Contemporary animations featuring Muslim kids and families are a rich and important medium for children to learn about their history, culture and identity. Here are some great cartoons to watch.
“Educated, culturally aware Muslims, realise that our children’s minds are being bombarded with messages that promote alternative lifestyles, values, and are contrary to Muslim identity. If we don’t provide our children with an alternative, we cannot blame them if they see the world as shown on Netflix as the best way to live.” – Navid Akhtar
The quote above is taken from a recent article in Salaam Gateway entitled Where are all the Islamic animated movies? The article discussed the difficulties of producing animated films for Muslim audiences, not because there isn’t a demand – there is and it’s huge – but because they are seen as a risky investment.
This is ridiculous when you consider the success of two animated feature films with specifically Muslim stories released in the past few years: Bilal: a New Breed of Hero was the UAE’s first animated feature, and The Journey the first ever Arabic language, anime feature.
Their success, however, isn’t a lucky accident. Bilal was produced by Barjoun Entertainment in Dubai and released on Netflix in 2019 while The Journey, released in June this year, was made jointly by Toei Animation in Japan and Manga Productions in Saudi Arabia. Both of these films therefore, had all the financial and promotional support necessary to create not only professional but highly visible pieces of work.
Another animated feature, and one discussed at Alchemiya before, is a different story altogether. The Knight and the Princess was a labour of love that took 30 years to make in an Egypt that had to establish its animation industry from scratch and produce the film as it went along. It’s no wonder it took three decades!
Animations can be a rich and important medium for children to learn about history, science and culture as well as reflecting their own lives in the present. They can, and should, also provide a space for young minds to reflect on what is important. One of the defining motifs in much mainstream programming is the power of the individual. While it is good to be given confidence in your own abilities, the necessity of wider connection, community and particularly spiritual wellbeing, is not a priority. In fact, the idea that there is a spiritual dimension to life at all is generally absent.
For specifically Muslim audiences there is the additional aspect that few mainstream animations even feature central Muslim characters, let alone provide narratives in which Muslim culture and values, in the broadest sense, are an intrinsic part. The work of this kind that has been produced is independent, underfunded and seriously under the radar.
A few months ago we profiled US based Robyn Abdusamad, writer and founder of Omera productions and producer of two animated series Zaynab’s Enchanted Scarf and Zakiyyah’s Talking Flower Garden. Set in a contemporary US Muslim family, these programmes have storylines that enable children to learn about African American Muslim history and to situate themselves positively in the present.
Another woman making a big impact in this field is Saudi Arabia-based, Syrian entrepreneur, Sara Sawaf, founder and executive producer of AYA Animations.
When Sara’s children were very young she began looking for animations that conveyed spiritual and moral values and were educational and fun as well. Unable to find anything resembling this kind of quality programming that she wanted for her children, she realised she would have to make it herself. After five years of hard work, and without any prior experience in the industry, she founded Aya Animations in 2015 and released her acclaimed animation series for children, Aya and Yusuf, in 2020.
Aya and Yusuf are adventurous 6-year-old twins who love exploring the world around them. The series is set in the family home and out in their garden, a wonderful natural environment where they spent a lot of their time. They encounter situations in which they can work out and understand important life lessons based on the teachings of the Quran. This means that the focus is very much on values represented by the family and essential principles to live life by like kindness, patience, accountability and gratitude. The imperative to celebrate, protect and respect all of God’s creation makes nature and the environment another strong theme in the series. This combination gives every one of these lovely stories a universal human value, making them inclusive for all and providing a valuable and positive tool for diversity education.
The fact that all of this ground breaking work has emerged just in the past few years bodes well for the future. Let’s hope that it signals the beginning for a whole new generation of films, programmes and animations for Muslim kids and families.