My toddler's favourite toys include a mobile phone that plays the (frankly nauseating) track Baby Shark and an interactive Dora the Explorer book. She's learning her ABCs, but eventually I'd like for her to learn the Arabic alphabet – the foundation of the Quran. And while she toddles around my prayer mat and babbles something that vaguely sounds like "Bismillah," I'm eager for her to grasp the meaning of the word.
So when I came across a colourful image on Instagram of The Bismillah Book for children – an under-the-sea-themed sing-a-long publication – I was intrigued. Evidently, I'm not the first parent to search for accessible tools that will help teach the values and pillars of my faith to my child. It turns out that a number of UAE entrepreneurs are at the forefront of a burgeoning books and activities market centred on making Islam relatable and enjoyable for young Muslims.
Islamic books and crafts for children
"The need of the hour definitely points towards value-based content based on a spiritual upbringing," Mehnaz Anshah, co-founder of Bismillah Buddies, which produced The Bismillah Book, tells The National. "We've found a great community of like-minded parents who share our concerns regarding the future of our children and the world they are growing up in."
Bismillah Buddies began as a playgroup, which then expanded to meet an increasing demand.
"We are mums with growing children and changing needs," Anshah says. The start-up now sells storybooks and craft kits centred on spirituality. "We feel Islamic education should be on a par with everything else that children are learning. It should be joyful and engaging. We want our children to be proud of their religious identity. This can happen only if they truly connect to faith, at a fundamental level, in a manner that is relevant to them."
Little Seekers of Deen is another concept that began as a playgroup in the UAE. Early this year, Dubai resident Fiza Hameed began organising meet-ups with structured activities related to faith for children.
"As with everything, Little Seekers was put on hold in March due to the pandemic. The safest way to continue creative Islamic education for young children was to bring it to their doorsteps," Hameed says.
Hameed is now in the process of launching Salaam Seekers – monthly boxes containing Islam-themed craft activities and books. She experimented with a trial run this summer in the lead-up to the Hajj and Eid Al Adha. Though it’s is one of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj was closed this year to non-residents of Saudi Arabia because of the pandemic. So to make its spirit more accessible, Hameed’s box offered an interactive Kaaba activity in which children could paint the shrine and then perform circles around it, emulating the tawaf ritual of the pilgrimage.
The box also contained two books, an activity involving stringing cards emblazoned with "good deeds" on a banner, and a kit to make prayer beads.
Hameed plans to formally launch Salaam Seekers in the next few months, with boxes planned around building mosques and performing the ablution and prayers. "Young Muslims today are very curious. Their minds are like sponges, so I strongly believe in making Islamic knowledge accessible to them," she says.
Sara Alikhan, head of Islamic studies at Dubai College, says that from a teaching perspective, tools such as these are invaluable for instilling religious values in children. "Historically, apart from the textbooks, there haven't been too many resources to supplement Islamic lessons. However, there are now many high-quality picture books, puzzles and games that make learning Islam more enjoyable. The quality of resources being produced helps to bridge the gap between the materials available in other subjects across the curriculum," Alikhan explains.
Festive home decor
Education is not the only realm where there is demand for Islam-themed products. Parents are also increasingly seeking decor to make their homes more festive, especially during religious holidays such as Ramadan and Eid. Bismillah Buddies for instance, sells banners, cards, cupcake toppers and gift boxes emblazoned with “Eid Mubarak” in English and Arabic, and some of Hameed’s boxes include themed DIY decor. In fact, contemporary decor designs inspired by Islam started trending in Europe and North America before picking up steam in the Middle East.
Former Dubai resident Zainab Merali founded My Little Ruhm in 2017, when she was decorating her nursery but could not find tasteful Islamic decor locally. "Being from Canada, I knew that modern Islamic home decor existed in abundance in North America and the UK, and that there was ironically a gap in the UAE," she says. This niche has expanded over the past few years, she says.
“There has been exponential growth in both demand and availability in the last three years alone, due to social media platforms.”
Merali says that for faith-based businesses, there is often a deeper motivation than just making money from sales. “We wanted our products and toys to be safe and sustainable, so they are made of natural materials, and most items were developed and handcrafted by working mothers who were empowering themselves and giving back to the communities through their businesses,” she explains.
Muslim mothers are the pioneers of these enterprises, eager to teach Islamic values to their children in vibrant and refreshing ways that may not have been taught to them by their own parents.
Traditional Islamic discourse can be difficult to break down for a younger audience, especially for non-Arabic speakers, so distilling messages of the faith in a way that is positive and motivating is a concept that resonates with many modern-day Muslim parents.
“The idea is to make children proud of their Muslim identity, and see Islam as a loving religion – one that is practical, beautiful and fun," Merali says.
“But for this, they need access to products that speak to them and make them want to become active participants in developing their Islamic identity.”