After seeing the success of faith-based children’s toys that have hit toy store shelves in recent years, Danny Shakoj began wondering about what a doll for Muslim children would look like.
“The Islamic faith doesn’t have any type of product like Mensch on a Bench or Elf on a Shelf,” Shakoj told NBC News. “I began thinking, ‘what’s an easy way for children to learn about Islam?’”
Growing up in New Jersey as the child of Circassian Muslims who immigrated from Syria, Shakoj recalled that there were not many cultural toys or books that reflected his experiences or upbringing.
“We celebrated all of the holidays, we fasted for Ramadan,” he said. “But we didn’t have much for kids to spark much conversation with kids.”
Further research and brainstorming sessions lead Shakoj to create “Adventures of Imam Adam,” a new children’s book he wrote with illustrations by artist Necdet Yilmaz. The book is geared toward children ages 3 and up and follows a Muslim faith leader as he attempts to make the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. The companion plush doll wears traditional Islamic clothing and carries a green backpack with a folded green prayer rug inside.
In creating his character, Shakoj explains that he wanted to help demystify the faith to young children.
“A lot of times, religious figures are scary to children. So he’s a young imam going through different adventures to go to Hajj,” Shakoj explained. “He lives in a diversified neighborhood, he plays soccer, he makes his way across a broken bridge and has to deal with crocodiles.”
While Imam Adam deals with these very earthly things, Shakoj says the book does so while showing how Adam uses the five pillars of Islam to solve problems. “It touches on things like charity and being kind to the environment,” he said.
While not a parent himself, the 33-year-old Shakoj says that he spends lots of time with his young cousins and the children of his friends and consulted them throughout the writing process.
“There’s no fun way to teach Islam [right now],” he said. “I showed it to them as I was developing the product and I would just go to Barnes and Noble and just show moms and kids the doll to get their opinion. It was really great feedback.”
While “Adventures of Imam Adam” is primarily targeted towards Muslim-American families, Shakoj said he hopes children of all faiths can relate to Adam’s adventures and journey. “Adam is a universal name, in the Islamic faith he’s the first man, just as he is in Judaism and Christianity,” he noted. “I wanted to touch upon something that hopefully could spark conversations among people of different faiths.”
CORRECTION (June 21, 2017, 11:00 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the home country of Danny Shakoj's parents. They were born in Syria, not Russia.