Snapshots From A Muslim Photographer (Part 1)

by Hugh Fitzgerald

From a report this July at the Huffington Post:

A Muslim photographer is working on an ambitious project that he hopes will tackle stereotypes about American Muslims and showcase the community’s rich diversity.

Since the fall of 2015, Carlos Khalil Guzman has been using his free time and his own funds to travel across the country to interview an array of Muslims. In the series, titled “Muslims of America,” Guzman is attempting to capture portraits of Muslims from all 50 states in the country. The series includes people of different sects of Islam, ethnicities and backgrounds ? from Native American Muslims to Syrian refugees to queer Muslims.”

Frustrated by a lack of diversity and representation of Muslims in the mainstream media, Guzman said he decided to create a project that would help people learn about the many ways American Muslims practice their faith.

“I wanted to be proactive about it,” Guzman told HuffPost. “We need to find our own ways to educate people.”

Guzman, a 28-year-old photographer of mixed ancestry from Brooklyn, New York, is an activist and a revert to Islam. He started exploring the religion in college, after getting to know Muslim activists through different networks on his campus. He found in Prophet Muhammad an example of what it means to be tolerant, charitable and compassionate ? and realized that Islam reinforced his own beliefs about social justice.

Prophet Muhammad is an example of what it “means to be tolerant, charitable, compassionate”? May we beg to differ? Are we allowed to mention Abu ‘Afak, a 120-year-old Jewish poet, who mocked Muhammad in verse and was, as a consequence, assassinated by one of Muhammad’s loyal followers? Or to mention Asma bint Marwan, who protested Muhammad’s killing of Abu ‘Afak and was herself then killed?  Or Ka’b bin al-Ashraf, another poet insufficiently respectful of Muhammad, who was also killed? For those were just three of the people who criticized, or mocked in verse, Muhammad; he then expressed aloud his wish that they  be killed, and his loyal followers obliged. That doesn’t strike one as “tolerance.” What about Saafiya, the Jewish girl from Khaybar whom Muhammad took for his own pleasure, and first used her as a sex slave on the evening of the same day that he had her father, husband, and brother killed? What kind of charity, what kind of compassion is that? What about Kinana of Khaybar, the man whom Muhammad ordered to be tortured until he revealed where some valuables were hidden, and further ordered that he was not to be freed, but killed? What about Muhammad’s taking part in the killing of 600-900 bound prisoners of the Banu Qurayza, killings that went on from bloody dawn to bloody dusk? Was that ruthless treatment of an enemy that was no longer any threat “compassionate”? Was it “compassionate” of Muhammad to sleep with nine-year-old Aisha, or does another adjective come to mind?

One would like to ask Carlos Khalil Guzman if any of these revealing episodes in Muhammad’s life will be part of his project, or if he will carefully leave out all mention of Aisha, the killing of the Banu Qurayza, the rape of Saafiya, the torture and murder of Kinana, the assassinations of Asma bint Marwan, Abu ‘Afak, and Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf. None of these stories, to which many more might be added, suggest an exemplar of “what it means to be tolerant, charitable, and compassionate.” And the Muslims he selects to show in all their diversity — a purely outward and etiolated diversity, for inwardly they all read the same texts, and believe in the same teachings, of Islam, which purports to regulate every area of life — will, no doubt, also steer clear of such episodes in Muhammad’s life, and stick to the safely anodyne.

Or perhaps Carlos Khalil Guzman thinks it unfair to mention these episodes because many of them are not in the Qur’an, but in the Hadith, those stories about the words and deeds of Muhammad, as they were passed down through an isnad-chain of narrators, or from the Sira, the biography of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq. But the Hadith and Sira, which together make up the Sunnah, are also sources of authority for Muslims, and especially those Hadith in the collections deemed most authoritative, that is, those by Al-Bukhari and Muslim.

But for now, let’s stick to the Qur’an. Can Carlos Khalil Guzman explain to us how the following verses support the notion of a Muhammad who is, as he puts it,  ‘“tolerant,  charitable, and compassionate” — or does he think that quoting the 109 “Jihad verses” in the Qur’an, where Jihad through violence, including terrorism, is commanded by Allah to Muhammad, is somehow illegitimate? Why? These verses constitute, after all, Muhammad’s marching orders from Allah; he is not free to reject or modify them.

Here are just a handful of the best known Qur’anic verses commanding violent Jihad, through both qitaal (combat) and, as in 8:12, through terrorism:

9:5 (The Verse of the Sword): And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.

9:29: Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture – [fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.

8:12 (A famous strike terror verse featuring dismemberment and beheading): [Remember] when your Lord inspired to the angels, “I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.”

47:4: So when you meet those who disbelieve [in battle], strike [their] necks until, when you have inflicted slaughter upon them, then secure their bonds, and either [confer] favor afterwards or ransom [them] until the war lays down its burdens. That [is the command]. And if Allah had willed, He could have taken vengeance upon them [Himself], but [He ordered armed struggle] to test some of you by means of others. And those who are killed in the cause of Allah – never will He waste their deeds.

Instead, Carlos Khalil Guzman has asked all of the sweet-faced, gentle young American Muslims he has carefully selected to photograph to choose their favorite Qur’anic verse, and discuss why it is their favorite. The results are all perfectly predictable, and as innocuous as all get out. No one is going to choose 9:5 or 9:29 or 8:12, or 47:4,or 2:191-193, or 5:33. No one is going to choose even one of the more than 100 Jihad verses. And Carlos Khalil Guzman certainly hopes you are impressed by the message he hopes to convey with his photographs of the smiling Believers, not a single scowl among them, engaged in all the harmless activities — studying, working, playing — that we all share in time-honored Family-of-Man fashion, and that imply that Muslims are just like the rest of us, and what’s more, regard us in the friendliest possible fashion, which will come as a surprise to those who remember Qur’an 5:51, which commands Muslims not to take Christians and Jews as friends, “for they are friends only with each other.” Qur’an 3:28 is another of the many verses that tell Muslims not to take Unbelievers as their friends: “Let not the believers take disbelievers for their friends in preference to believers. Whoso doeth that hath no connection with Allah unless (it be) that ye but guard yourselves against them, taking (as it were) security. Allah biddeth you beware (only) of Himself. Unto Allah is the journeying.” Ibn Kathir, the leading Qur’anic commentator, explains 3:28  this way: you can’t be friends with those Christians and Jews “unless (it be) that ye but guard yourselves against them” means that you may show false friendship towards them if you think they may otherwise do you harm, but that “We smile in the face of some people although our hearts curse them.”

That statement, approving such deception of the Unbelievers, was undoubtedly taken by Ibn Kathir from the most canonical collection of Hadith, compiled by Al-Bukhari, who recorded that Abu Ad-Darda (a companion and pupil of Muhammad) said, “We smile in the face of some people although our hearts curse them.” Furthermore, the deception never ends. Al-Bukhari said that Al-Hasan said, “The Tuqyah  [taqqiyah, deception on behalf of Islam] is allowed until the Day of Resurrection.”

What this means is that the friendly smiles on the faces of those Carlos Khalil Guzman photographs as typical Muslims should not be taken at face value, for they may be meant for fellow Muslims only, while for Unbelievers, despite those outward smiles, “our hearts curse them.”

Five years after his conversion in 2012, Guzman is putting that passion for social justice into practice with his project.

Social justice? How does his project of misrepresenting Islam at one remove — that is, by having each one of those friendly young Muslims he photographs choose the Qur’anic verse that means the most to him or her, which verses will of course be as inoffensive and touching and heartwarming as all get out, washed down with a dose of taqiyya — promote “social justice”? It only promotes an unwariness among gullible infidels. As for the “passion for social justice,” Guzman thinks he derives from Islam and wishes to spread, perhaps he ought to take a closer look at those Muslim countries that, being the most Islamic of all, must surely exhibit “social justice.” What about that “social justice” in Muslim countries? In the oil-and-gas rich Muslim Arab countries  (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates), where there are millions of domestic workers, mostly female, from Asia, especially the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, how are these workers treated by their Muslim Arab masters? Do we not hear horrific tales of their mistreatment, their long workdays, their pitiful wages, the use of female domestic workers as sex slaves? Haven’t we heard of the cruelty of their Muslim masters and mistresses, who keep them as virtual prisoners under the Kafala system, whereby the employer holds these workers as virtual slaves, for they cannot leave their employ without their master’s permission, nor leave the country without express permission of their employers, who hold on to their passports? Haven’t we read about the Filipino and Thai and Indonesian domestic workers, about the sexual abuse, the beatings, the harassment, the 21-hour days for many thousands of domestic workers employed in Arab states, where being a maid doesn’t just mean mopping the floors? The Saudi prince who was recently accused of sexually assaulting a maid and threatening to kill all those who refused his advances is hardly unique. When asked to stop, the prince allegedly screamed, “I am a prince and I do what I want.” And that’s what happens, not only with the millions of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, where the problem is undoubtedly most severe, with those in Kuwait, Qatar and the U.A.E. who find they must comply with such demands or lose their employment, and the remittances they send home to keep their families afloat.

Then there are the Infidels who still live in Dar al-Islam. Think of what the Copts must endure in Egypt at the hands of hostile Muslims — the explosions in their churches, the murderous attacks on worshippers and pilgrims. Think of what the Assyrians and Chaldeans have had to endure in Iraq, including being murdered not by the state but by Muslim fanatics punishing the Infidels for being Infidels. As a consequence of this murderous behavior, the Christian population of Iraq has sunk from 1.4 million in 2003 to 250,000 today, because Saddam Hussein, though in all other respects a moral monster, for his own reasons of Realpolitik protected the Christians (they were never a threat to his rule, and he could count on their grateful support because he protected them), and when he was toppled, the Christians lost that protection. Christians have been under attack from Muslims all over Dar al-Islam — in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia.

But none of these attacks by Muslims will be alluded to in Guzman’s book, which apparently will mention how Muhammad was a model for Muslims of “charity, tolerance, and compassion.” One wonders if Carlos Khalil Guzman’s book of photographs will refer, even obliquely, to the  “social justice” to be found in most of the Muslim lands, where Unbelievers are persecuted and sometimes killed. And even members of other Muslim sects can be regarded as, and treated as, Infidels. We have seen the mass killings of Shia in the Islamic State; we know that in Pakistan, a Sunni terrorist group, Sipah-e-Sahaba, specializes in attacks on Shi’a professionals; we also know that in Saudi Arabia the Shi’a in the Eastern Province are treated with deep suspicion, subject to constant harassment and kept under tight control. This does not sound like a religion that stresses “charity, tolerance, and compassion.”

Let’s go back to the portfolio of photos, all Sweetness and Light, taken by Señor Guzman:

Kenneth, a college student from California, is one of the people featured in Guzman’s series.

Along with the photos, Guzman is also asking each of his subjects to tell him their favorite saying of the prophet, or a verse from the Quran. The subjects are then asked to explain why that piece of scripture is important to them.

Some told him about verses (or ayat) that reassured them of God’s providence during a time of trouble. Others highlighted verses that helped them feel protected and loved, or verses that reminded them to care for their parents.

For Guzman, these reflections on scripture are an important way for people who are not Muslim to connect with the project. He’s convinced that there would be less misunderstanding about Islam if people were reminded of how the religion functions in the lives of American Muslims ? how it promotes charity, gives people a sense of purpose during suffering, and inspires its followers to work toward justice for all.

“Islam is against all types of oppression, literally all of it,” Guzman said. “It’s against racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, you name it. I want people to see that in this project.”

Islam is “against racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism”? We’ll need another article to look into that remarkable claim by Guzman, who believes in an Islam that is very much a product of his hopeful imagination.

First published in Jihad Watch.