Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Hidden Curriculum of a Cartoon


Reading Time: 3 minutes

This is a good school-related story gone bad. I was at first elated when my kid told me about a cartoon her teacher showed in religion class, where the story behind a Quranic verse they’re learning is told. The Quranic chapter is called “The Elephant” and tells the story of how the Kaaba was almost destroyed by Abraha and his army riding elephants (no idea why they owned elephants!) but was saved by special birds God sent to kill them (violent stuff). Prophet Muhammad was born that year, and at the time, years were called after significant events, so it was “the year of the elephant”.

So I decided to add the video to my playlist since she liked it and to try to find more.

The part that annoyed the heck out of me when I watched is that when the cartoon depicts Abraha and his people, there is an abundance of crosses. As in, symbols of Christianity. 

First of all, I never knew this guy was Christian. But at the time, Mecca was overwhelmingly pagan, and people used the Kaaba to pray to statues and not God. If Abraha was Christian, it would make total sense as a monotheist that he would find this something attackable. I’m not endorsing lack of religious freedom, but thinking historically, it was a normal thing for monotheists to try to spread their religion in these ways. Though of course we don’t know about intentions. But superficially, it wouldn’t have seemed like a bad thing. In Islamic tradition, the person who actually explained to Muhammad that he was a prophet was a Christian, Waraqa Ibn Noufal.

But the BIG PROBLEM I have with it is that Egypt is living at a time when we really need to build a constructive, harmonious society. Showing a video like this subtly hints to kids that people who wear a cross are “bad” and that’s just the worst message you can give and the image may stay deep in their subconscious. So now I’m gonna have to watch it with her again and explain that in fact most people who wear crosses are good, they are our friends, they believe in God, too. And she doesn’t yet understand much about religion. 

I often find myself explaining to her some religious concepts by discussing cartoons with superheroes and supervillains. There’s a particular one she watches these days called Miraculous Ladybug and Cat Noir, and the supervillain Hawk Moth really helped me explain the concept of the devil that gets to people to make them temporarily do bad things.

And yes, in case you’re wondering. All this child-level religious explanation makes religious things sound ridiculous. I’m not sure if there are ways to express to my child where I’m at with religion or to explain religion at her level in ways that don’t make me feel comfortable. I might be going through a phase. Or it may be that everyone who is a person of faith, who has to explain religion to their kids finds it difficult. I don’t know. Or I may be going about it all wrong. Or I may be unconventional in my own thinking but don’t know how to do that with a kid. I don’t know.

But I sure as heck don’t want my kid to watch that video uncritically again. And I’ll make sure to watch it and discuss it. I know she may have missed the crosses and I may bring them to her attention now. But to me it’s better to make the hidden curriculum explicit so we can critique it, than to bury our heads in the sand!


  1. Yes. Abraha was a Christian but I have never heard this point stressed in the story of the Elephant. It is related in the Quran, Surat el-Fil, one of the very short suras toward the end of the Quran. According to Tabari and others, Abraha had built a shrine at Sana, a pilgrimage site, and Makkah was a rival place of pilgrimage. His campaign is reported to have had the objective of erasing this rival pilgrimage site. It seems this was mostly about revenue from pilgrims.

    The authors of the video you saw seem to impose their peculiar sectarian gripes onto this well-known religious text. It is common enough for religious folks to tweek a source to cause it to say something that it does not actually say. This is reprehensible. Doubly so for self-appointed guardians of piety.

    Your comments about explaining religion to children are more interesting than this though. You reminded me of something i read recently about Richard Feynman, who is supposed to have said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” There is a four step process for learning called the Feynman technique, which begins with simple explanation of a concept.

    • Is religion something you can explain simply? To me, it feels like explaining it simply makes it sound silly… Like which dimensions of God to explain to a child and how to explain angels and devils (kids have imaginations to absorb it all). If my personal notions of heaven and hell are abstract/spiritual, how do you explain that to a child? They ask difficult questions. Some of them you feel like you could answer if they were older. Others you’re actually not sure you should…
      She has all kinds of concerns about death and life after death…and although I give her these ones as straight as I can (which is to say, I actually don’t know but that’s what the Quran says), I think the journey to believing in God takes time. And although we’re on a path, learning Quran, hopefully soon learning to pray, etc, I don’t remember at which point a person truly believes (whatever that means for each person). For me, strangely, it was a dream when I was about 9 and a few spiritual experiences in my late teens. And now I sound like I’m trying to replicate born-again ideas but I’m not coz i didn’t know about born-again ideas until after all that… What’s your experience been?

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