Alef is for Allah

Childhood, Emotion, and Visual Culture in Islamic Societies

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Jamal J. Elias
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , April
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Alif for Allah, bay for bismillah ...” is the most elementary phrase that children hear or read in their upbringing in most Islamic societies around the world, as they are required to learn the Arabic letters in order to read the Holy Quran, even if they speak a different local language. The early education of Muslim children—the emotional, religious, and social stimuli they are exposed to—and the visual ephemera that is produced for their nurturing, are themes that have hardly been studied in detail or presented in a dedicated work covering a global range, even though such studies of local communities or countries may exist.

Jamal Elias’s Alef Is for Allah: Childhood, Emotion, and Visual Culture in Islamic Societies appears to be a first-of-its-kind book that attempts to study emotions, innocence, childhood, educational apparatus, and the related visual culture in a multi-nation—or at least spanning three Muslim-majority states—survey. This book is illustrated with a range of colourful printed ephemera that Muslims children are exposed to during their upbringing.

From the very outset, this seems like an overwhelming project, one fraught with multiple challenges. The book starts by building a strong theoretical base of concepts like childhood as an idealised construct of the adults. A considerable amount of space—probably one-half-of-the book—is devoted to the unpacking of basic concepts like emotions, affect, childhood, innocence, and aesthetics in anticipation of their upcoming relevance in the three case studies. Often though, these theoretical discussions, which are appropriate in their own right, demand that the reader stretch their imagination to connect to the actual examples used in the book. For example, concepts like “cuteness” are elaborated on at great length, often running several pages, with relevant historical background, and comparisons with mainstream trends such as “cuteness” in Japanese print culture. Yet the direction in which this theoretical elaboration leads, for instance in chapter 5 about children's books in Turkey, makes reader question the direct connections between the hypothesis and the examples.

Elias asserts that the “emotives and emotions can never be understood properly when separated from the lived environments in which they occur” (207). However, one cannot help notice that much of his work is based on the study of archived documents, such as home-schooling religious books, devotional posters, and other printed material—and not so much on ethnographic or field studies. This is not a problem, except that by studying only the documents, the reader loses out on the lived experiences of children and even in the contexts in which the artists or authors find their inspiration. These objects may be a small fraction of the larger stimuli that children engage with on a daily basis, for example as with their interactions with parents, religious clergy, teachers, and friends. To give a random example of a living culture: in Pakistani towns, such as Lahore, on Eid-e Miladun Nabi (Prophet Muhammad’s birth anniversary), the streets come alive with hundreds of models or dioramas made by children and depicting events from the Prophet’s life—including the shrines of Mecca, Medina, and the cave of Hira—using household items, cardboard, clay, and even toys like Barbie dolls and GI Joes! Similar examples of visual culture and creativity by children can be found in other Muslim communities and on other occasions as well, all involving emotion, faith and encouragement by the adults.

Besides making and exhibiting visual or material objects, both boy children and adults—dioramas like the Karbala battle during Muharram ashura—there is a rich tradition of children and adolescents composing and publicly reciting passionate poetry commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and his family in Karbala. Of course,  some Shia families also subject children to cutting their bodies to bleed during public processions of Muharram. These are ideal examples to study how constructs like innocence, emotion, gender, sacrifice, and childhood play out in a community. While some of these rituals may be more suited to ethnographic studies, they cannot entirely be separated from the visual culture that this book seeks to study.

In the everyday Muslim culture, the most visible and cheerful role played by children, for instance, is in the celebration of festivals like the two Eids, with a large industry of print, gifts and merchandise appealing to them. Printed ephemera such as the Eid greeting cards have been ideal media of greeting between family and friends, and cannot be ignored in a study of this kind since the representation of cute children, pious women and religious icons is central in them.

The three Islamic nation-states chosen for this book’s study have many commonalities as well as differences. Yet whether together they represent something like a global Islamic community is difficult to say, and probably not even attempted in this book, for good reasons. It might not be possible for a single scholar to cover the diversity of cultures and histories in so many Muslim countries. However, considering the availability of data and ephemera presented here, the three countries, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, seem to represent more similarities than diversity, all-the-more-so given that they “lie on a geographic and cultural continuum”(8). Yet, what is missing here are a few more geo-domains, which would represent a larger, and more diverse sampling, such as the popular Arabic literature produced in mainstream Saudi Arabia (although this book does have some discussion on Egypt), or the literatures produced by countries that may not have a Muslim-majority, but generate substantial visual culture of the kind studied here—possibly India (which is different in many ways from Pakistan), or South-east Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia—which often get left out of the mainstream Islamic narratives.

Nevertheless, Alef is for Allah does embark on an original theme with a deep theoretical framework that could probably lead to more diverse studies of children’s literature and emotions in the future.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Yousuf Saeed is a fimmaker and writer based in  New Delhi, India.

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jamal J. Elias is Walter H. Annenberg Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies and South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of numerous publications on a broad range of subjects relevant to the medieval and modern Islamic world.


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