Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes. By Hena Khan. Illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini. Chronicle Books (9781452155418)
Publish date: April 10, 2018
This is the newest title in Hena Khan’s picture books about Muslims and concepts. The previous title was Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors.
This book discussion was conducted on May 20, 2018
Hadeal: So what did you all think? I know that this is something small, but besides the artwork and illustrations, I love that there is a cat on the cover at the masjid. I don’t know why, but I just love it.
Ariana: I liked the details in the illustration, they are really rich, even to the point where in the spread with the circle/daff there is a child with a bit of a unibrow.
Mahasin: I see it now.
Ariana: I love that there are so many different looks of people depicted. I do think that some of the criticisms of the book seem minute, one mentioned that the previous book seemed like the protagonist is a child in a “western country”, but this one is international and may reinforce stereotypes around clothing, but I don’t necessarily think this is true. I think that some images of children could work for a child who lives in the “west.” Especially in the oval spread, where “oval is the table where we break our fast, when the sun sets it’s iftar time at last.” There is a tagine, the decor is neutral, it could be Morocco, it could be here. The diamond spread, that could also be here. The last place with the crescent moon and a car, has a license plate convention that is not American, but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a European country. I don’t think it’s a big concern.
Hadeal: I love the author’s note at the end. It’s not just a note about showing you shapes and whatnot, but wraps things back around to the importance of shapes and mathematics in Islam. I like the rectangle spread with the masjid and the light coming from the doorway into the prayer hall. I think the detail there is exquisite. The clothing too, puts it in context and gives it life to the community around it.
Sara: Especially with the laundry line. And that’s how it is back home, the masjid is right in front of your home and you hear the adhan from different blocks. It conveys that feeling.
Ariana: I do wish, a little bit, in the author’s notes that they would say where an image is from, especially for that spread. I was fortunate enough to attend a preview with Chronicle before the book was published, and the editor had put up pictures of the doorway that inspired this spread, and I wanted to know more about the architecture specific to this country/location. I think that they may have said specifically, but I don’t remember right now, and I don’t want to guess. I mean, some may look at it and say, it’s the Muslim world and somewhere perhaps in West Africa*, but it’s not specific. Some families may recognize themselves based on the cloth, or other aspects, like the kids in the first spread look to me, like they are Malaysian or Indonesian, but maybe I’m completely wrong? But I do think it would be a nice touch, especially for Muslim children who aren’t often depicted.
Mahasin: I agree with that. I was really excited about the diversity, and when I got to the page where the little girl had cornrows, the mother had a scarf wrapped up and the little boy, maybe it’s a girl, had tight curls, it was clearly African heritage, and that was really important to me because a lot of times my folks get left out of the narrative. That page made me really happy. The rectangle spread, with the women and all the colors on the page made me think, “Nigerian Muslims!”* and that was my first thought. So I really appreciate the diversity. The daff spread made me think of my time in Syria where the women would have maulids celebrating the Prophet (saw) and get together. A lot of it rang so true and authentic to me. I really liked the spirit of the book.
Hadeal: I like that wording, about the spirit of the book.
Mahasin: The one thing that was a bit tricky for me was that some of the shapes I had to stretch a little bit to connect, particularly the square and the orange trees – my mind went went immediately to a circle because they were oranges, but a square as a garden was a different cultural context for me. There was another one with the triangles on the minbar, that was also a stretch for me.
Hadeal: I still can’t see the triangles, can you see it?
Mahasin: It’s on the side.
Ariana: Right, the space between the railing and the stairs.
Sara: I can see that in the minbar, they do look like triangles from the side.
Mahasin: I guess I can see that, especially from a child’s perspective, but some of the shapes did feel a little bit of a stretch, but I feel like it a little mincing. A co-worker brought the book to me and said that they thought that the people were all in traditional dress, and should have been in modern dress and I have been toying with that in my head. I haven’t read any of the reviews. On the one hand, is that a critique of Muslim “modest dress?” Maybe people would call the ways we put together modest outfits “traditional,” even though I don’t know how traditional they are since they might just be long and flowing, or extra layers. The other part of me says, “what if they are traditional?” I don’t know if I agree with that critique. In the spread with the daff there is a little boy with a- what is it called with the number on the back?
Hadeal: a jersey.
Mahasin: Right, thank you. But that is pretty non-traditional to me.
Hadeal: Even the girls’ dresses. They’re just dresses.
Mahasin: Yeah. So, what if it is traditional? I think that they look like what Muslims really wear. It’s happy, colorful clothing. I don’t know. Does someone need to be in jeans and a t-shirt to make it not stereotypical?
Ariana: I mean, I think of me growing up and my parents –
Sara: I love that it’s traditional clothing. Because on Eid day when the kids go out, they are wearing their traditional clothing.
Sara: I don’t often see kids in “western clothing.” They are taking pride in wearing something different.
Ariana: To build on your point Sara, if it was Eid or a gathering, and I was ten years old and I said to my parents, that I was going to go out in jeans and a t-shirt?
Sara: That would be a no-no.
Ariana: Yes, they would say, I couldn’t come. “The rest of us are going to go out and have fun. We’re going to auntie’s house and eat all of the delicious food, and the other kids are going to play. You’re staying home. Sorry.”
All: (Laughing) It’s true.
Mahasin: I went to Target for my daughter’s Eid outfit and I saw, what I would call, “a Wakanda-inspired outfit.” And I was thinking, “cultural appropriation for the win.” African-inspired outfit for Eid.
Hadeal: When it comes to clothing, I think of how the author didn’t indicate specifics. I don’t see how, in a way, where you could indicate areas. So I don’t understand why a reviewer would focus on that instead of what the book was intended to do. It is a book about shapes in the Islamic world. But what is traditional? What is non-traditional? It bothers me.
Sara: Right, I can see what you’re saying in that it’s not the focus of the book where these people are from, it’s more that they are seeing shapes in their every day and their beliefs and why we associate shapes in our religion, in our masaajid and our artwork and that kind of thing. It’s not focused on where they are coming from or why they dress why they do, but how we incorporate shapes into our daily lives. Is that what you were trying to say? I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth.
Hadeal: No, it is. I just feel like there is so much, I mean, even when we write our reviews we will get feedback about what others saw, but when it comes to this, it is so obvious to me that this is a book about shapes, architecture and Islam, but we’re going to focus on clothing? I mean, I understand, Mahasin had mentioned the spread with the family – the mother with the scarf wrapped and the little girl with the cornrows and to me, I think that’s important too, and we mentioned it, but for someone to just focus on that? I don’t know.
Sara: Why should that be the focus of the book when it is not intended to be? I love the fact that she’s incorporating everyone, the different styles of hijab and hair, but it is just showing you that these shapes have made their way through the Muslim world rather than associating it just with one group of people or another.
Hadeal: Even kaftan. Not all Muslims wear it, but to do the simple research, I don’t think it’s attached to certain countries or communities, multiple people do wear it and some definitely don’t. It’s just bothersome.
Ariana: For me, it’s a point of curiosity. I would like to know where it is from. I wish there was a bit more back matter so that if I was interested I could do further research for myself, but you’re right in that, it doesn’t matter too much. It would be one thing if really was asserting that there is this foreign otherness – but the reality is that Muslims do bring these cultural elements into our celebrations and our dress. That’s one time where, I mean, I married into – my husband is Pakistani American, and I think on Eid or celebrations I have no problems wearing Indonesian clothing, or a gown or a Pakistani style dresses. And often for children, especially for little girls that don’t dress themselves, they are often wearing “American” party dresses.
So I don’t know if this is actually offensive, reviewers making an assumption about the kinds of clothing people will wear. I’m glad that they are focusing on different aspects or elements of Muslim diversity, but it doesn’t mean all the spreads are or have to be international. So the spread that Mahasin was talking about with the hexagon, it could be an African country, it could be in a home here. Right?
Sara: I think that’s the beauty of the book actually, that you don’t know where it is. It could be anywhere in the world, and anyone who picks it up can find themselves in the pictures. The fact that she’s not pinpointing the places I’m reading it here, but the laundry spread reminds me of Egypt and being right across the street from the masjid. And someone from Pakistan can pick up the book and see orange trees and see themselves. This is why I am glad that she didn’t pinpoint where people are from. You can associate yourself with the spreads and go from there.
Mahasin: I’m looking at one of the reviews right now about how “Muslims dressing in non-cultural clothes are largely missing from the illustrations and potentially reinforce a stereotypical image for non-Muslims.”
Ariana: I mean, perhaps that is a bit true, but here’s the thing, maybe the book is a nice window into our world, but it’s not really for the non-Muslim reader. It is a window that is important but it’s for the Muslim to see themselves. In the page following the hexagon, the oval, now I’m looking at the table and there is kibbeh and-
Hadeal: And samosa.
Sara: They are all different kinds of food, not one specific culture.
Ariana: And the features of the people at the table, they have east Asian features. So my reaction first was, were these Uyghur Muslims? But it doesn’t look like there are Uyghur foods on the table. But there is also a little boy with really curly hair. And I think it’s supposed to be a blend, or blended family, or at least, that is what I’m reading. And where would you find that blend? Here. You could find it in other places and other countries, Moroccans can look like everything, but you can also find that here. That’s my take.
Sara: I agree.
Ariana: Final thoughts? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Thumbs to the side?
Sara: I really liked it, I thought it was very cute and inclusive.
Hadeal: I liked it.
Mahasin: I liked it too. I would recommend it.
Ariana: I liked it. I mean, I think that the first book Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns is a book that you give to families when they are going have a baby, or for Eid. I mean, this is a book that will be distributed in the Muslim community and become a standard. It’s doing something that we want. You’re putting another book into a Muslim family’s hands and into their household. And it’s not just another – Ramadan or Eid book – which is not the say that we don’t need those books, we do.
Sara: And it’s not a Ramadan book, it’s a book that can be a normal, everyday book.
Ariana: Exactly. Because it has those elements that also conveys those precious times of Ramadan and Eid, and it’s Ramadan now, those feel good times into every day – it’s like bringing in Christmas or those times that just make a child feel warm and special. It’s super important. It’s a great addition to get with the other one, and I feel like this one is stronger. Maybe it is because of the diversity element, but you can read it with even more nuance, than just looking at it as a book.
Hadeal: I also enjoy the formatting a lot. I think the layout and the message is so well put together.
Sara: I love the arch in the mihrab and how dimensional it is.
Hadeal: It all just falls well together. It feels very purposeful.
*We are completely wrong and Khan clarifies in her interview with us that it is in Zanzibar.