Little Nazia and her friends, all running to an after-school mosque in east Birmingham, would hold their scarves over their glossy ebony hair until, a breeze catching the edges, the children become a multi-hued convoy on concrete. That was 25 years ago, when a mosque ‘auntie’ would try to teach the girls – in segregated classes – the ways of their Prophet in the Koran, all in Arabic, of course.
Go back umpteen more years and I was being prepared for my First Holy Communion, the Roman Catholic rite of passage, by a teacher-nun. But both mosque ‘auntie’ and my nun, despite doing their best, made us scared of God, and we learned lessons not of God’s love for us, but of His anger when we sinned. He was, we both decided, very stern.
We didn’t tell our parents how we felt. They respected our religious teachers, wouldn’t have listened to our complaints that God seemed grumpy. And like countless children of all faiths, we stuck it out.
Nazia Nasreen is now aged 30 and a devout Muslim mother-of-two, while I’m so laid-back a Roman Catholic as to be almost horizontal. But neither of us wants generations of children taught fear when they should be learning of God’s love and forgiveness. This is what’s driven Nasreen to launch a business that helps. Enter Barbie, that iconic Western doll, who has been reborn as Hijarbie, attends mosque in modest clothes, and uses a bright pink prayer mat.
And small children who see their parents fasting throughout Ramadan can now count off the season’s 30 days on gingham calendars (think of our pocket Advent calendars) and, if they’ve been particularly good, might, just might, find the occasional small chocolate box in a pocket.
Although too young to fast themselves, they are getting into the spirit of Ramadan (no food, nothing to drink, praying during daylight hours). Nasreen has sourced joyous toys like these, unavailable in Muslim shops in Britain, from around the globe because she wants Islam to be fun for children everywhere.
Her idea grew in her home in Bordesley Green, Birmingham, at first just a way of playing with her little son, Ibraheem, and daughter, Inayah. But other mothers, who had shared her tedium and frights at mosque schools, became enthusiastic. They wanted the same for their own youngsters, not instead of mosque schools, of course, but as parallel to its lessons. Nasreen’s brain-child is now called the Ibraheem Toy House – named after her son – the UK’s first online Muslim store. And its success has left her slightly shell-shocked but rushed off her size-four velvet slippers.
“It all started as I fed my son and my small daughter was sitting beside me,” she recalls. “I thought how I adored them both, how I’d never let them be scared of anything. The toys came into my mind as a fun way of teaching Islam. After all, whatever faith we are, we best remember the teachers who made us laugh – their lessons and words stay with us, don’t they?
“There’s another angle, too. A hugely important angle. Little Muslims are now growing in a world where terrorist atrocities make huge headlines – rightly so. Our children could be affected by its spin-offs. Yet they are British, they must make their ways here on whatever paths they choose.
“Some will, perhaps, be asked to explain their faith and they need to be able to explain its gentle ways, not the horrific slaughter we see. But please, I’m not a fanatically devout Muslim. I’m a middle-of-the-road mum, born and bred in Birmingham. My grandfather came here in the 1960s, my dad worked in factories until he became a black cab driver.
“We want peace as much as any other group – but we need the knowledge that what terrorists perpetrate isn’t true Islam. I don’t want my children to feel outsiders. I want them to be good Muslims, able to counter criticism of what’s done by terrorists in Islam’s name.”
Nasreen left Bordesley Girls’ School for a place at what was then the University of Central England (now Birmingham City University), graduating with a BSc degree she used for laboratory work and audiology testing at Specsavers. She’s married to Mohammed Wajid, who works as a baggage handler at Birmingham International. Her work base now is the typically extended home in Bordesley Green where she’s rigid on just one rule: she works on her laptop for four hours a day to source the men and women who make the goods she wants to sell online.
“They’re out there,” she says, “but they can be elusive”. One example was Zahida, a Liverpudlian housewife, who couldn’t wait to talk online to Nasreen. Would she be interested in vivid pink prayer-mats to teach children to say their simple little prayers as their parents said theirs? Nasreen was more than interested. She ordered a dozen on the spot and had sold 11 of them for a 50% mark up by the end of that week. She could have sold another too, but her delighted daughter refused to be parted from hers.
More globe-scouring unearthed a Dutch Muslim toy-carver, a Nigerian doll enthusiast living in the African bush, a former Birmingham student currently working in Dubai who could sell her jigsaws in bright colours and with big pieces – tiny hands need that bit of help.
“I had visited several Muslim supermarkets and found they sold very few toys. I got the impression they felt there was very little need for Muslim toys. Well, there jolly well is and I’m selling them!”
A little research followed. Nasreen and her husband went to a Muslim fair in Coventry after locating brightly-coloured Islamic reading and painting books, personalised with first names.
What tiny Koranic scholars, she asks, could refuse a shiny book on which their very own names are printed? They took child-sized chairs and tables from their own home, then laid out the colouring books and bundles of crayons they’d bought.
“All the kids stampeded in our direction when they saw these,” says Nasreen. “So did their parents, all thrilled that they’d found aids to Islam that were fun and inviting. They tried to order on the spot. As we drove home, Wajid, who’d thought my toy idea was just a passing fancy, told me that he reckoned I might have hit on something special.”
Now she employs three dispatchers to fulfil orders and points out that her feedback (mostly from mothers, grandmothers and aunts) underlines the toys get little children talking, widen their worlds. “Remember that our kids live in Muslim backgrounds but are surrounded by non-Muslims who do things differently. Our big celebrations are our two Eids, when we exchange presents, get new clothes, do everything non-Muslims get up to before Christmas – oodles of wrapping paper, top-secret shopping lists, squirreling goodies away until the big days.
“Christmas for us is just a family get-together over a big meal – because it’s usually a long bank holiday. But it’s useless to say to our children that we don’t do Christmas because we’re Muslims. That implies we’re a people apart. And we’re not. The baby born in Bethlehem is one of our prophets called Isa – Arabic for Jesus.
“We don’t forget him. Many Muslims get into a little of the Christmas spirit by buying food which they take to food banks. Our tinies absolutely swell with pride as they hand over the offerings and they’re given a great reception: a good lesson learned.”
And a stark contrast, too, to the countless children with no faith affiliations. Do they reckon Father Christmas is Jesus in disguise? Aren’t they missing out enormously if Christmas is simply mountains of gifts?
Right now a bestseller for Nasreen is the cuddly Amina (named after the Prophet’s mother) whose hands and feet are pressed to repeat simple Arabic phrases from the Koran.
There’s the modest Barbie, of course, (Ken has yet to put in a mosque appearance), there are brightly coloured board games, books, everything that an inquiring little mind will probe, question and learn.
Nasreen’s daughter still goes to mosque school for the Koranic essentials. But one of her mum’s happiest days came when she received a little certificate from mosque school, and was able to dance round her home singing Alhumdulilah (all praise is due to you, God).
She’d seen the prayer in the Koran at her after-school mosque lessons, had spelt it out with lettered toy bricks, and brought the house down! “She’d learned as I want all kids to learn – sorry, I’m being a doting mum, aren’t I?”
Parcels now arrive for Ibraheem Toy House’s office from across Europe, Canada, America, Malaysia, African countries, even Australia, all bulging with childhood delights. And, great news from Liverpool, Zahida, the pink mat-maker, has set up a ladies’ sewing circle
to fulfil orders.
Nasreen herself has a business future mapped out. “The next stop is designing toys”, she says. “I’ve developed a bit of confidence I used to lack. I even talked about my little company at a city centre business seminar [which is where BQ first spotted her]. I was the only Muslim in the room and I dried up until they all shouted, ‘Come on, Nazia, you’re doing fine, tell us about it’.”
She doesn’t say as much, but that’s a big step for a Muslim woman. What about profits and losses (if any of the latter), and how does she run her business? She hints at the figures and operations in such a human way, discussing them via products. After the overnight success of the pink prayer-mats, Nasreen thought she should ride what she thought modestly was beginner’s luck. When she discovered the couple selling children’s colouring books illustrating Koranic stories she went for it. “I splashed out on 200, then felt I might have got it wrong,” she says. “But wowee! They went in a week to mums all over Britain who wanted the Koran taught as a pleasure. My usual mark-up was applied – it’s been the same since I started selling in 2014 – and I made £15,000 profit. Last year it doubled to £30,000 – but I’d still a lot to learn.”
Nasreen, who pores over her laptop when the rest of her family are sleeping, discovered early on that she was spending hours despatching orders from her home. “Bad idea, that,” she remembers. “I needed that time to track down business across the world, not end up under sticky tape and labels. Despatching companies, though, wanted the earth for what’s a pretty basic service and I felt uneasy: this was cash and time almost misspent.”
Not for long, though. A friend of a friend offered her three rooms in West Bromwich for a quarter of the usual rent and service charge, and Nasreen now employs three packers.
“It’s super,” she says. “I can keep my eyes on all the stock, check everything. I get a great thrill knowing I’m behind my goods reaching Britain from across the world.”
With Ibraheem Toy House doing so well, Nasreen says that everyone asks if she and Wajid have treated themselves yet. “No, it’s far too early,” she replies shyly. “We’re still finding our trading legs.” And then she thinks again, and says: “Although a strictly business trip to Dubai might be on the horizon…”
Asked how she might advise other entrepreneurs, Nasreen’s thoughts are delightfully modest: “I’ve learned more than I thought possible – all simple lessons that seem obvious once I take them on board. Like the possibilities of answers to problems being on your own doorstep. And like never making the error of fearing you’re reaching too high…”