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Photo of Torsten Janson

Torsten Janson


Photo of Torsten Janson

The Politics of Picturing: Representational Restraint and Renewal in English-Islamic Picturebooks : Paper presented at the Visual/Verbal Texts Symposium, Winnipeg, Canada


  • Torsten Janson

Summary, in English

The proposed paper aims at discussing transforming representational programs in recent English-Islamic picture books. As a background, it draws attention to the identity political processes underlying the emerging literature, as stimulated by minority/marginality experiences. In its main section, the paper focuses how the picture books both reproduce and renegotiate Islamic traditional representational restraints, vis-à-vis the artistic and pedagogic demands of a contemporary picture book format. It concludes with a discussion of politics and power in the pictures of an emergent English-Islamic children’s book tradition.

How to maintain religious identity among Muslim youth in a pluralistic, secular and commercial environment? The strategies responding to this challenge have varied significantly among European and North American minorities, ranging from seclusion and defensiveness, to creative, participatory and entrepreneurial projects. Among the latter, we find efforts of re-inventing Islamic traditions for young audiences in novel forms, emulating late-modern arts and consumer cultures. Recent examples are Islamic pop, rock and hip-hop, computer gaming, fashion and sports. The cultural form first emulated by such initiatives, however, was children’s literature. Already in the early 1970s, the Islamic Foundation (UK) published its first specific Islamic children’s books, and has since then become the dominant publisher of English-Islamic children’s literature.

Developments of an English-Islamic picture book literature
During an initial phase, the literature of this publisher remained archaic, relating well-known stories and traditions of the Islamic formative history: the life and adventures of the Prophet Muhammad, the early caliphs and heroes. During this phase, the graphic elements remained sparse and were typically informed by a respect for traditional Sunni-Islamic artistic restraints, largely avoiding depiction of humans and other animated creatures. Nevertheless, we also find pictures in apparent transgression of such norms, providing interesting examples of the emerging negotiation of religious principles and pedagogic and artistic considerations. Since the 1990s, however, the literature has become increasingly contemporary in focus, telling stories set in mundane, everyday, domestic British settings. Interestingly, this topical shift concurs with a radically different pictorial program, where human beings and animals are depicted more or less on every page.

Theoretical focus
The proposed paper will pay particular attention to the shifting normative signifiers in the English-Islamic picture books, that is, how the books gradually departs from a complete reliance on the written texts for conveying specific identity and religious norms, to an increasingly confident reliance on the pictorial elements as co-narrative. Theoretically the paper relies on:
1. Insights from the history of religions and visual anthropology analyzing traditional Islamic norms of representation (Oleg Grabar, Gunther Kress, Theo van Leuven, Pamela Karimi, Christiane Gruber);
2. Sociological discussions on migration and multiculturalism and the emergence of religious entrepreneurship as an aspect of minority identity politics (Nancy Fraser, Gregory Starrett, Torsten Janson); and
3. Literary picture book analysis, focusing the interplay of text and picture, and the notion of counterpoint in particular (Perry Nodelman; Maria Nikolajeva, Carol Scott).


  • Centre for Advanced Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)
  • MECW: The Middle East in the Contemporary World

Publishing year




Document type

Conference paper

Conference name

Visual/Verbal Texts Symposium

Conference date

2014-06-25 - 2014-06-27

Conference place

Winnipeg, Canada