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Wisdom & Whimsy: Muslim media company instills faith with videos, music and more
by Susan Hogan Albach

The kid with the orange hair, bulging eyes and big glasses is Adam. He has a new baby sister who's driving him crazy, at the moment for taking his last lollipop. "I'm tired of putting up with her," Adam whines to his mom. "Can't we give her away at a garage sale or something?"

Adam is the Kufi-wearing puppet star of the Adam's World children's video series. He is to Muslims what Mickey Mouse is to Disney and Larry the Cucumber is to evangelical Christians. But Adam is only part of the arsenal Abdul Malik Mujahid is using to help Muslims keep the faith. His multimedia company, Sound Vision, is a bit of Disney, PBS, Microsoft, and Oprah all rolled into one.

Want to learn the Qur'an in Arabic? Sound Vision has a CD-ROM for you. Hip to Islamic folk music? This is the place. Wonder how to plan a Muslim wedding? Check out the Sound Vision website, where you'll find oodles of advice on everything from Islamic prenuptial agreements to seating arrangements for non-Muslim guests.

There are also documentaries, some controversial such as the "Ideal Muslim Husband," in which men declare that women shouldn't do all the housework. And, for a dose of daily inspiration, Sound Vision offers a chance to tune in to Islamic radio. No topic appears too sensitive to tackle, be it sex, divorce, or finances. In Sound Vision chat rooms, a teenager insists good Muslims don't attend the prom. A man at wit's end with his wife spills out soap opera details of his troubles. A woman on the verge of marriage asks whether French kissing is allowed. "I'm sorry if this grosses anyone out," she writes. "There is no shyness in matters of religion," says a response.

Of course, there are meatier chats about public schools, the media, and battling pornography.

Founded 12 years ago, Sound Vision is the oldest and largest Muslim multimedia company in the United States. While its vast array of products may suggest an empire, the truth is that this kind of Muslim venture is still in its infancy. With merely a fragment of the budgets of big conglomerates, Mujahid is trying to teach Islam in all the techno-savvy ways at the fingertips of Americans.

But unlike the big guys, Sound Vision must carry the burden for concept, production, design, packaging, sales, marketing, technical support, and public relations all by itself. "Marketing is a major challenge because Muslim communications doesn't exist in this country," said Mujahid, president and founder of the company. Still, every year his company grows by 20% to 30% and produces six to nine new products.

Because it's too expensive to advertise in mainstream media, Sound Vision markets in Muslim stores, mosques, the internet, and by direct mail. Sales catalogs are sent to 200,000 U.S. households. In Muslim countries, more than 17 television stations are vying for the rights to air Adam's World. "We thought we were producing these things for the Muslim community in North America, where Muslims are a minority," said Mujahid, 48, an imam who came to the United States from Pakistan in 1981. He earned a degree in political science from the University of Chicago, then learned about television production at the Chicago Access Corp.

Started as a nonprofit, Sound Vision now operates as two entities. Sound Vision Foundation was created as an independent charitable organization that now owns majority shares in a for-profit company known as SoundVision.Com. Mujahid started his business in his home but now has two offices in a dark-brick building just west of Chicago's downtown loop. A few years ago, the area was notorious for prostitutes, bars, and drugs. Now it's being revitalized with high-priced lofts. Oprah Winfrey's television studio is down the street.

A hodgepodge of videos, cassettes, CDs, and books are cluttered on shelves and on desks in Sound Vision's basement office. Along one wall, two workers man phone lines for customers calling in catalog orders. Sometimes children call asking for Adam.

One of the workers, Kamaluddin Ahmad, came to Sound Vision as a volunteer eight years ago and never left. "It gave me satisfaction to work for something with some cause," he explained. Altogether, Sound Vision employs 13 people full-time at offices in Chicago and outside Toronto. On a rainy summer day, eight people are on hand. Five men, including Mujahid, are casually dressed in khaki pants and open-neck white shirts. The women wear dresses and hijabs (veils).

Upstairs, the good-natured Mujahid sits behind a computer in a spacious room with brick walls and hardwood floors. His desk is a long table without drawers. Nearby is a large rug where he leads his staff in daily prayers. Two others work close by; there are no private offices. "This is a humble operation," Mujahid said.

From a computer next to a kitchen area, Itrath Syed produces RadioIslam.com, a Sound Vision radio venture on the Internet She oversees a daily 20-minute program called "Living Islam." The radio site also features interviews and reports from around the world. Children can listen to stories, and adults can listen to recitations of the Qur'an. "It's like a variety show," said Syed, 28, a former counselor for battered women who jumped at the chance to work for Sound Vision. "It's the next best thing that's going to happen," she said about the company. "Sound Vision is the real pioneer in this field. I'm thrilled to be part of the Muslim experience of that. Here we have a chance to create things that have never been done before for Muslims."

In the early 1990s, Sound Vision released Al-Qari, the world's first Islamic multimedia computer program, and one of the company's best-selling products. Al-Qari and Al-Qari Plus are interactive learning tools that teach Arabic reading and pronunciation of the Qur'an, the Islamic sacred book.

"Arabic isn't my native tongue. This program makes it easier for me to learn," said Haseeb Akhtar of Garland, who met Mujahid in the mid-1980s when Sound Vision was still a concept. Akhtar is now on Sound Vision's board of directors.

Despite the vast array of products, it's Adam who's the runaway star of the company. The bumbling puppet and his human sidekick, Asad, a sweater-vested Mister Rogers figure, are the Laurel and Hardy of the Muslim world. Behind the humorous, often cornball segments featuring Adam haphazardly skateboarding or pretending to be a reporter ("This is Adam, the wonder journalist..."), Adam learns serious lessons about Islamic values, such as the importance of learning, prayer, and humility.

"Adam is sort of this very happy, yet sincere child who happens to be a puppet," said Jawad Jafry, 35, of Toronto, Adam's alter ego and creator of the series. "He gives Muslim children a way of validating their experience that watching Barney just can't."

Taking a cue from "Sesame Street" and MTV, the videos zip from the main story line to Arabic vocabulary lessons to Islamic songs. And there are news-like segments in which Adam and Asad travel via a "transvisualizer" (think "Star Trek") to countries such as Egypt. "My kids can associate with Adam because he uses Islamic terminology they understand," said Sabra Boutari of The Colony, a suburb northwest of Dallas. "They like the fact that Adam is a child. In this country, these kinds of products are hard to come by."

During one show, three little girls are shown at prayer. The music to "Three Blind Mice" is played to Islamic lyrics: "Three good girls. Three good girls. See how they pray. See how they pray. They listen and pray without any noise and think about Allah and not their toys. Three good girls. Three good girls."

The videos aren't sophisticated productions, which could be an obstacle to attracting children raised on big-budget movies, said Aslam Abdullah, editor of the Minaret, a Muslim magazine. Still, he said, they show that Muslims can produce programs that are entertaining as well as educational. "They're trying to attract kids who are used to Disney, and anything less in quality is going to have problems," Abdullah said. "Muslims have a long way to go if they are going to be competitive in the mainstream."

Mujahid said the response to Adam has been overwhelmingly positive, though not without complaints. "Every once in a while, somebody will tell us that Islam is against idols and this puppet is close to an idol," he said. "I tell him Adam's more like a doll. He's not only for play but for education."

For some, the humor may seem over the top at times. In one episode, as Adam struggles to get along with his baby sister, Aneesha, he's put off by the smells she makes.

"Oh boy. Hey mama, she did it again!" Adam shouts in his perpetually shrill voice as he looks toward his sister's diaper.

"I'll be there in a minute," his mom says.
"In a minute, all the plants in the house will die," Adam barks.

Mujahid said the segment reflects a child's honesty, which fits well with his company's overall goal. "We have a religious mission, and that makes us very different than Disney," he said. "The best reaction we get isn't verbal, but it comes from the very young children we see laughing and learning from Adam. That's how we know we are making a difference."

©The Dallas Morning News 2000

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