“Why do your character illustrations show facial features now?”
“I liked the fact that you were one of few publishers that didn’t show facial features. What’s behind the change?”
“I’m surprised and disappointed with this move.”
“Is this part of a premeditated conspiracy, to water-down the deen of our children?”
These are some of the comments we’ve heard from our customers in recent times since we’ve started to illustrate our characters with facial features. At the very least, an explanation is due. And here it is…
First of all, this decision was taken after much research, discussion, debate and deliberation. It’s not something taken lightly and not without consequences. It reflects the development of our company’s journey with the matter, and so what you’re about to read will trace those experiences and reflections.
To understand the change, we have to go back to 2006 when Learning Roots first featured characters in its products. The characters were drawn with blank faces. Why so? Because we were aware of hadith such as the following:
Abu Talhah (R) narrated: “I heard the Prophet (S) say: ‘The angels do not enter any house in which there is a dog or an image.’” (Muslim).
Ibn ‘Abbas (R) narrated: “I heard the Messenger of Allah (S) say, ‘Whoever makes an image in this world will be told to breathe life into it in the Day of Resurrection, and he will not be able to do so.’” (Bukhari & Muslim).
No-one in their right mind would want to risk facing such punishment. So, we understood these hadith at face-value without much further research, depth or commentary. It was also the norm among publishers in Muslim majority countries at the time to draw faceless characters, and we followed suit when Learning Roots first started and it became part of our brand identity. But this decision wasn’t without challenge, and it didn’t take long for the struggles to manifest themselves…
One of the first products to feature characters was the Box of Manners which was first produced in 2006. The nature of the product demanded the expression of animated human emotion. Trying to convey that a character is happy, angry, upset or pensive without the use of eyes, a mouth and a nose is undoubtedly inhibiting. But we managed nonetheless and through the support of body language and context, we were able to get by. But that certainly didn’t mark the end of the challenge…
As our products developed, so did the demand for the effectiveness of our illustrations to demonstrate more complex messages. For example, if you can’t show facial features how would you differentiate ’tears of joy’ from ‘tears of sorrow’, or ‘curiosity of intrigue’ from ‘curiosity with doubt’? The differences between these compound emotions are very subtle. Even with the aid of facial expressions, it’s a challenge for many artists to convey. And without the aid of eyes, eyebrows, a mouth and a nose, it’s nigh impossible.
The Search Begins
So naturally, this situation compelled us to look into the Islamic legal ruling in further detail. We did what any thorough researchers would do. We gathered all the hadith and evidence we could find related to the matter. We perused the commentary to the hadith. We tried to widen the angle of enquiry by looking at how scholars of opposing conclusions reasoned their arguments. We discussed the matter personally with scholars. This process occurred over several years and still continues till today.
Bear in mind that we were just researchers with a student mindset seeking a better understanding of a small area of enquiry related to our field of work. We’ll summarise what we found, but we won’t go into the details with names and references because that’s not the purpose of this article. If you’re interested in the topic, we encourage you to do your own research, and if you do so with determined effort, the details will become clear to you. Here’s what we discovered:
This matter has been part of classical scholarly discourse, so it’s nothing new. Having said that, modern developments in photography, videography and the digital arts have given the issue new life among contemporary scholars.
There is a spectrum of scholarly opinions on the matter, ranging from those who consider image-making to be strictly prohibited with a few exceptions, to those considering image-making to be permissible so long as they do not fall foul of general Islamic guidelines.
And as you’d expect, there’s a body of scholars in the middle of the two sides who argue that only certain types of images are prohibited particularly those that open an avenue to shirk (associating partners with Allah) such as statues or portraits invariably crafted with the intent of veneration. But if the images lead to more benefit than harm, such as those used for the purpose of education or play, then these scholars deem them to be permissible.
There are lots of details contained in the arguments and even a cursory reading into the subject will reveal that the matter is far more nuanced than a simple black and white, yes or no. There are genuine discussions on the differences between digital photographs and hand-drawn images as well as 2D images and 3D statues.
What they all agree on...
What was unanimous in the findings of our research, however, is that there is an exception to the general rule when it comes to children. This was conceded even by those scholars holding the strictest line, based on the hadith:
Aisha (RA) said: “I used to play with dolls in the house of the Messenger of Allah (S), and I had friends who would play with me…” (Bukhari & Muslim)
And as you’d expect, there’s more scholarly discussion about how far this exception extends. Does it apply only to dolls? Were the dolls faceless dolls? Can the exception be extended to other items that have educational benefit?
Even if we accept the premise that 2D images for children cannot show animate objects, then several other questions arise:
- Does drawing a faceless human count as it being inanimate or a lifeless object without a soul?
- Does separating the head from the rest of the skeleton (as some scholars have suggested) reach safety under the ruling?
- Does a faceless character constitute a ‘new creation’ that is competing with Allah’s creation?
How do you see it?
What this research did bring to fruit is how much of the implementation in this field is subjective.
To you and me, drawing a human face without eyes may mean it’s devoid of life, and therefore without a soul. But to others, it’s still a human life, just without eyes.
To you and me, a human without eyes is just that: a human without eyes. But to others, it may be a different type of creature that is human-like, but not human per-se.
It’s not a simple black and white issue…
In all honesty, the more we researched this topic over time, the more we came to realize that this issue is in flux...
In the early days of our research, there was a significant contingent of scholars that prohibited photography and debated whether videography was essentially lots of photo frames put together to create motion. What would happen to the da’wah (calling to Islam) if video lectures or photo platforms were deemed impermissible today? With the proliferation of mobile devices and the digital world they support, it’s fair to say we’ve passed that point now.
What we did conclude, however, was that this issue is not as clear cut as we had first assumed. There are obvious exceptions to the rules for children’s resources and there’s plenty of food for thought in the details too.
But you may be surprised to learn that after all this research and despite being aware of this allowance to show facial features, we still decided that Learning Roots should stick to faceless characters.
After all, it was still the safer option, right?
Let’s Level Up…
One of the core values at Learning Roots is Ihsan (excellence) in our work through constant improvement. What got us to where we are today, will not get us to where we need to be tomorrow. To level up, we must up our game. Every day.
Part of that improvement was to build brand identity behind our characters. Up until now, our characters had been distinctive in style, but not in personality. If we were to make future strides, we’d need to build affinity and identity around our characters; boys and girls that a Muslim child living in today’s world can relate to and take as positive guides. Undoubtedly, a large part of the personal identity of a 2D or 3D visual character resides in the face. By opting not to use facial features, the door to this development is restricted.
Behind the Brand: Few would argue that faceless characters cannot build a greater affinity with children in the same way fully-featured branded characters with personality can.
But opposing views would argue that what we perceive to be advancement should never be at the expense of Allah’s pleasure. We agree. But to say the use of facial features in children’s products, in particular, is at the expense of Allah’s pleasure is a bold yet arguably weak statement. And so the case against showing facial features begins to wane.
My Kids Find this Scary!
One of the other qualities we’ve always been keen on at Learning Roots is to listen to what our customers have to say. And while we were occasionally praised for not showing facial features, we would consistently hear voices from the opposite end. Comments such the following were not uncommon:
“My child finds the faceless characters scary!”
“Even if you don’t show faces, my kids just fill in the blank faces anyway!”
“These faceless characters look creepy and very off-putting.”
While we may or may not agree with such comments, we do accept them to be genuine concerns for some. And that acknowledgement brings to surface concerns in child-psychology that we hadn’t previously been cognisant of. Does the continual exposure of children to faceless characters, or faces with partial facial features lead to negative psychological effects?
Whether you regard this issue as significant or not, we just want to highlight that it is a multi-faceted issue that permeates the Islamic legal rulings, application to modern advancements, effects on professional development as well as child psychology.
But if that wasn’t enough, there’s an even bigger elephant in the room that we’re all aware of, but doesn’t often get a mention in the discourse of image-making in Islam…
The Bigger Picture
In our research we found a significant body of insightful scholars who looked beyond the technicalities of the issue and foresaw an even bigger wave that has already crashed on the shores of Muslim homes. While we’re discussing the finer details of a classical matter that has been debated over centuries, our children are today drowning in a sea of highly sophisticated, alluringly attractive, and in some cases, overtly nefarious sights and sounds from mainstream media.
Discerning this phenomenon (which only strengthens with the passage of time) has led some scholars to encourage the use of engaging full-featured imagery in Islamic learning contexts, particularly since the texts already allow room for this.
Let’s be honest here; The average Muslim child living in the West, be they from a ‘practising’ family or otherwise, will at some point likely indulge in content from Disney, Netflix, television or YouTube. Or they’ll play video games, either on consoles or phones or tablets. And if it’s not on the screen, then they will almost certainly own some toy or book that contains living beings with full facial features. And if they're truly part of the 0.1% that have escaped these ubiquitous offerings then such items are still likely to have unsuspectingly entered their homes from their child’s school, clubs or the wider world.
So why is there a different expectation when it comes to wholesome Islamic resources when they reside alongside mainstream resources on the same shelf in the same Muslim home?
At Learning Roots, we’re under no illusion about what we’re up against. Yes, we want to attract your child’s attention so we can direct them to Allah and His beautiful religion. And yes, we’re wrestling with the likes of Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks for that attention. To be frank, we’re not able to compete with a simple toolkit of faceless characters that fail to build an emotional connection with your child.
And so if there’s clear room afforded to us in our religion to expand our toolkit, we will not stand by and watch our children be lured into a chasm designed by people whose agendas are far removed from or even opposed to Allah’s glorification. That’s not happening on our watch. And that’s a matter of honour and duty for us.
Furthermore, our company culture doesn’t operate from a ‘protectionist’ mindset. We’re not motivated by the aim of shielding our children from the harms of mainstream media. Rather we’re driven by the dreams of what our children can and will become when they are raised by learning, loving and living Islam. When you come from this approach, you empower children to thrive in their Islam and the defence against harm comes as standard.
With the weight of all the arguments we’ve enumerated above, we made the decision that Learning Roots, a company that seeks to let the natural beauty of Islam shine on our children, and one that designs for young Muslims living in an ever-sophisticated, ever-alluring modern world, would now use the room afforded to it by Islam, to show characters with facial features.
It’s often said that many readers peruse the beginning of an article, skip the middle and search for a conclusion at the end. If that describes you, then here’s what you are searching for:
When Learning Roots began in 2004, we took the hadith prohibiting image-making at face-value and established our brand identity with faceless characters.From the outset, our creative team experienced the limitations of expressionless characters. We researched the topic thoroughly and knew there was a well-evidenced exception to the general prohibition of image-making for children, even among scholars holding a strict line. Furthermore, with art being so subjective, even drawing characters without faces doesn't necessarily mean they fall under the 'safe' option.
Our constant push for improvement had been kept in check by our insistence to not depict facial features. And some of our customers were sending us a clear signal that child psychology was a factor that perhaps we’ve been blind-sided to in the past. But all the while as the years past, we continually witnessed Muslim children being allured by the increasingly attractive sights and sounds of mainstream media, while we stuck to the simple toolkit of faceless characters.
There came a point where we were simply unwilling to stand by and watch this happen, especially when our religion afforded us the room in this context to broaden our options and tackle the issue.
And so we proceeded, at times, tentatively with simple lines depicting eyes, until we went on to show detailed features with our Ramadan Activity Book which we launched in 2019 with the aim of introducing Learning Roots to a much wider audience.
It was a significant decision in our company history, one that was slow in coming, but the impact certainly was not Alhamdulillah. Our products and company have since enjoyed heightened popularity with both existing and new customers year on year. We’re especially pleased that children can now enjoy a greater emotional connection with our characters, and ultimately Islam, when using our products.
Peace of Mind
Of course, there will always be those who will insist that there is no barakah in doing the ‘wrong thing’. We appreciate the feedback and couldn’t agree more. As you can appreciate, where we differ is if this is truly the ‘wrong thing’. As we hope this article highlights, this issue is far from black and white, and even sticking to the ‘safer option’ is not so safe in the wider context of the world our children are growing up in. Furthermore, by showing facial features for children, we're simply following a well-established, agreed-upon timeless ruling in Islam.
There are multiple ways of looking at any matter, even if we prefer one over the others. We’ve shared our journey in this article so you may gain a greater appreciation of our experience with the issue of faceless characters. At this juncture, after having undertaken the due diligence, we’re at peace with this issue and we end with these apt words of the finest of creation:
Wabisah ibn Ma’bad reported: The Messenger of Allah (S) said to me, “Have you come to ask about righteousness and sin?” I said yes. The Prophet clenched his fist and struck his chest, saying, “Consult your soul, consult your heart, O Wabisah. Righteousness is what reassures your soul and your heart, and sin is what wavers in your soul and puts tension in your chest, even if people approve it in their judgments again and again.” (Sunan al-Dārimī)