Click here to read part two.
Once, a medical college professor said to his students: “If you want to make good money as a physician, choose paediatrics as a career.”
When children fall sick, parents generally become frantic in their attempts to provide medical care for them. They take their unwell children to paediatricians for advice and are ready to spend to the limit of their ability.
In other words, there is a heightened concern among parents about the (physical) health of their children.
But what about children’s intellectual needs? Here comes the question of children’s literature.
Many lament the decline in their children’s reading activities, while others worry about the types of books that grab the attention of younger family members.
Unfortunately, for children’s reading materials, Muslims have largely been dependant on books produced by authors of non-Islamic background.
Children’s literature as a whole is growing exponentially around the world, but not so in Muslim societies. This has led to the stagnancy and inadequacy of literature for Muslim children.
The best way to cultivate children’s reading habits is to produce high-quality reading materials for them. This will also protect them from the potential dangers of unhealthy content.
Random Anecdotal Accounts
Once, we visited a family and found there a book meant for children. I sat down with my two daughters and encouraged them to read it. They flipped through some pages and then put it aside. There was a look of boredom and disinterest on their faces.
The author of the book was a prominent Islamic scholar. He wrote it in all sincerity, appreciating the crying need for children’s literature grounded in Islamic values and traditions. Undoubtedly, he had a passion for children’s literature but did not seem to have the right training to produce it.
As a PhD student, I lived in the British city of Portsmouth in the 2000s. During those years, I often visited London for academic and other reasons. Some Muslim parents in Portsmouth used to ask me to buy from London Islamic books for their children.
That led me to the London Muslim Centre, in East London, where there are bookshops that sell Islamic reading materials for different age groups. I used to buy children’s books from whatever choices were out there. Abdul Wahid Hamid’s two-volume work, Companions of the Prophet (1995), was usually on the list of purchases.
In the recent past, during one of my visits to the UK in 2019, I went to the London Muslim Centre. This time it was to buy books for my daughters.
I browsed through the bookshops but saw very few new arrivals. That is to say, in the decades-long gap, the book stores at the London Muslim Centre didn’t have many new Islamic titles for children.That was a disappointment to me.
Perhaps, it is also a reflection of the condition of intellectual production in Muslim societies. Muslims today lag far behind other major religious communities in educational and intellectual achievement.
This is more so in the field of children’s literature than in other areas of intellectual activity. The reason may lie in their perception of, and attitude to, books for children.
Is Children’s Literature Important?
Compared to adults, children are often considered of lesser importance. However, in Islam, the adult-child relationship is understood in terms of respect and responsibility, not superiority and inferiority.
As Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said:
“He is not of us who is not compassionate to our youngsters, and shows no respect to our elders.”
Children are seen as a vulnerable group. They are often constructed as dependent and seen as a burden. Therefore, the need for their reading materials is also considered less important, especially among today’s Muslims.
This is conceivably one reason for the relative paucity of children’s literature among this religious group.
If this genre of literature is to thrive in a society, it needs to be given the right importance. As the American writer Clifton Fadiman (1976: 11) argues:
It is apparent that the esteem in which any vocation is held affects its development. If children’s literature is not generally felt to be an identifiable art, important in its own right, potentially creative minds will not be drawn to it, and it will languish or become a mere article of commerce.
Compared to general literature, children’s literature is limited in scope, breadth, and coverage. However, that is not to say that children’s imagination is limited or that their minds are crippled.
The imagination of children is undeniably rich and lively. It is the job of the writers of children’s literature to understand it and to cater to its needs.
The absence of children’s reading materials grounded in Islamic traditions and references has untoward consequences, which I will discuss in the second part of the article.
Fadiman, Clifton. 1976. “The case for a children’s literature.” Children’s Literature, 5(1): 9-21.
Gilani-Williams, Fawzia and Stephen Bigger. 2010. “Muslim Pupils, Children’s Fiction and Personal Understanding.” ALMAS International Research Journal, 12(1):1–9.
Williams, Robert A. 2020. “Passing on religion as identity? Anglo-western Islamic children’s literature and Muslim acculturation.” Journal for Cultural Research, 24(2): 85-100.