What inspired you to write My Name is Bilal?

I wanted to share in some capacity the struggle for identity that I went through growing up as a Muslim child in a small Ohio town that had few Muslim families.

I was the only Muslim kid in my grade school except for my younger siblings, and I was the only nonChristian in my Catholic high school until my senior year, when a Hindu girl was in the freshman class. In my grade school and high school life, nobody my age at school or in my neighborhood had a similar family background (parents originally from Pakistan) or the same responsibilities and restrictions based on their faith that I had, such as not eating pork, more modest clothing, more conservative male-female interactions including not dating when older, prayers, fasting in the month of Ramadan, etc. I had friends and enjoyed school, but I was always struggling to figure out who I was and where I fit in.

I was never just like the other American kids because of the ethnic and religious differences. Then, when my family would visit our relatives in Pakistan every year and I would hang out with my cousins, I was never just like them either. My American cultural background set me apart. With my American accent, I was reminded that I was different every time I spoke. In my younger years, I struggled for cultural acceptance in the communities I grew up in. But no matter how I struggled, I was never going to be a typical American or a typical Pakistani. I always fell short measuring myself by these yardsticks.

Then somewhere along the journey, I found faith. My religion became important to me, not just as a family identity, but for itself. And turning to faith was the way I resolved my struggles with identity and acceptance. I realized that in God’s eyes, worth is not a measure of how much you are like the others around you, but how good a person you choose to be. And whose opinion could be more important than God’s? I stopped trying to be like everyone else and focused on trying to be a good person and do what I understood God wanted me to do. This made me whole, and I finally felt an inner peace with these issues.

As I grew older, I began to cherish the things that made me different. My love of my faith deepened. Having an understanding of different cultures has helped me not be so tied to the cultural practices of one area. I feel free to incorporate into my own life my understanding of the best practices of both cultures, and to reject negative practices in both. The memories of being different from others when I was younger helped me develop my own strength, and I call on this strength and my faith when dealing with societal pressures and forging my own path as an adult.
(back to Q&A)

What message would you like for kids to take away from the story?

I want kids to be inspired to be true to themselves and to learn to accept and cherish their own identity, instead of being afraid of what others might think about them. Most children have something about themselves that makes them feel different and insecure about being accepted by their peers. The insecurity could be because of a physical disability, wearing glasses or braces, feeling too short or too tall, having an ethnic or religious background that sets them apart, or whatever.

I hope kids will move towards developing a self-confidence and self-esteem based on being true to themselves, upholding their values, and developing their character, not on just trying to be like everyone else.

The specifics of the story reflect struggles in the Muslim-American experience. Muslim kids may feel sensitive about their modest clothing, religious practices of prayer or fasting, or other issues that Bilal and Ayesha are facing. I also hope that by encouraging kids and adults to discuss issues relating to religious and ethnic diversity, the book will lead to greater tolerance, understanding, and respect in our communities.
(back to Q&A)

How long have you wanted to be a writer?

Actually, I never wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to be a doctor. I love pediatrics and enjoyed my practice. Then I decided to take time off from my pediatrics practice for a few years to stay home with my own children while they were young. I had difficulty finding good books about Muslim kids to read to them. Many of the books I found in local libraries about Muslims were stereotypical and many of them were about camels or sultans or something else that is as foreign to the Muslim-American experience as it is to any other American experience. Even when the books were written in a sensitive way, they were almost always set in some far-away location, not in America.

“There are more American Muslims than there are American Episcopalians, Jews, or Presbyterians,” Harvard professor Diana Eck notes on the website about her book, A New Religious America. With America’s Muslim population estimated to be about six to eight million people, Islam may very well be the second most common religion in the United States. Yet, a few years ago when I did my search, I found no picture books about American Muslim children in America’s libraries and bookstores.

So I had two main reasons for starting to write books for children. I wanted to introduce accurate books about the Muslim-American experience to the general American community, and I wanted to write books that Muslim-American kids would see themselves in.
(back to Q&A)

For what age range is My Name is Bilal?

I have seen it listed in different ways. The publisher lists age 6 and up. Others have listed as old as ages 9 – 12. The format of the book, with its large illustrations, seems generally suited to an elementary school audience. Older children do not usually select picture books or heavily illustrated stories to read.

However, because the issues dealt with in My Name is Bilal are important for older age groups as well as younger children, and there is limited availability of books written from a Muslim-American perspective, the ages that this book appeals to may not be typical for a book of this format . I have gotten feedback from kids in junior high (and even some Muslim high schoolers and college kids) that they loved the book, it was “real” to them, it reflected their experiences, and they wanted a copy.
(back to Q&A)

Were there special challenges involved in having a nonMuslim artist illustrate the book?

Many people comment on how beautiful Barbara Kiwak’s illustrations are, and they ask me how she knew how to illustrate the book accurately. Boyds Mills Press, after being unable to find an appropriate Muslim illustrator for the book, selected Ms. Kiwak. They were very supportive in letting me see her sketches and send feedback for the illustrations.

Ms. Kiwak used her own resources as well as photos I sent which showed Muslim girls in Islamic dress and boys praying and giving the call to prayer. I also sent video clips from movies such as "The Message, the story of Islam," a 1976 film produced and directed by Moustapha Akkad. The clips helped Ms. Kiwak visualize the dress of the people in Mecca in 7th century Arabia, the landscapes of the cities of Mecca and Medina at the time, and the events in the history of Bilal ibn Rabah. Because the “accuracy and fidelity of this film” and the portrayal of the events in the movie had been approved by "the scholars and historians of Islam -The University of Al-Azhar in Cairo, The High Islamic Congress of the Shiat in Lebanon,” I felt it was a good resource for her to use for the illustrations. I am grateful for the beautiful way in which her illustrations bring the story to life.
(back to Q&A)

Is it Islamically acceptable to show images of Bilal ibn Rabah (ra) in the book?

Traditionally, Muslims avoid showing images of religious figures. Islamic rulings do not allow Muslims to show images of the Prophets of God. The purpose is to avoid setting up a situation in which misguided people might worship the images instead of worshipping God. However, the respectful and accurate depiction of the companions of the Prophet can be allowed in certain circumstances.

Please see the statement below from Islamic scholar Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi:

"The book, My Name is Bilal, by Asma Mobin-Uddin is very nice. The images of Bilal ibn Rabah (ra) are done in a respectful manner, and there is no problem with including these images in the book. The Islamic rulings for not depicting religious figures applies to the Prophets, and may also apply to the first four khalifas. Otherwise there is no Islamic ruling that says companions of the Prophet (saw) cannot be shown, as long as it is done in a respectful, accurate manner.

Another example of scholars approving the respectful depiction of the companions of Prophet Muhammad (saw) occurred with the movie, "The Message, the story of Islam," a 1976 film produced and directed by Moustapha Akkad. Scholars of Islam at the University of Al-Azhar in Cairo approved this film, in which an actor portrayed Bilal ibn Rabah (ra)."

- Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi
Chairman of the Fiqh Council of North America,
Member of the Executive Council of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and past president of ISNA

Notes: “ra” represents an abbreviated form of an Arabic phrase which means “may God be pleased with him.”
“saw” refers to an Arabic phrase which means “may God’s peace be upon him”

(back to Q&A)

Are you working on other book projects?

Yes. My next picture book is about a Muslim-American girl on Eid (EED), the biggest holiday of the Muslim year. It will be published by Boyds Mills Press.

I am also working on a story set during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during daylight hours.
(back to Q&A)

Do you intend to go back to practicing pediatrics?

Yes, absolutely (insha’allah – God willing).

I love practicing pediatrics and plan to go back to it when my kids reach school-age. Because of the prohibitive costs of malpractice insurance for limited part-time hours, and my desire to be home with my kids, I have not maintained a regularly scheduled office practice. But I look forward to restarting in a few years!
(back to Q&A)