Glimpses of Islam

In a 40-year project, British photographer Peter Sanders steps back from stereotypical depictions of the Muslim world

On The Town | Saleha Waqar | May 2010

He is standing at an event at the British Museum when a woman cloaked in a full hijab approaches him. She presses a card into his hand. It reads, "Karima Makeup Artists." He looks up, clearly surprised, as she walks back and disappears into the crowd. Curiosity takes hold and he gives her a call the next day. Incredibly, Karima is a former supermodel. She is also a white British Muslim who now wears the veil and works her makeup magic on other models. The irony, and perhaps the implausibility of this paradoxical universe is palpable as Peter Sanders presses his finger to the shutter, and in a click and a flash of light, an epiphany takes place, as the meaning of integration is captured on film.

On Mar. 9, 2010, this picture was one of the many displayed at the Viennese residence of British Ambassador to Austria Simon Smith, in a series called The Art of Integration. Amidst photographs of scholars, writers, teachers, calligraphers, police constables, drivers, Oxbridgians and many others, it is difficult to spot the artist.

Peter Sanders is a man who keeps a low profile, but once you spot him, it is easy to connect his short white beard, laugh lines, cream-colored suit, and unmistakably kind eyes to the narratives of his photographs.

The original title of this exhibition was "in England’s green and pleasant land, Islam is busy being born. But they told me it was too long, so I had to change it," he says, laughing. The "green and pleasant land" bit is a reference to the poem "Jerusalem" by William Blake, that was a clarion call for a renewal of spirit to an England under assault from industrialization, and which became the text for one of Establishment Britain’s most beloved hymns. "This exhibition is about photographing subjects that are both British and Muslim. I was following my interest in Islam. I felt there was a need to photograph Islam in Britain from inside, as a Muslim."

Peter Sanders has been involved in this project for 40 years. It is therefore a living record of his experiences with Islam.

"This project is a photographic document of all the scholars, sheikhs, saints and pious people that I have met through my travels – about what happened when I met them. For me, this is the real picture of Islam."

The Art of Integration collection has been exhibited in over 30 countries at a time when the reputation of Islam has been damaged by repeated terrorist events and extremist rhetoric. Peter Sanders thinks that this is precisely why this project is so important.

"The picture of Osama bin Laden has overshadowed the real picture of the spiritual, humble Muslim. I want, with this project, to put that lost picture back…as that which highlights this lost spirituality."

To date, none of this hostility has been directed at Sanders. But he finds it all around him, in part why he wanted to do the exhibition.

"The media keeps dragging out terrible people to represent Islam," Sanders said. "But Islam has never been spread by the sword – only through generosity and compassion. It is a cultured and intelligent faith."

The Art of Integration is a visually invigorating narrative of the Muslim presence in Britain over the last century, recording the enriching effects of Islam’s cultural conversation with British society.

Sanders challenges current understanding of integration, which he says is not the same as assimilation. "One can be a Muslim and nourish one’s faith but that should not stop you from contributing to the society," he said. "I think faith gives you the courage to balance both."

For Sanders himself, faith and spirituality have been the fountainheads of inspiration. He converted to Islam towards the end of the 1970s, along with many of Britain’s counter-culture youth, a choice contemporaries remember as not uncommon.

"Sanders’ story can be seen as emblematic," said Dardis McNamee, Research Professor of Media Communications at Webster University and Editor in Chief of The Vienna Review. "We were a generation wrenched loose from its moorings in the storms of social change.

So in a kind of desperate search for meaning, some turned to exotic eastern religions that seemed purer somehow, less tarnished with the familiar sins of our own world."

Sanders claims he wasn’t looking for religion when he found Islam, but spirituality. Inspired by The Autobiography of a Yogi, he set off for India with all his cameras and 60 rolls of film. When he returned to England, he found that some of his friends had converted to Islam, while others had gotten involved in drugs.

"I had a choice," Sanders said. "I was looking for a path and I admit that it was a leap of faith, because I didn’t know that much about Islam at that point." He took a sip of his very-English tea and let his eyes wander, remembering. "I was guided to it. I was looking for something, and I was guided."

Traditionally, photography has had a troublesome relationship with Islam. Some Islamic scholars claim it is prohibited; others are more open to it.

"Photography is a radical thing in Islam, and I realize that. In fact, I always wonder if the people I photographed thought of me as a ‘crazy westerner’." He says jokingly. "But whenever they had a project, they would ask me to work with them." Sanders seemed lost in memories. "I decided photography was a gift God gave me and I wanted to communicate, [which is] what photography is all about… I was drawn to this project because it acted as a bridge between Muslims and everybody else."

Equally radical is the depiction of women in forms of art.  Sanders, however, has an almost equal number of women in his photographs as men.

"I was very insistent that women be a part of this project," he said, and managed to overcome their reservations with explanations of the goals of the project.

One of the most ubiquitous debates in art centers on whether cause-forwarding art compromises aesthetics. Here the answer is probably yes – a project not so concerned with "beauty" per se as with the idea that gave birth to it, Sanders concedes.

"This is more of a reportage project," he said. On the other hand, he was able to witness the last 30 years of traditional Islam that was disappearing and becoming increasingly harder to capture. "Perhaps I was trying to capture a romantic vision of that Islam," he said, his voice trailing off.

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