Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Review: Islamic Village Stories by Luqman Nagi

Islamic Village Stories by Luqman Nagi. Goodword Books, New Delhi, India. (2003-4).

This collection is available from Astrolabe (

The collection comes in a folded box with attractive graphics. The collection includes six hardcover volumes with the following titles:

My Yemeni Village, ISBN 81-7898-220-X. 22 pages
My Hausa Village, ISBN 81-7898-218-8, 22 pages
My Moroccan Village, ISBN 81-7898-219-6, 22 pages
My Palestinian Village, ISBN 81-7898-395-0, 32 pages
My Egyptian Village, ISBN 81-7898-229-3, 32 pages
My Chinese Village, ISBN 81-7898-311-7, 32 pages.

The books are an ethnographic portrayal of life from through the words of boy characters aged 10-14. These include descriptions of the agriculture practiced in the area, crafts, arts, cuisine, festivals and clothing. The author uses ancient civilizations’ artifacts which may be found in the area to discuss those ancient civilizations. The author also mentions some points about when and how the people in that area became predominantly Muslim. If the place is mentioned in the Qur’an, the author includes the reference. There is a glossary of foreign words in the back of each volume. The last page is a simple map of the region. The books’ illustrations are in color and generally well-done.

An illustrative example of the author’s method is My Chinese Village.

My name is Nur Muhammad `Abd al-Hamid and I live in Western China. I am a fourteen-year-old Uyghur Muslim boy, al-Hamdulillah. (p. 5)

Nur Muhammad then describes his language and its greeting phrase, a brief geographical description of his native Uyghuristan, the Uyghurs fighting alongside the Muslims in the 8th century C.E. and eventually adopting Islam over the next two centuries, the nomadic Turkic origins of the Uyghurs, their agricultural products and unique technologies such as the kariz or water canal, the homes’ construction materials and layout, the role of the domesticated yak in Uyghur village life, relations with the nomadic peoples of the region, the market and the infrastructure which supported the caravans traveling between China and Europe, the discovery of archeologists of an ancient written European language called Tocharian once used in the region and a biography of Mahmud al-Kahsghari, and Uyghur living in Baghdad who compiled an encyclopedia of the Turkish peoples in the 11th century C.E.

My purpose in writing this long, difficult sentence was to show how much great information the author was able to put into a surprisingly readable narrative.

This book meets many of the five criteria I’ve come up with for a quality Muslim children’s book.

1. I don’t see anything which violates the principles and rules of Islam.
2. It’s weak on the entertainment value, but it’s great for the children 11-15 who enjoy reading and learning about other places in the world. And honestly, even though I have read college level material about many of these topics, I still learned some things.
3. In general, it avoids alienating the child from the larger North American society because the children the stories take place outside of North America or the United Kingdom, where I assume most of the readers live. Of course, knowing something about the rest of the world in and of itself may alienate the child from the present-day United States, but that can’t be helped!
4. The books would have improved if the child narrators included girls. This is a serious problem.

Besides the geographical, historical and ethnographic information, the reader also learns about how material culture supports the practice of Islam, i.e. the use of wooden slates in learning how to read Qur’an and the varieties of mosque construction, from the Bedouins’ laying out a row of rocks to the elaborate structures in Muslim cities.

Besides the lack of female voice, the biggest problem with these books is their use of Muslim triumphalist language which would make it difficult for them to be used in public schools in the United States or purchased by public libraries here.

For example, after describing village housing construction techniques in Egypt dating to the pre-Christian era, the author writes:

Today, we of course are Muslims, al-Hamdulillah. The days of the pharaohs are buried in the past. We can no longer even imagine worshipping any god other than Allah, Rabb al-`Ameen [sic], the True Diety who sent to us His final Messenger, the Prophet Muhammad , as a mercy to all nations. (p. 10, My Egyptian Village)

Of course we Muslims, and Egyptian Muslims in particular, are thankful for Allah’s guidance away from the worship of humans and objects to the worship of Allah alone. I believe that there are plenty of books which promote pride and identity in Muslim children, and I use these in our masjid’s weekend school. However, there is, in the United States, a large percentage of Muslim children whose only exposure to books portraying a positive image of Muslims like these might be at public schools and public libraries. I would encourage authors and publishers to think beyond the “Muslim” market and produce books which can be accepted in the wider society.

Another problem, as illustrated by the passage above, is inadequate editing. The author includes some Arabic in the drawings, but there are grammatical or syntax errors.

Overall, I do believe the good far outweighs the bad, and in sha Allah the defects can be corrected in future printings or in subsequent editions of this series. Muslim parents can definitely purchase these books for their great educational value.

The author has another book in this series, My Turkish Village, available at

P.S. After reading My Chinese Village, I would be remiss if I did not put in a plug for the joint Chinese-Japanese documentaries about the Silk Road, available at at

Last updated July 14, 2006.

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