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To Read and What To Read

Appreciation of reading is something that needs to be cultivated in children, especially in today’s digital world. Batool Haydar suggests a number of practical points for Muslim parents

“A child who reads will be an adult who thinks.” – Anon

 It may seem odd to those of us who grew up before the turn of the century, but reading has become a foreign experience for many of the children and youth in the new age where almost all things are internet-based.  For those of us keen to inculcate the habit of reading in our children, content and quality becomes the challenge we have to deal with.In a changing world, we need to keep up and approach the culture of reading with a different perspective so that we can equip future generations with whatever they need to preserve their sense of self and identity.

Why Read?

Once you learn to read, you will forever be free.” – Frederick Douglass

For many new parents, the lure of ‘edutainment’ and the ease of its application is enough to make them think that reading is a transferable skill.  We tend these days to equate anything connected to technology as being ‘intelligent’.  When our children learn how to use a mobile phone before they can speak, we celebrate and boast of this achievement as if it is a sign of how clever they are.  In actual fact, mobile technology is designed so that even an illiterate person can manage their way through it, so for a child to figure it out – especially after seeing their parents use it all day, every day – is an extremely obvious consequence. Research has shown that so-called educational videos and apps do not really accelerate or even help a child’s intellectual progress.  In fact, this passive mode of info-dumping may even cause a regression in some areas of development.

Reading, on the other hand, does something amazing to the human brain.  It actually encourages growth and actively opens up channels of imagination and comprehension.  A child watching a TV screen and one reading a book may at first glance seem to be sitting quietly doing similar activities, but what is going on inside their heads is vastly different. The first child is being ‘fed’ information and absorbing it without question; one might call it being brainwashed.  The second is engaging actively with the text, being asked to visualise description, imagine voices and faces and come to fresh conclusions with every turn of the page.

Teaching your child to be a reader could be the best gift you could ever give them.  One that will last them a lifetime and open up countless worlds and experiences for them that they may otherwise never have had.

What To Read?

“It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading.” Katherine Patterson

There is an old concept in computer technology called GIGO i.e. Garbage In Garbage Out.  It applies quite aptly to reading.  While there are many who come from the school that believes that it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you do read, the kind of books you read influence your ideas and often your principles as well.

Those of us who are book lovers will fondly remember childhood favourites and how we wanted to be like our literary heroes, living their lives and imitating their habits.  We form alliances and connect with characters over years and decades and our adult selves are oriented towards the general ideals that we have come to admire from these books.  We empathise with their experiences and form biases based on their likes and dislikes.

In a way, we attach ourselves to them as we should perhaps have attached ourselves to true role models we have in the history of our faith.  And this is why what we expose our children to at a young age is extremely important.

It may be tempting to teach them all about the ‘classics’ – whether it be the Brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll in childhood, or Dickens, Thackery and Makepeace as they  grow older, it pays to remember that most of these early writers were quite embedded in their faith and they wrote with strong Christian principles in mind.  While morals are arguably universal and timeless, the environments in these stories form visions in the imagination of the reader that are in line with the preference of the author.

That lack of an ‘Islamic atmosphere’ in literature has prompted Muslim writers to pen books for children, youth and adult genres and while the latter groups have fewer publications, there is plenty of fantastic reading available for children. From topics of history to akhlaq to exploring the Qur’an, we have no excuse not to introduce Islam to our children from infancy in an interesting and fun way.  (In this issue of islam today a selection of Islamic books for children has been recommended, to start off or add to your library!)

 The Best of Books

 “Few things leave a deeper mark on the reader, than the first book that finds its way to his heart.” – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

 As we celebrate International Children’s Book Day and look to introduce our children to reading, let us not forget that as Muslims, our first and foremost goal in doing so is to allow them to build bonds with the wealth of literature we have in our possession. The only – and best – way we connect with our Creator is by reading His Word.  Often we get so caught up in tales of fiction and adventure that we find it hard to disconnect from them and turn to the stories and amazing experiences of all the Prophets, including our own Prophet Muhammad(s).

An uncomfortable, but true, the fact is that many of our youth cannot internalise the Qur’an because they have become too used to secular literature. The stories of the Prophets or Imams – especially those involving miraculous feats – feel as fantastic to them as those of secular super-heroes and they simply cannot ‘imagine’ them as real events. A possible reason for this is that we tend to introduce children to fairy tales and stories of wonder and leave the ‘deeper’ texts for when they grow older. The ideal would be to do them opposite: introduce a child to the habit of reading the Qur’an, Nahj al-Balagha and other Islamic-themed literature from an early age so that their truths and realities are defined by these.  When they grow older and begin to read secular texts, they will then always be able to distinguish that these are ‘lighter’ reading of a secondary quality.

If you don’t have access to Islamic books for your children, simply pick any book available and infuse an Islamic aspect into it by how you read it out to them.   A simple ‘Mashallah’ (God has willed it) or ‘Alhamdulillah’ (all praise to God) added to a common, familiar story will add a subtle reminder for both you and your child.

Remember, it is important to make your children readers, but equally – if not more – important to make them discerning readers.  Teach them to read books that will encourage them to question, to think, to deduce and then sit back and watch them discover themselves and in the process, hopefully, discover their Creator.

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