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Images of Islam

    Peter Sanders was one of the very first Europeans to take photographs of Mecca and Medina. To get permission proved to be quite a bureaucratic task back in 1971, but luckily he succeeded for his impressive pictures eventually found their way into Stern, Paris Match, the Observer, the Sunday Times and other important periodicals. As such, the Western world was given a fresh look into the heart of Islam.

    When he started out as a photographer, however, he mainly took pictures of the rock icons of the sixties, such as Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Doors and The Who – to name but a few.

    How did you find your way from the glamour of the world of rock to Islam?

    In the beginning of the seventies, I became more interested in spirituality and went to India, which was quite the fashion in those days. During the seven months I spent there, I studied most religions, though I read only a little bit about Islam. When I came back, however, I noticed how some of the people that I knew from the music business had become Muslim, while others had gotten heavily into drugs, black magic and other things. So, I felt I was being pointed in a pretty clear direction.

    As I was thinking over what to do next, someone told me more about Sufism. He explained to me how the structure of Islam is like a house but that you need to have a spiritual heart at the centre of that house. Tasawwuf[1] was that spiritual heart, he said. If you take it out of the house, you don’t have the protection, but if you only keep the outer shell, you lose the real spirit. That analogy made sense to me. So I took some sort of a ‘leap of faith’ and felt that Islam was the right path for me. I quickly set off for Morocco and spent a month with a shaykh called Shaykh Muhammad ibn al Habib. Three months later, I began a journey to Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj. After obtaining permission, I took those pictures of the hajj that were so well received worldwide. Since then, I have been traveling all over the world, photographing Muslims and their Islamic culture.

    The relationship between Islam and the creation of images hasn’t always been too easy. So, did you have a spiritual conflict between your job and the religion you had gone into? Certainly if one considers you photographed people, perhaps it might have brought you some doubt?

    To be honest, it was simply what I did, so I didn’t see much of a problem. After a while, I of course became aware that some Muslims disapproved. I tried to understand their point of view, but what I arrived at eventually is that the prohibition of making images of people is about three-dimensional idols. A photograph, however, is like looking at your face in the mirror or seeing a reflection in a pond. I wasn’t recreating something that wasn’t there – neither did I use the pictures for worship.

    Another thing is that I have often photographed people who were much evolved spiritually as well as scholastically. They never refused to let me take their picture. If it was so wrong, why would these people let me do it? On top of it, those people who came up to me and said that photography is forbidden in Islam, well, when I discussed this with them, I could sense that their whole nature was very narrow, often very judgmental and usually not very scholarly. So, until someone can come up with a proof that I can accept, I will not mind.

    The Qur’an, in fact, often mentions how God’s signs can be perceived all around us. In a sense, these passages remind us that God shows himself through the beauty of creation. Is such a thought one of the inspirations behind your work?

    I would even add that the Qur’an also says: ‘Look at the signs within yourself and on the horizon.’ These two dimensions are present all the time. There’s the outward world we’re experiencing and there’s what’s happening to you inwardly. Those two things have to play together. These days, however, a lot of Muslims have become very literal in their approach to Islam and they have forgotten the inner dimension. But that inner dimension was my focus from the start. I’ve spent my life looking at creation, contemplating it and trying to understand it.

    That’s also what I try to teach at my photographic workshops. We, that is, myself and all those supporting me in the effort, call our workshops ‘the art of seeing’ because they’re not so much about the technical side of photography as they are about relearning how to look at what surrounds us. People are often just so busy with their lives that they forget to sometimes just stop and look.

    Photography is about ‘tuning into the moment’. You have to still the self so you can be in a state to really see things. Otherwise your mind is always chattering away. That blocks your vision. You have to learn to calm yourself down.

    If you ask me, this does not only apply to photo­graphers. The whole of society should learn to ‘calm the mind to really see things’.

    Indeed, but it’s all a complex matter, of course. We, for example, can’t say that this minority of people who fuel the radical and distorted view of Islam don’t exist. And the trouble with such a type of minority is that they always shout very loud so everybody becomes aware of them, while what I call ‘the silent majority’ tends to remain unnoticed.

    In fact, I think the silent majority, including myself, have to discover what real Islam is. And above all, we have to be Islam. We can’t say ‘Islam is peace’ and then as soon as something goes wrong in our lives start to rant and yell. Nobody is going to believe Islam is peace if we’re not peaceful beings ourselves. I often wonder what would happen if ten thousand Muslims went out for a protest, sat down, were quiet, behaved well and perhaps chanted prayers. A bit like the Buddhists – they’re often a better example of that peace than we are. So, I really don’t understand why Muslims so quickly have the feeling that they have to scream and shout. It doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t help the situation.

    But how do you affect all those things? I don’t really know. Like I said, the challenge Islam is facing is that we will have to be our Islam. That’s also how Islam spread: by the example of spiritually evolved people who were kind and compassionate. They had all those amazing qualities that you can find in any great person of any religion.

    In a way, you’re saying that people should become an ‘image’ of their own spirituality . . .

    Yes, and related to that, I am in fact working on a project called Meetings with Mountains. Some people laugh when I talk about it again. I’ve been working on it for forty years, but I am actually now close to completing it.[2] The end result will be a book that brings together the photographs of the different saints and evolved spiritual leaders that I had the good fortune to meet while traveling throughout the Muslim world. So, whenever I heard of a great shaykh or scholar, I would go to meet him to hear his wise words and to photograph him. Some of them have never been photographed before. Not that they had a problem with photography but they are extremely humble in nature and, as such, stay away from anything that might exalt them.

    One reason I really wanted to bring together all these great people is because it’s a spiritual side of Islam that has almost never been presented. Within every religion, there have always been saintly people, but somehow many people don’t think you can also find them within Islam. And even many Muslims don’t know about them since they don’t seek fame and because of that, they often remain hidden.

    There is, of course, a bit of a contradiction in such a project. The whole world is so focused on ‘image’ and ‘fame’ that there’s indeed a great need to spread the message of those humble spiritual people. Yet, in order to do so, you need to show their images and, thus, you actually bring them some sort of ‘fame’.

    That’s true, but on the other hand, as I said, it took me many years to collect all the photographs. And by now a lot of them have died. A friend of mine once said that this might be exactly why they let me photograph them, because they knew that they would be gone and could leave a bit of their legacy in my hands. So, I just feel it is needed, not to give them fame but to let people know that they exist and to make people aware that we can gain spiritual benefit simply by being in their company.

    [1] Tasawwuf is the inner, spiritual and mystical dimension of Islam.

    [2] We had our conversation on the 21st of October, 2012.

    Peter Sanders published two books with selected photographs called “In the Shade of the Tree” and “The Art of Integration

    More info:

    Read more interviews like this in the Halal Monk book.
    It’s available both in print and ebook.