“We have so much at our disposal as parents living in the information age and there are so many amazing Muslim communities that are being formed online and in real life that I think we have so much potential as a community. I have such great hopes for this next generation of Muslims, I really hope that as parents we can facilitate that as much as possible, in sha Allah.”
TMV’s Interview with Mariya bint Rehan: Author of the New Children’s Book The Best Dua
Mariya bint Rehan, author of the new children’s book The Best Dua, sat down with TMV to talk about her own experience as a mother, the motivation behind her new Islamic book for children, and the importance of understanding and navigating what it means to be Muslim in our world today.
What inspired you to write this book?
The Best Dua was borne from a real mum moment – I’d had this experience with my first daughter and could envision flicking through this sequence of images to demonstrate a point I wanted to make to her.
We were in Makkah and had just entered the Haram, stood in front of the Kabah. We were really just awestruck by the magnitude of that place and that moment in time. My daughter seemed perplexed to see us with our hands raised. I remember teaching her what it meant to make dua and how to make it, in an almost technical fashion. I felt quite smug that I’d managed to convey so much and her little brain appeared to be taking so much of it in – only to look down and see her use this newly acquired knowledge to make dua for one of her passions at the time – hijabs! She was making weirdly specific duas about what kind of hijabs she wanted…!
I remember thinking there and then that actually I’d missed a trick, and through dua I could teach her far more about our purpose as creation.
I felt like this automatic instinct to teach her the technical, formal aspects of Islam was mirrored in a lot of Islamic children’s literature, and our general approach to Islam, at the time. I wanted to teach her that Islam wasn’t just a perfect system in and of itself, but also the perfect prism by which to see and shape the world. I felt that, outside of the more technical Islamic subjects, we needed to work on how we are relating Islam as a belief system in the modern world. And so The Best Dua was born!
I feel the topic of dua – and therefore the book – goes to the very heart of our purpose as creation and I wanted to imbed that complex theme in a simple narrative – one that conveyed the beauty and simplicity of Islam.
What did you want to convey to Muslim families through The Best Dua?
I wanted to achieve two things with this book: the first to facilitate important conversations in the Muslim home. I don’t think we are very good at conveying the beauty of Islam – and the sheer beauty of our purpose as creation – to our children, to communicate how much Allah has given us through Islam. We tend to fall into the trap of framing it as a deficit, defining it against other systems rather than building a positive and affirmative image of Islam.
I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of presenting our belief system simply as a list of things we do and don’t do, rather than demonstrate how those dos and don’ts enrich our lives. That’s very much to do with how you interact and engage with the world around you and what kind of things you choose to fill your time with and give purpose and value to. With this book, I wanted to convey how great it is to achieve and please Allah and how much fulfillment and purpose we get out of this.
The second is I wanted children to have a visual representation of how innocuous the beard and hijab, and other ‘symbols’ of ‘Muslimness’ are. Not in the way that a lot of Islamic children’s literature does, by foregrounding these objects, but by allowing them to be an unapologetic backdrop in the book. The idea that these are malignant red flags is so pervasive that children will inevitably be exposed to the ‘See it, Say It, Sort It’ CVE discourse concerning these expressions that make up our religion.
I wanted to reflect the world of the Muslim child, where these are loving and loved products of faith, that make up part of our everyday existence. I think it’s a really important tool of creative content, to empower Muslim children to see their own world in that normalised light, particularly given the hostile external climate and how much of it we absorb passively through visual mediums. I think Muslim creators are really needed at this moment in time, to disentangle Islam and symbols associated with Muslimness, from the orientalist and vilified tropes they’ve been associated with for far too long. I want to create stories that promote happy, confident, young Muslims that are at ease with their identity.
What were some of the inspirations behind the illustrations?
My most favourite books growing up were hand-drawn, colourful, and would often come in smaller sizes. I think it’s important for us to have a diverse range of books on offer for children and with this book, I wanted to recreate the look and feel of the picture books I grew up loving, and a period that Islamic children’s literature missed out on. I wanted the visuals to be bright and engaging to young children, and to include the kind of personality and quirks we missed out on and culturally aren’t always so great at accommodating. Similarly, my reasonings for making the book a more compact size was to draw families closer, and to choose a more textured paper, to mimic the feel of children’s literature of the bygone era, that same tactile kind of product.
How have children responded to The Best Dua?
So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive al-hamdulilah. I really wanted to capture the precocious nature of children – my daughters’ earnest fervour in asking for all those hijabs when we were in Makkah – as I know the books I grew up having an affinity with were ones I related to so instinctively. I thought it would be nice to capture a childish playfulness within an Islamic narrative. The book has a kind of repetitive, melodic sequence that I know from my own children, is something they find very engaging and captivating.
One of the first dua’s Khadija makes is for a pink hijab with sparkles – what are your thoughts on a secular society viewing young girls wearing hijab as a negative thing?
This is something I feel incredibly passionate about and have written about before. Particularly because I have two daughters who, like children of all hijab-wearing women the world over, wanted to mimic me, and society made me feel almost ashamed of this fact – I was constantly made to feel it was a sign of what people tellingly would refer to as ‘backward’. That kind of language in itself betrays a Whiggish world view that, if anything, modern politics has proved entirely false and fanciful.
When I am in Muslim spaces and if I’d comment to parents on their children’s hijab, almost all would issue a swift disclaimer ‘Yes she wanted to wear it, we’re not extremists or anything..’
The constant bit of feedback I got from sharing the manuscript of the book was to change the object my daughter had actually made dua for, despite it being part of our lived reality. It makes me wonder why we are so ashamed of it in the context of children – where it is merely a symbol.
I find it to be a really interesting phenomenon.
The worrying thing about Islam and current-day discourse is that we are essentially secularising our faith by framing debates concerning things like the hijab as a form of individual liberty rather than obedience and taqwa; as a community, we appear to be championing the hijab as a cultural object. The irony is that when we see the hijab in the context of children – it loses the religious obligation and therefore becomes entirely a cultural object – yet we’ve imbued that very notion with shame.
In theory, there should be nothing wrong with a child that chooses to wear a hijab as dress up, but we can’t seem to see the hijab outside of this paradigm of coercion and oppression. The issue of children in hijab has become a legitimate arena by which to attack the hijab more widely – dressed up as concern for children’s agency – and it exposes our prejudices about the hijab more generally. It lays bare our internalised Islamophobia in an acute way.
And I think it’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how the CVE climate impacts Islamic parenting in both overt and insidious ways, ways that are really impacting our future understating and expressions of Islam.
And so I kept the bit about my daughter wanting hijabs in The Best Dua in defiance of an environment which has caused us to feel a sense of insecurity about it.
What has being a Muslim parent taught you?
I have really learned to interrogate my own internal biases when it comes to Islam. Because children are amazing thinkers and they will naturally pick up on any contradictions in the values you choose to live your life by. This has led me to really assess my belief system and has given me a greater sense of clarity and conviction regarding my faith.
Religious thought more generally, and Islam in particular, will always be deemed intellectually inferior because it is a non-empirical belief system. Muslim identity in the context of Western societies is also highly racialised, and as with everything, issues of class and disadvantage play into this given nearly 50% of Muslims in the UK live below the poverty line. Additionally, because of ideas which link the Islamic practice of abstinence to nescience and ignorance and secular ideas concerning exposure to maturity and rationality, there is a perception that the Islamic way of life is infantile, and orthodox practices are immature and ‘unknowing’.
This means we often feel they are transitionary phases we move on from, i.e. the more we progress beyond religious practices the more rational, enlightened, mature, and knowing we become. This is an age-old trope – religion being seen as the domain of the ignorant masses and secular thinking the preserve of the elite few – that plays itself out in so many almost imperceptible ways, including in our parenting. Coupled with a CVE climate which is criminalising expressions of Muslimness, it’s a challenging time to be a Muslim parent, and it requires a lot of care and conscientious thinking so these harmful ideas don’t trickle down to the next generation of Muslims and imbue their very basic understanding of Islam.
This doesn’t mean that we develop negativity or defensiveness – to the contrary, it means we are more responsible for unpicking Islam from this negativity and allowing our children to understand and experience Islam unadulterated from society’s, and our own, prejudices. To create our own models of success, and paradigms of value.
We have so much at our disposal as parents living in the information age and there are so many amazing Muslim communities that are being formed online and in real life that I think we have so much potential as a community. I have such great hopes for this next generation of Muslims, I really hope that as parents we can facilitate that as much as possible, in sha Allah.
Mariya’s children’s picture book The Best Dua is available for sale at http://www.muswellbooks.com. You can also find her on Instagram @muswellbooks.