At lunch, my son was pondering a number of theological questions, which he issued to me as usual as I hustled around with eggs and plates while trying to avoid knocking over the yogurt I had set up precariously draining on the counter. The queries continued during the meal, new questions coming as I was struggling to explain the previous questions! If you have kids you may have run into some of the same: “Where is Allah? Is Allah God? Is Allah real? Are other gods real? Is Allah a person?”
In between coming up with answers, I decided that after lunch would be the perfect time to pull out a copy of a book I recently was sent to review, called “Ilyas and Duck Search For Allah.” It was written by Omar Khawaja, a father of three, in response to his own children’s thought-provoking questions. While my son and I had discussed these questions before, you never know which approach will resonate at a particular time, and it was a good opportunity to try another take. I had already pre-examined the book and was saving it for a good time to pull out so I could see my son’s reaction.
In my initial read through, I found it to be engaging, repetitive in a way that kids generally like, and with some unique parts to add interest. The pictures were enjoyable and colorful (it is illustrated by Leo Antolini). Ilyas, a boy of 5, and his friend Duck journey enthusiastically around the world and even outer space searching for Allah. Along the way they encounter various animals which share their knowledge of Allah, and finally, Ilyas arrives at a conclusion.
One of the things I liked for some reason was that the boy character, Ilyas, has a friend who is a duck, with no explanation for this. Sometimes books for children feel the need to explain how a certain fantastical element came to be, when really, as children we do not need a long explanation, because this is a story (this was something that always sort of bugged me about “The Borrowers” series, though I loved it otherwise. Each “Borrowers” book began with a tedious chapter or so setting up the tale as being told from the human point of view of someone who had heard of evidence of the Borrowers, so as to make it believable how the borrowers were found out and written about. When really, we don’t need that, we are perfectly ready to believe there are miniature people living under the floor because it’s a story, and the explanation setting up why it might be really true, while possibly appealing to an adult standpoint, actually from a child’s point of view makes it seem less likely. At least that was my take on it).
The reason this struck me as interesting is because of how this reaction is quite different between fantastical things and real things. My son, while knowing that ducks don’t actually act like people and go on adventures with kids, has no problem accepting this in the story without question. They have a rocket? Sure. They climb the highest mountain on a whim? Sure. He knows it’s not “real.” However, about Allah, he has lots of questions because he wants to understand the truth.
I think this difference in approach is one of the early states of distinguishing between fantasy and reality in children. At the very youngest ages, everything is “real.” There is no concept of playing pretend. Then it is not very long before representational play starts. I remember when I first saw my son bite his bread into a shape and pretend to “walk” it along a stool. This of course followed lots of “pretend play” initiated by me as a parent in interacting with him (even as simply as “walking” fingers around or playing peek-a-boo). Once this stage hits, “pretend” things suddenly become the biggest joke imaginable and most hilarious concept, as the child realizes that everything is not what it seems and some things can represent other things. At this level of understanding pretend play, even animals are willing to join us in the suspension of disbelief. If you have ever watched pets or young wild animals at play, they feint and make believe, and are willing to temporarily pretend that a string is really a snake, or that their sibling is their mortal enemy to be defeated at all costs by play bites.
As my son started to get a little older and sort out real from not real, he started to sound very practical when we looked at a book, because he was checking (against my reaction) to see if something was real or not… for example pointing out if an action in the story couldn’t really happen, or that rabbits aren’t really blue, and so on. But once these things become pretty clear in his mind, as at the stage my son is at right now, he automatically assumes certain things are fantasy and no longer has to question at all why a book might be starring a horse in a grocery store or why a rabbit is blue, he saves his questions for those things that are real which he wants to know more about.
I still remember being considerably older than my son is now and finally realizing what “sarcasm” was… saying one thing while meaning the opposite! Essentially, another level of playing pretend, and discovered with similar triumph. As adults, however, we often start to lose our fantasy acceptance altogether. Having lived too long in the real world, suspensions of disbelief required for imaginative play start to become more difficult. If indulging in skepticism, we find ourselves heavily questioning poorly constructed storylines, play situations that make no sense, illogical turns of event (“Okay, now the dragon is gone and we’re all princesses! And the fox is now a girl!”) These things become a lot more of a stretch from an adult point of view, which is perhaps why some adults do not even enjoy fantasy, cartoons, or even fiction. But most of us, I think, exist somewhere in the middle (I am one of those ones with a high level of interest in make-believe and such “childish” pursuits, but even for me, when my son was born, I realized that my capacity for imaginary play had been severely diminished by lack of full use). When the child approaches one side of the divide (for part of those games are about establishing the logic that is missing and figuring out the boundaries), we adults reach back from the other side and allow ourselves to enter that world again at least a little bit, the world which has many possibilities and only a few certainties. What a relief it would be to embrace that world again with full abandon! But one assumes there is a reason for the suppression of the pretend, as practical demands do have to be taken care of each day once you grow up. To play then, becomes an escape, but I think even as an adult it still holds problem solving abilities, it should not problem-solve itself out of existence. I have seen a tired mother cat still make room for play, as she escapes to the window ledge that the constantly pawing kitten cannot reach. The kitten sits stilled below. Then, after a moment a big fluffy tail switches down to touch the kitten’s nose, then, when a cautious paw reaches out, flicks instantly away. The tail is alive! The mother gazes out of the window, motionless except for her tail, seemingly a million miles away, while just below, the game rages on.
Talking about God to Children
I initially thought the book *might* be a little young for my son (he’s 4 and a half). In description, “Ilyas and Duck” is aimed at an audience of 3-6. However, on reading, I wondered if it would seem too simple compared to some of the books he’s into now, and it didn’t go into much detail with the explanation either. Would he be satisfied with it, I wondered, or would it add to the confusion? How does one explain the concept of God satisfactorily at such an age?
While I often heavily reference my own memories of being my son’s age and how I felt and thought at the time in order to construct my parenting methods, in this case I drew a bit of a blank. I was raised in a family not only atheist but with a somewhat negative attitude towards religion in general. The “God” I had heard about as a kid was the Christian concept of God (not that my family was Christian, but most other people around us were), and this was even more confusing. I certainly had a clear image of what God was supposed to look like, from cartoons and other illustrations, but I also knew that this must be symbolic since I was told that God wasn’t real. So when I was very small, I did not wonder that much about God, there was more uncertainty surrounding things like the Easter bunny (or was it a chicken?) and Santa Claus. My parents made it pretty clear that in their opinion, there was no God or that God was a means of powerful people fooling other people to manipulate them. It was not until I got older, maybe around 10 or 11, that I began to question this again and explore the concept on my own. And I did not find Islam until I was 17. By then, my idea of Allah/God was very different from the things I’d heard as a kid, but I also wasn’t exactly sure how to explain it to a kid or how people “normally” did so. Or, perhaps they simply didn’t. I had heard other people tell such stories as, they were told to ask God for something as a kid, then when it didn’t materialize, they basically discarded that idea as bogus. Or having helpful introductions such as, well you have to believe in God or else you’ll burn in hell, you don’t want that do you? As ludicrous as this sounds, I’ve personally overheard other people say enough things of this nature that I don’t actually doubt these accounts. But obviously they serve more as an example of what not to do rather than how to best explain the topic of God.
My son started asking about Allah pretty early on, probably by age 2, and while I gave some examples of how to reference Allah, it’s a hard concept to explain without something to point at. We hear about Allah a lot. I referenced the verse that says Allah is closer than one’s jugular vein, explained that Allah can hear us and guide us, and told him that I always ask Allah for help. I also talked about other things we can’t see but we can see the evidence of, like the wind, and gravity, by way of similarity, and how Allah shows us how to do the right things through the Qur’an and the prophets. Whoever said that only things you can hold in your hand or see with your eyes are “real” wasn’t that grounded in science, because there are actually plenty of those things in creation, but I understand the potential for confusion with all the talk. Even though it’s a little easier to explain prophets, the same questions come up for him about the prophets, angels, Santa Claus, people who have died, and all the other things people talk about that aren’t in front of us.
When my son attended a bigger daycare for a while, we also ran into the concept which I’ve encountered as an adult but which still surprises me: that many people do not know that Allah just means God. It literally is the same as God with a capital G, even for non-muslims… Jews and Christians who speak Arabic also call God “Allah.” However, in the English-speaking world, there is a surprisingly widespread notion that “Allah” is some other god other than God with a capital G, so my son encountered several people who told him that God is not Allah, which was a source of confusion. I explained that these are different words for the same thing (I try to use the term “God” more often now by way of my explanations with him, as I realized that I do try to avoid using it because of the negative connotations associated with it from childhood). Even educated people I encounter regularly do not realize that Abraham, Jesus, and the other prophets from Judaism and Christianity are part of Islam (and yes, relating to the same God). I was quite surprised recently to learn that someone who has known me for quite a while and even talked about Islam with me, thought that Mohammed is a deity or son of God of some kind in Islam, as Jesus is considered to be in Christianity. I hastened to explain that in Islam we believe all the prophets, including Mohammed and Jesus (peace be upon them), are just people, not gods (there is no Trinity in Islam). The simplest explanation is that people have heard another (untrue) answer about Islam at some earlier point in time, which they accepted and so never thought it necessary to look up, as we do with so many things.
Details and More
As it turned out, the book was quite satisfactory at my son’s age and he enjoyed it immensely. His immediate reaction to finishing the book: “Can you read it again?” We did of course. Then, we made some clay Ilyas and Duck figures and played with them before I had to get back to work, and I noticed that he remembered most of the words from the book. While I was in the kitchen, I could hear him reading the book again aloud to himself and afterwards role-playing some more with the Ilyas and Duck characters. One of my son’s favorite things to play now is assigning characters to each of us (though he will take on multiple roles if I’m occupied). Sometimes I have to change characters 3 or 4 times in the space of a minute!
I did notice a few minor typos in the book such as missing punctuation or spaces, but for the most part it reads easily. I also appreciated the pronunciation guide and factoids in the back of the book for the different animals, which appealed to my son as well. He was accustomed to seeing this sort of thing, as science books for kids often have a glossary and facts at the end, and also I thought it made a nice transition after the conclusion of the story.
On re-reads, I noticed that Duck tends to get a bit mixed up in the backgrounds of each scene, which adds to the comedic element of the book and “lightens up” the story a bit more. It is easy for stories that attempt to explain a religious angle to become to serious and weighty or just plain tedious in an effort to be accurate and correct, which just isn’t appealing for anybody. “Ilyas and Duck” luckily does not suffer from that.
While the print job looks sturdy, the book does come with a paper slipcover which I will probably be removing for practical purpose. While these ostensibly serve to protect the book, I have rarely seen them survive without getting all ratty amongst children of these ages, except when “library reinforced” with a plastic slipcover and taped on. As far as printing expenses go (this book was printed in Mexico), this may be an area to cut costs, as it does have an appealing hardcover underneath with the same picture. On a few of our children’s books with paper slipcovers and no picture underneath I have taped the slipcover to the hardcover at each side (similar to how they are reinforced at the library, minus the additional plastic cover) to make it easier to handle by small kids, but it usually works better to just remove it altogether. However, the info provided on the inner covers introducing the characters and author isn’t printed elsewhere so it would be nice to see this on the inner pages as well for when the slipcover does not survive.
So where do they find Allah?
I’ll admit that one of the things I was most curious about in approaching this book was how the question was going to be answered for a child audience. I had once heard a person lecture long and hard about how any answer or explanation to the question of the location of Allah other than “Allah is over his throne” was completely wrong. If you fall into that camp, this is probably not the book for you. This book answers the question of “Where is Allah?” in a very general sense: Allah is all around us; we cannot see Allah as we can see created things, rather we see evidence of Allah by the wonder of creation.
Each animal that Ilyas and Duck encounter give a variation of this answer which references their own natural abilities, but the answers are not at first satisfactory, until Ilyas has a chance to see things from another perspective and realizes what the animals meant. I also found this approach worthwhile because it shows Ilyas coming to a gradual understanding, much as we do throughout our lives. In this way, I think it is helpful that a child will not necessarily feel that he or she has to “get it” all at once.
The answer seems at first like a very simple concept, but it is one that is in essence repeated over and over and over again in the Qur’an itself, and one that is much more eye-opening than insisting a one-line explanation that holds little literal meaning for a 4-year-old. It’s also a concept that can be expanded upon endlessly in further discussion when observing practically anything in the natural world. The wonder of creation was not lost on me as a child, even though the concept of God was distorted… this wonder in how the world amazingly fits together, I feel, is innate, and is one of our inborn links to Allah which we have only to take hold of and follow along.
My son also announced that he would like to meet Ilyas and Duck, so we both hope that there will be more installments in their adventures forthcoming! I think series books have a special appeal because it greatly widens the possibilities of the “world” in which the characters exist, and the fact that they never really end.
Currently, “Ilyas and Duck Search for Allah” is available for purchase directly from LittleBigKids.com (and some other locations, I see from the website and facebook). You can get up-to-date news from the author, Omar Khawaja, at the Little Big Kids facebook page. With Ramadan and Eid al Fitr around the corner, which are sure to prompt some additional religious questions from small children, it’s a great time to check it out!
Disclosure: As part of this review I received a free copy of the book in question. But don’t worry, if you are familiar with my reviews you know that you’re going to hear my unadulterated thoughts anyway: the good, the bad, and the ugly! 🙂