In his field work across the Muslim world, Jamal J. Elias frequently saw images of children used to communicate religious, national, and civic ideals in places ranging from Turkey, a country with near-universal literacy, to Pakistan, a nation with low educational spending and correspondingly low literacy rates. Images, particularly images of children, teach a visual literacy that creates a shared cultural language.
These observations led Elias, Walter H. Annenberg Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies and South Asia Studies, to focus his research on representations of childhood in contemporary Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey and the questions they raise about matters ranging from religion and nationhood to concepts of childhood and innocence. His 2018 book, Alef Is for Allah: Childhood, Emotion, and Visual Culture in Islamic Societies, is the first systematic, comparative treatment of visual representations of childhood in Islamic societies.
Elias argues that while particular experiences of childhood vary across cultures, there is a global agreement of what an idealized childhood looks like.
“People with relative security have developed a remarkably similar notion of an idealized childhood: a time of innocence, a time of protection, and a time of schooling. This understanding results in images of children serving as a cultural shorthand for innocence and virtue, without those qualities being explicitly stated.”
Alef Is for Allah demonstrates that these adult constructions of childhood inform visual texts intended for both child and adult populations.
Turkish children’s books, for example, often use cuteness to make religious stories more compelling and more palatable. Elias points to illustrator Cem Kızıltuğ and his influential series on the lives of prophets. A scene representing the crucifixion of Jesus, for example, is awash with bright colors and uses round shapes to represent “good” figures, while “bad” figures are represented by spiky, angular shapes. The cross itself is anthropomorphized and notably absent a human figure. The simple scene teaches the story but avoids explicitly mentioning its violence.
In media for children and adults alike, children are used to elicit emotional responses of identification or sympathy. In Iran, nationalist images figure children in several ways, including as sacrificial boys or grieving daughters. Elias traces these gendered representations through children's books, a large number of which were published after the Iranian Revolution of 1978, and posters and state-issued stamps intended primarily for an adult audience.
Elias stresses the adult hand in creating images of children, regardless of the intended audience or purpose. Children's books are grounded in both what adults expect children to know and in what they assume children can emotionally and intellectually process, while adult media relies on shared understandings of an idealized childhood.
“Children are multipliers,” Elias says. “They multiply the emotional content of any message, and in that way we socially invest children with a symbolic value that is greater than the value we assign to adults.”
“Because images of children are so emotionally constitutive, they play an outsize role in not only reflecting a culture's values, but in constructing and reinforcing those very values.”