sometimes draws unusual attention and hostile looks. In the world of the child, the hijab – without the religious obligation – becomes depoliticised, whether we as adults are able to deal with the implications of that or not. I have previously written about how the issue of children ‘wearing’ the hijab has a peculiar capacity to unleash even the most unwitting Muslim’s inner Islamophobe. And so I wrote this part of our journey out of defiance to a climate that has created this imprint in all of us of feeling a sense of shame or insecurity about the hijab.
I also wanted my story to capture the precocious and playful nature of children. The childhood stories I loved most growing up were absolutely those stories that I saw myself in, that I related to on an instinctive and prelingual level. The exaggerated self-pitying of Bernard who feels even if a monster ate him up his parents wouldn’t notice; so constantly side-lined he was. Or the temperamental nature of Tony Ross’s potty princess. I wanted to situate our home in the local, and not pander to an imaginary, generic, global audience by being so universal and free from specific geographic and cultural references. Though as an Ummah we may not be united by geography or culture, we are united by something infinitely greater. I wanted to create an experience. I did not want to drown my readers in words. I wanted to aid conversation in children’s homes and not stifle them. Equally, I did not want to be condescending or patronising in my use of language. And so I created a world about children as much as for them that I hope that many Muslim families can relate to and share. A world that mirrors theirs but is also different. One that sparks some meaningful conversations, that literally draws them closer over a smaller and more compact book. And I pray our journey of discovery of duʿā, and our individual and collective aspirations as an Ummah, resonates with many more Muslim families across the globe.
And so this is my love letter to the world of Islamic children’s books, from the not so good to the absolutely brilliant, and everything in between – now with a new addition from my family.