Folk tales all over the world have timeless stories passed down from generation to generation. Since they were a means of oral storytelling, folk tales are written in a way that is easy to remember and share – and so they are perfect for storytime! While being entertaining and engaging, folktales are also an invaluable way to pass along core beliefs, reiterate cultural values and share common histories.
Many folk tales especially those derived from the Dervish or Sufi traditions are known across many Muslim countries. Stories of Fatima the Spinner and the Tent, and The Silly Chicken are known in some form or the other across the Middle East all the way to China.
Folktales also weave in ideas of courage, resourcefulness and trust into the story to teach children (and adults!) models of behavior. With challenging situations as part of the story that require their characters to make a good or bad decision, it shows children how our actions have positive or negative consequences.
Read on for our recommendations on our favorite folktales from Islamic traditions that are sure to open up fantastic worlds where one can gain insights into another culture’s’ values, beliefs, histories and traditions and often draw parallels into their own world.
FOLKTALES FROM ISLAMIC TRADITIONS
The Wise Fool: Fables from the Islamic World: As we mentioned, folk tales showcase the rubric of a society. This book is a great introduction to Mulla Nasruddin, a legendary character whose adventures and misadventures are enjoyed across the Islamic World. Eccentric, engaging and irreverent, Nasruddin always has a twinkle in his eye, a sliver of wisdom in his ramblings and a few good surprises up his sleeve. Read an interview with author Shahrukh Husain here. Also available as a fun picture book for the young ones and a chapter book. (Advanced picture book, suited for ages 5 and up)
The Clever Boy and the Terrible, Dangerous Animal: A vividly illustrated and highly entertaining tale told in bright colors and with gentle humor about a young boy who visits a neighboring village only to find the villagers cowering over a ‘dangerous animal’. The boy dispels their fears and manages to lead them to a clever solution too! A lighthearted tale about fearing that (and those) which we do not know. This tale is part of the many oral Sufi stories by Idries Shah, see the other titles here. Also available in English-Urdu. (Picture book, suited for ages 3 and up, lesson plan available here)
The Arabian Nights: An engrossing translation of eight stories from the 1001 Nights collection of fantasy and folklore common throughout the Middle East and South Asia. The author sets the stage beginning with Shahrazade’s story and her ability to keep King Shahriyar enthralled with her tales, and moves on to more familiar tales of Aladdin and less known ones such as ‘The Diamond Anklet’ and ‘The Speaking Bird and The Singing Tree’. Ideal for older elementary and middle grade kids. See another version StoryTeller: Tales from the Arabian Nights here. (Chapter book, suited for ages 10 and up).
The Kidnapping of Amir Hamza: Hamzanama or the story of Hamza was such a favorite of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, that he commissioned grand illustrations of the epic. These adventure stories of daring princess, dragons, flying demons and stories have been popular all over the Islamic World. The Kidnapping of Amir Hamza is one such story retold with intricate Mughal miniature illustrations inspired by the originals. A fantastic fantasy read with an interactive section on Mughal art too! Find a more detailed version of the epic here. (Picture book, suited for ages 9 and up)
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and other Stories: The famous story behind the phrase ‘Khulja Sim Sim!’ or Open Sesame! See how Ali Baba trip to the forest leads him to adventure and riches from the secret treasure cave, and how he must outwit the forty thieves. A wonderful world of fantasy and treasure that is remarkable even today, centuries after it was first told. Also see this bilingual version in English and Hindi.(Chapter book, suited for ages 6 and up)
Fatima, the Spinner and the Tent: Another beautifully illustrated story from Idries Shah’s children’s Sufi tales, this story travels across oceans from Morocco, to Egypt, Turkey and finally to China where Fatima realizes the meaning of all the misfortune in her life. This tale is part of the many oral Sufi stories by Idries Shah, see the other titles here. Also available in English -Urdu. (Picture book, suited for ages 3 and up, lesson plan available here)
Akbar, the third Mughal Emperor is regarded as one of the India’s greatest rulers. His reign was a time of cultural and intellectual advancement and interfaith tolerance. Akbar worked towards assimilation and integration of his Hindu subjects, appointed many Hindu advisors, encouraged interfaith marriages and celebrations and abolished the tax on non-Muslims. Birbal was one such minister in Akbar’s court and a member of his inner council of nine advisors.
He was famous for his sharp intellect and a keen sense of humor. These stories of Akbar and Birbal are very popular among children and adults alike, and form an indispensable part of South Asian folklore. For older readers, we have a great chapter book on Akbar-Birbal which provides a illuminating window into Akbar’s rule, along with fun Birbal stories.
The Boy Without a Name: This enchanting tale about a young boy whose parents are advised by a wise man not to give him a name. ‘Nameless’ yearns for a name and is willing to trade his dream with a friend for his name. A magical tale full of wonder sure to stir your imagination. This tale is part of the many oral Sufi stories by Idries Shah, see the other titles here. Also available in English -Urdu (Picture book, suited for ages 3 and up, lesson plan available here)
For updates to this list, look up our book Muslims in Story: Expanding Multicultural Understanding Through Children’s and Young Adult Literature
Our book will equip public and school library staff, including educators and collection development librarians, to make real change in their communities by validating lived experiences of Muslim kids and building a stronger sense of empathy, respect, and understanding towards Muslims.
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