Seven-year-old Ali Azeem had a problem. Assigned to write a report on an important historical figure for his third-grade class in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, he chose the Prophet Muhammad as his subject. But there wasn't enough reference material on Muhammad in his school library, and he ended up writing about Mozart instead.
"There were books available on Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa," recalls Ali's mother, Nasreen, "but nothing on 'ids, Islam or Muslims."
Nasreen Azeem says that keeping in touch with Islam wasn't difficult for her generation when she was growing up in Skokie in the 1960's and 70's. When she emigrated from Pakistan to the United States, she and her family brought with them a way of life that centered on their faith.
But later generations of Muslim children, in the US, Britain and elsewhere in the West, have a much harder job. Teaching of religion is barred in public schools in the United States; in Britain, Islam is covered briefly along with the other Abrahamic religions. Instead of finding their faith reinforced at every turn, as it is in Muslim countries, youngsters in these pluralistic societies are exposed to a crossfire of ideas and images. At best, this can lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Islam; at worst it can undercut a traditional, all-encompassing faith and leave nothing to replace it.
Publishers of Islamic books for children sprang up in the 1970's in both the United States and Britain, responding to the needs of two groups: the growing Muslim immigrant communities, and the smaller but significant body of Western converts to Islam. Today, a generation later, the audience of Western-born Muslim children—native speakers of English—has dramatically increased. The response has been a new wave of publishing ventures, some quite sophisticated, and a greater variety of books—along with colorful and attractively designed magazines—available for the classroom and the home.
Ancillary organizations are also appearing. Nasreen Azeem and other Skokie-area volunteers have established Islamic Education Resource to review new books and help readers choose among them. "I get calls from parents with three- and four-year-old kids who want good books about Islam and can't find them," she says. "The new generation with kids is eager to find the right books to teach their children how important Islam is."
Such books are even attracting buyers from other faiths. Allah Created Everything, published by Amica International in Seattle, drew orders from Jewish organizations as well as the Muslim community, says company president Mohammad M. Khokhar. And the first US printing of A Young Muslim's Guide to the Modern World was snapped up by Christians, Jews and Muslims after its author, Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., discussed the book in a National Public Radio interview. The book aims to help young Muslims "understand Islam well enough to defend their faith in a Western context," says Nasr, and its broad appeal may stem from the fact that all three faiths are facing similar secular challenges today. Commissioned by Sahl Kabbani, a Saudi industrialist who earned his university degree in the United States, the book is published by the Islamic Texts Society in Britain and by Kazi Publications in the US.
Historically, books for young people from Muslim presses haven't packed enough market punch to claim shelf space in mainstream bookstores. Today, however, bookstores are responding to changing circumstances: Muslims are becoming increasingly visible in Western societies, and increasingly valuable customers; and more and more Muslim publishers are bringing out titles with the desirable content, eye-catching illustration, good design and high production values needed to compete head-to-head with major houses in the race for young readers.
Hood Hood Books in London is one of the newest such publishers. The company takes its name from the hoopoe— hudhud in Arabic—says Dalia Salaam Rishani, co-director of the firm with Abd al-Rahman Azzam. "The hoopoe is said to have shuttled between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as a messenger," she adds. "It was known as the bearer of knowledge and glad tidings, just as we would like to be."
Hood Hood, which opened its doors in 1996, publishes books that focus on the rich cultural, folkloric and religious heritage of Islamic and Eastern civilizations. By the end of 1997 it offered 24 titles—10 of which are also available in Arabic—in several series. "Heroes From the East," for children under 10, introduces historical figures. "Treasures From the East," for slightly older children, focuses on such subjects as Cairo's Ibn Tulun mosque and the Taj Mahal in India, placing them in their historical and cultural perspective "to offer a multidimensional view of history," says Azzam.
"Fables From the East" includes books like The Conference of the Birds, about the hoopoe's mission, and the series "The Travels of Ibn Battuta" follows the famous 14th-century Moroccan on his journey across North Africa to Makkah, on to China and back again. "We're trying to make children aware of geography and give them a sense of adventure and the joys of travel," explains Azzam, who holds a doctorate in Islamic history from Oxford University and is authoring the Ibn Battuta stories himself. Such accounts, which illuminate a Muslim hero, offer a valuable historical perspective and engender a sense of cultural pride, he adds.
Hood Hood counters common stereotypes about Muslims by emphasizing the historical ties—and not the boundaries—between East and West. The series "The Lives of the Prophets" covers the key figures of the Qur'an and the Bible and "stresses the idea of tolerance and understanding among the faiths," explains Rishani.
"The presentation of a story is important," she says. "Through our writing, illustration and design, we're trying to introduce all the children of the world to a new vision and a new feel." To ensure that illustrations accurately reflect the cultures they describe, Hood Hood recruits students from the Visual Islamic and Traditional Art Department, known as vita, since 1993 part of the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture in London. (See Aramco World, May/June 1990.)
Hoopoe Books in Cairo predates its London namesake by several years. Its output—almost all children's books—encompasses traditional stories from the Arab world, new fiction on Arab themes, books on ancient Egypt and the background of Islam, and modern non-fiction about Egypt. The company is operated by Andy Smart, a Briton, and his Egyptian wife, Nadia Fouda.
"This is a place in which there are so many books to be written," says Smart, "and so many stories to be told." Egypt's domestic market has been bolstered by growing numbers of private schools whose language of instruction is English and by the expanded public-school English program; international sales are buoyant, Smart says, "because the whole world is interested in Egypt and the Arab world."
Hoopoe's best-sellers—books with sales above 10,000 copies—include Goha, about the "wise fool" of Middle Eastern folklore (See Aramco World, September/October 1997), Folktales From Egypt and Festivals of Egypt. The house recently scored a coup in publishing Battles of the Prophet Muhammad: In a laudatory review, the Cairo newspaper Al-Dustour called it "ironic" that the first children's book on the subject had appeared in English and not Arabic.
The Islamic Foundation in Leicester, England—an educational and research organization—pioneered the publication of Islamic children's literature in the United Kingdom in 1973, and its Children's Library has published some 40 books for "Muslim children born and brought up in the West," says director Manazir Ahsan.
"We give children's literature top priority," he says. "The Muslim community is part and parcel of the overall community. Third- and fourth-generation Muslim immigrants can only read English, and state schools don't have the background to teach about Islam, so they are using our literature." The work is important, Ahsan believes, since more than two million Muslims live in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and one third of them are children or adolescents.
Along with textbooks and supplementary storybooks, the Islamic Foundation is producing The Qur'an in Plain English for children, parents and new Muslims. The first of the planned three volumes will appear in October. And in The Miracle of Life, the foundation tackles sex education. "Muslims by and large are shy of even uttering the word sex, but our children are exposed to very explicit material every day," says Ahsan. The book teaches about creation and the development of the body from religious, moral and ethical points of view and has received "very, very appreciative comments from parents and students," he says.
Ta Ha Publishers in London also produces low-cost children's paperbacks. "We try to publish inexpensive books for people who are not in the habit of reading," says Afsar Siddiqui, an immigrant from Pakistan who established the house. Ta Ha— named after the two separate letters that begin the 20th sura of the Qur'an—began publishing children's books in 1990 and now has a backlist of some 40 titles.
Notably, Ta Ha has published a number of books about famous Muslim women. These include the wives of the Prophet Muhammad, his youngest daughter, and the mothers of the prophets Isma'il (Ishmael), Musa (Moses) and 'Isa (Jesus). "We go out of our way to emphasize women and the respect with which they should be treated," says Siddiqui. "We relate what is in the Qur'an and the Sunnah [the record of what the Prophet said and did] to better things for women."
In Living With Teenagers: A Guide for Muslim Parents, Ta Ha answers questions about teenagers' needs and behavior. Siddiqui sums up the book's message with the sentence, "Don't expect your children to be like you, for they belong to a different time."
A key player in Islamic children's publishing in both Britain and the United States is the Jiddah-based Iqra' Charitable Society. (The word iqra' means "read!" or "recite!" and is the command to Muhammad that marked the beginning of his prophethood and of the revelation of the Qur'an.) The society's British branch, Iqra' Trust, in London, has published two large hardcover books for children, The Prophets and Travelers and Explorers. Iqra' also provides printed materials for teachers in state, private and Islamic schools, and fields questions about Islam from around the country. The US branch, Iqra' International Educational Foundation, in Skokie, Illinois, was founded independently in 1983 as a community project to teach American Muslim children about their faith. Since then it has published nearly 100 textbooks and supplementary "enrichment" books of non-fiction, fiction and poetry and now operates a book club and a bookshop as well. The group linked with Iqra' Charitable Society in 1987 and is now headed by Dr. Abidullah Ghazi. He and his wife, Tasneema, were born in India, came to the United States to earn advanced degrees, and then stayed on with their young children—a path similar to that taken by many Muslim immigrants.
Iqra' International's books are targeted to audiences from preschool to high school. In Come Over to My House, for example, a child from Saudi Arabia invites an American child into his home for a visit. Companions of the Prophet is about the men and women around Muhammad in the early days of Islam. And for older readers, there are books about the holy cities of Makkah, Madinah and Jerusalem.
Recently, an Iqra' International representative joined an interfaith committee of Muslims, Christians and Jews in a project to introduce materials on various religions into social-studies classes in Chicago-area public schools. "To build a society where there is mutual respect and understanding, we need to communicate what it is that we believe in a mutually understandable way," says Tasneema Ghazi, the organization's director of curriculum studies.
Iqra' International is just one of several publishers of Islamic books for children in the American Midwest, whose large Muslim population includes many Asian immigrants. "There are 350,000 Muslims and 100 mosques or Islamic centers in the Chicago area, one of the largest groupings of Muslims in North America," notes Abidullah Ghazi.
Mohammed M. Hussaini, a founding member of Iqra' International, set up Al-Meezan International in Bolingbrook, Illinois in 1991 as an alternative source of children's books. It has published 14 titles for Islamic schools in the United States and Canada. "Meezan means 'balance'," explains Hussaini, a native of India who came to South Dakota to study in the early 1970's. "We want to produce literature that will help create a balanced personality, so that young people can live in this time and age in a meaningful way."
Among al-Meezan's most popular titles are those in the "My Little Book" series, which cover simply such topics as God, the Qur'an and the ideals of caring and sharing. Although the series is written for children, Hussaini says that more prison inmates than schoolchildren are reading the books. "There is a tremendously positive response" to the series from some of the hardest-to-handle prisoners at the maximum-security prison in Pontiac, Illinois, says Hussaini, who presents prison workshops on Islam. "That's the litmus test for me: If you can change people like that, you can change anyone."
Liaqat Ali, a native of Pakistan, founded Kazi Publications in Chicago in 1976 to meet demand from the local Black Muslim community and the area's growing immigrant Muslim population. "People were thirsty for books," says Ali. "The first generation of Muslim immigrants knew Islam from back home, but there was really not much here to use to teach their kids." Kazi began by producing children's books and has published some 150 titles for youngsters, many of which can be found in its large bookshop; though the house has broadened its line of books over the years, children remain its most important readers. "They are growing up in a culture where they often read negative things about their religion in the press, so they need books to learn the good things and the teachings," says Ali.
Kazi's books reinforce the faith at various levels, starting with coloring books that teach the Arabic alphabet. It supplies a range of titles tailored for each grade level to 150 full-time Islamic schools in the United States and Canada, and 1800 "Sunday schools" that teach Muslims about their religion. Among the newest publications is the first volume of a planned four-volume History of Islam aimed at high-school students.
Another important publisher, American Trust Publications, or ATP, dates its origins to the mid-1960's and the foundation of the Islamic Book Service (IBS) by Muslim students in the United States. In 1976, atp was established as a separate publishing unit in Plainfield, Indiana, and has since published more than 100 books to supplement what children read in public schools. "Children need religious knowledge to be responsible members of society," says Sayed Jawed, an IBS staff member. "That is what we are trying to provide."
ATP's "Invincible Abdullah" series, designed to teach 10- to 15-year-olds about Islamic principles, is among the publisher's most popular products. Supplementary workbooks help readers develop language skills as they read how Abdullah frees a hostage in London in The Car Theft Kidnaping and outwits foes in Pakistan in The Deadly Mountain Revenge. In a more traditional vein, the "Prophet's Biography" series teaches children about Muhammad, while Animals in Islam teaches respect for the creatures who share Earth with us. A mouse called Fasfoose introduces important activities and holidays to the youngest readers.
Sound Vision, a Chicago-based Islamic multimedia producer since 1990, began publishing Young Muslim magazine two years ago to help its readers feel at home in America. "We feel no contradiction in saying that Islam is our faith and America is our home," says Abdul Malik Mujahid, the Pakistani-born editor-in-chief of Young Muslim. The magazine distributes 25,000 copies a month, featuring short stories, Islamica, an Internet page and even comics.
Amica International in Seattle combines book and magazine publishing to meet young people's needs. Founded as a business consultancy, it began publishing in 1991.
"Amica means 'friend' in Latin, and amity is the philosophy of the company," says president Mohammad M. Khokhar, who came from Pakistan to Seattle as a student and settled there. His company has produced four hardbacks since 1994, including Zaki's Ramadan Feast, about a boy's first experience of fasting during Ramadan, and Grandfather's Orchard, which highlights respect and the value of family traditions. In the planning stages is a book about the Muslim 'id holidays; it would deal with the tradition of gift-giving and come packaged with a teddy bear.
Each issue of Muslim Kaleidoscope, Amica's quarterly magazine, runs a story both in English and in a language of the Muslim world, such as Arabic or Urdu. Comics are another highlight. "The magazine is one product that parents, teachers and kids talk about a lot," says Amica's marketing director, Aziz Junejo, a Seattle-born Muslim. "It really builds self-esteem. This is the first magazine in which girls can see other girls wearing scarves, and see children who are Arab, Pakistani and Caucasian all playing together. Muslim Kaleidoscope sets a new standard."
Amica plans to expand beyond the United States and beyond English, boosting the magazine's current 5000-copy print run eight-fold by adding editions in Malay and other languages. "The demand is there," says Khokhar. "It's a matter of approaching it correctly. The next 10 years will be fascinating."
Khokhar's fellow publishers would no doubt agree. And the big, bold lettering on the back of each copy of Muslim Kaleidoscope tells why. "Reading is cool!" it says.
Arthur Clark is a staff writer for Saudi Aramco in Dhahran, where his own daughter is growing up in a multicultural society.
Free-lance photographer Kathleen Burke is a former staff photographer for the Pioneer Press newspapers of metropolitan Chicago.