Tell us something about your educational background.
I completed my BSC in electrical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA, in 1998. Since then, I have been working in various IT firms, both locally and abroad.
What inspired you to become an illustrator?
My family travelled a lot while I was growing up. When I was 5, we moved to Kenya. We often used to go out on safaris in Kenya’s world renowned game parks, and I remember that, while out on these trips, I would pay very close attention to the animals – how they looked and how they moved. As soon as I would get back home, the first thing I would do, even before changing or washing up, was to take out my sketch pad and draw all the beautiful animals I had seen – I think this is where the passion was born. I remember when people would ask me, what I wanted to do when I grow up, I would tell them I wanted to be a cartoonist. As I grew up, the passion grew. I would have dozens of sketch pads lying all over my study table full of all sorts of drawings of animals, superheroes, wrestlers, etc. I think I probably spent hours alone in my room, drawing everything that came to mind. Since I was very interested in drawing superheroes, I was always very keen to observe the structure of the human body and how people moved; whenever I saw something unique, I could hardly wait to get home and try to draw it.
As I grew older and more aware of the Deen, I realized that drawing humans and animals was not permitted; thus, a lot of my drawings, rather most, were unacceptable in Islam. With a heavy heart, I gave up my passion and began focusing elsewhere. I think for at least ten to twelve years I didn’t even touch a sketch pad. Then, over the past few years, I began reading various Fatawas from scholars all over the world and concluded that illustrations can be done, while keeping certain guidelines in mind, e.g., not trying to imitate creation. Thus, drawing incomplete images by removing such things as eyes or ears is still permitted. Also, drawing caricatures or cartoon type images is considered permissible, because such pictures are not meant to look like real animals or humans. In fact, some scholars, e.g. Ibn Uthaymeen, actually encouraged this work, so as to offer a morally wholesome alternative for Muslim children to what they are usually exposed to on television and other media.
Once I got married, my wife noticed the skill that Allah (swt) had blessed me with. She encouraged me to begin drawing again. Initially, I wasn’t very responsive, but then she practically forced me by getting for me a few projects from “Reflections” school. Thus, slowly I began relearning my forgotten skill… and as I did, I realized the sense of fulfillment that I received with each illustration I completed. I had been suppressing all this time the gift I was born with, not allowing it to develop. In conclusion, I suppose my main inspiration would be my wife, who convinced me (forcefully) to pursue my childhood dream.
What are some of challenges that you faced, when you embarked on your career? How did you overcome them?
There were a number of challenges that I faced, when I began seriously considering a career in illustration. First and foremost, I wasn’t sure I was talented enough. So many years had passed, since I had really sat down and tried to draw anything that I thought maybe I might have lost this skill altogether.
Secondly, there are so many talented artists out there, who have actually studied art in college and are experts in illustrating using all sorts of media, e.g. water colours, acrylics, pastels, digital art, etc. I really wasn’t sure I could compete with them, considering I had only taken a few art classes in high school.
The third challenge was keeping within the boundaries of Shariah with this work. This is an area, which I feel still requires some scholarly research, as to what is Halal and what is not. I think many Muslims (including some Islamic publishing companies) have allowed themselves to venture outside the limits, due to the pressure of competition. In fact, some well known Islamic publication companies outright refused to work with me, unless I was willing to draw humans and animals with complete features. Last but not least, was the financial challenge. As a father of three little girls, although I love this work, I just wasn’t sure it was financial viable.
My way of dealing with these challenges has been not to jump right in but to start small. I have been getting some small projects here and there and at the same time have kept trying to hone and improve my skills. This allows one to develop a reputation in the market and also one’s portfolio, without taking a major risk. Also, what is very important, I have constantly tried to seek advice from other experienced artists, who are also Islamically conscious.
Describe some challenges which you are facing even now.
I think all of the above challenges still remain to varying degrees. Insha’Allah, I think there is a large demand for Muslim illustrators, considering the amount of Islamic books/ novels being published every year. Thus, I remain hopeful for a bright future.
How well has the field of illustration been explored in the Muslim world?
I may be wrong, but I think that this is an area that has been largely ignored by Muslims as a whole. Due to our cultural background, I think most of us in our youth were made to feel that the only respectable careers were in medicine, engineering, law or finance. I think careers in art, such as painting and calligraphy, and writing were not really encouraged (if not outright looked down upon). Thus, today as Ummah we find ourselves way behind many of the Western nations in such fields as media and literature. Have you ever tried searching for a good library in Karachi? Therefore, I think there is a huge world out there in the field of illustrations, just waiting to be explored by Muslims.
Is it financially viable for a youngster to pursue illustration as his/ her career?
I think if one has the talent, it is very much financially viable. Especially these days, when so much work is being outsourced from Western nations to the subcontinent, many people in the West are really searching to get good illustration work done at a reasonable cost. Thus one does not even have to limit oneself to one’s own country for this type of work.
Who is leading the way in the world of illustrations for Muslims, which can serve as role models?
You know, I have tried to search the Internet for major Muslim names in the field of illustrations but unsuccessfully. I would love to get in touch with some of them, in order to seek their advice. Muslims just don’t seem to want to venture down this road. Due to this harsh reality, you will find that many Islamic childrens’ books (I wouldn’t say most) are actually illustrated by non-Muslims. I think this is a field, which is really looking for a few good Muslim men (and women… ahem!).
What kind of work are you involved in presently?
Presently, I am working on some children’s books illustration projects with a local education institute. I am also working on some of my own projects, such as developing an educational game for Muslim children and other learning aids. I have developed a character I call Talib Jan, a young school boy; he is starring in some of my work.
What message would you like to give out to the youth?
It may sound very cliché, but I would honestly advise my young brothers and sisters that if you have a talent, and it is Halal, don’t waste it but pursue it with all your might. When Allah (swt) has given us a gift, then it is not right for us to refuse it. Don’t stray away from your talent, because you feel that other careers are more financially rewarding. Believe me – when people see, how talented you are and what terrific work you produce, Insha’Allah, the financial rewards will automatically follow. If you are doing something you are really good at, then you are more likely to enjoy it and feel rewarded doing it. However, always seek advice from your elders (especially your parents) and those whom you trust.
If you would like to get in touch with Absar Kazmi, you can email him at email@example.com