The last advice that the Prophet Muhammad, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, gave to his seventeen-year-old delegate to Yemen as the young man put his foot in the stirrup of his horse, was “Make your character excellent for the people, O Mu’adh ibn Jabal.” Given the blessings of having learned and matured in the resplendent beauty of Allah’s messenger, Mu’adh did just that.
Several centuries later, the great theologian and jurist Imam Al-Ghazālī, may Allah sanctify his heart, wrote a letter to his disciple (Ayyuha’l-walad) in which he provided a succinct manual of counsel for spiritual excellence. In it, the master advised his disciple to heed the Prophet’s advice, operationalize faith and acquire knowledge through good action, sleep little, worship much, and slay the ego. He emphasized that the essence of knowledge is to know what obedience and worship are. Imam Al-Ghazālī enumerated many things that are indispensable for the traveler on the way of truth:
- Having a master as an instructor, to weed out bad habits and help cultivate good ones;
- Perfecting servanthood to Allah by observing the shari’ah and being content with Allah’s decree;
- Relying upon Allah alone and devoting all your acts sincerely to Him alone;
- Reducing enmity by not arguing with anyone, unless it is to uphold truth from whoever it may be spoken;
- Refusing to engage in replies to envious, haughty, foolish or incapable questioners, but only to capable and sincere seekers of guidance;
- Avoiding pretentiousness in talking and worldliness in all work; and
- Not praising princes, rulers, or tyrants, not socializing with them if possible, and not accepting their gifts.
The question for parents and teachers is: how can we, as the primary educators of our children, inculcate in them the great prophetic wisdom about perfecting character and the spiritual master’s advice to his disciple for traveling the path to truth? One essential family tradition to develop if you haven’t already that can be a site for fulfilling this aim is storytelling. As families are finding themselves forced to spend more time together at home, it’s a great opportunity to slow down the hectic pace of our interactions with our children, deepen reflection with them, and simplify their schedule of activities. Let us reimagine the meaning of education and our own roles as their primary teachers.
Below you will find a list of 32 books I highly recommend parents to read to their children—and themselves—right now. This reflects my own experiences as a mother, homeschooling parent, and educator (and is not an official position of Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research or any of its members). This is not an exhaustive list nor are all these titles hidden gems (some are). They are not all explicitly ‘Islamic’ but they do touch upon moral excellence at the child’s specific level of understanding. Given our present historical moment replete with injustice, war, and disease, these tales provide relevant guidance for grappling with our world’s gravest issues. Each nurtures the preservation of the child’s fiṭrah in some way. Of course, stories are not meant to replace the wisdom and fiṭrah-preservation that only reciting and memorizing the Qur’an, and studying the seerah with an open heart, can provide. Rather, a good tale complements the sacred sources of our faith in facilitating moral education. So instead of having your child pore over her textbooks, sharpen her computational skills, or spend that extra hour on an electronic device, try implementing a regular shared story-time, preferably before bedtime. As The Washington Post’s education correspondent Valerie Strauss said:
[E]very Inuit parent knows you tell stories in the evening, when the child’s mind is relaxed and expansive, and before sleep which carries words and images deep into the soul…Children often listen better at night, they ask deeper questions at night, they imagine more vividly at night. In the brightness of day the mind turns outward to the world, a child often wants to be moving and active and socially interacting…The things you are told at night are carried inward, they enter your dreams, they effortlessly become part of you.
As the scholar of the Qur’an Imam Fode Drame, may Allah preserve him, says: we don’t have to worry about children falling behind (academically). What should worry us is our forcing them to grow faster than they are supposed to grow (where ‘grow’ means becoming distanced from their fiṭrah over time).
1. Montmorency’s Book of Rhymes, T. J. Winter
2. Brother Sun, Sister Moon: Saint Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures, retold by Katherine Paterson
3. A House for Hermit Crab, Eric Carle
4. Pancakes, Pancakes!, Eric Carle
5. The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein
6. Please, Mr. Panda, Steve Antony
7. The Rough-Face Girl, Rafe Martin
8. Encounter, Jane Yolen
9. Last Stop on Market Street, Matt de la Pena
10. Ayat Jamilah: Beautiful Signs: A Treasury of Islamic Wisdom for Children and Parents, adapted by Sarah Conover and Freda Crane
11. Anansi the Trickster Spider, Lynne Garner
12. Friend on Freedom River, Gloria Whelan
13. The Lorax, Dr. Seuss
14. Love all Creatures, The Islamic Foundation
15. A Great Friend of Children, The Islamic Foundation
16. The Princess and the Warrior, Duncan Tonatiuh
17. The Story of Ruby Bridges, Robert Coles
18. How I Learned Geography, Uri Shulevitz
19. The Legend of the Persian Carpet, retold by Tomie DePaola
20. Ilyas & Duck in A Zakat Tale: A Story About Giving, Omar S. Khawaja
21. Be Your Best Bear!, Stan and Jan Berenstain
22. Ahmadu Bamba: Sage of Touba, Rukayat Yaku
23. Conference of the Birds, retold by Alexis York Lumbar
24. Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept, Jayneen Sanders
25. One Little Chicken, Elka Weber
Adolescents and young adults
26. The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis
27. A Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket
28. The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity: An Illustrated 10th Century Iraqi Ecological Fable, Ikhwan al-Safa, Rabbi Dan Bridge, Seyyed Hossein Nasr
29. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Hailey
30. A Young People’s History of the United States: Columbus to the War on Terror, Howard Zinn
31. The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, Patricia C. McKissack
32. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
 Al-Ghazālī, Al-Ghazālī: Letter to a Disciple (Ayyuha’l-walad), trans. Tobias Mayer (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2005).
 Valerie Strauss, “What the Modern World Has Forgotten About Children and Learning,” The Washington Post, August 19, 2016.
 Imam Fode Drame, “Educating Children in the Light of the Qur’an” (public lecture, John Hopkins University, August 12, 2018).
 As this canticle was authored by a Catholic saint, parents will have to use discretion in explaining that reference to God as the father and mother of creation is inconsistent with our Islamic tawhīd, but was part of the wrong belief of the author’s faith. Due to the book’s beautiful description of Allah’s majesty and beauty manifested in creation, I’ve included the book in this list.
 This story involves Algonquin theology, which in its pantheism clearly contradicts Islamic tawhīd. Parents can explain the erroneous belief to their children while framing the protagonist’s godliness and moral excellence in an Islamic frame.