Qur’an translation of the week #181: My First Qur’an with Pictures: Juz’ Amma Part 1 by Shereen Sharief

The provision of Qur’ans aimed at children is a niche market, and there are not many Qur’an publishers that cater to this need. Furthermore, many of those that do exist do not facilitate teaching the Qur’an in an easy-to-understand, child-friendly way. As discussed in a previous thread, the Indonesian publisher Syaamil tried to fill this gap with their Kids Qur’an in bahasa Indonesia with English Title My First Al Qur’an (MyFA). Although it has a similar title, Shereen Sharief’s My First Qur’an with Pictures is not linked to the Syaamil Group in any way. Shereen Sharief is a pharmacist from the UK, who has undertaken a translation of the shorter surahs at the end of the musḥaf, accompanied by illustrations provided by Nicola Anderson, so that children can easily understand the message of the verses. Sharief was born into a Kurdish family and grew up in Iraq before moving to England. Arabic is therefore her second language. A mother herself, she taught her children and several other young children between ages of seven and eight to study the Qur’an. It was her own personal teaching experience that gave her the idea of creating an illustrated translation of the Qur’anic surahs for children. She found it difficult to explain to children the actual meaning of the Qur’anic verses that she taught them to read and memorize. For her, visualization and the use of images provide the best tools to help children to learn and understand the Qur’an.

Although Sharief is an Arabic speaker, she has not received any formal education in Islam or the Qur’an, and admits that she was worried that her illustrated translations would not accurately convey the intended meaning of the revealed verses. Therefore, her translation was checked and approved by a well-known UK-based scholar, Dr Abdullah Ibn Yusuf al-Judai, a scholar from Iraq who has settled in the UK and is one of the founders of the European Institute of Islamic Science. Sheikh Abdullah al-Judai is also one of the founding members of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, which has played an instrumental role in bringing together scholars across Europe to deal with matters relating to fiqh (Islamic law) in the West. He has wide-ranging expertise that covers the traditional Islamic sciences, the Qur’anic sciences and interpretation, and adīth, as well as Islamic law.

Sharief’s My First Qur’an with Pictures: Juz’ Amma Part 1 starts at Sūrat al-Nās and ends with Sūrat al-Balad, thus covering 25 surahs in total. The book is aimed at children above the age of seven, although it has received several reviews from readers who have given this book to children as young as five, who say that it was positively received and that they found the pictures helped them understand and memorize the Qur’an more easily. Sharief’s translation is obviously not a detailed, in depth tafsīr, but rather provides a simple explanation of the verses in question. She also advises that, although the illustrations make it very easy for children to understand the central message, parents should still read the translation alongside their children to explain the wider sense of the sura, not to mention those verses that are not encapsulated in the pictures.

The advantage of this pictorial translation is that the message conveyed through the images is so dominant and strong. Sharief says that her experience of teaching children taught her that children are easily bored if one simply reads and explains the text, and soon lose focus, because nowadays children have become accustomed to visual learning models through their use of tablets and television. This led her to the idea of including pictures in her teaching sessions. However, she was initially impeded by her lack of artistic ability, until she teamed up with an illustrator, Nicole Andrea, whom she invited to join her in the project. Sharief also says that she felt that the illustrator’s unfamiliarity with Islam initially posed some difficulties, but she introduced Andrea to the ethical principles that are often applied to visual representations by Muslims to avoid personification, such as not drawing the entire face, by, for example, not showing the figure’s eyes, or by providing a view from behind so that the face is not visible. Although these issues are still subject to debate, initial problems relating to the illustrative process were finally resolved to Sharief’s satisfaction, and she is happy that the resulting visual and textual translation is not only child-friendly but also Islam-friendly.

The image above shows Sharief’s translation of Sūrat al-Nās, in which the main images relate to verses 4 and 5, which she translates as:
(4) From the Evil of the sneaky whisperer
(5) Who whispers into the heart of mankind

In another example, the translation of Sūrat Quraysh, the images accompanying the text explain the second verse, which recounts how the Quraysh would travel between ‘Al-Shaam’ in the summer and Yemen in the winter.

My First Qur’an with Pictures: Juz’ Amma Part 1 is incredibly slight, coming in at only 47 pages, which means that it is light and easy for kids to handle and carry. The translation is also used by many families who are Arabic speakers, including a reader from Saudi Arabia who admitted in her online review that her children find it easier to understand the meaning of the Qur’an with pictures and explanations in English, given that contemporary Arabic is very different from the language of the Qur’an.

In terms of format, the translation of each surah is comprised of three elements. First, each surah is presented on a single page in the original Arabic text, and one of its main messages is explained by the illustrations on the page. Secondly, a complete translation that explains the overall meaning of each surah is provided on the same page, and thirdly, an additional explanation of the background, context or rationale for the sura is also provided. The translation, as mentioned above, is based on Sharief’s own interpretation of the Arabic text.

My First Qur’an with Pictures is distributed through FaithBook UK across the United Kingdom, but alternative stockists can be found in many other countries, including Canada, the United States, and non-English speaking nations like Indonesia, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Nigeria, South Africa, and Pakistan. It is also readily accessible in Spanish and Italian translation. After its initial release in 2018, Part 1 has been reprinted more than three times. The second instalment, Part 2, which was published in 2019, is aimed at children of the age of ten or over. Part of the reason for this older target readership is the fact that the surahs translated in this volume are longer.

Shereen Sharief has been open about the fact that juggling being a mother, teaching the Qur’an, and continuing to work on her children’s Qur’an translation project is difficult, as she also maintains her career as a pharmacist. However, after the publication of My First Qur’an with Pictures: Juz’ Amma Part 1 garnered a lot of positive feedback, she determined to publish Part 2. This project is indeed an interesting collaboration, a Qur’an translation for children that is truly international: written in England by a Muslim first-generation immigrant from Iraq, illustrated by a British non-Muslim, printed in Turkey, and disseminated in various countries largely on the back of positive reviews in social media.

Yulia Riswan

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